Sunday, February 1, 2009

Football, War, and Global Security

All right, so in a desperate attempt to be topical, I've decided to dedicate today's post to a war which only incidentally involved football--and by which "soccer" is really meant. But be fair. It's no easy task to tie current sporting events in with public international law spur-of-the-moment.

So, what is this whole Football War thing? And, more importantly, how does a brief, forgotten skirmish three decades ago relate to public international law going forward? It would appear (at least, by cursory glance at the Wikipedia article embedded above) said conflict is an inert and obscure footnote in wanting relevance to today's international relations. References back three decades should implicate the Baathist Movements in Syria or Iraq, or the Six-Day War, or the widening of the Vietnamese theatre into Laos, right? I mean, those are watershed events which palpably shaped world players' interpretations of commitments towards each other. And occasionally they even transformed those commitments altogether. See e.g., Art. 20 of the Paris Peace Accord (turning previous, non-self-executing commitments to recognizing Laotian neutrality per ill-defined Charter principles into arguably self-executing obligations).

But, the Football War (and its resolution specifically) serves as the clearest case study for how the implementation of a facially strong collective security agreement can color it into irrelevance.

First, a summary primer on the war and its legal backdrop.

For years prior to the 1969 conflict, tensions between the two relevant nations (El Salvador and Honduras) simmered over immigration patterns. It all began thus: El Salvador was overpopulated and woefully short of resources; Honduras had land and jobs to spare, and a sociopolitical elite more than willing to overlook inadequate border security. What could be better for these Hondurans than cheap migrant workers unentitled to legal rights? However, the resultant demographic shift created political turmoil. Lower class Hondurans were put out of work--pushed into desperation. And the upward pressure thus placed on elite Hondurans required they respond somehow, for legitimacy's sake. Enter the football rivalry of '69. The nations' teams were tightly matched, and the peculiar demographics of Honduras meant that its home games against El Salvador were attended in roughly equal numbers by loyal Hondurans and Salvadorans. With Honduran footballers blaming their Salvadoran counterparts for their woes, and El Salvador responding to sporadic reports of violence against its nationals with retaliation in kind, the resentment escalated into outright war. Indeed, for the Honduran leadership, war was not altogether unwelcome; as a form of national catharsis, it may have seemed cheaper than expanding social support or citizenship.

There was a legal hitch, though. Both Honduras and El Salvador were State Parties to the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, along with hegemon America. The Treaty reads, in pertinent part:

"The High Contracting Parties agree that an armed attack by any State against an American State shall be considered as an attack against all the American States."

(Note the analogous language of Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty.)

And even though IATRA members are obligated to "undertake[] to assist in meeting the attack," whereas NATO members are bound to "take forthwith [...] such action as [they] deem necessary," in light of the quick response of IATRA governing organs in responding to the Honduras-El Salvador crisis, it would seem that circa 1969, State Parties to IATRA viewed their collective security commitments thereunder just gravely as NATO members to the North Atlantic Treaty.

But as condemnatory as the IATRA response was, the Treaty ultimately failed in its operation. No State Parties directly intervened. The Football War instead puttered out slowly, IATRA's harsh criticism notwithstanding. The conflict ended when neither nation had logistical means to continue on. And for this reason, the Football War too was a watershed moment. By means of precedent, it devalued IATRA into an empty gesture.

Keep in mind exactly how far the implications of IATRA's downfall reach. Heretofore, America's most enduring diplomatic bulwark against threats to her and her allies has been NATO. From a textual standpoint, however, NATO and IATRA differ very little. In fact, their dissimilarity hinges almost entirely upon how precedent has informed the two instruments' interpretations in starkly contrasting ways. Conceivably, a "Football War" within the NATO context could undermine that alliance too.

It thus goes without saying that America would be wise to refrain from expanding NATO in ways that could spawn such wars.

Who could have imagined the continuing significance of such an insignificant little war?

No comments:

Post a Comment