June 26, 2012 | Jyllands-Postan

Muammar Gaddafi’s Unlawful Threat of Force Against Switzerland and Other States

Although one could perhaps be forgiven for not realising it given the violence that ravages our world, one of international law’s cardinal principles is the general prohibition of, to quote article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations, the “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”  There are but two exceptions to this, self-defence and armed force as authorised by the United Nations Security Council. 

Bearing this in mind, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s recent call for jihad against Switzerland is not just in bad taste, it is also unlawful.  According to news reports, Gaddafi stated “Let us wage jihad against Switzerland, Zionism and foreign aggression.”  He also insisted that “Any Muslim in any part of the world who works with Switzerland is an apostate, is against Muhammad, God and the Koran.”  These calls amount to threats of force in violation of international law. 

Let us examine each of these statements in turn. 

It is well-known that jihad translates from the Arabic as “to strive,” “to exert (one’s efforts).”  For Muslims, jihad is to be performed for Allah and can take a variety of forms.  As the noted Islamic theorist Sayyid Abul A`la Mawdudi once put it, jihad involves “exerting oneself to the utmost to disseminate the word of God and to make it supreme, and to remove all the impediments to Islam — through tongue or pen or sword.” 

While Gaddafi has not expressly specified the particular type of jihad that he has called for, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he has threatened force against the Swiss state.  Indeed, jihad as force was precisely how the nascent Islamic community in Arabia so remarkably expanded itself north, south, west, and east centuries ago into dar al-harb, the infidel’s “abode of war,” and this bellicose understanding of jihad is likely how Gaddafi meant his call to be received.  It is a common understanding of the term. 

As for Gaddafi’s sweeping declaration that any Muslim, anywhere, who “works with Switzerland” has become an apostate, this has a particular understanding under Islamic law, and it is particularly disturbing.  According to a well-known saying attributed to Muhammad, a saying that Gaddafi is undoubtedly aware of, the punishment for apostasy, which a hadith describes as “turn[ing] renegade from Islam,” is death.  As such, Gaddafi’s call amounts to an unlawful incitement of violence against those Muslims worldwide who, it seems, he simply does not like, which is to say, those who “work[] with Switzerland.” 

Here, Gaddafi’s declaration of apostasy is a threat to states writ large.  It is a call to extrajudicial execution against Muslims generally, presumably even those who “work[] with Switzerland” only to the extent that they consume Swiss chocolates and thus contribute to the tax coffers of the Swiss state through their purchases.  Gaddafi’s declaration of apostasy is an affront to state sovereignty and a breach of article 2(4) of the Charter. 

Given that Gaddafi’s call, both as regards jihad and as regards apostasy, violates international law, certain consequences flow from this as a matter of law.  International law requires that Libya retract Gaddafi’s comments, offer assurances that they will not occur again, and pay reparation for any injury suffered.  A formal apology may be appropriate in this case. 

Of course, if Lockerbie is any precedent, it is unlikely that Libya will comply with its obligations under international law anytime soon, if ever. 

But an international lawyer can always dream.  An international lawyer can always dream that international law is ever-relevant and central in international affairs and that it is not, as former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton once famously put it, “simply theology and superstition masquerading as law.” 

Dr. Robert P. Barnidge, Jr., is a lecturer in the School of Law at the University of Reading.  The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the University of Reading or its School of Law.

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International Organizations Libya