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UN: Russian Statement On Preemption Revives Focus On UN Role

  • Robert McMahon --> Do governments have the right to strike preemptively to prevent terrorist attacks? Russia's assertion of the right to launch preventive attacks against terrorists outside the country has raised new questions about whether the war on terror is eroding international law. The UN Charter permits states to act in self-defense in the event of attack. But following policy shifts by Russia and the United States, UN experts say there is need for more clarification on the issue of preemptive strikes. A UN expert group formed after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq is expected to issue recommendations soon on the matter.

United Nations, 10 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian official's statement on preemptive strikes drew an immediate word of caution from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan this week.

Annan on 8 September warned about countries adopting counterterrorism methods that undermine the rule of law and create what he called "other problems." He was referring to human rights violations. But in a larger sense, the issue of unilateral preventive action also poses a major threat to the UN's standing as the main forum for international security decisions.

Nearly one year ago, Annan expressed alarm at the U.S. preemption doctrine in a speech to the UN General Assembly. But he also called for discussion on how the UN Security Council can respond to new kinds of threats, such as terrorist groups armed with weapons of mass destruction.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said a panel of experts formed by Annan after that speech will issue a report in December on how to address new security challenges. "Near the top of the agenda of that group is to take a look at this challenge of pre-emptive action and finding a way to reconcile that with the collective security provisions which were at the basis of the UN Charter when it was first drafted," Eckhard said.

The expert group includes former Russian Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov and former U.S. national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.

Article 51 of the UN Charter affirms the right of member states to self-defense in the event of an armed attack. But it does not explicitly address states wishing to preempt feared terrorist strikes.

The United States cited concern about Iraqi weapons programs reaching terrorist networks prior to launching its campaign to topple Saddam Hussein last year.

Russian statements this week by the chief of the Armed Forces General Staff and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov followed the terrorist incident at a school in North Ossetia in which nearly 350 people were killed. Ivanov reiterated yesterday that Russia has the right to make preemptive strikes against terrorists at home and abroad. Prior to the statements, the Kremlin had updated its military protocol to allow for preventive strikes.
"It's difficult when you are dealing with an enemy that has no address and does everything to avoid a public persona that one can respond to."

The problem of terrorism and non-state actors such as Chechen rebels make it a challenge for states to define what they believe to be imminent attacks, according to Edward Luck, a Columbia University professor and expert on the UN Security Council. "It's difficult when you are dealing with an enemy that has no address and does everything to avoid a public persona that one can respond to," he said. "And that, of course, means the possibility of abuse is always there, that you go after people who are political opponents or people that might be sympathizers in this case with a separatist movement."

The Security Council has passed several strong resolutions seeking to stop support for terrorist groups and cease the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

But Luck said more work is required, such as a fresh appraisal of Article 51, or more states may consider acting on their own to confront terrorist threats abroad. "For those who say, 'Well, we have to rely on negotiation, diplomacy, and international law and whatever,' that's fine. But they have to show that international law and international institutions are up to the task of defeating terrorism -- and if they're not [capable of defeating terrorism], they're going to have to expect member states, whether it's the U.S., the Russians, the Indians, or others will take care of the national security by whatever means they have."

Ruth Wedgwood is an expert on international organizations and international law at Johns Hopkins University. She interprets Russia's statements as directed at non-state actors, which is a less provocative policy than for states. "You don't like to see this notion spreading recklessly, just as no one wanted humanitarian intervention to be spread recklessly," she said.

But Russia's conflict against Chechen rebels has already raised concern in some states. Two years ago, Russia threatened to make strikes into Georgia's Pankisi Gorge if it failed to act against Chechen guerrillas taking shelter there. In a more recent matter, Russian agents have been convicted of assassinating a former Chechen leader in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. Russia has denied any involvement in that attack.

General threats of preemptive attacks also arouse concern in Central Asian states battling extremist Islamic elements of their own. An independent Uzbek political analyst, Kamron Aliyev, told RFE/RL there are basic issues of international law at stake.

"No country has the right to organize such attacks on the territory of other countries on the grounds of fighting terrorism. This contradicts international law. Only when certain countries officially declare a war against each other, then they might have this right," Aliyev said.

Perhaps to calm fears, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement yesterday with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in which they noted the importance of human rights and the central role of the United Nations in fighting terrorism.

Factbox: Major Terrorist Incidents Tied To Russian-Chechen War

For full coverage on the recent wave of terror attacks in Russia, see RFE/RL's webpage on "Terror In Russia".

For the latest news on the U.S.-led War on Terror, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The War on Terror".