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When May States Use Force?

The US-led airstrikes against Syrian installations involved in that country’s chemical-weapons program have once again raised the question of when it is appropriate to take military action against a sovereign state. It turns out that there is less disagreement than one might assume.

MELBOURNE – The missile strikes against Syrian military installations that the United States, the United Kingdom, and France recently carried out, in response to the government’s apparent use of chemical weapons in the rebel-held town of Douma, have once again raised the question of when the use of force against a sovereign state is permissible. The contexts vary. Countries might use force to wage a defensive war, to exercise the “responsibility to protect” against genocide or other crimes against humanity, or to prevent the acquisition or use of weapons of mass destruction. But the question is always the same: When is it right to fight?

There will always be interested parties or international lawyers contesting individual cases. Yet, among policymakers and those who advise them, there is more international consensus on the appropriate use of force than meets the eye. Spelling out the scope and limits of that consensus may help to clear the ground, both for the current debate about Syria and for debates about future cases.

At least since the controversy over NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 – in which the alliance bombed Belgrade, the Serbian capital, without authorization from the United Nations Security Council – there has been widespread international agreement on three points. The first is that there is a difference between legality and legitimacy. The use of force can be legitimate without being technically legal; and it can be technically legal without being regarded by the world as legitimate.

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