Tag Archives: United Nations

What is the Canadian Military? Is it time to rethink?

In contrast in the eyes of many Canadians, Canada is still a country of peacekeepers, yet our nation’s contributions of personnel to UN missions has rarely been lower. So the question needs to be asked, what sort of military should Canada have?




[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ecently there has seen a number of news stories and article emerging about the state of the Canadian military. Questions of whether the navy should re-orientate itself to new challenges in the Pacific (China); the costs of stealth snowmobiles;  the ongoing procurement drama of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and this rather eloquent article on the middle power conundrum regarding military procurement.

A common theme of this discussion is the procurement and fiscal challenges facing the Canadian armed force. A former professor of mine Andrew Richter, wrote on the issue of Canada’s procurement challenges back 2003 titled Along Side the Best? The Future of the Canadian Forces. The article examines Canada’s long history of poor procurement practices and the tough decisions that would have to be made when the next round of procurement came about. Now, a decade later we are seeing this decisions (or lack there of) that Dr. Richter discussed coming to the forefront.

Part of the problem is that Canadians simply don’t care about the military when compared to the broader policy priorities (actual poll results here). The clip in the aforementioned link finds that the military ranks as a long term priority for a paltry 4% of Canadians. These numbers illustrate a rather obvious point that we as Canadians don’t put much stock into defense spending because Canada has no enemies (nation states) and we can easily free ride on the bloated military spending of the United States. As a result the military is seen as something that is nice to have and people want to use for missions that support our values but it is not seen as an essential part of Canadian society or a funding priority.  Despite the aforementioned poll being a year old, the year over year priorities for most Canadians tend to be relatively consistent with minor variation: the economy, health care, tax rates, the environment ranking near the top and the military ranking at or near the bottom. The impact of this policy catch 22 is that this apathy about the Canadian military has carried over into the political realm. The current Conservative government, which campaigned hard on a strong military has placed balancing the budget ahead of it campaign priorities resulting in the Department of National Defense facing steep budget cuts and constrained spending priorities.

This of course brings us to the crux of the real issue, what role do we as Canadians want to see our military play in the world and in turn, what sort of military do Canadians want to pay for? From a political standpoint the federal political parties are only talking about one option: maintaining an increasingly expensive all purpose military. Yes some are willing to ditch the increasingly expensive F-35s but the disastrous Cyclone Helicopter procurement and veiled threats from Lockheed Martin about canceling the F-35 contracts shows what can happen when the government makes a bad decision or changes it mind. The result can be an armed forces that are left empty handed while huge sums of money are wasted and could have been spent on alternative pieces of equipment.

With none of the political parties have engaged the public on the issue what sort of military do Canadians want and what other options are available. All of the parties speak of supporting the armed forces and ensuring our troops are trained and equipped properly for missions that they are sent on but none of them are questioning what sort of missions should we be sending them on. Canada obviously does not fund its military like the United States, yet there is a willingness to want to be able to do everything and be involved in missions that arises just as our armed forces capabilities have deteriorated to a point that may be unsustainable. In contrast in the eyes of many Canadians, Canada is still a country of peacekeepers, yet our nation’s contributions of personnel to UN missions has rarely been lower. So the question needs to be asked, what sort of military should Canada have?

All Purpose Military

Since the end of World War Two, Canada has maintained an all purpose armed forces, which simply means that we have three functioning branches to our armed force (an army, navy and air force). Unfortunately for us, due to years of constrained defense budgets, deferred procurement and expedited emergency replacement purchases all of the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. With an estimated cost of $490 billion for new equipment, needing to be purchased over the next two decades the that Canadian taxpayers will be paying a high price in order to keep this all purpose capability. In theory maintaining an all purpose military isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it enables Canada to remain flexible in its role and contribute to a wide variety of military missions on the international stage.

The fundamental problem is that Canada will never have a military that can project itself on the international stage alone. Any conflict that Canada becomes involved with, will be as a part of a larger coalition of nations. Since many of our NATO allies and particularly the United States have militaries that are larger and more capable it is likely that Canadian military contributions would just supplement their capabilities. Canada’s contributions would hardly be a deciding factor in any intervention going forward nor would the size of the impact be significant in scale due to the relatively small size of our armed forces.

Canada has never had a large military, and the rising costs are threatening to shrink it even further. The ever rising costs of the F-35s have already illicit comments about buying fewer planes and bombs for those planes. The sheer cost of these new aircraft and buying them in the numbers needed to be able to deploy an effective force is already resulting in other branches feeling pressure with reports of an infantry battalion being cut from the army to help offset the F-35s. Questions about the costs of the shipbuilding contracts as well as the ability of Canadian shipyards to deliver on time and on budget place the navy’s procurement plans in question as well.

What this illustrates is that Canada’s armed forces is underfunded and facing a poorly organized procurement schedule from the standpoint of maintaining a truly all purpose military. Now this isn’t to say that Canadians may not want an all purpose military and it is also safe to say that Canadians would want the best available equipment to keep our soldiers, sailors and airmen safe in whatever mission they sent. But there has been no discussion of what the costs are going to be in order to maintain this military. Would Canadians be opposed to a X percentage defense tax in order to fund the military properly or would they prefer cuts to other spending priorities? There is no answer to this question because no political party is willing to have a serious discussion about what the future of the military will be.

Specialized Military

If funding an all purpose military is deemed to be too costly, an attractive yet under examined alternative is the specialization of the Canadian armed forces. In this context specialization refers to the prioritization of a single branch of the Canadian armed forces both in use and funding, The non-prioritized branches of the military would be shrunk or reorganize to a minimum capability with the cost saving then being spent on enhancing the capabilities of the selected branch.

This specialization is already occurring in Europe where austerity has forced deep military cuts onto several NATO powers. The Dutch Army for example no longer has any tanks as their final two battalions were disbanded in 2011 in order to save money.  What these cuts have resulted in a degree synergy of capabilities between nations like Great Britain and France sharing aircraft carriers or the Dutch-German military cooperation in “a bid to better utilize ‘scarce and expensive resources and capabilities’ at a time when Europe is facing a financial crisis.” For Canada this would mean picking a single service branch and prioritizing it while cutting back the capabilities of the other branches, likely in cooperation with the United States.

Although it is impossible to say exactly what this specialization would look like, I would argue that the Navy or the Air Force likely have the leg up on being chosen as the preferred choice. The reasoning is relatively straight forward as “boots on the ground” missions have gone the way of the dodo for Canada in the UN (see link above) and after Iraq and Afghanistan the desire for western troops being deployed anywhere is in relative short supply. Second, the fact that only the United States shares a land border with Canada means that our army really isn’t needed to deter or defend us from invasion (if the US did invade our army wouldn’t stop them). Under this assumption, the army would likely be turned into a largely reservist force with specialized units like Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) and the Disaster Assistance Response Teams (DART) remaining to fulfill specialized needs as a part of a larger coalition where other countries provide the bulk of land forces.

As for the Navy or Air Force one of these two branches would likely be expanded and possible enhanced likely in the conjunction with out allies designs and desires as well as the capability to defend Canadian interests and sovereignty. So for the navy, it would likely see an expanded ship building program beyond that which is already planned. Since Canada doesn’t have the capabilities to build these vessels ourselves it would likely mean going abroad for some of the ships. One intriguing idea would be the possible purchase of Great Britain’s new aircraft carrier which is currently planned to be mothballed after it completes construction (although a recent policy reversal may change this).

If the Air Force is given primacy, we would likely see an expanded F-35 purchase or possibly diversification of aircraft purchases beyond the F-35. We would also likely see the purchase of attack helicopter, additional heavy lift aircraft, air refueling aircraft, airborne radar and an expanded drone force. These purchases would also be accompanied by a wider variety of ordnance with the adding of larger and more specialized weaponry like bunker busters and air to ground cruise missiles that would give the Canadian Air Force a strategic strike capability.

What we would also likely see is the emergence of some joint capabilities such as a Marine brigade being formed (if the navy is given priority) or an airborne brigade  (if the air force is given priority) with these new units gaining the means through which they can be effectively deployed to limited combat situations abroad. Such a convergence would allow some all purpose capabilities to be maintained but they would likely only be usable in the context of the broader support of allies or a limited deployment such as protecting an embassy or Canadians during a large scale evacuation similar to Lebanon in 2008.

The specialized nature of the single branch would result in Canada striving to become a leader in operations of that branch within NATO and other allied military operations. Canada providing a naval task force to the Persian Gulf in relief of an American one or being willing and able to launch the first round of strikes of an air campaign would become  standard and the norm rather then the current tertiary role that Canada currently provides.

Self-Defense Force

The self-defense role for the Canadian forces would see Canada’s military largely retreating from international deployments. Although some rudimentary capabilities for activities abroad such as the maintaining of our C-17 capabilities to provide humanitarian missions/disaster relief or JFT-2 for counter-terror operations; the bulk of the Canadian military would be transformed into a glorified domestic defense force. The Navy and Coast Guard would be merged into a single entity whose mission would be to police Canadian waters; the air force would be reduced to a minimum number of aircraft to protect our skies from foreign incursions and the army would be reduced largely to reservists whose primary purpose would be to assist in disaster relief and to provide limited aid for international humanitarian missions.

A slightly expanded version of this would see Canada maintain a true “Peacekeeping force” where a small, rapidly deployable force would be maintained that could be deployed for peacekeeping roles that are authorized by the United Nations. This is a double edge sword where fortunately for Canada, UN missions have become increasingly rare; unfortunately the missions that the UN tends to be deployed to have tended to be in far flung parts of the world where Canada has few interests in an effort to stop increasingly intractable conflicts.

The Icelandic Way

Finally, there is the Icelandic way. Let’s be frank, unless the United States invades Canada itself, no other nation will. Despite the rhetoric of the Cold War and Russians coming over the pole or the fantasy that are Red Dawn (the original was better) or Homefront geography dictates that Canada is a countries that is very difficult to attack from any direction but south. So the question is, do we actually need a military?

Although there would likely be some “backlash” from allies about abolishing the Canadian armed forces the fact of the matter is that Canada’s contributions to military endeavors are hardly deal breaking. If Canada hadn’t contributed to Kosovo, Afghanistan or Libya missions it is unlikely that the outcomes would have been any different. Fortunately, Canada can make it up to our allies in other ways if we aren’t willing to fund a military. The Department of National Defense budget estimate for 2012/13 totaled approximate $20.1 billion. Even if we put a portion of that amount towards subsidizing our allies military ventures that we support you would find that it has a major impact. The Kosovo air intervention in 1999 was pegged at $7 billion with another $100-150 billion for reconstruction and peacekeeping; the Libya intervention to remove Qaddafi was a relatively cheap 1.1 billion for the airstrikes; while Afghanistan although totaling likely in the several trillion dollar range, Canada’s portion costed $11.3 billion (excluding long term healthcare costs).

What this shows is that Canada could easily pay for more then its share of a military mission if we wanted to. Even if the 20.1 billion was split with half, with part paying down the national debt and other half being saved to fund military and humanitarian missions in a given year Canada could easily subsidize the costs to our allies for the deployment of their forces.


What is needed in Canada is a serious discussion on the fate of the Canadian military, unfortunately this isn’t a decision that our politicians are willing to have. With what is likely to be half a trillion dollars being spent on the armed forces over the next two decades Canadians need to be asked do they want to spend the money and what will that money buy? If Canadians don’t have this discussion, they risk being saddled with military of exorbitant cost that is without a clear mission or proper capabilities. This in turn will leave Canada isolated on the international stage unable to contribute properly to allied military ventures and lacking the financial flexibility to maintain a long term military operations without finding new sources of revenue or cutting expenses in other parts of the government.


Photo Credit: Mike Kouxommone

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner Has It All Wrong

Today the Guardian published an open letter by Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, urging UK Prime Minister David Cameron to recommence talks for the handover of the Falkland Islands, which she refers to as Las Malvinas. This brief correspondence, timed to appear as an advertisement in the Guardian’s print edition (p. 25) on the 180-year anniversary of the re-establishment of British rule on the islands, rehashes tired accusations of continued colonialism but fails to mention either sovereignty or self-determination.

She props her claim upon 48-year old UN Resolution 2065, waving it as a flag of transnational support for Argentina’s claim. However, this rather old but well-meant resolution, like most UN edicts, doesn’t say much at all except to promote talks in the hope of calming the waters. Being seen to say something, whilst not saying anything of great import. The letter even copies in Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary-general of the UN. On the sovereignty question, the UN Resolution that Kirchner is clinging to like a deflating buoy explicitly states that these discussion and both governments must take into consideration “the interests of the population of the Falkland Islands (Malvinas)”. It seems the UK is alone in this particular concern.

This 212-word piece of showmanship highlights that Kirchner is clearly not insensible to the impending referendum on March 10th-11th 2013 in which the 3000-strong population of the Falklands will decide their own fate, despite Argentina’s unwillingness to recognise its validity. In between spiky remarks on the geographic distance between the Falklands and the UK (8700 miles), Kirchner fails to recognise a point made by many others in the past including myself, its not so much geographic distance as cultural difference that often matters most, and in that regard, Argentina couldn’t be further away from the islanders.


Photo credit: Expectativa Online

The Perils of International Recognition

The road to Palestinian independence and to a peaceful, Assad-free Syria seems to be significantly longer and bumpier still.


united nations geneva building


The past two weeks have seen two significant developments in terms internationally recognized national legitimacy in the Middle East. On November 29, the United Nations General Assembly approved Palestine’s upgrade to non-member observer-state status, and on December 12, the United States and a number of other countries recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. After 65 years of statelessness, the Palestinian people have inched closer than ever before to a juridical homeland, and after two years of increasingly brutal civil war, the international community has acknowledged that Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite regime no longer holds a mandate representative of the Syrian populace. In the West Bank and in northern Syria, however, things continue much as they have, despite what Barack Obama and Ban Ki Moon might say.

The past two weeks have also seen increased belligerence (political or otherwise) by the entrenched regimes that those actions were directed against; Israel and Syria’s Assad-controlled military. Israel’s parliament responded to Palestine’s nascent statehood by approving 2,000 new Israeli settlements in the A-1 zone of the West Bank, which not only drew the rancor of the international community, but also makes a contiguous Palestinian West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital, geographically unfeasible.  While the Israeli action seems a direct tit-for-tat (unilateral UN statehood-bid, unilateral annexation of previously untouchable territory) with significant political and diplomatic ramifications, any settlement construction would not begin for about two years, thus leaving the A-1 as a bargaining chip for the time being. The increased violence in Syria in the hours following the announcement of support by the US et al. for the SOC is a far direr situation. The Assad regime, perhaps sensing its back against a wall, reportedly began launching Scud missiles at rebel targets in the north of the country. And why shouldn’t they, given their most ardent supporter’s recent acknowledgement that there soon may be a Syria without Assad.

In addition to giving pause to rebel forces, should short-range ballistic missile use continue, Turkey, who also acknowledged the SOC as the legitimate representative body of the Syrian people and shares a long border with Syria, has also expressed their concern with regards to this development. NATO has responded in-kind, deploying 400 American troops and US-made Patriot missile batteries to southern Turkey.

Both of these developments came at something of an impasse. Mahmoud Abbas’ UN vote was a response to more than 20 years of failed peace talks with the Israelis, and a firm statement that the Palestinian cause no longer believed that the Israeli government, under Binyamin Netanyahu, was any longer pursuing a two-state solution in earnest. The US support of the SOC follows two years of escalating violence and civil war in Syria and only after it became apparent that Assad’s regime might not actually win. Protracted situations beg for drastic solutions, but in both of these instances, international recognition of ‘change’ may not simply be enough – correlated or no, Palestine’s observer status and the SOC’s recognition have only caused Israel and Assad to dig their heels in deeper.

What is clear is that international opinion does not factor much into the (perceived-to-be domestic) policy calculus of entrenched regimes, particularly in these circumstances. Assad did not respond to the SOC’s elevated status by buying an apartment in Paris, he increased his aggression. Netanyahu did not grudgingly acknowledge the “sovereignty” of the West Bank, he simply doubled down on his illegal settlement building and refocused his attention on Gaza and Cairo, where suddenly conversation seems a bit more productive.

Acknowledged, both of these situations are wildly disparate. A very hot civil war, versus a mostly cold secessionist conflict, call for different foreign policy prescriptions for every state or actor directly or peripherally involved. In both cases, international recognition may be a critical step on the path to juridical and empirical sovereignty. For the time being, however, the road to Palestinian independence and to a peaceful, Assad-free Syria seems to be significantly longer and bumpier still.


Photo Credit: lilivanili

A Palestinian State…In New York

Statehood was granted to Abu Mazen, but what exactly is his state? 


united nations flag


Mahmoud Abbas’ successful upgrade to Vatican-status in the UN should be seen as a Palestinian victory, in diplomatic terms. Cynics who predicted that Israel’s “Operation Pillar of Defense” was a ploy to highlight the fact that rockets seem to freely launch over walls, thus highlighting Palestinian anathema towards a peaceful coexistence with Israel and thus preventing a UN affirmation of Palestine’s statehood bid were proven wrong. The overwhelming majority of “yes” votes in the UNGA would seem to be an international mandate for rule for Mahmoud Abbas, in the same way that the overwhelming “yes” vote for the partition of the Holy Land seemed to be an international mandate for David Ben-Gurion 65 years ago. November 29, 2012 will be remembered as an historic day for the Palestinian national identity, and rightly so. The international community has taken its most meaningful step towards the creation of a Palestinian state since the dissolution of British Palestine.

This will, in functional terms, accomplish very little in terms of moving towards a viable Palestinian nation-state on two levels. First, Mahmoud Abbas long-sought-after victory at the UNGA is overshadowed by the lack of faith he has from the Palestinian people. At a victory speech in Ramallah, Abbas promised to restore the “unity of the Palestinians and their lands and institutions.” This promise, of course, comes on the heels of Israel’s assault of the Gaza Strip, through which a ceasefire was negotiated between Israel and Hamas, the Islamists who run Gaza, in Cairo – notably without representatives of Fatah at the table. Elliot Abrams notes that Fatah has been in a steady decline since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, with Hamas being the more popular, and more powerful, of the Palestinian political entities. After all, it was Hamas’ (and Islamic Jihad’s) continued belligerence that sparked the most significant military exchange between Israel and the Palestinians in four years, and it was Hamas who brokered a ceasefire, in which Israel was forced to give significant concessions. All the while, Mahmoud Abbas was readying for his speech to the UN.

More importantly, it is clear that Israel neither takes Abbas seriously nor sees him as a legitimate broker of a comprehensive peace agreement. Talks broke down as recently as 2010 between Israel and Fatah, largely because of Abbas’ inability to cope (this is not a normative assessment of Israel’s settlement policy; this is a criticism of Abbas’ ability to operate politically from the lesser side of a power dynamic) with Israeli intransigence over settlement construction in the West Bank. Israel does not have this problem with Hamas in Gaza, where they have not had settlements since 2006. Israel also greeted the Abbas successful non-member observer statehood bid with plans to build 3,000 new housing units in strategically important territory in the West Bank, which would significantly obstruct Abbas’ vision of a geographically united West Bank, let alone a geographically united Palestine. For better or for worse, and Israel’s new settlement plans have been roundly criticized even by states historically friendly to the Jewish State, this indicates that Israel simply does not accept Abbas’ political will as a political reality. While Fatah should not follow Hamas’ lead and start lobbing Fajr-5’s into Old Jerusalem in order to indicate to Bibi Netanyahu that they are a force to be reckoned with, a near-absolute majority in the UNGA clearly sends a weaker message. Israel recognizes not only that Hamas poses a threat to Israeli citizens in the south, but also that they have a legitimate mandate from the Palestinian people, and that Abbas and Fatah do not.

I have written and published in the past that I believe that de jure partition – partition resulting in the creation of separate states – is the only method in which prolonged, ethnic civil wars can result in lasting peace between the rival populations, and that this is the only solution for peace in the Holy Land. I believe this continues to be the case, although with some doubts as to what this partition might look like. Substantive efforts at peace between Israelis and Palestinians (UNSCOP, Oslo, Camp David) have all pushed for a two-state solution, albeit with slightly different terms. Mahmoud Abbas’ victory at the UN would seem to be a further step in this direction, but is just another episode in the saga of failed peace talks. While international recognition of a Palestinian state is, again, something to be celebrated, the truth of the matter is that none of the central players in this drama, the United States, Bibi and his Likudniks, and the Palestinian populace, gave their vote to Abu Mazen on November 29. Increasingly, at two-state solution seems farther and farther away. Functionally, at least, three sovereign nations west of the Jordan River seem more likely than two.


Photo Credit:  Neubie

Israel’s Deadly Game of Politics

Desperate times call for desperate measures and it seems Israel has decided that the only way to deter Palestine from achieving an observer state status at the United Nations is to destabilise the region and use the argument that Palestine is not ready to become a state due to its violent and confrontational nature.


israel flag gaza palestine hamas


On Wednesday 14th November Israel killed the military commander of Hamas in an airstrike on the Gaza Strip. Hamas said Ahmed Al-Jabari, who ran the organization’s armed wing, Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam, died along with a passenger after their car was targeted by an Israeli missile. Jabari has long topped Israel’s most-wanted list. Israel blames him for a string of attacks, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006. The Israeli military says its assassination of the Hamas military commander marks the beginning of an operation against Gaza militants.

The consequences of Israel’s actions were already noticeable just a few hours after the announcement as immediate calls for revenge were broadcast over Hamas radio and smaller groups also warned of retaliation: “”Israel has declared war on Gaza and they will bear the responsibility for the consequences,” Islamic Jihad said.” There is now a real chance that this event can lead to another full-blown conflict similar to the three week conflict in 2008 and 2009.

However perhaps a full blown conflict in the region is exactly what Israel wanted. On the 29th of November, Palestine will put in a resolution to upgrade the status of Palestine to that of a non-member observer state in the organization. Unsurprisingly Israel with the support of the United States have opposed this move arguing that it will hinder real negotiations, despite the fact that the majority of UN members believe Palestine should be granted a full state membership at the international organisation. Israel has bluntly said that they will consider partial or full cancellation of the Oslo Accords if the United Nations General Assembly adopts the resolution. On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry sent an urgent cable to all Israeli representatives around the world, asking ambassadors to deliver a number of messages to senior officials in those countries as soon as possible. “You are asked immediately at the beginning of the work week to contact the foreign ministry, prime minister’s office, national security adviser or president’s office and request to do all possible to halt the Palestinian initiative because of its far-reaching consequences,” the cable to the ambassadors said. As opposed to the decisions of the UN Security Council, General Assembly decisions cannot be vetoed, therefore the USA cannot play its ace card to prevent Palestine achieving its objective. Despite strong pressure from Israel, the Palestinian President has defiantly said he will not back out from his plan to table the resolution at the United Nations.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and it seems Israel has decided that the only way to deter Palestine from achieving an observer state status at the United Nations is to destabilise the region and use the argument that Palestine is not ready to become a state due to its violent and confrontational nature. Hamas have always argued that asking the UN to grant Palestine a member status would be purely symbolic and would not achieve anything on the ground. For this reason, it is likely that Hamas will retaliate against Israel after the death of Al-Jabari, which is exactly what Israel wants them to do. Abbas is likely to plead to Hamas not to seek revenge at such a crucial time for the Palestinian state, but Hamas (who are already on cold terms with Abbas) are unlikely to listen, giving Israel more ammunition to claim that Palestine is a divided nation and thus do not deserve a place at the United Nations.

While many claim that it would be purely a symbolic matter if Palestine were to become an observer non-member state, the consequences are far greater than that. Netanyahu is fully aware of the fact that the new status as a non-member state would allow Palestine to be accepted as a member of the International Criminal Court of the UN in The Hague and demand Israel and its leaders be tried for war crimes. This is a very serious threat to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian land and teh Israeli officials will not take this lightly.

One may argue that the two events (UN resolution vote on the 29th November and Wednesday’s assassination of the Hamas militant) are purely coincidental in their close timing. But as Roosevelt said: “In politics nothing happens by accident”. Not much else needs to be said.


Photo Credit: Lilachd

Blocking Palestine: America’s Big Mistake

Much can be speculated but what is certain is that with the anticipated Palestinian support of at least 115, and up to as much as 150, member states of the UN, the USA and Israel are very much in isolation in their opposition.


yassir arafat palestine israel


In so fervently opposing the potential Palestinian bid for non-member state status at the UN, the United States administration has made a substantial error in judgement. Not only does their opposition perpetuate the criminally vulgar apathy that the world, and the US in particular, has shown Palestine since the conception of Israel in 1948, but it further, and more significantly, embodies a diplomatic mistake that has the capacity to undermine much of American foreign policy rhetoric.

Given the impasse in Israel-Palestine peace negotiations since 2010, the Palestinian bid for independence and their pursuit of a two-state solution has effectively been left in their own hands. It was therefore not a surprise when last year Mahmoud Abbas submitted his application for Palestinian statehood and membership to the UN. When the subsequent Security Council vote produced unfavourable results for Palestine, following immense diplomatic pressure and persuasion from the US, the Palestinian Authority decided that the best option would be to bypass the Security Council and apply for non-member state status via the UN General Assembly. Addressing the General Assembly on the 27th September, Abbas stated “We have begun intensive consultations with various regional organizations and member states aimed at having the General Assembly adopt a resolution considering the state of Palestine as a non-member state of the United Nations”. With Palestinian hopes of being a recognised state, but not a member, come hopes of taking Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The future of Palestine looks, for the first time in recent memory, somewhat hopeful; at least 115 member states of the UN are expected to vote in favour of recognising Palestine on pre-1967 ceasefire line borders should a bid be submitted – making Palestine a non-member state. Why then, and on what basis, is the US seemingly so determined to ensure otherwise?

The answer? ‘Palestinian statehood can only be achieved via direct negotiation with the Israelis’, or so the official rhetoric goes. What can be inferred is that the US is seeking to protect its long-time ally and the largest recipient of US aid since World War Two; undoubtedly, Israel needs financial and military assistance to keep the Lebanese Shiite threat of Hezbollah at bay, yet such heavy investment suggests US protection against all Israeli enemies. In this case, the US may fear the potential ruling the ICC may give on Israeli occupation. Much can be speculated but what is certain is that with the anticipated Palestinian support of at least 115, and up to as much as 150, member states of the UN, the USA and Israel are very much in isolation in their opposition.

The isolation of the US, combined with the zealous and ardent nature of their opposition, is the fundamental point in why this particular US dialogue has the capability to undermine much of America’s foreign policy authority. With the exception of the Cold War, the US has been championing democracy from as far back as the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Why then does the insistence placed by the US on democracy, even today in the Arab Spring countries and Afghanistan, not apply when extrapolated to supranational governance? The United States of America must be labelled as a global dictator within the realms of international relations; the financial sanctions imposed on the Palestinian Authority following their pursuit of UN membership and the repudiation of all American UNESCO funding in 2011 following Palestine’s admission must be seen as evidence of repression. Financial sanctions seem a distinctly puzzling consequence of a country’s fight for liberation and supports the assertion that the US is not primarily concerned with, as the administration claim, the potential effect on the peace process. Moreover, the presence of the US in other countries is discredited. Citizens of countries in the Middle-East and North Africa will begin to question whether democracy is really the agenda for the United States and suddenly the old adage referring to the conflation of terrorists and freedom fighters becomes a reality.

In any case, surely the time has come for the Israel-Palestine peace process to occur without the presence of the USA and Russia. Neither country can really be seen as a moral authority; America is a country still not even 50 years into the outlaw of racism and segregation. How long can the US continue to support, in Israel, a country that has shown and continues to show such blatant disregard for international law?  The time has come for the US and Russia to step down and allow the UN to fulfil the role of global governance that the institution was created for. The US administration must end the stubborn outlook with which they approach the majority of international issues and realise the democratic nature of multilateralism. The words of Kofi Annan resonate most deeply: “The United Nations is most useful to all its members, including the United States, when it is united and works as a source of collective action”.


Photo credit: No Lands Too Foreign

Was The Killing Of Osama Bin Laden Justified Under International Law?

Answering the question strictly in the affirmative or negative states two things: (1)  International law justifies assassinations. (2)  The United States was unjustified to kill Osama bin Laden in international law.


Neither of these concrete statements is acceptable. What should be asked is if the killing of Osama bin Laden could be justified in international law. In this case, yes. First, international law is ambiguous and broad in its language and text alone, thus is often left open for interpretation by States. This process is further complicated with the many different scholarly traditions of international relations and war, battling to determine worldly conduct and perception in a cookie-cutter mold. For this reason, the law on the use of force and self-defense under the United Nations Charter is one of the most contended areas in international law. Jörg Kammerhofer states that because international law itself is not clearly established, then what the law calls for is uncertain, and such uncertainty manifests itself in the law of use of force and self-defense. Under Chapter VII, Article 51, it states that the Charter cannot prohibit the use of force in the sense of self-defense, and allows a State to engage in self-defense in an armed attack. Kammerhofer notes that the lack of words in Article 51 often confuses States what actions are considered just and legitimate. Without any clear historical understanding of the origin or inception of the Article, the content or scope of self-defense law is left to be a vehicle for the institution’s objectives ‘in its concrete condensation within the positive legal realm of the Charter.’ What is considered ‘self-defense’? An ‘armed attack’? What constitutes as a legitimate victim and attacker? These questions may seem quite technical, but it is absolutely imperative to clearly define these terms to determine any legal breach of international law. For instance, ‘armed attacks’ can be interpreted by States as isolated, indubitable, aggressive actions. But others may believe that self-defense ensures effectual security of the State, and thus infers that an ‘armed attack’ means the relationship between the State and the enemy in its entirety. There are instances of historical conflicts such as Pakistan and India, China and India, and North and South Korea, where both sides insisted they were the victims; there is no international system established to legally and adequately determine sides. Even further, contemporary scholars particularly question if an attacker can be perceived as a State or a non-State actor. The United States falls under the latter.

Even for the argument that an ‘armed attack’ is majorly considered to be in the form of an isolated action of aggression, some scholars state that self-defense is not limited to cases of armed attacks in that fashion. They claim that the intent of Article 51 was to incorporate all of the rights of self-defense that existed within the customary international laws at the time the Charter was drafted. Moreover, the International Court of Justice noted that the right of self-defense under Article 51 ‘simply recognized a pre-existing right of customary international law.’ The use of military force may be legally utilized against terrorists even if an armed attack has not occurred because of the notion of customary right of self-defense. An example of a basis that permits the use of force under customary international law is the protection of the people of the State. Richard Lillich, and others, supports the claim that the use of force is legitimate in order to protect the State’s nationals, and refers to 188 cases in which the United States has attempted to protect its nationals ‘by the use of contingents ashore.’ With this observation, it would then be correct to state that military force may be used against terrorists if they pose a threat to a State’s citizens in the absence of an armed attack.

It is, however, recognized that such an argument about Article 51 is not a widely accepted interpretation, particularly in reference to the Nicaragua case where the International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated the right to self-defense against an aggressive Statemay be used in the light of an exclusive occurrence of an armed attack. But the ICJ was particularly vague in its jurisdiction about the legitimate use of force against non-state actors. In the DRC v. Uganda (2005) case, the ICJ ruled that Uganda did not have the right to use force against Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in self-defense because the terrorist actions by anti-Ugandan rebels are not attributable to the DRC. But it surprisingly failed to specifically address if Uganda did not have the right to use force specifically against the anti-Ugandan rebels, the non-State actors, considering it was a prominent legal and political issue in this ‘War on Terror’ era. To further the ambiguity, the ICJ completely overlooked the issue, and stated that ‘there is no need to respond to the contentions of the Parties as to whether and under what conditions contemporary international law provides for a right of self-defence against large-scale attacks by irregular forces.’ Such discretion then continuously makes international law unclear to definitely state if it is justifiable or not to use force against non-State actors.

Others criticized that the US breached international law in its action because it trespassed into the territory of Pakistan, and therefore violated Pakistan’s sovereignty. Kimberley Trapp notes how the ICJ also overlooks the matter of the use of force in terms of self-defense against non-State actors that are located within another State’s territory. Article 2(4) of the Charter forbids ‘the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any stage.’ For a State to enter another State’s territory without permission and use force within that State, regardless of the target, is surely then a violation of international law. The violation of territorial integrity in order to target a non-State actor within the host State’s borders can be excused under the ‘customary law elements of a legitimate exercise of the right to self-defense.’ She introduces the customary requirements of ‘necessity’ and ‘proportionality. ‘Necessity’ questions if the use of force is a necessary action in the present circumstance, and ‘proportionality’ addresses the need for defensive action, but tailored action, so that the use of force is properly adequate and not abundant. If the victim State believes that the host State could do more to decrease the threat of armed attacks from the non-State actor within its territory, than the use of force by the victim State is not necessary. But if the victim State believes that the host State is either unwilling or incapable of reducing the threat, depending how much it values its own security, the victim State is left to take the risk of trespassing into the host State and use limited and targeted force against the non-State actor; in this case, Osama bin Laden. But in contravention, Israel was denied to use the ‘necessity’ and ‘proportionality’ argument when Israel bombed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s headquarters in Tunisia in response to the PLO’s terrorist attack against its citizens in Cyprus back in 1985. Israel strongly claimed Tunisia was well aware of PLO’s terrorist activity and was unwilling to place preventive measures, and thus used its own force, not against Tunisia, but particularly against the PLO. The UN Security Council did not investigate Israel’s claim about targeting non-State actors, stating that actionable self-defense may only be used in the instance of an armed attack by Tunisia. Like in the DRC v Uganda case, ‘acquiescence in terrorist activities was evidently rejected as a basis for attribution’.

Things have drastically changed since 1985. It is quite possible to state that international law – codified law – gradually took on the elements of common law over time, where its text is more so inferred by the international community through precedence and norms. This is due to the slow process of reformatting the codified structure to fit the continuously changing modern perceptions.  In the beginnings of the UN in 1945, international law was more modest in terms of content and applications. Over the years after many drastic events, international law slowly began to incorporate a wider range of subjects without fully assessing what the official definition of these novel concepts are in order to make official amendments to treaties. Major international organizations and agencies cannot even agree on a definition for something seemingly as basic as ‘terrorism,’ but its concept is understood overall; thus, terms such as these are left in limbo in international law. As Friedrichs states, ‘it is precisely the absence of a legal definition of terrorism, that makes it possible for the hegemonic power… to determine the international public enemy on a case-by-case basis.’

It was much more controversial to the international community to blow up Gaddafi’s compound in Libya than it was shooting bin Laden in the head. Bin Laden was not a head of a recognized State, nor was he a civilian. The attack on bin Laden was seen just because he played an essential non-state military role in waging war directly against America. The US searched high and low for a decade for this one person, risking its status and security as an economic, political, and military world power. They finally succeeded. Does international law condone hunting and slaying down high-class enemies, rather than capturing them and putting them on trial? Do American values permit retribution in spite of due process? Regardless of the black and white text of the law, in some cases, they do.

Syria: What Next?

Will Syria fall to the Arab spring? Or will she resist the ‘contagion of democracy’?



[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, recently appeared on American television in a rare interview where he denied accusations that he was committing crimes against the Syrian people; he stated that ‘no government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person’. This has since been exposed by the prominent hacker group, Anonymous, who have leaked a string of emails, from Assad’s closest advisors, which aimed to help the Syrian leader manipulate the American public; yet the pictures and reports emanating from Syria of the strikes upon the rebel city of Homs are evidence in themselves.

Therefore, as the Syrian government continued its bombardment of rebel groups in the city of Homs this past week, foreign dignitaries were converging at the UN Headquarters in New York in the hope that an appropriate international response be agreed upon within the Security Council over events in Syria. This was not the case, however, and China and Russia vetoed a vital Security Council resolution which would have allowed international action to bear upon the Arab Republic’s President, Bashar al-Assad. Those of influence, sat in Moscow and Beijing, refused to agree to what they viewed as the international community meddling in the affairs of a sovereign nation. There was an unsurprising amount of censure towards the veto from the wider international community and a legitimate sense of frustration with the way events had panned out. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, was the most vocal critic of the Chinese and Russian obstruction of the resolution, denouncing their behaviour as ‘shameful and disgusting’.

An estimate of the number of casualties in the bloodshed thus far have reached as high as 7,941 and yet the strikes have continued after the veto at a higher frequency. After vetoing the resolution, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, visited Damascus to call for the opening of dialogue between the Syrian government and the rebels. Yet, with snipers still in position, scores being killed every day and a week-long shelling campaign creating a sense of panic in the city of Homs, an internal solution based on dialogue between the warring parties seems highly unlikely.

The Syrian regime has seemingly learnt from the expensive lessons of the Arab Spring where the lack of a sufficient exertion of might has allowed revolution to blossom in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In light of this, the Syrian elite appear more determined than ever to meet areas of unrest with implacable force. In spite of Syria’s isolation in the international community, Russia remains a committed ally. They continue to supply the Arab Republic with arms, they have a naval base on the Syrian coast at Tartus and the Kremlin, even if articulating that it has ‘no special concern’ for Assad, maintains close diplomatic ties with Damascus as clearly demonstrated by Lavrov’s recent visit. If anything, Russia and China’s actions in the Security Council have reinforced Assad’s position and heightened his determination to bring the disorder to a swift conclusion. Therefore, the question is: what next for Syria?

It is unquestionable that the punishments handed to Syria thus far have been abject failures. Economic sanctions, the removal of Syria’s membership in the Arab League and widespread international condemnation have not worked as hoped and the removal of Assad in the near future appears improbable unless military intervention becomes a serious reality. International pressure has undoubtedly increased on the Syrian regime with the US closing its embassy in Damascus and Britain, France, Italy and Spain all recalling their representatives. Yet, Assad has the support, in the Security Council at least, of Russia and China; the support of the Syrian army; the support of his family; a weak and unorganised opposition in the form of the SNC (Syrian National Council) and an international community which is unlikely to act unless through the correct legitimate channels. Therefore, until an internal or external solution is found to the Syrian Crisis, there remains a high possibility that Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable future, the bloodshed will continue and Syria will find itself descending into an intense civil war.

As long as Assad’s strong position maintains, the only real alternative to military intervention that is on the table is helping the opposition to become more united and stronger. Due to the veto, the US and its allies will have to work around this obstacle and through various other channels. The EU, as a regional organisation, has placed economic sanctions upon Syria and has pledged to go further after the latest events. Ban Ki-moon has stated that the failed Arab League monitoring mission will be revived; this will benefit the dialogue on the ground and keep interaction with the Syrian government open. However, unless the Syrian army defects or Russia and China drastically change their views on the situation in Syria, the only positive outcome seems to be the rebels overthrowing the regime with huge Western assistance or the West intervening and doing the job themselves regardless of the Security Council veto. The former looks the most likely solution at the moment. One thing is for sure, it will be incredibly interesting to see how this will play out. Will Syria join the wave of successful Arab revolutions before it? Or will Assad successfully shield his country from the contagion of democracy? Only time will tell.

Defining Terrorism

Why is terrorism so difficult to define?
{War Studies Department, King’s College London}



‘Terrorism… is rapidly becoming a term to be applied pejoratively by the West to describe an opposition who does not play by our rules'[1]

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen the BBC broadcasts the grainy video clip of a blown out children’s school bus the instant thought is ‘terrorism’. It is an innocent assumption – the bus could have been involved in a collision or a faulty gas mains may have exploded. The events of September 11th 2001, the July 7th 2005 bombings and the constant reminders that the Western world is under attack have lead to the creation of an environment where it is all to easy to instinctively label an action, a person or a movement as terrorist. This paper asserts that the world of academia has proved impotent in its attempts to arrive at a common definition of terrorism because the understanding of what constitutes terrorism is based on the perceived legitimacy of the cause or the actor behind the act: the use of the label ‘terrorism’ is subjective. The political world suffers from the same issue, epitomized by the question of Israel and Palestine – an exemplification of the fact that no right-minded political strategist will allow their cause to be labelled with a term of such negative connotation. The only thing the international community agrees on is that terrorism is a ‘bad thing’. This paper focuses specifically on the issues in defining terrorism with regard to whether terrorism can be committed by both state and clandestine forces, with this essay’s spotlight firmly aimed at Israel as a relevant case study. There are numerous other problems in defining terrorism, Alex Schmid’s article Terrorism – The Definitional Problem and C.A.J. Coady’s contribution in Part 1 of Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues both provide excellent places to start for a more thorough comprehension of the issues.

The more potent question is why is it important to be able to define terrorism? The United Nations outlawed many of the acts that terrorists commit following the Munich massacre of 1972 and these acts are for the most part similarly prohibited under respective countries’ domestic law. If the actions that a terrorist commits are illegal under both sets of law, then why does it matter if there is not an overbearing definition of terrorism? One of Neumann’s cardinal theories in Old and New Terrorism is that terrorism is no longer solely a domestic problem – terrorist networks are cross-border affairs and must be recognised as such.[2] Schmid posits that this ‘new’ terrorism can only be countered by new organisation by those affected by it: international terrorism must be confronted with international cooperation.[3] This cooperation can only occur when both sides agree on what terrorism actually is, necessary because a ‘campaign against terrorism requires an agreed understanding of what types of movements and actions are being opposed’.[4] If there exists disagreement over the labelling of bodies and groups as terrorist, then those groups will be able to exploit said disunion to their advantage.

But how to agree on what is terrorism? Terrorism no longer means a system or rule of terror (as defined by the L’Académie Française in 1798), indeed it has not done so since the late 19th century when not only did Tsar Alexander III command the label, but his father’s assassins were similarly termed as such.[5] This development signified that both state and sub-national groups could have the phrase ascribed to their activities – the resulting lack of clarity is the one of the most significant stumbling blocks in defining terrorism today.[6]

The conflict over the definition of terrorism is most apparent in the international political arena. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defines it as ‘the deliberate and systematic assault on civilians to inspire fear for political ends’ – a definition which he argues encompasses the essence of terrorism, that being ‘the purposeful attack on the innocent… outside the field of legitimate conflict’.[8] Netanyahu has arrived at the right junction, albeit along a hazy road, in that legitimacy is the heart and soul of this debate. At what point does a lack of political representation, lack of self-determination or lack of any other right guaranteed by international law legitimate the oppressed to attempt to exact change through violent, but unconventional, means?

Many have argued (whether rightly or wrongly) that Israel has deliberately and systematically assaulted civilians, using the resultant fear to drive Arabs out of Israel to ensure that the ‘demographic threat’ is contained – a political end if ever there was one.8 But there are more important problems with the Israeli premier’s definition than its self-detrimental nature, primarily that it would render numerous states guilty of terrorist charges: Dresden, Hiroshima & Nagasaki are the instances that spring to mind. All were systematic and deliberate attacks on innocent civilians to inspire fear and in doing so break morale to end the Second World War. Were those acts ‘outside the field of legitimate conflict’? Whilst these were undoubtedly horrific acts, they are not what one would describe as terrorist acts. If we fail to distinguish between state and sub-state actors as possible protagonists of terrorism, then we fail to distinguish between what we understand to be terrorism and the numerous other forms of war and violence. This lack of clarity is endemic to current definitions of terrorism, many are either too narrow, too broad (as above) or quite possibly both, such as the current United Nations attempt.[9]

It is not simply the innate difficulty of agreeing what constitutes terrorism that is holding back a universal definition, but that many states have thus far refused to proscribe terrorism until the United Nations has probed and solved the causes of terrorism.[10] In other words, until the international community has rectified the question of Israel and Palestine we will most undoubtedly never see a definition accepted internationally, and – in this author’s humble opinion – that day is a long way off. Any attempt to outlaw acts of terrorism perceived to be justified (those committed in the process of self-determination) will be blocked by the pro-Palestine community, wary of pushing the violent recourse undertaken by bodies such as Hamas further into the sphere of international condemnation. Similarly, any attempt to refer to state terrorism in a UN definition will be vetoed by the pro-Israeli community, who hold fears that such a definition would provide a basis for the pro-Palestine lobby to uphold that Israel performs terrorist tactics in her fight against militants. Such an inclusion would lend a certain air of credibility to the many Islamist claims that the West has and does commit numerous acts of terrorism. The only way for the West to continue to use the word ‘terrorism’ in such a pejorative fashion is by ensuring that terrorism can only be committed by sub-state actors.

This essay is incredibly selective in what it has portrayed and should not be taken as an attempt to cover the wide variety of issues in the ‘definitional problem’. However this essay illustrates how easy it is to proffer the label of terrorism and how the global arena needs a resolute definition of terrorism to combat said tactic. In answering as to why it is so hard to define terrorism, this paper gave 3 main points; firstly that terrorism is considered to be a ‘bad thing’ and therefore no group will willingly accept being labelled as such; secondly that defining terrorism is dependant on what one views as a legitimate recourse to violence, hence is inherently subjective, and; thirdly, as a result of point one, until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been solved we are unlikely to see a universal definition agreed upon. This paper has concurrently argued that for the West to maintain her moral high-ground, she must ensure that terrorism can only be committed by clandestine forces.

The lack of consensus in the Western world over what comprises terrorism is highly damaging – how can we label Hamas a terrorist organisation if we cannot agree on what terrorism is? Consider the parallel of Israel’s Jewish nature and her affirmation of democracy. The controversial academic Norman Finkelstein questions as to how Israel can take both labels simultaneously given that her high court judges are unable to explain how the two sit side by side.[11] In short, Israel has claimed democracy yet cannot explain how she is democratic. The West claims Hamas is terrorist yet it cannot explain how it is so without a universally accepted definition. Why is our subjective viewpoint intellectually or morally superior to Iran’s?

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

[1] Defining ‘global reach’ terrorism (2003), pp9
[2] Neumann (2009), pp49-83
[3] Schmid (2004), pp379
[4] Defining terrorism: focusing on the targets (2001), pp1
[5] Ibid.
[6] Defining ‘global reach’ terrorism (2003), pp3
[7] Netanyahu (2001), pp8
[8] See Pappe (2006) or White (2009)
[9] See Neumann (2009), pp7
[10] Defining terrorism: focusing on the targets (2001), pp1
[11] Finkelstein (2011)

Defining ‘global reach’ terrorism (2003), Defence Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2

Defining terrorism: focusing on the targets (2001), Strategic Comments Vol. 7,No. 9

Finkelstein, Norman (2011), How to Solve the Israel – Palestine Conflict [Lecture organized by the Palestinian Return Centre & Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods]. Institute of Education, University of London, 11th November 2011.

Netanyahu, Benjamin (2001), Fighting Terrorism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Neumann, Peter (2009), Old and New Terrorism (Cambridge: Polity Press)

Pappe, Ilan (1996), The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld Publications)

Primoratz, Igor (2004), Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan)

Schmid, Alex (2004), ‘Terrorism – The Definitional Problem’, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 36, No. 2, 3, pp. 375-419

White, Ben (2009), Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide (London: Pluto Press)