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.