Switzerland cautions against escalating violence after attacks

The UN charter says the use of military force is justified only as an act of self-defence against an attack by another nation Keystone Archive

The Swiss government says it hopes there will be no escalation of violence as the United States prepares to retaliate for last week's terror attacks. A Swiss legal expert, meanwhile, says a US strike on Afghanistan would be illegal under international law.

This content was published on September 22, 2001 minutes

Bern stressed the important role to be played by the United Nations as the US builds up its military presence in the Gulf region.

To effectively fight terrorism, there has to be a lasting understanding between people and a reduction of economic disparities, said a government spokesman, Achille Casanova.

Despite Washington's determination to retaliate for last week's attacks, the UN has yet to give its approval, said Daniel Thürer, a professor of international relations at Zurich university.

Thürer told swissinfo that under the UN Charter, until the Security Council acts, either by ordering collective measures or approving US military plans to fight terrorism, any action would be in contravention of international law.

US President George W. Bush has vowed to "smoke out of their holes" those believed to be behind the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Death toll passes 6,000

Three passenger planes slammed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, while a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania. More than 6,000 are dead or missing in the most catastrophic terrorism attacks on America to date.

Washington has named the Islamic militant, Osama bin Laden, as the prime suspect and is demanding that his host, Afghanistan, hand him over to face legal proceedings. In an address to Congress of Friday, Bush said America's war on terror would not end until the whole of the Al Qaeda network of Islamic militants, headed by bin Laden, was found and defeated.

The ruling Taliban has refused to extradite the Saudi dissident and said it would only ask him to leave if there was evidence of his involvement in the assaults on America.

Bush has issued the country's leaders an ultimatum and warned that they risked the same punishment as those they shelter. Thousands of Aghans are fleeing the country in fear of possible retaliatory strikes.

The US president is attempting to garner a global coalition against terrorism but Thürer says it is too early to tell whether the UN Security Council would give it the green light to strike.

Crucial test

According to international law, until the Security Council has acted, each state has a right to self-defence, Thürer said. "The crucial question then is: was the US attacked by another state or is there the threat of an imminent attack which would give the US the right to react in a unilateral way without the authorisation of the Security Council?"

With Afghanistan, America could decide to retaliate but Afghanistan could also take the US to court. Washington would have to argue that their strikes were in self-defence.

"It's been done before," Thürer noted. Yugoslavia has taken several Nato allies to the UN's International Court of Justice at The Hague for their 1999 campaign to oust the former president, Slobodan Milosevic, from Kosovo.

In the event of a strike, Switzerland has urged that proportionate force be used and that it takes into account the civilian population. "Force can only be used in a proportionate way and the principles of humanitarian law must be observed," Thürer said.

Casanova said that no official request of aid had been received from Washington, but underlined that Switzerland was committed to joining the international fight against terrorism and would cooperate with the US.

The Bush administration is biding its time, warning the American people that their "war on terrorism" will be a long-term, sustained campaign. The fact that the Security Council voted one day after the attacks on America occurred in favour of resolution 1368 which condemns the assaults, may signal that formal authorisation is on the way.

Thürer noted that this could only be achieved once the political will was there.

by Samantha Tonkin and Sally Mules

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