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U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a military strike on the Syrian government after Salafi-jihadist rebels alleged a chemical attack in Douma, but human rights expert Alfred de Zayas says this is illegal under international law

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BEN NORTON: For the Real News, I’m Ben Norton. The Donald Trump administration has doubled down on its threats to launch a military assault on the Syrian government. Some international observers, however, have warned that such an attack could be illegal under international law. Antigovernment opposition groups in the town of Douma, Syria have accused the Syrian military of launching a chemical attack that killed dozens of people. The Syrian government, on the other hand, has denied this accusation. The Syrian army has been fighting to retake Douma, in a suburb of the capital Damascus called Eastern Ghouta, from Salafi jihadist fighters and the extremist group Jaysh al-Islam, which is itself notorious for carrying out attacks on civilians and has in the past put civilians from the Alawite minority in cages.

Although there has not yet been an independent international investigation into the alleged chemical attack, President Trump has blamed the Syrian government. And he tweeted that there would be a, quote, big price to pay for the, quote, animal Assad, reference to the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. On Wednesday, April 11, Donald Trump tweeted, quote, Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready, Russia, because they will be coming nice and new and smart.

Well, joining us to discuss this issue is the leading human rights expert Alfred de Zayas. Alfred is the U.N. independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order. He is also a lawyer and teaches international law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy. Thanks for joining us, Alfred.

ALFRED DE ZAYAS: Good afternoon.

BEN NORTON: Well, Alfred, can we just begin, and we can speak more about what we know about the details in Douma. We don’t have many. Of course there has not yet been and independent international investigation. Before that, would a strike led by Donald Trump, would a U.S. strike be legal?

ALFRED DE ZAYAS: I could answer that in two seconds. Of course it would be illegal. And I remind you that international law is also the law of the land in the United States and on American citizen. And Article 2, Paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter is very clear in stipulating a prohibition on the use of force. There are only two exceptions. Force can be used in self-defence. Article 51. Or if the Security Council so decides pursuant to Article 39, it must first determine that there is a threat or a breach of international peace. And then if you have a clear resolution of the Security Council then certain use of force would be legal.

Otherwise you have the crime of aggression. And since 2010 we have a definition of what the crime of aggression entails, and of course an unprovoked attack on Syria by the United States, that is essentially not a party to this civil war and which is acting actually already illegally in the territory. It’s interesting to note, most people don’t know that, that in international law if there’s a civil war, there’s an obligation of neutrality for the rest of the international community. The only country that is there, shall we say, by invitation, and therefore legally is Russia. We may not want to accept it but that is what international law says and so whatever activities the United States is having in Syria at present are incompatible, both with the United Nations Charter and with customary international law.

Now, beyond that I wanted to recall what was probably the greatest violation of international law, shall we say a frontal attack on international law, an attempt to dismantle international law to make the United Nations irrelevant. That was the 20th of March 2003 when the United States and the coalition of the willing attacked Iraq, devastated the country. As a result more than one million persons have lost their lives and the country remains in chaos. That is our responsibility. Nobody has been called to account for the crime of aggression or the war crimes, for the crimes against humanity committed in Iraq. When I mention Iraq I think of Libya. There again, in 2011, the United States, France, and other so-called democratic countries decided to devastate Libya, and Libya remains in a situation of chaos. All of that entails crimes of aggression and entails war crimes, crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court has jurisdiction, but no case has been opened and no investigation has been opened on these issues.

Recently a number of prominent international lawyers, including Francis Boyle, wrote about the illegality of the proposed attack on Syria. And yesterday I read a media statement by my friend Professor Marjorie Cohen, signed also by Dr. John Meyer, the head of the International Association of Democratic lawyers, by the former American Attorney General Ramsey Clark, by Professor Curtis Doebbler who also teaches at the Geneva School of Diplomacy, stating why an attack on Syria would be illegal and would entail not only common civil liability but also penal liability.

Now, how can we possibly go to war on such shabby evidence? Or, can we say, no evidence at all? What we have are allegations.

BEN NORTON: And related to that, Alfred, I’ll jump in here. You published a media statement yesterday and Wednesday, April 11 in which you wrote, you called for, quote, all parties to the Syrian conflict to pause for a moment and give reason and law a chance. And then you pointed out, quote, an international investigation into all allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria and elsewhere must be conducted. And this of course raises a point. There has not yet been an independent international investigation. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW, has said that it’s going to send a fact-finding mission to the ground in Douma, Syria. The Syrian government has said that it welcomes this and will allow the fact-finding mission. Of course, the United States, and also the United Kingdom and France, which have all threatened military action, are not waiting for an independent international investigation.

You also wrote, quote, a fundamental component of the rule of law is due process. No one is served by rushing to conclusions, least of all the war victims. So why aren’t we seeing any kind of due process here?

ALFRED DE ZAYAS: Well, we have a culture of intransigence. And I’ve seen intransigence on the part of Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright already back in 1999 at that time of [inaudible] intransigence on the part of George W. Bush. Of Barack Obama. And so there is a tradition of intransigence. What worries me is that we do have international law obligations, and we are ignoring them. What that means is that the fabric which holds society together is being torn apart.

We are eroding those very principles that we ostensibly want to protect. So we’re doing more damage to international law and to international relations than we seem to understand. And what bothers me is the misuse of certain concepts, like human rights. I have spent my career as a professor of law, professor of human rights, secretary of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, chief of the Petitions Department of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and six years as an independent expert. And I am just shocked that those countries that should be the leaders in defending human rights are actually instrumental izing human rights as weapons.

So since there are geopolitical interests in Syria, everybody knows about the pipeline and the conflicting interests of the Russians and the Europeans and the Americans. Now that it seemed like Assad had won the war and had expelled the rebels from this enclave, well, how could you keep the United States in, and how could you get the Europeans back in the game? Well, by creating a false flag, by claiming that there was a chemical attack and that Assad did it. Now, I don’t believe it for a minute. Assad has been winning this war with conventional weapons. Very cruelly. There’ve been enormous numbers of civilians killed. But that is what a civil war is about. The Spanish Civil War cost 500000 lives, and the civil war in Yemen and the Saudi Arabian terrorist, call that state terrorism, bombardment of civilian targets, of hospitals and schools in Yemen, have also cost tens of thousands of lives. Now, where is the outcry against Saudi Arabia? Where’s the outcry against the crimes committed against the population of Gaza and against the population of the occupied territories?

I mean, we have to have a sense of proportion. Certainly the use of chemical weapons is an abomination and certainly it entails a very grave war crime. But for that the International Criminal Court is competent. If, indeed, the organization on the prevention of the use of chemical weapons goes to Douma, does its investigation, and can actually not only determine first of all that that was a use of chemical weapons, but that Assad was responsible for it, then you know, Assad could be indicted by the International Criminal Court. And sooner or later, he could stand trial. That was would be the proper procedure, if you want to say, the due process that is required in a situation like this. Jumping to conclusions is something unworthy of a democracy like the United States. And I’m hoping that the United States Congress, that the senators and congressmen and congresswomen, will protest against allowing the precedent to get away with a major crime of aggression, with a major attack on international law itself.

So I would hope, and I’m actually a practicing Catholic and I am praying for peace. I have not abandoned the hope that common sense will eventually prevail and that the United States will see fit to wait until the inspectors actually go on the ground and carry out their work, and reach conclusions which we then have to evaluate ourselves, and then we have to see which are the better options. But certainly military action is not an acceptable option. And not only is it a violation of international law, but it’s going to cause more suffering.

BEN NORTON: Well thank you so much Alfred. We appreciate your insight. And it’s interesting to hear the perspective of international legal experts. Frequently in the U.S. media. We don’t hear these kinds of experts.

We were joined by the human rights expert Alfred de Zayas. Alfred is the U.N. independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order. Thanks for joining us on the Real News, Alfred.


BEN NORTON: This was Part 1 of a two part interview here at the Real News with Alfred de Zayas. In the next part we’ll be discussing what Alfred says is the illegal U.S. military presence inside Syria. So please join us on the Real News for Part 2. It’s the Real News. I’m Ben Norton.

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Ben Norton is a producer and reporter for The Real News. His work focuses primarily on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, media criticism, and movements for economic and social justice. Ben Norton was previously a staff writer at Salon and AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.