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What Is Aggression?

4 minute read

“No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State.” That sweeping injunction, embodied in a 1970 United Nations General Assembly resolution, seemed to be what most members had on their minds last week as they voted, 108 to 9, to “deeply deplore” the Reagan Administration’s invasion of Grenada. In the U.N. majority’s eyes, the U.S. action seemed to provide a prima-facie case of the kind of direct intervention that has long been for bidden by international law. But to many international legal scholars, the issues raised by the fighting in the Caribbean are more complicated. Says British Lawyer N.A. Maryan Green: “Our present-day notions of aggression are antiquated. The invasion of Grenada has brought to the forefront the necessity to redefine some terms in international law.” Green and other experts are afraid that current readings of international law fail to take account of the many acts of indirect aggression that increasingly shape world politics. Says Jacques Kosciusko-Morizet, a former French Ambassador to the U.S.:

“It is easy to point to armies invading your territory and say that that is aggression. But there are many forms of indirect aggression, such as subversion or changing a government through a coup d’etat with the threat of an external power.” In the Reagan Administration’s view, Grenada is a case in point: the U.S. may have intervened directly two weeks ago, but the Soviets and the Cubans have been engaging in indirect aggression in the Western Hemi sphere for years. Nor is the problem confined to superpowers. The Sandinista government of Nicaragua provides tactical aid and support for the Marxist-Leninist rebels of nearby El Salvador, and the U.S., of course, is backing anti-Sandinista rebels. (Last week the U.S. Senate approved $19 million in continuing covert aid for the Nicaraguan insurgents.) Says Detlev Vagts, professor of law at Harvard: “I don’t think international law has got a grip on the issue of covert activity, in which you arm and support rebels within a country.”

A further complication is that violations of international law are often subject to interpretation by the General Assembly, which is now dominated by newly independent Third World nations. To many of these countries, there is nothing wrong with intervention that can be labeled anticolonialist. Notes International Law Professor Rosalyn Higgins of the London School of Economics: “The preoccupation with self-determination and ending colonialism has led to stresses and strains on the old limits on the use of force. In the newer trend, lending aid to gain self-determination is accepted.” For Marxist-Leninist governments, a double standard is even easier to achieve, since Communist ideology rejects non-Marxist forms of government. Says Alfred P. Rubin, professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy: “The Soviets can get away with major, minor or theoretical violations of international law because their power and standing in the world do not rest on a respect for legal niceties.” The U.S., on the other hand, is usually held to a higher moral and legal standard.

Many legal experts feel that the problem of indirect aggression is already handled adequately in the canons of international law. Among other things, they point to the 1970 U.N. resolution, whose text further states that not only armed intervention but also “all other forms of interference, or attempted threats against the personality of the State, or its political, economic and cultural elements, are in violation of international law.” Sums up Derek Bowett, Whewell professor of international law at Cambridge University: “All law can do is provide basic rules, the application of which requires a good deal of judgment. No legal system relies just on force. All depends on world opinion.”

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