Did Israeli Raid Violate International Law?

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When Israelis boarded the aid flotilla in international waters, were they violating international law? To discuss that issue, Robert Siegel talks to Myron Nordquist, professor of international law and associate director of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the University of Virginia.


Among the many issues in dispute over Monday's Israeli commando raid, there's one that sent us to law school. When Israelis boarded the aid flotilla in international waters, were they violating international law? Well, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmed Davutoglu, said yes.

Mr. AHMED DAVUTOGLU (Foreign Minister, Turkey): There is a clear criminal act here. In international sea, no country has right to stop a ship, to question that ship or to attack that ship. Only pirates can do this.

SIEGEL: The Israelis contend otherwise. The prime minister's spokesman Mark Regev put it this way here yesterday...

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Prime Minister): When you have a declared blockade, it's recognized in the charter of the United Nations as a legitimate tool in international relations during times of conflict. And, of course, there is a conflict, unfortunately, between Israel and the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.

SIEGEL: So, who's right? Well, joining us is international law professor Myron Nordquist of the University of Virginia, where he is associate director of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy. Professor Nordquist, welcome to the program.

Professor MYRON NORDQUIST (Law, University of Virginia): Thank you kindly.

SIEGEL: And, first, the Turkish foreign minister said there is a clear criminal act here, in international waters no country has the right to stop a ship, question a ship or attack that ship - only pirates. Is that true?

Prof. NORDQUIST: Frankly, they're both right and they're both wrong. They're both right in the sense that if you are taking the point of view that this is a freedom of navigation issue under the 1982 law of the sea convention, which prevails in times of peace, then what the Turkish foreign minister said is true.

SIEGEL: Uh-huh.

Prof. NORDQUIST: On the other hand, the Israeli spokesman is assuming that they are talking about a period of armed conflict.

SIEGEL: The Israelis say that they have a conflict with the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, they've declared a blockade and they claim that's an act that is countenanced by the United Nations. True?

Prof. NORDQUIST: It's, again, true but not fully true because it's traditional customary law that's embodied in article 51 of the U.N. charter that allows everybody, individual and collective, self-defense. The point of view of the Israelis is that they are engaged in a blockade and they have certain conditions that have evolved over many, many centuries, really, that have to be met.

And by the way, one of them is that they have to consistently enforce it. So, if the blockade is not legal, then you're back to what the Turkish foreign minister said.

SIEGEL: Now, one thing that people on board the ships and the flotilla made much of was that this didn't happen in Israeli waters or in waters within the limit, I guess, of territorial waters, it happened on the high seas. Does that make a great difference as to the legality of enforcing a blockade?

Prof. NORDQUIST: The quick answer is no, in this case. But, you know, we also have more complex problems that come into it. For example, dual use. Apparently on this vessel they were carrying cement. Well, as we all know, cement can be used to make bunkers, but people also can use cement to make homes. So, again, it's a mixed fact situation.

SIEGEL: So far, bottom line seems to be there's a little bit of law or a fair amount of law on either side here, you're saying.

Prof. NORDQUIST: Yes. And unknown facts galore.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Nordquist, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. NORDQUIST: My pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Myron Nordquist, professor of international law at the University of Virginia and associate director of the University's Center for Oceans Law and Policy.

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