Amid much talk lately about “red lines”—to the point that the term would be a strong candidate for cliché of the year—we should reflect on the relative inattention, as Richard Falk points out in a recent commentary, to what used to be one of the most fundamental and important red lines of all. The line in question, which Falk notes the United States once played a leading role in formulating, is “the prohibition of the use of international force by states other than in cases of self-defense against a prior armed attack.”
Falk has been around long enough to rile adversaries on many issues about which he has been outspoken (and I have disagreed with some of his past positions). It was nearly forty years ago that I took a graduate course in international law from him, and he is now in his eighties. But he does speak some uncomfortable truths. Many he has spoken in connection with his current function as the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. Most recently he incurred irresponsible vitriol, including some from U.S. officials, when he noted—accurately—that U.S. policies have something to do with stimulating the kind of violent extremism exhibited by the Boston Marathon bombers. His observation about disregard for the once-prominent norm against aggression gets to another set of truths.