International Consensus

Rorate Caeli has posted an excerpt of a recent interview with Pope Francis where he, inter alia, condemns not just terrorism, but “State terrorism,” which apparently occurs when “each State on its own feels it has the right to massacre terrorists[.]” Even so, the Pope concedes that “[t]errorists must be fought,” albeit only with “international consensus.”

Like so many of the Holy Father’s statements, I don’t entirely know what to make of these overly broad, imprecise, and unduly harsh words. For starters, which country on earth believes it “has the right to massacre terrorists” and what would massacring terrorists even look like? If, perhaps, a country on earth believed that it could, with impunity, line up captured terrorists and mow them down with a machine gun, then the Pope would have a point. But again, who does this? Perhaps what the Holy Father is driving at is the practice of targeted killings where certain high-level terrorist targets are identified and assassinated by drones (or other means) even when they are not, at that moment, engaged in hostilities. It’s a murky matter, especially since capturing and prosecuting such individuals is typically dangerous and difficult, if not impossible.

Certainly the Pope has a point that due care be taken to ensure that innocent lives are spared during any and all anti-terrorist actions. This is something the United States and other countries have sometimes failed to do. The euphemistic expression “collateral damage” has been so often invoked over the past decade as to almost completely obscure the reality that actual lives have been lost during what now seems like an endless campaign against an interminable threat. That the Holy Father should serve as a witness to the deaths of innocents is a good thing; that he should be so callous when it comes to assigning the full balance of blame for their loss strikes me as questionable.

As for Francis’s other admonition, that fighting terrorists must only be carried out with “international consensus,” what are we to realistically make of that? Does “international consensus” mean “universal consensus”? If so, then we’ll never have that. Would “majority consensus” suffice? And do we calculate this “majority” based on the number of internationally recognized States in the world or the percentage of the human population they represent? The Pope isn’t clear on this matter, and I don’t think it is possible for him to be clear. The formation and operation of the United Nations (UN) is a historical aberration. It is not a “natural” entity, and its various platforms, programs, and other global operations render it morally suspect more often than not.

It’s possible that given the age which produced him, Pope Francis remains tethered to an idea of international law and relations which came into being in 1945; received renewed affirmation in 1989; and has been steadily disintegrating since 2001. Almost all sectors of international law have begun fragmenting in the face of intractable disagreements between States on the proper calibration of the global order. “International consensus,” however formulated, is quickly becoming a thing of the past.