Amicus: Syrian Airstrikes and the Fragility of International Law

By Haya Khan

Saviour in the Aggressor’s cloak?

If by any chance you’ve been living under some magical rock where you’ve been able to avoid all 2018 has to offer, such as Fortnite, the yodelling kid and US launching airstrikes on Syria for the use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians, let’s talk.

No, World War Three hasn’t started but it might as well have. The news broke when CNN reported on the 14th of April that US, UK and France had allied to launch strikes against targets within Syria. This was in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said that every measure had been taken to ensure civilians were not hurt and the strikes successfully had hit every target.  The allied countries believe the object of targeting the chemical weapons program had been met without any harm to civilians, however Russia and Syria reported differently.

71 out of the 103 cruise missiles launched were intercepted by Syria’s air defence and three civilians were also wounded. Not so surprisingly enough, this didn’t make the chemical weapons disappear off the face of this earth overnight. However, it did bring political and diplomatic unrest to, well, the world.

Upon being told about the airstrikes preceding the attacks, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern published a diplomatic statement, recognising that New Zealand accepts why the strikes happened. Neither leaning in support nor against. Evidently, National Leader Simon Bridges was not amused about this at all, as he believes New Zealand should go in guns blazing in support of America making the world great again. (Not literally, but you get the idea)

Simon Bridges backs supporting using military force against a “regime that uses banned weapons against its citizens.” He believes New Zealand should have followed suit with Australia and Canada and openly supported the strikes, calling Syria attacking its own people with Russia involved a “disgusting situation”. Yet he stopped short of saying New Zealand should go where the US went.

But what exactly is the US doing?

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Essentially, it is just coming in to save Syria from the big bad wolf wearing the cloak of a bigger badder wolf. The US is fighting fire with fire, quite literally, when according to the UN charter they have no real business fighting at all.

The coalition to launch airstrikes was in direct violation of art 2 (4) of the UN charter.  This affirms the fundamental prohibition on the use of force: this is what the Western allies exercised. The US and many international law critics believe that this was pre-emptive self defence, a concept rejected during the Iraq War by many observers because the idea of ‘self-defence’ is sufficiently covered in art 51 of the UN charter (which contains an exception in cases of collective or individual self-defence).

Syria may have utilised chemical weapons within their own land, which in itself is against international law, but it did not pose as a direct and imminent threat to America, so there is simply no grounds for self-defence. They aim to target chemical weapon movements in Syria through force rather than appropriate procedures put in place by the UN (i.e. with the requisite Security Council approval under art 42)

In this scenario, fighting fire with fire does not prove beneficial to global stability and has been highly criticised by international lawyers. Among them was John B. Bellinger III, Top State Department Lawyer in the Bush administration, who stated that “as a matter of international law, President Trump does not have clear authority to use force in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.”  What is worse is that Syria and Russia could respond to the threats as they are legally acting in self-defence in accordance with art 51. Fire fights fire; it grows.

Jacinda Ardern’s diplomatic statement acts as a splash of water on these flames.

Ardern supports the UN’s goal of appropriately dealing with such international matters. Referring to Article 51, she said, “it’s time to return to the table, to the UN to resolve these issues.” Although it may be for Jacinda Ardern, it seems peace is not the utmost priority for all international law critics and lawyers. Many side with the US’s decision to use force and clearly breach the UN charter.

One of the critics being Harold Koh, the former top lawyer in President Barack Obama’s State department. As the most loud and proud dissenter, he supports his argument by points that list military force justifiable in international law when used for a humanitarian purpose. Arguably his argument falls short on basic textual legal analysis, as although the charter can be bent for moral purposes, it stands that the US has violated Article 2 (4).

Article 2 (4) has a greatly reduced role than when it was implemented after the second World War to prevent such a recurrence. The US might try to court favour with the UN in order to justify interventions which seem contrary to art 2(4), but what truly constrains the US from instigating a World War is the Congress enforcing compliance with the Constitution and the US public opinion. So far, neither have demonstrated any hesitance on regarding “humanitarian intervention” by attacking Syria.

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Regardless of whether Jacinda Ardern chooses to support, accept or oppose the air strikes or further military action on Syria, the real concern is not the legality of the actions or the breach of international law, it is the failure of the purpose of the UN charter.

Its purpose of maintaining peace has been compromised and this is not the first instance. The more states in favour of the strikes, the more states who don’t want to settle matters ‘at the table’, the greater the risk of exacerbating tensions.

Article 2 (2) of the UN charter requires the members to, “settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered. Barging into Syria is the exact opposite of that.

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