On 13 April 2018, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and France launched an armed attack against Syria with the honorable objective of deterring the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in the future. Only the United Kingdom offered a written legal position explaining its own understanding of the legality of humanitarian intervention and how the case at hands met the conditions to carry out an armed attack on this ground. This document is almost identical to one published in 2013 by the British government to support its right to use armed force in Syria, an action blocked by the Parliament at the time. None of the States involved in the Syrian strikes of April 2018 sought previous authorization by their legislative bodies, raising issues on the legality of the action at domestic level (see e.g. here, here, and here). From an international law perspective, the consensus among academics on the weakness of the arguments put forward by the United Kingdom and the illegality of the strikes overall has been almost unanimous (see here, here, here or here; for opposing views see here and here).
The British Defense Secretary and the President of the United States have repeatedly referred to the problematic notion of ‘civilized nations’. In different statements by their allied counterparts the President of France, the British Prime Minister and the Defense Secretary have claimed to represent the ‘international community’. The immediate reactions that followed, while critical of the hegemonic thinking revealed in the actions of these three States, failed -as rightly highlighted Alex Morrehead on this blog– to reflect on the views of the many States who have opposed the use of armed force outside the confines of self-defense and the United Nations Charter (in addition to those listed by Morrehead the statement by the African Union condemning the strikes can be found here). However, on 22 April 2018, a group of researchers (Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg, Rebeca Ingber, Priya Pillajand and Elvina Pothelet) published a compilation of State reactions to the Syrian strikes based on a preliminary sample of 100 States, a fantastic resource for any future analysis on this event.
Also missing from the myriad of analyses available, is reference to the significance of the attacks when carried out by Permanent Members of the Security Council with veto-wielding power. For the reasons I outlined a few months ago, illegal uses of armed force by the United Kingdom, France and the United States are damaging the authority of the Security Council and the United Nations organisation as a whole. It is at the very least paradoxical, that the five Permanent Members are, on the one hand, expanding beyond recognition the scope of the competences of the Security Council and the reach of its decisions; while on the other hand, undermining its legitimacy by failing to uphold the rules that benefit them the most. The same States that are using -or abusing- the rights conferred by the United Nations Charter to impose obligations on every other State by e.g. approving certain resolutions on terrorism issues or articulating as binding the implementation of some aspects of the Iranian deal, negate the limits imposed to such exorbitant powers.
The Secretary General has reminded the members of the Security Council about their ‘primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security’ and the importance of respecting the Charter. States that don’t enjoy the privileges of the Permanent Members seem willing to uphold current rules. However, it is difficult to foresee a future where the extraordinary powers of the Permanent Five, including their legal possession of nuclear weapons, will be respected if they don’t govern their own actions. You cannot have your cake and eat it too.