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Yes, Syria’s Assad regime is brutal. But the retaliatory air strikes are illegal and partisan

Middle East

Yes, Syria’s Assad regime is brutal. But the retaliatory air strikes are illegal and partisan

Yes, Syria’s Assad regime is brutal. But the retaliatory air strikes are illegal and partisan

Civil war has raged in Syria for seven years. AAP/ Youssef Badawi

Disclosure statement

Amy Maguire is a member of Amnesty International and a Co-Chair of the Indigenous Rights Subcommittee of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.

Jason von Meding does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The mainstream media have broadly accepted the justifications from the United States, France and Britain of humanitarian motivation for the retaliatory strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.

Journalist Adam Johnson analysed US mainstream coverage and reported that:

major publications take the bulk of the premises for war for granted — namely the US’s legal and moral right to wage it — and simply parse over the details.

The air strike proceeded without publication of proof that Syria was responsible for the alleged atrocity in Douma. Reports are emerging that cast doubt on the official narrative.

Regardless, swift action was demanded and taken. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are only now gaining access “to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma”.

Strikes illegal under international law

Alongside claims for justification from the Trump administration, similar rhetoric featured in statements from French and British leaders. French President Emmanuel Macronclaimed there was no doubt Syria was responsible for a chemical attack on civilians, in gross violation of international law. He said:

We cannot tolerate the trivialisation of chemical weapons, which is an immediate danger for the Syrian people and our collective security.

British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed, saying “we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons”. May identified the lack of consensus in the UN Security Council as a driving factor in the joint military action.

Even this week the Russians vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council which would have established an independent investigation into the Douma attack. So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.

The United Nations Charter contains a prohibition on the threat or use of force against another state. Exceptions to this rule of international law are tightly constrained:

  • Under Article 51 of the Charter, states retain a right to individual and collective self-defence in the case of an armed attack.
  • Under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council may authorise military force to restore international peace and security, if non-forceful measures have failed.

The British government has published a brief asserting the legality of the air strike on Syria as an exercise of “humanitarian intervention” (effectively invoking the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, without explicitly mentioning it).

The argument is that the UK and its allies were entitled to use force against Syria because:

  • there was convincing evidence of large-scale and extreme humanitarian distress;
  • there was no practicable alternative to using force in order to save lives; and
  • the use of force in response was proportionate and time-limited to relieve humanitarian suffering.

Yet the R2P doctrine does not establish a new legal basis for the use of force. It allows for the use of force as “humanitarian intervention” only within the provisions of Chapter VII of the Charter, in the case of grave international crimes.

The Labour opposition in the UK has released its own legal opinion, sharply contradicting the government and asserting that the strikes were illegal.

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