Thursday, March 16, 2006

When the West Wing Fails You

Other than the odd burst of mindless flag waving, I love “The West Wing”. So, I was sitting down watching season four tonight, the episode where they decide – a little belatedly – to take legal advice on the consequences of assassinating a terrorist leader.

A terrorist leader who also happens to be an accredited diplomat to the US.

The discussion runs something like this.

President Martin Sheen: “Article 51 of the UN Charter allows a nation to wage war in self-defence.”

Lawyer: “The article is predicated on openly declared wars.”

Pres: “The world doesn’t work like that anymore.”

Lawyer: “The law does … this could be a war crime.”

No, no, no, no! Bad Aaron Sorkin, bad bad man!

Admittedly, I just supervised undergrads on this stuff, so maybe I have a bee in my bonnet.

Anyway: the UN Charter does not require declarations of war. Article 51 does not even mention war. It talks of an “inherent right of … self-defence if an armed attack occurs.”

Can you claim self-defence against terrorism? Well, it’s controversial. But I’d say after the Security Council in Resolutions 1368 and 1373 recognised the US’s right to act in self-defence following September 11, the answer has to be “yes”.

How far that right extends is a question for another blog.

The idea that law is graven is stone, anachronistically resistant to change and irrelevant to current concerns is also wrong. There is some scope for progressive re-interpretation of the Charter’s meaning in light of subsequent practice.

For example: there is, strictly speaking, no “veto” in the Security Council under the Charter. Certain votes require the “concurring vote” of all five permanent members. So there's at best a default veto: even an abstention by a P5 member should torpedo a motion requiring a “concurring vote”.

In practice, only express negative votes are counted under this rule and a blind eye is turned to abstentions. Despite the words plain meaning, their legal meaning has changed through their use in practice.

So, similarly, there’s nothing stopping the content of the words “self-defence” evolving over time.

So is such an assasination a war crime? Whether civilian leaders are legitimate military targets in a war is a debateable issue, as is the application of the law of armed conflict to a war on terror.

However, assassinating a diplomat returning to his own country is, one would think, rather against the spirit of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

For a usually relatively intelligent show, sloppy errors teenage delegates to a model UN should be able to pick up.

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