REPRISE: The U.N. Charter, International Law, and Legal Justifications for Military Intervention in Syria—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #90 (December 12, 2012)

This article was first published on September 1, 2012

The situation in Syria (is) unfolding “in front of our eyes”, with the regime deploying fighter jets against the people, in addition to heavy artillery and tanks, (Ahmet DAVUTOĞLU, the Foreign Minister of Turkey, told the Security Council on August 30). “How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?” he asked. “If we do not act against such a crime against humanity happening in front of our eyes, we become accomplice to the crime,” he warned.

As we wrote following the August 30 meeting of the Security Council,

Everyone wants a ceasefire and an end to the killing. Few seem to have come to grips with the fact that the use of force will be required, outside the framework of the Security Council. There can be little doubt that, within the Security Council itself, there is not going to be any agreement to use force (or even to adopt strong economic sanctions) to bring al-Assad’s barbarism to a halt.

This will have to be done outside the framework of the Security Council. What is needed is for one or more countries, preferably but not necessarily acting as a coalition, to just act to set up the safe zones, and one or more accompanying no-fly zones if that is required as a result of al-Assad’s response.

–U.N. Security Council Meets: More “blah, blah, blah”, and no action—Obama’s debacle in Syria — Update #82 (August 30), August 31, 2012.

Such action should be accompanied by a justification under international law.

That justification should stress that the purpose of the action is to protect the population of Syria against the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The stated purpose of the operation should not be to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad, which is impermissible under international law. On the other hand, it would be permissible if an operation which protected the population against the commission of such crimes also facilitated a process that would bring to account those in Syria who are responsible for the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

While such fine distinctions may seem of little significance to those not versed in international law, they are in fact quite important in terms of limiting the precedent that would be set and obtaining support from other countries for such action, if not immediately at least over time.

For further discussion of legal justifications for intervention in Syria, see the following articles by The Trenchant Observer and the sources cited therein:

Continuing massacres in Syria, at Daraya and elsewhere; legal justification for military intervention — Obama’s Debacle in Syria —Update #78 (August 26), August 26, 2012

REPRISE: Humanitarian Intervention in Syria Without Security Council Authorization—Obama’s Debacle in Syria— Update #68 (July 25), July 25, 2012

Military Intervention to establish “no-kill zones” and humanitarian corridors—Syria Update #9 (February 25), February 24, 2012

The critical issue with respect to legal justifications for establishing and defending “safe zones” or “no-kill zones” in Syria, and the establishment of no-fly zones if required, is whether such action would violate Article 2 paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter. Article 2(4) provides:

Article 2

The Organization and its Members, in pursuit of the Purposes stated in Article 1, shall act in accordance with the following Principles.

(4) All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

On the face of it, the use of force to enforce a no-fly zone, or to defend a “safe zone” from assaults by Syria’s army, would involve an action against the “territorial integrity” of Syria. This is the horn of the dilemma.

Read literally, any permanent member of the Security Council could, through the use of its veto, block any military action by any state within the territory of another state, except in the case of an “armed attack”, no matter what the circumstances. In principle, such a veto could block any action by the civilized nations of the world to bring to a halt a war crimes and crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing such as occurred in Kosovo, or even genocide such as that conducted by Adolph Hitler during World War II.

Various interpretations of the Charter have proposed ways out of this logical box. One is the so-called “teleological” interpretation, by which Article 2(4) must be interpreted not literally, but rather in the light of the general purposes of the U.N. Charter and its other principles. Using this approach, one might justify the establishment of “no-kill zones” and “no-fly zones” in Syria.

The problem is that such “teleological” interpretations might open Pandora’s box, allowing multiple interpretations and opportunities for abuse by states intervening for their own purposes, e.g., to overthrow the al-Assad regime, while putting a humanitarian argument forward to justify their actions. Or, to cite another example, Israel and the United States might attempt to justify an attack on Iran to take out or greatly degrade its nuclear enrichment capabilities and what they believe is a secret program aimed at developing nuclear weapons, on the rationale that it is necessary to maintain international peace and security.

Alternatively, Israel and the United States could in principle attempt to justify an attack on Iran as an exercise of the right of individual and collective self-defense, an exception to the prohibition in Article 2(4) contained in Article 51 of the Charter, which provides:

Article 51

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

The key words in Article 51 are “if an armed attack occurs”, which has been interpreted as embodying the requirements that the armed attack have occurred or be imminent, immediate and leave no time for other actions. Exercise of the right of self-defense has traditionally been subject to the requirements “immediacy, necessity and proportionality”.

See Flavio Paioletti, “The 21st Century Challenges to Article 51,” e-International Relations, June 30, 2011.

The United States and other nations have not always acted within this tight legal framework. In 1999, for example, the United States and NATO conducted a unilateral bombing campaign against Serbia in a successful effort to get the government to stop its policy of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Despite its humanitarian purpose, no legal justification was advanced by the U.S. Department of State for the action.

In Iraq, the United States sought to justify its 2003 invasion of that country both on the basis of previous Security Council resolutions and on the basis of the “right” advanced by the Bush administration to “pre-emptive self defense”.

The concern of states and legal scholars from around the world is that by allowing “teleological” interpretations of Article 2(4) or expansive interpretations of what constitutes “an armed attack” creating a right of individual and collective self-defense, such interpretations would open the door to increasingly expansive assertions of the right to use force across international frontiers. It is significant that in the case of Kosovo, no legal justification was offered.

So, we are left with the legal regime brilliantly defined by the founders of the United Nations to establish rules and mechanisms to effectively regulate the international use of force, on the one hand, and the fact that as the populations of more and more countries seek to demand respect for their fundamental human rights, and the right to participate in government, existing dictorships may resort to the appalling use of terror and crimes against humanity and war crimes in defending their hold on power, as has happened recently in Libya and Syria.

Unlike domestic laws and the constitution in the U.S., the United Nations Charter and other international agreements are subject to rules of strict interpretation, as established in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. This makes sense, as nations are generally extremely wary of ceding authority to international institutions, and rules of strict interpretation are necessary in order to secure participation in international treaties. While the United Nations Charter is something of a special case, since very few countries would consider withdrawal from the organization, acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice remains voluntary, a fact which underlines the continuing importance of rules of strict interpretation.

Caught in this logical box, are we to stand idly by as tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of human beings are slaughtered, whenever a permanent member of the Security Council exercises a veto?

The United Nations Charter is 67 years old. It has survived the Korean war, the war in Vietnam, the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan (1980), the Balkan wars, genocide in Rwanda and the Sudan, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The fundamental question is whether states should: (1) simply act outside the charter when they feel compelled to do so for humanitarian reasons (e.g., Kosovo); (2) justify their actions on legal grounds, preferably as taken with the support of regional organizations (e.g., NATO) or a broad coalition of nations; or (3) do nothing in the face of acts of barbarism such as those being committed in Syria.

In the case of Kosovo, Russia brought a resolution to a vote in the Security Council which condemned the bombing of Serbia, but the resolution was defeated 12-3.

Perhaps that is as close to 100% compliance with the Charter norms as we can get in the world today.

The ultimate choice is between undertaking effective action that will halt the atrocities in Syria, or sticking with our current policies.

In the case of the U.S., the current policy is carefully calibrated to comply with the requirements on the use of force laid down by the International Court of Justice in 1986 in the Nicaragua case. In that case, the Court held that direction and control of rebel groups was required in order for assistance to rebel groups to constitute an armed attack, thereby triggering a right of individual or collective self defense.

If the decision is made to establish safe zones and associated no-fly zones (if necessary), a final choice is whether to provide some legal justification for such action, or to follow the example of the United States in the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, and offer none.

While the choice here is not entirely clear, a strong argument can be made for advancing a highly restrictive legal justification, narrowly tailored to the circumstances in the Syrian case, together with the support of a regional body such as NATO, and undertaken only as a provisional measure of protection until such time as the Security Council can act effectively to protect the population of Syria from the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Russia may bring a resolution condemning such action in the Security Council. Assuming the resolution is defeated by a healthy margin, as occurred in the case of Kosovo, this may be the closest to compliance with the Charter as is possible today.

The Trenchant Observer