Eric Posner has a piece in Slate which argues – based on this report in the WSJ about the ever-thinner forms of consent by Pakistan to USG airstrikes in that country – that the United States is making a mockery of the U.N. Charter and probably violating it, at least if the theory of intervention is “consent.”
. . . Pakistan has never consented to the drone war. Publicly and officially the country has opposed it. Before the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the CIA sent a fax every month to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency that would identify the airspace in which drones would be sent. The ISI would send back an acknowledgment that it had received the fax, and the U.S. government inferred consent on the basis of the acknowledgments. But after the raid, the ISI stopped sending back the acknowledgments.
Now what to do? The administration argues that consent can still be inferred despite the unanswered faxes. The reason is that “the Pakistani military continues to clear airspace for drones and doesn’t interfere physically with the unpiloted aircraft in flight”—meaning that Pakistan does not shoot down the drones or permit private aircraft to collide with them.
We might call this “coerced consent.” Consider it this way: You walk into a jewelry store and the proprietor announces that he will deem you to have consented to the purchase of a diamond tiara for $10,000, despite all your protests to the contrary, unless you use physical force to stop him as he removes your wallet from your pocket. Imagine further that he’s 7 feet tall and weighs 400 pounds. This is what a Pakistani official meant when he told the Wall Street Journal that shooting down a drone would be “needlessly provocative.” He meant that such an action would risk provoking retaliation from the United States, a risk that Pakistan cannot afford to take. Because Pakistan lies prostrate and endures the pummeling rather than makes a futile effort to stop it, it is deemed to consent to the bombing of its own territory.
Eric argues that the USG’s opportunistic manipulation of “consent” is but the latest of many violations of the U.N. Charter, all of which taken together illustrate the weakness of international law in this context. Using State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh’s reported defense of the latest consent rationale in Pakistan as a foil, he argues:
But don’t blame government lawyers like Koh for devising this theory. International law lacks the resources for constraining the U.S. government. Koh knows this now if he did not before. Since he built his academic career on the claim that international law can and should be used to control nation-states and harshly criticized the Bush administration for violating international law, this must have been a bitter pill to swallow. . . .
Government lawyers like Koh must scramble to revise their interpretation of international law so as to keep up with the new events that justify, in the eyes of the president, a military intervention. The “coerced consent” doctrine, the “unable and unwilling” doctrine, and the exception for humanitarian intervention all whittle away at whatever part of the law on United Nations use of force blocks U.S. goals. If the United States ever decides to invade Iran in order to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, expect a new doctrine to take shape, perhaps one that emphasizes the unique dangers of nuclear weapons and Iran’s declared hostility toward a nearby country.