Four days later, Iran successfully launched missiles at US military bases in Iraq in retaliation. Developments are still ongoing and it is time to analyze whether the US had the legal authority to execute such a deadly strike under international law and Charter of United Nations.
Seeking to defend this criminal action, the US government highlights two arguments: First, the IRGC has been designated as "a foreign terrorist organization" by the United States. As a result, Qassem Soleimani is "a terrorist mastermind". President Donald Trump goes even further to label him as "world's number one terrorist". For this reason, Trump claimed that "we take comfort in knowing his reign of terror is over". Second, according to Trump, Soleimani "was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him."
Though these explanations may be accepted by the Western audience at first glance, a careful assessment under international law and UN Charter will lead to an opposite answer:
First and foremost, it should be emphasized that the IRGC was designed as a terrorist organization by the US unilaterally instead of by the UN Security Council. Although there's a lack of universal agreement on the definition of terrorism or terrorist group under international law, two principles must be noticed:
- A particular state does not have the legal authority to declare a terrorist organization under international law.
- State entities, generally speaking, should not be placed on the list of terrorist organizations.
In the light of these two principles, Washington’s declaration that IRGC is a terrorist organization is hardly established and lawful. The IRGC is not a terrorist group at all according to the UN Security Council even though it had its assets frozen but it was lifted in 2016. More importantly, the IRGC is a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces, which means it is part of the Iranian government. In light of these, Washington’s first agreement is groundless and unlawful.
Secondly, Trump alleged the danger posed by Soleimani which prompted the US to conduct this strike was "imminent". In other words, the US has been arguing that the strike was out of some anticipatory self-defense. However, the assassination of Soleimani did not meet the elements of lawful self-defense under international law and UN Charter.
As a general principle, outside of an on-going armed conflict, international law prohibits the use of force, which is a peremptory norm codified in UN Charter. The only possible exception to the prohibition applicable in this case is self-defense. Nevertheless, the exception is limited. Some restrictions are provided in UN Charter Article 51 and others in the general principles of international law. It follows that international law does not permit the use of military force to respond to an alleged plan to an attack in the future including the "imminence". The "Imminence" is not included in UN Charter Article 51. The actual words are "if an armed attack occurs."
Even if an imminent attack could be resorted as justification to use force, the US failed to provide any rock-solid evidence to support its baseless claim. It still has no such evidence. On January 9, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed, "There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassem Soleimani". He then acknowledged that, "We don't know precisely when, and we don't know precisely where, but it was real." So the US argument that the strike was an act of anticipatory self-defense is indeed far from being persuasive and true.
Last but not the least, the US assassinated General Soleimani in Iraq rather than on its own territory, which encroached upon the sovereignty of Iraq, an independent sovereign state. Under the principle of equality of state sovereignty, the cornerstone of modern international law, the US was not permitted to use military force or execute its domestic law on Iraq’s territory. It had no consent.
In summation, the US went against international law and UN Charter. It also violated Iraq’s sovereignty by assassinating General Soleimani on Iraq’s soil - the man who helped Iraq and Syria to dislodge the terrorist group of ISIL when the whole world looked the other way. The US never had the consent from Iraq in the first place, which is why Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi expressed his anger that the airstrike also killed an Iraqi official. This is also the reason why the Iraqi Parliament passed a resolution on January 5, calling for the government to expel US troops from the country in the wake of such a violation of their sovereignty, which by the way, was also condemned by the international community.