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Bombing Syria Would Violate the UK Government’s Criteria for Legality

The government presents three very loose criteria by which the bombing of Syria would be considered legal, but even these criteria cannot be considered met by any objective observer. 

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he UK government today published its position on the legality of a UK military intervention in Syria, including three requirements under which a “humanitarian intervention” would be legal without UN authorisation, which it claims are “clearly” met. However, any objective observer must conclude that even these loose criteria are absolutely not met in this case, and thus any bombing of Syria would, according to the UK government’s own arguments, be manifestly illegal.

I shall now consider each of these criteria in turn.

(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;

The government claims that this condition is “clearly” met, as “the Syrian regime has been killing its people for two years, with reported deaths now over 100,000 and refugees at nearly 2 million”, and has now engaged in “large-scale use of chemical weapons”. This rhetoric clearly flags the bias of the author(s). A civil war in which each side is “killing its people”, i.e. other Syrians, is attributed solely to one side, the regime, as are, implicitly, the total number of casualties and refugees so far – although these figures include victims of all sides, including the rebels. For example, the tens of thousands of Kurds who have fled into northern Iraq in the past weeks, escaping from jihadist violence.

The paper, meanwhile, accepts as fact that the Syrian regime is behind the recent use of chemical weapons, although this is yet to be established and the rebels, too, have previously been implicated in chemical weapons use. Western states, of course, have quite a reputation for lying and manipulating information about WMD (Iraq) and atrocities (Kosovo), and so we would be wise to maintain a healthy skepticism towards any such claims, particularly when the accusing states show no desire for, and even hostility towards, UN investigation.

Most importantly, although there is general acceptance by the international community of humanitarian problems in Syria, there is widespread disagreement as to who is responsible for these problems, and what relief would be appropriate. Some states hold the rebels rather than the regime more responsible for the situation, while others see it as a civil war with blame on both sides. And only a handful of states support the idea of bombing Syria. So even in the highly loose manner in which the government frames this first criteria, it cannot seriously be considered met.

(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved;

There are very clear alternatives to bombing to improving the situation in Syria, a fact which is “objectively clear” to the majority of the world, and the majority of the British public.

Most obviously, the West could try to de-escalate rather than escalate the Syrian conflict, by promoting negotiations and compromise between the different factions, rather than directly and indirectly supporting the rebels and maintaining their hopes of full intervention on their side. So far, negotiations have not taken place because of the one-sided insistence that Assad must go, followed by difficulties forming a negotiating team on the rebel side. Assad’s regime may be a reprehensible dictatorship but it clearly has popular support of some, particularly Alawites and Christians who fear the Sunni majority. The civil war has evident sectarian elements to it, and the rebels, too, have been accused of war crimes. The situation on the rebel side, meanwhile, is highly chaotic, and there are major jihadist elements among them.

This is not a black and white situation, and even if the regime’s side is a darker shade of grey than the rebels, the course of action that is most likely to save lives is, undoubtedly, to try to de-escalate the conflict and promote negotiations between the warring sides. Given that the majority of the world holds the above opinion, this second criteria has clearly not been met.

(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).

This very criteria presupposes that bombing can achieve an aim of reducing the loss of lives and preventing chemical weapons usage, whereas many in Britain and globally would argue that such bombing would most likely only escalate the fighting and the civilian suffering – as it did in, for example, Kosovo. It is, therefore, very contestable and debatable. In the light of NATO’s misuse of the “limited” and “proportionate” UN authorisation for action in Libya, meanwhile, it is hard to see how anyone could take such assurances from Western governments serious again.

The government presents three very loose criteria by which the bombing of Syria would be considered legal, but even these criteria cannot be considered met by any objective observer. As the partisan rhetoric of the UK government’s paper highlights, this amounts to a very weak attempt, made more with crude propaganda than any serious legal argument, to justify its highly unpopular and contested proposal to bomb Syria.

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Photo Credit: Madhu babu pandi