The truck at the site of the attack in Nice, July 15, 2016. Luca Bruno /Press Association. All rights reserved.The news of yet another terrorist attack by ISIS or by its sympathizers on European soil in a few years, this time woefully claiming the lives of more than 80 people in the French city of Nice, confirms for Europe what has been a reality for some time now in other parts of the world, including Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia: armed groups willing to resort to terrorist tactics are a real and ongoing threat for international security in the twenty first century.
The fact that they have been able to pull off these attacks in the heartland of the undefeated North Atlantic Treaty Organization makes the threat a considerable one from the standpoint of international security, beyond the obvious human rights dimension of the problem regarding the life of victims worldwide. It appears that the Islamic State has managed to harvest the yields of global terror without even having to sow them directly.
The historian Plutarch narrates how Cato the Elder, after a lifetime of service to the Roman Republic, spent his last days warning Roman senators about the latent threat of Carthage. Although defeated in the Second Punic War, the economic prosperity reached by Carthage in following decades prompted deep concern in Cato, who took it upon himself to close every intervention at the Senate with the call “Besides, I think Carthage must be destroyed” (“Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” or “Carthago delenda est”). At last, at the behest of Cato, Rome understood the risk that had been growing overseas and defeated Carthage for good in the Third Punic War.
Cato’s story teaches us two important lessons when dealing with tenacious enemies, such as the present-day ISIS. First, wherever human communities exist, there will be the potential for internal or external conflict, so simply wishing for problems to fade away or for aggression to be appeased is naïve and irresponsible. As stated by Machiavelli in The Prince, “He who stalls conflict does so at his own peril”. Centuries later, Winston Churchill warned his countrymen in the 1930s about the perils contained in trying to appease a strongly-resolved, war-mongering enemy.
But, secondly, the harsh Roman response to the Carthage problem, amounting to the annihilation of the population, salting the earth and ultimately not leaving “stone over stone”, is not adequate to address the threat of terrorist groups in this era.
For over half a century now some principles of international law have been firmly established, fortunately precluding the application of such a drastic formula again, including the respect for human dignity and human rights, for the laws and uses of war and for peoples’ self-determination.
This last principle has even been said to gain the status of jus cogens, that is, an imperative rule that admits no agreement to the contrary by states. Other examples of jus cogens rules include the prohibition of aggressive war and of torture, both blatantly and systematically breached by ISIS during recent years. Reprisals, however, have been generally banned for states under customary international law, so they cannot legally start a war of aggression against ISIS or subject its members to torture.
Yet, all of the above does not mean that States cannot legally resort to the use of force to fight terrorist groups, exerting their right to self-defense pursuant to article 51 of the UN Charter and a well-established customary rule of international law according to the International Court of Justice. The doors of the temple of Janus – the Roman god for the beginning and the end of war – which Europeans decided to shut 70 years ago, certainly behind the aegis provided by the United States, seem to have been abruptly reopened by the attacks of ISIS.
Once European countries realize that they cannot keep on reacting to these attacks solely with police “man hunts”, and start considering the military alternative, they will have to comply with the refined criteria of the Just War tradition, including just cause, necessity, legitimate authority, right intention and proportionality between costs and benefits. This means, in part, that they must try not to provoke a new conflict in the future, by exerting responsibly what is known as jus post bellum.
It also means that both European countries and the United States will have to seek the support of other powers to make war on ISIS, if they are to prevent the costs from surpassing the benefits therefrom. In this regard, garnering the renewed power of Russia into this collective undertaking is of the essence.