Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why Attack Syria?

NEW YORK – As President Barack Obama makes the case for military intervention by the United States in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, Americans and many others around the world are asking what the objective should be. Is the purpose of using military force to prevent future attacks against Syrian civilians, or is the proper goal to punish President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for violating the law of nations?

So far, Secretary of State John Kerry has invoked both purposes – degrading Syria’s chemical-weapons capacity, as well as ensuring “accountability” and “deterrence” – in advocating US military intervention. But a mission limited to reducing the Assad regime’s capacity to use chemical weapons in the future is far more justifiable under international law than a mission conceived as a punitive or law-enforcement action.

Preventing future attacks has a clear humanitarian objective. While some argue that humanitarian intervention is never justified without approval by the United Nations Security Council, the UN Charter itself provides a dubious foundation for this view.

The Charter does not prohibit all unilateral use of force. It prohibits only such uses of force that are aimed at a state’s “territorial integrity or political independence,” or that otherwise contravene the principles of the UN.

But promoting and encouraging respect for human rights, including the right to life, are also among the UN’s purposes, as stated in Article One of the Charter. Can Assad really hide behind the notion of territorial integrity or political independence to forestall an effort to stop his illegal brutality toward Syria’s citizens? Massacres of civilians conducted with chemical weapons hardly correspond to the principle of defending states’ territorial integrity and political independence.

Humanitarian intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was often described as “illegal but legitimate.” But, because the use of force was not well tailored to the objective of preventing genocide, it could be – and was – perceived by some as punishment of the Serbian people as a whole for supporting Slobodan Milošević’s regime. Indeed, the example of Kosovo suggests the wisdom of not entangling humanitarian action in notions of deterrence or punishment.

Since World War II’s end, collective punishment has become increasingly unacceptable as a response even to grave or egregious violations of international law, and this approach has been codified in a widely accepted set of principles – the so-called ILC articles – concerning the responsibility of states. At the same time, non-forcible sanctions, such as economic measures, are generally compatible with current international law. So is insistence on prosecution of war crimes at the International Criminal Court. Indeed, the emergence of international criminal tribunals suggests that accountability for crimes against international law ought to be a matter addressed by independent courts, not by the unilateral exercise of military power.

Accepting that humanitarian intervention without Security Council authorization is in principle compatible with the UN Charter gets us only so far, however. For purposes of both legality and legitimacy, it is vital to ensure that an unwise and ineffective intervention does not undermine the overall balance of legal rights and obligations in the UN Charter and related human rights and humanitarian norms.

Is it really possible to degrade significantly the Assad regime’s capacity to engage in similar atrocities in the future, given the means at hand? How much humanitarian harm will the mission itself cause?

These are the key questions that those who advocate military intervention must address. They are moral and practical, but also legal, for international law is not just the UN Charter; it also encompasses long-standing principles of necessity and proportionality.

Above all, where the objective of using force is humanitarian, minimizing the humanitarian harms from intervention follows from the logic of necessity, as both a legal norm and moral principle. By contrast, the trouble with using military force to punish is that necessity and proportionality cannot easily be applied to the calculus: a slap on the wrist would trivialize the gravity of the offense, while large-scale intervention would wreak death and destruction on many who are innocent.

Well-designed humanitarian intervention, as well as legal accountability for war crimes and atrocities, can send a strong signal to thugs and tyrants that they must reckon with the values that underpin international law. But conflating these two purposes – to save lives and to mete out justice – could end up undermining both.

  • Contact us to secure rights


  • Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (5)

    Please login or register to post a comment

    1. CommentedSamantha Fox

      Here's an article from an AP reporter who says Syrian rebels told him it was the rebels who released the dreaded chemicals. And, furthermore, that the Saudis were the ones who gave the rebels the gaseous goods in the first place:
      This is sectarian civil war.
      We've no business getting involved at all as it'll only make the vicious cycle even worse leading to more killing fields,
      Just like all other trouble spots (Afghanistan, Egypt, etc.) with many groups (Sunni, Shiite, Al-Queda, Christian, etc.etc.) all unable to live peacefully together, regardless which side you may want to support, the more you get involved, the worse it becomes with intensified violence/killing, regardless which side you may want to support, either one side or the other will blame you.
      The attitude of our leaders is clear: they don't care what the people think, they will be moving ahead with more spending on wars, continuing to worsen the deficit, in the end, only further weaken national finances.
      There're tons of domestic problems (unemployment, debt-ceiling, deficits, sequester, social problems.etc) that US must be focusing & we need all the limited resources to fix all these domestic problems.
      After the illegitimate war in Iraq, the American people are sick & tired of military action in these trouble spots.
      Many rebels are being radicalized by Al Qaeda and U.S. is being goaded into taking the moral high ground, and thereby doing someone else's dirty work
      Stay out of Syria, getting entangled in Syria is a BIG MISTAKE!

    2. CommentedStepan February

      Based on your arguments, the conclusion I expected is that the alleged user of the chemical weapons should be tried at the ICC.

      "A well-designed humanitarian intervention" is an academic fantasy. Use of force is a fight, not surgery. Moreover, here the secondary aim is actually to kill the patient.

      The US narrative on Syria is seriously bungled. The interests are clear, but they have nothing to do with international law or even legitimacy.

    3. CommentedAyse Tezcan

      i do not understand your argument. you have moved several steps ahead in the game. the argument is justified when the parties using cw are identified. so you are 100% sure that Syrian gov was responsible for cw attacks. i have been reading and looking; I have still not seen one evidence on whether this has been clarified yet. so we should punish before proven guilty? i am not defender of Syrian government but i am definitely not friend of the rebels. these guys are part of Al Qaeda and are capable of heinous atrocities. what if they are also responsible for attacks? since we are not sure, maybe we should bomb both sides.

      stop these nonsense attempts to justify an intervention. we still feel bad about being late in kosova, but this is not kosova. these kinds of conflicts have been happening a very long time in the region and it will continue even after so called democracies brought. UN is the best suitable for the job and other nations can help. stop coercing USA into action to look tough or pretend to be a moral guide.

    4. CommentedJohn Doe

      what mindless drivel

      the Mid-East is on the edge, if not already in, a 30 year religious war between Sunnis and Shiites.

      The sole question before us is whether it is in the best interests of the US to broker a peace. How to connect the dots to that matter . . . who knows here under the Arches.

      There are 600 million Muslims in Pakistan, India, and Indonesia (alone) to whom this has to be of paramount concern, to say nothing of Russia, former USSR states, and SE Europe.

      What can be said is that these writers are clueless. If the Mid-East descends into an even bigger Sunni/Shiite conflict, when people look back they will have no regard for the subtle bs offered here as legal reasoning.

    5. CommentedMihai Martoiu Ticu

      ==The Charter does not prohibit all unilateral use of force.==

      I disagree. The travaux préparatoires say the following about article 2(4): “The Delegate of Brazil said that the change, made in the text to incorporate the Australian amendment had not removed the element of ambiguity about which he had previously spoken, and he suggested that, apart from the use of legitimate self-defense, the text as it stood at present might well be interpreted as authorizing the use of force unilaterally by a state, claiming that such action was in accordance with the purposes of the Organization.

      The Delegate of Norway said that the Committee should reconsider the present language which did not seem to reflect satisfactorily its intentions, and thought that in any case it should be made very clear in the Report to the Commission that this paragraph 4 did not contemplate any use of force, outside of action by the Organization, going-beyond individual or collective self-defense.

      The Delegate of the United States made it clear that the intention of the authors of the original text was to state in the broadest terms an absolute all-inclusive, prohibition; the phrase ‘or in any other manner’ was designed to insure that there should be no loopholes.”, 6 UNCIO 334-335