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Julie Mertus
American University
School of International Service

JURIST Guest Columnist
Something has been missing from the debate over the use of U.S. military
action for regime change in Iraq: Coercive regime change violates basic
tenets of international law.

Arguments against a U.S. military intervention in Iraq tend to focus on the
absence of United Nations Security Council authorization for an enforcement
action. Another common line of argument points out that even when mandated
by the Security Council, armed interventions are limited by the principles
of necessity (preemptive strikes are out) and proportionality (all-out war
for minor breaches of weapon inspections are impermissible). These are
valuable arguments which may be applied to analyze many types of armed
interventions, but there is something particularly wrong with interventions
for regime change - and these arguments have yet to be made.

What is so new and egregious about regime change interventions?

At first glance, the plans for Iraq appear similar to other recent U.S.
military deployments. Take the case of Kosovo. The Bush administration
today, like the Clinton administration in 1999, is using human rights and
humanitarian claims as part of the legitimizing set of factors for
intervention. With Kosovo, President Clinton pointed to abuses committed by
Serbs against Albanians; with Iraq, President Bush rarely finishes a speech
without reminding people that "this is a regime that gasses its own
people," a reference to Iraqi abuses against the Kurds.

The cases of Kosovo and Iraq have also both involved leaders once supported
by the U.S. and now much despised. And it is no secret that the by the time
of the NATO bombing, the U.S. was eager not only for a leadership change,
but for a regime change in Belgrade. But here is how the two cases differ.
Instead of relying upon military force for political change in Yugoslavia,
the U.S. government supported local pro-democracy citizens and waited for
them to push for change. There is no talk of doing the same in Iraq.

In the case of Yugoslavia, the U.S. advocated for the establishment of a
war crimes tribunal to try accused war criminals according to the highest
international standards of due process. A strong argument can be made that
states have an obligation to investigate and prosecute alleged war
criminals and violators of human rights. In the case of Iraq, the perceived
need for expedient regime change has come before any talk of justice.

The U.S. bent over backward in Yugoslavia to argue that none of its
actions - not the bombing, the extensive sponsorship of civil society, or
the war crimes investigations and trials - amounted to support for regime

Forcible regime change violates the deeply enshrined principle that people
should be allowed to choose their own government. The cornerstone human
rights document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provides that
the only legitimate government is one based on the "will of the people."
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a convention
ratified by the U.S., recognizes "self-determination" as a human right and
specifies that "[b]y virtue of that right" all peoples have the right to
"freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic,
social and cultural development."

Armed interventions for regime change also run contrary to Article 2(4) of
the United Nations Charter, which prohibits the threat or use of force
"against... [t]he political independence" of another state "or in any other
manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations." This includes
the need to respect and to observe human rights and to promote
self-determination. The definition of aggression adopted by the United
Nations General Assembly in 1974 also provides that it if "the duty of
States not to use armed force to deprive peoples of their right to
self-determination." Violations of this duty may constitute an
international crime.

The use of military force for regime change is in fact radically different
than other kinds of U.S. intervention in recent years. Before taking that
route, the U.S. should think hard about the precedent it will establish and
the possible consequences.

Julie Mertus is a professor of peace and conflict resolution at American
University's School of International Service. She welcomes comments at
February 20, 2003

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