The Popular But Unlawful Armed Reprisal

44 ONU L. Rev. 325 (2018)

Notre Dame Law School Legal Studies Research Abstract No. 1841

27 Pages Posted: 27 Apr 2018 Last revised: 14 Aug 2018

Date Written: April 9, 2018


The United States and Iran carried out armed reprisals in Syria during 2017 in the wake of chemical and terror attacks. Despite support for their actions even by countries such as Germany and France, retaliatory uses of force are clearly prohibited under international law. International law generally prohibits all use of armed force with narrow exceptions for self-defense, United Nations Security Council authorization, and consent of a government to participate in a civil war. Military force after an incident are reprisals, which have been expressly forbidden by the UN. Prior to the Trump administration, the U.S. consistently attempted to justify reprisals through creative characterization of the facts to fit the self-defense paradigm. Following the April 2017 attacks, the U.S. did not even offer one of these insufficient attempts at justification. The implications of these latest developments on international law for the U.S. and the world are grave. Human lives have been taken in violation of the law. The whole attempt to condemn chemical attacks and terrorism — which also violate international law — becomes at best counterproductive when the response involves a law violation as serious as the triggering offense. Disrespect for the law can have repercussions beyond the rules on resort to military force. They can damage the health of the system as a whole, affecting areas both the U.S. and Iran want to see honored, such as arms control treaties.

Keywords: Syria chemical attack, terrorism, reprisals, self-defense, use of force, United Nations Charter, international law

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

O'Connell, Mary Ellen, The Popular But Unlawful Armed Reprisal (April 9, 2018). 44 ONU L. Rev. 325 (2018), Notre Dame Law School Legal Studies Research Abstract No. 1841, Available at SSRN:

Mary Ellen O'Connell (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States
574-631-7953 (Phone)

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