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Military Intervention in Syria & International Law

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By Barrister M. A. Muid Khan

This September, the Human Rights Watch published a report alleging that the, “…Available evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government forces were responsible for chemical weapons attacks on two Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013. These attacks, which killed hundreds of civilians including many children, appeared to use a weapons-grade nerve agent, most likely Sarin…”

Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director at Human Rights Watch alleged that “Rocket debris and symptoms of the victims from the August 21 attacks on Ghouta provide telltale evidence about the weapon systems used,” He further alleged that “…This evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government troops launched rockets carrying chemical warheads into the Damascus suburbs that terrible morning.”

In the light of the above objective report, witness accounts of the rocket attacks, information on the likely source of the attacks, the physical remnants of the weapon systems used, and the medical symptoms exhibited by the victims as documented by medical staff, could Britain & the US carry out any Military attack upon Syrian government forces for using chemical weapons attacks on two Damascus suburbs?

Military Attack & UN Charter

The United Nations Charter 1945, the foundation stone of the modern International Law bans the use of force by states to “save the succeeding generation from the scourge of wars”.

Article 2(4) of the UN Charter specifically states that, “… 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…”

This rule was enshrined in the United Nations Charter in 1945 for a good reason, “…to prevent states from using force as they felt so inclined…" In accordance with the expressed provisions of the UN Charter, it would an illegal act under International Law to go to war unless a country is defending itself against aggression or the UN has given prior approval for UN Resolution needed.

Therefore, in the absence of any armed attack against Britain, the US, France or the coalition members, any legal use of force, or any legal threat of the use of force, had to be supported by a UN Security Council resolution authorising member states to use force against Syria.

This authorisation is secured in the form of “UN Resolution” through a vote on a UN Security Council resolution, which will set out the type of military action that can be taken against a particular country.

The UN Security Council consists of 15 General member states with 5 Permanent member states. The resolution must be passed by a majority of the Security Council’s 15 members but the five permanent members - Britain, the United States, Russia, China and France - each It is this veto that Russia has used in support of Damascus, Britain, the US or its alleys are not able to take any military intervention against Syria under the International Law.

Any further attempts to secure a resolution are also likely to be blocked by Russia, meaning that the most straightforward legal authority for military action in Syria will not be available to the Britain, the United States and France.

UK Military Attack & International Law

Now, the question is could UK conduct any military intervention upon Syria unilaterally?

September 2013, the British Government's lawyers suggested that, “…Britain could still act on humanitarian grounds without agreement at the UN…”

The British Government Lawyers stated that the Syrian regime was behind the chemical weapons attack in Damascus last week. Calling it a "war crime and a crime against humanity", it says: “…The legal basis for military action would be humanitarian intervention…”

Under the "exceptional measures" criteria, the military intervention by Britain would be justified on humanitarian grounds and permitted under international law; even if Russia and China block agreement at the United Nations.

The British Government Lawyers further suggested that, "The aim is to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons."

The lawyers argue conditions needed for action to go ahead without the UN Security Council's agreement have already been fulfilled.

MPs will now debate and vote only on the principle of military action and any direct British involvement would only be possible after another Commons vote.

Joint UK-USA Military invasion without UN Resolution

In addition, UK & the US could also carry out a joint military attack upon Syria without having any UN Resolution.

Without having any UN resolution, a military intervention upon Syria is still possible via a regional grouping with the help of Nato.

The 1999 Kosovo conflict has a shirking similarity with the present Syrian Crisis. In the absence of an UN Resolution, the former US President Bill Clinton, with Nato’s backing, was able to give the bombing of Serbia.

By invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which commits each member state to considering armed action to protect another, Britain and the US could gather support within Nato to conduct a joint military invasion upon Syrian regime.

Turkey is a member state of Nato. In June 2012, one of its F-4 reconnaissance jets was shot down by Syrian forces, which could provide a foundation under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty for a military intervention by the alliance against Syrian regime.

Military intervention & R2P

Principle known as “responsibility to protect”, or “R2P” was adopted in 2005 by the United Nations following the genocide in Rwanda. The principles established by the “R2P” are recognised under International Law could also be invoked to justify any joint military strike by the US & UK against Syria.

The R2P states that, “…the international community has a responsibility to protect against war crimes and crimes against humanity by using coercion, including military intervention as By invoking the principles stipulated in the R2, the US and UK could take a joint decision to conduct a military intervention in Syria.

Military intervention & EU

The European Union has also called this chemical weapons attack in Damascus a crime against humanity and says it was probably carried out by the Syrian government.

Catherine Ashton, the EU's representative for foreign affairs issued a statement on Saturday calling the chemical attack a "blatant violation of international law, a war crime and a crime against humanity"

Following a meeting with the US secretary of state, John Kerry, EU foreign ministers said that any punitive military attack should not be carried out until the delivery of a report by United Nations inspectors.

The Russian President Putin declared that any attack without a UN resolution would "violate the law", indicating that he was ready to give further military assistance to the Assad regime if it were attacked.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron warned that the world could not "contract out" its morality to a Russian veto at the UN Security Council over its response to the poison gas attack which killed hundreds in a Damascus suburb.

Mr. Obama, President of the United States, failed to get international agreement for an attack on Syria at the summit in St Petersburg. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, claimed that a majority of the G20 opposed any US-led intervention, and gave no ground by continuing to insist that the chemical weapons attacks were a provocation by Syrian rebels designed to win international backing for an attack on the Assad regime.

Geoffrey Robertson QC, a former UN appeal judge and leading international lawyer, said yesterday that Russia was wrong to insist that military intervention would hinge on UN consent. He said it was possible for other countries to step in to prevent mass murder but added that it would be necessary to find evidence the Assad regime was responsible for last week’s chemical weapons attack.

The foregoing discussion reveals that the US & UK can jointly conduct a military attack upon the Syrian Government without having any UN Resolution. Even though the US & UK can jointly conduct a military attack upon the Syrian Government under the International Law, yet Mr. Vuk Jeremic, the President of the United Nations General Assembly supports Diplomatic solutions instead of any joint military action against Syria to resolve the present crisis. On 12 September 2013, at this “crucial moment” for Syria and the wider Middle East, the President of the United Nations General Assembly called on Member States to push for a diplomatic solution to the crisis by supporting efforts to bring all parties to the conflict to the negotiating table at a proposed conference in Geneva. What happens in Syria in the weeks ahead will profoundly bear upon the security and well-being of the entire region of the Middle East, and possibly the whole world. We, the defenders of human rights and the fundamental freedoms, also expect that the present crisis in Syria could be resolved via a diplomatic solution to save the Middle East & the whole world from the scourge of another war.

[M.A. Muid Khan is a Barrister of the Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn & Qualified Chartered Legal Executive Lawyer of CILEX. He is the first British-Bangladeshi lawyer recognised jointly by the Bar Council, Law Society & CILEX as the Best Human Rights Lawyer of England & Wales. He can be contacted at barristermuid@yahoo.co.uk]
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