What Captain America: Civil War taught me about International Law!

In the wake of the release of Black Panther and all the MCU fans eagerly awaiting the Infinity War series, let us revisit Civil War and look at its real-life implications!

Imagine a scenario where a highly advanced US military force is let loose in a foreign country, to “fight the forces of evil” and to ensure peace and security. Although the peace-keeping mission is “deemed” to be a success by certain groups, those closer to the war-zone, who witnessed the destruction wrought due to collateral damage, aren’t pleased. This has later led to dissent and discord taking the form of their revenge.


Does this seem similar to the story-line of Captain America: Civil War in the aftermath of the Sokovia incident? That’s because it is. But this scenario is also eerily similar to other real life scenarios, for instance the invasion of Iraq by United States in 2003. This left the former economically, politically and culturally damaged, not to mention the vast humanitarian crisis that arose.

In the wake of US’ long history of operations in foreign countries, with emphasis on the Iraqi invention of 2003 & 2014 and the recent Shayrat missile strike of 2017, comparisons can be drawn between the real-life military forces and the MCU’s Avengers.

There is a reason why the attacks by US (both in real life and by the predominantly American Avengers) are condemned by the international community. It is because of the basic principles of International Law:

Principle of Sovereignty and its logical corollary, Doctrine of Non-Intervention

Principle of sovereignty gives all the control of administration and justice delivery to the sovereign state. Accordingly, for a state’s sovereignty to be respected, there must not be an interference into its internal administrations by other states. Sovereignty, as supreme legal authority of a state implies independence and also equality (Article 2.1 of the UN Charter). The concept of sovereignty was further elaborated in the 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law.

Doctrine of Non-Intervention prohibits the use of force against any state’s independence, whether political or theoretical (Article 2.4 of the UN Charter). This has been upheld by many international conventions. In fact, the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention and Interference in the Domestic Affairs of States.

If these principles are applied to the super-hero movies, be it the MCU or the DC, it becomes clear that the acts of the super-heroes to fly halfway across the world, fight with the bad guys and then coming back home, is in complete violation with a bunch of international laws, including the fundamental principles of sovereignty and non-intervention. The Avengers and their fights spanning Lagos (covert operation where Scarlet Witch accidentally killed several Nigerians); New York (where the Chitauri destroyed most of the city and endangered human life) and Sokovia (destruction of city in the fight against Ultron who was created by Tony Stark) has made it obvious that they go where they want and do what they like. This has severe repercussions even if the actions were for the “greater good”.

The story of Captain America: Civil War was built upon the idea propagated in the 2006-07 Marvel Comics Crossover of the same name. In the comics, the US Government, after experiencing a catastrophe, introduced a Superhero Registration Act (or the SHRA). Those who were in favor of registration of super-heroes so that the US Government could keep a check on them were the pro-registration side (which included Tony Stark/Iron Man and Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic); and those not adhering to the SHRA were the anti-registration side and were considered rogue super-heroes, lead by Captain America.

This story-line was further developed and complicated in the movie. The backdrop was international and the Avengers not only had to toe the line with respect to the US Government, but were also answerable to the international community. This is extremely reflective of the present day society, where the all the sovereign states are closely observing and reacting to each other’s actions (such as the Crimean Crisis or the US-North Korea relations).

When the Avengers’ displayed independence was questioned, two seemingly mutually exclusive philosophical outlooks take shape:

  1. Where the Avengers would be subjected to the supervision of the UN through the Sokovia Accords? (#teamIronMan)
  2. Where there would be no government intervention (national or international) of the activities of the Avengers (#teamCaptainAmerica)

In such a scenario, Civil War has really raised doubts even in our minds regarding the supervision of actions by governments.

#teamIronMan’s view:

Tony Stark, in the wake of the creation of Ultron and the destruction of Sokovia, believes in the importance of UN’s supervision. Stark believes that there will be accountability of their actions and more support can be given to the non-combatants who are directly in line of fire.

On the one hand, it is necessary that international laws, set through treaties or conventions, are upheld. For this reason, supervision is important. For instance, in the Syrian crisis, the supervision by the UNHCR’s UN Refugee Agency and the awareness it created ensured that refuge was given to many of the displaced persons. Its report on the same has helped in giving us an overview of the devastating effects and redirect support towards the necessary areas.

Another instance where supervision helps is with regard to the disarmament issues, which has helped in reducing Transnational Organised Crime, consequently helped in reducing the effect of terrorism.

#teamCaptainAmerica’s view:

Steve Rogers, who was once the poster boy for the US Government, draws from his experiences and denies the legitimacy of such a supervision. He was used by the US Government to act as a super soldier in the World War, and the same people he fought with later became their rivals. Rogers, along with the other Avengers was first a part of S.H.I.E.L.D., which was infiltrated by HYDRA thereby undermining the capacity of S.H.I.E.L.D.

He was aware that international policies change according to the intentions of the nations which are its part, and he questions the ambitions of these nations. They cannot always be independent of their personal agendas.

A classic example of recent times that comes to my mind is the Paris Agreement of 2015. Under the Obama administration, US signed the agreement and it was hailed as a historic moment in history where all the nations were taking a positive step to fight the effects of climate change. But after the Trump administration took over, US revoked itself from the Paris Agreement, drawing ire from the other nations. Similar is the case of the DREAMERS under DACA, with US showing different treatment under two different leaders.

These are the kind of situations that Rogers fears, and rightly so. He feels that the motivations behind the nations actions might shift and giving them power over a group of highly specialized individuals will not resolve any issues.

Both opinions of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are valid, but which one seems to be the most reasonable is a question yet to be answered. Even the directors of the movie, Anthony and Joe Russo admitted that these were unanswerable questions showcasing two different political viewpoints.

The new Black Panther movie will reiterate these doubts as T’Challa will reprise a dual role of the Black Panther and also as a leader of the Wakandans. This means he will be representing the Wakandans at global conferences and at international summits to make plans for how the world will take collective responsibility by supervising the Avengers, while also continuing his run as a vigilante. His two roles, as the Wakandan King who is in favour of ratifying the Sokovian Accords and as the secret Black Panther, who will still continue his authoritarian run, have conflicting interests. It would be interesting to watch how this aspect plays out in the movies.

Having read both the sides and their real life applications, whose side are you on now?


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