US Invokes Article 51: Does the UN Charter Cover Attacks by Non-State Actors?

Tomahawk_Block_IV_cruise_missile_-crop
Sept. 23, 2014 – US envoy Samantha Power has cited Article 51 of the UN Charter as cover for the airstrikes the United States carried out inside Syria overnight Monday against ISIS and the Khorasan unit of the Nusra Front.

Power wrote to Ban Ki-moon Tuesday saying, “States must be able to defend themselves … when, as is the case here, the government of the state where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks.”

Power’s letter also cites Iraq’s letter to the Security Council of Sept. 20 warning that the country “is facing a serious threat of continuous attacks coming out of ISIL safe havens in Syria.” It adds that the Iraqi government has requested the US lead “international efforts to strike ISIL sites and military strongholds in Syria.”

The UN Charter prohibits the use of force by a state against another state unless authorized by a Security Council resolution. But Article 51 provides an exception: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.”

The UN Charter is concerned with inter-state conflict as only states can become members of the UN so the applicability of Article 51 for use of force inside a sovereign country against a non-state actor is a question that international law scholars have grappled with.

Marko Milanovic argues that Article 51 does not require the attribution of the armed attack by a non-state actor to a state. “Rather, for the attacked state to respond against the non-state actor which is operating in another state, the conduct of this latter state must be such to justify the ensuing violation of its sovereignty.”

He proposes three scenarios that would justify an attack inside a sovereign state against a non-state actor:

“(a) the territorial state was complicit or was actively supporting the non-state actor in its armed attack; (b) the territorial state failed to exercise due diligence, i.e. it did not do all that it could reasonably have done to prevent the non-state actor from using its territory to mount an armed attack against another state, or is not doing all it can to prevent further attacks; (c) the territorial state may have exercised due diligence, but it was nonetheless unable to prevent the attack, or to prevent further attacks.”

And the due diligence case would appear to be the US argument when Power writes that “the government of the state where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks.”

Ban Ki-moon earlier on Tuesday spoke of the US airstrikes, saying that “today’s strikes were not carried out at the direct request of the Syrian Government, but I note that the Government was informed beforehand.”

“I also note that the strikes took place in areas no longer under the effective control of that Government.   I think it is undeniable – and the subject of broad international consensus – that these extremist groups pose an immediate threat to international peace and security,” Ban said.

For more discussion on Article 51 and non-state actors see here and here.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: Wikimedia