International law in the Gulf

Prof. Alfred Rubin argues in his Oct. 5 opinion-page column, ``The US is not the mine-sheriff of the Gulf,'' that the United States' capture of the Iranian minelayer Iran Ajr violated international law. He contends that Iran has a right as a belligerent to lay mines, and that the US action against the Ajr was not, in any event, a lawful exercise of the right of self-defense. The relevant facts and the applicable law are misstated.

The facts are straightforward. The US explicitly warned Iran, on several occasions, that it would act to defend its commercial shipping in the Gulf. The US had good reason to believe that Iran was nevertheless laying mines in the Gulf with the deliberate intention of damaging US naval and merchant vessels. On Sept. 21, a US Army helicopter caught the Iran Ajr laying mines at night and in channels regularly used by US ships. The US helicopter strafed the Ajr until it ceased minelaying. When the helicopter returned 40 minutes later and found that the Ajr had recommenced laying mines, the helicopter attacked and incapacitated the ship.

The applicable rules of international law are clear. Merchant shipping is generally entitled to freedom of navigation, and a state has a right to protect vessels flying its flag. Belligerent governments, like Iran, have the right in time of armed conflict to use naval mines against other belligerents. A belligerent may not, however, endanger peaceful neutral shipping by the laying of mines.

Further, commercial shipping and neutrals must be warned of the location of mines. Iran's clandestine laying of naval mines in international shipping channels with the specific intention of injuring neutral vessels is directly contrary to these fundamental rules.

The writer is also wrong on the relevant rules of self-defense. Where, as here, a government engages in a manifestly illegal use of armed force, international law entitles the victim to act in self-defense. The response must be necessary and proportionate. US action plainly comported with these requirements.

Professor Rubin seems to suggest that the proper recourse for the US when it discovered the Ajr laying mines was to wait and sweep the mines. It took several days and the assistance of the Ajr's crew to sweep the mines already laid. As a practical matter, the writer is, therefore, advocating either that we subject our commercial shipping to the serious risk posed by naval mines, or that we acquiesce in Iran's attempts to disrupt the freedom of navigation.

International law provides sensible rules for responding to grave threats to international peace. The US followed those rules in the Ajr incident. Abraham Sofaer Legal Adviser Department of State Washington

Irradiated foods The article ``S. Africa hopes nuclear energy program will short-circuit sanctions,'' Oct. 21, spoke glowingly about irradiated fruits and vegetables.

The article did not mention the concerns expressed by many scientists, doctors, legislators, and consumers, which include the following: nutritional changes, potentially toxic new chemicals in the food, ignored studies, and plant and worker safety - to name a few.

This technology is not accepted worldwide. While many countries may approve some uses of irradiation, few are using it. Some have banned it. South Africa may be one of the countries using it on a wide scale, but South Africa sells irradiated produce without labeling it. If consumers had a choice, polls show they would reject irradiated produce. Kathleen Power Pasadena, Calif.

Citizen efforts While I commend you on the article ``America's bounty keeps food banks busy,'' Oct. 27, on food bank efforts to rescue food from waste, I must take issue with the statement by the director of Boston Food Bank that ``there is no substitute for government programs.''

Certainly it is evident that good substitutes for government programs are what this country most urgently needs.

The members of the organization Second Harvest are a marvelous example of how we as citizens can begin to take responsibility for the nation's welfare, rather than passing off our democratic responsibilities as citizens onto the federal bureaucracy.

The role of government should be to encourage citizen efforts, not to block them merely for the sake of safeguarding bureaucratic budgets. Nancy Wygant Cincinnati

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