Unilateral military strikes against Syria would be illegal under international law. Eight legal avenues for countermeasures against Syria’s use of chemical weapons are being blocked. One, however, may be open.

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  • China and Russia will veto the UN Security Council from taking action, although they have allowed a weapons inspection team.
  • Action could be taken at The Hague, headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), set up by the treaty banning chemical weapons (Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction of 1992), which has been ratified by most countries except for Syria. An OPCW expert team is part of the UN weapons inspection team in Syria. But on July 16, the American delegate complained that the Ukrainian chairing OPCW’s Executive Committee refused to place the issue on the agenda for discussion.
  • The treaty empowers the OPCW Conference of all ratifying countries to recommend sanctions against a violation. However, the latest meeting of the Conference was last year. Another meeting will take place in December.
  • The UN General Assembly, which could act under the powers of the Uniting for Peace Resolution of 1950, is not in session but is likely to block action when reconvened in September, as the membership is similar to the OPCW’s Conference.
  • Under customary international law, every country has the right of reprisal. That is, any country has the right to retaliate against unfriendly action by another, though the response must be proportional to the unfriendly action. If Britain, France, and the United States contemplate several military strikes against Syria, they must pretend that many of their own citizens were injured or are potentially threatened by the Syrian chemical weapons attack.
  • Regional organizations can take action when the UN cannot, according to some experts. The Arab League disapproves of any military strikes against Syria. The Gulf Cooperation Council has also not encouraged such action.
  • The Responsibility to Protect principle, adopted by the UN, allows action to prevent or stop genocidal action. A few military strikes, not having that aim, would not be consistent with that principle.
  • A new principle could be enunciated unilaterally by the United States. So argues John Bellinger III, who was legal adviser during the administration of George W. Bush. But his suggestion has not been followed by the White House.
  • Bellinger also suggests that the United States recognize a Syrian opposition group as the legal representative of Syria (as has the Gulf Cooperation Council). Then that group could call for military action, and Washington could come to the aid of a recognized government. But the Obama administration has resisted that option.

When President Barack Obama originally announced his “red line” on chemical weapons, the reference was to the possibility that the chemical weapons facility would get into the wrong hands during the civil war. Later, the objection was that the Syrian government would use or has used the weapons. Now the fear is that the United States will unleash further chaos without legal justification.

But we are talking about Mr. Drone Strike. The use of drones is extrajudicial execution, contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and a war crime. So, too, is an American military strike on Syria.

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