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Clarifying Necessity, Imminence, and Proportionality in the Law of Self-Defense

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Dapo Akande
University of Oxford
Thomas Liefländer
University of Oxford


The concepts of necessity, imminence, and proportionality play a central part in Daniel Bethlehem’s sixteen proposed principles regulating a state’s use of force against an imminent or actual attack by nonstate actors. While all three are requirements that must be considered in the law of self-defense, their exact content remains somewhat unclear. In this comment, we examine how each one is conceived in Bethlehem’s principles and review the questions that remain unanswered.

Notes and Comments
Copyright © American Society of International Law 2013

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1 Bethlehem, Daniel, Self-Defense Against an Imminent or Actual Armed Attack by Nonstate Actors, 106 AJIL 769 (2012)Google Scholar.

2 see 2 Arnold McNair, International Law Opinions 221, 222 (1956) (noting the Caroline incident of 1837); Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua (Nicar. v. U.S.), 1986 ICJ Rep. 14, para. 237 (June 27) [hereinafter Military and Paramilitary Activities ].

3 see Tams, Christian J. & Devaney, James G., Applying Necessity and Proportionality to Anti-terrorist Self-Defence, 45 Isr. L. Rev. 91, 97 (2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Green, James, The International Court of Justice and Self-Defence in International Law 84 n.122 (2009)Google Scholar (with further references).

4 The use of force by the United States against two Iranian oil platforms is such a case. The International Court of Justice here held that “the requirement of International Law that measures taken avowedly in self-defence must have been necessary for that purpose is strict and objective.” Oil Platforms (Iran v. U.S.), 2003 ICJ Rep. 161, para. 73 (Nov. 6). While this dictum, on its face, applies to all uses of force in self-defense, wider state practice indicates that it should be read with a grain of salt and viewed in light of the particular circumstances.

5 Bethlehem, supra note 1, 773–74.

6 Id. at 775, princ. 8, pts. a, b, d.

7 Id., princ. 8, pt. c.

8 Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros Project (Hung./Slovk.), 1997 ICJ Rep. 7, para. 54 (Sept. 25).

9 see Noam Lubell, Extraterritorial Use of Force Against Non-State Actors 53–54 (2010).

10 Published as Wilmshurst, Elizabeth, The Chatham House Principles of International Law on the Use of Force in Self-Defence, 55 Int’l & Comp. L.Q. 963, 967–68 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Lowe, Vaughan, ‘Clear and Present Danger’: Responses to Terrorism, 54 Int’l & Comp. L.Q. 185, 192 (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Bethlehem, supra note 1, at 776, princ. 12.

13 Id. at 775, princ. 3.

14 Id.

15 Cf. Oil Platforms, supra note 4, Sep. Op. Kooijmans, J., para. 62.

16 see Trapp, Kimberley N., Back to Basics: Necessity, Proportionality, and the Right of Self-Defence Against Non-state Terrorist Actors, 56 Int’l & Comp. L.Q. 141 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tams & Devaney, supra note 3.

17 Military and Paramilitary Activities, supra note 2, para. 237; Oil Platforms, supra note 4, para. 77 (majority opinion).

18 Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion, Diss. Op. Higgins, J., 1996 ICJ Rep. 226, 583, para. 5 (July 8) [hereinafter Nuclear Weapons ]; see also, e.g., Judith Gardam, Necessity, Propor Tionality and the Use of Force by States 16, 156–67 (2004).

19 Nuclear Weapons, supra note 18, paras. 41– 44, 97 (majority opinion); Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Dem. Rep. Congo v. Uganda), Sep. Op. Kooijmans, J., 2005 ICJ Rep. 168, 306, para. 34 (Dec. 19); Cannizzaro, Enzo, Contextualizing Proportionality: Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello in the Lebanese War , 88 Int’l Rev. Red Cross 779, 792 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Bethlehem, supra note 1, at 776, princ. 11.

21 For example, important options—such as seeking consent for intervention, convincing the host state to act against the nonstate actor, or undertaking some joint operation—are not available where the host state itself is involved in the terrorist activities. Indeed, even exploring such options might not be realistic where information might be leaked to the terrorist forces. In contrast, where the host state is merely unable to curb the terrorist activities, a wider array of options can generally be explored.

22 Id. at 775, princ. 2.

23 see Kretzmer, David, The Inherent Right to Self-Defence and Proportionality in Jus ad Bellum, 24 Eur. J. Int’l L. 235 (2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 see Vaughan Lowe, International Law 278 (2007).

25 see Tams, Christian J., The Use of Force Against Terrorists, 20 Eur. J. Int’l L. 359, 391 (2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Bethlehem, supra note 1, at 774.

27 Id.