What a Howler

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said recently that he favors preemptive strikes against terrorists in Asian nations, unleashing a flood of criticism from within Australia and without. This commentary in Singapore's Straits Times argues that the notion of preemption must be examined by the international community. The United Nations must be consulted before preemptive strikes occur anywhere, and the sovereignty of viable nation-states must be respected. Otherwise, Southeast Asia – and other regions of the world – could end up in total chaos. – YaleGlobal

What a Howler

Monday, December 9, 2002

AN astonishing amount of balderdash has been uttered on the delicate idea of pre-emption. Australian Prime Minister John Howard's thoughtless, incompetent statements on the matter are the chief cause of this idiocy. The unnecessarily indulgent reaction of United States President George W. Bush to Mr Howard's bromide, as well as the chest-thumping of some Asian leaders, have also contributed. Is the universally accepted doctrine of national sovereignty about to be scrapped? No. Have the US and Australia awarded themselves a hunter's licence to shoot, as and when they please? No. Will Australia, no one's idea of a military power, assume the right to strike pre-emptively in the region, without so much as a by your leave from the United Nations? Not unless it wishes to make itself a pariah with its neighbours to its north, and remain firmly attached to only its southern neighbour, Antarctica.

The international community should indeed consider the doctrine of pre-emption. The notion of sovereignty should indeed be amended to take account of failed states and non-state actors like Al-Qaeda. The international community has already on occasion set aside sovereign rights to stop human rights abuses - including in Bosnia and Kosovo, where Muslims were being persecuted. Where transnational terrorism is concerned, the threat cannot be dealt with solely on the basis of Article 51 of the United Nation's Charter, which provides for self-defence only in the event of an attack by one state against another. But if this article is to be modified to provide for pre-emption in certain exceptional cases, those exceptions must be carefully defined, hedged in, and subjected to Security Council oversight. Not to do so would be to invite Hobbesian chaos. What would happen if states could unilaterally invoke pre-emption without international sanction? The US might be able to invade Somalia in pursuit of terrorists, but some future Indian government might also invoke the same right to invade Pakistan, or some horrid recrudescence of Maoist China might invoke it to adopt the whole of the South China Sea as its private lake. Force is often necessary, but however chaotic the world may be, the only legitimacy available for its exercise remains the UN and international law. If pre-emption is to have legitimacy, it has to be founded on a careful re-appraisal of existing law. Considerable thought has to be applied to that effort.

Mr Howard finds himself in the fix he is in with Asian leaders because he gave little sign of having exercised any thought on the matter. Does he suggest that since Mr Bush has invoked pre-emption in Iraq, he can do it in South-east Asia? But pre-emption has not been invoked in Iraq - there is no need to, existing Security Council resolutions, including the most recent, being sufficient. Worse still, Mr Howard's remarks can be read to imply that Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia are in the same company as Somalia. They are not. They have functioning governments, fully capable of enforcing their authority. To imply that such countries are faltering states invites ridicule on its originator. The smart way to fight terrorism in the region is to use that fight as an opportunity to strengthen regional governments. The stupid way is to weaken them. With its right hand, the Howard government has been smart in cooperating with Asean states on security and intelligence matters; but with its left, it has been the opposite. Australians must catch hold of that left hand, and wrench it back in a firm lock.

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