Editor’s note: Iran’s missile attack on a U.S. base in Iraq in retaliation for the Trump administration’s killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani has dramatically escalated global tensions.
Dozens of questions have swirled around the events. Beyond the politics, international law and Middle Eastern scholar David Mednicoff from the University of Massachusetts Amherst addresses five key points about the legal status of those attacks and the larger conflict.
1. What role does international law play in this conflict?
The U.S. and other prominent countries established the contemporary system of international law after World War II with three broad goals.
First, and foremost, law should minimize global war.
Second, the only accepted justifications in international law for countries to wage war are obvious self-defense and collective security authorized by the United Nations.
Third, the international legal system expects national governments to pursue their own strategic interests, consistent with the first two goals of global peace and cooperation.
International law has fostered predictable procedures for the conduct of political and economic affairs among countries.
2. But who enforces international law?
International law is founded on the idea that nations have authority to run their countries and shouldn’t be coerced by a global government. This means that enforcement largely depends on governments accepting the importance of compliance.