U.S. Prepared to Launch Possibly Illegal Airstrikes Against Assad (But That’s OK)

by Julian Ku

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Obama has authorized U.S. military forces to use air power to defend  U.S.-trained Syrian rebels if those rebels are attacked by the Syrian government forces.

President Barack Obama has authorized using air power to defend a new U.S.-backed fighting force in Syria if it is attacked by Syrian government forces or other groups, raising the risk of the American military coming into direct conflict with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“For offensive operations, it’s ISIS only. But if attacked, we’ll defend them against anyone who’s attacking them,” said a senior military official. “We’re not looking to engage the regime, but we’ve made a commitment to help defend these people.”

I totally understand the reason for this policy. If the U.S. is going to train and support Syrian forces, and give them air support, it makes sense to provide air cover against all attacks.  But the legality of this policy under U.S. law requires reliance on the kind of pure presidentialism President Obama is supposedly against.  And its legality under international law is pretty tenuous as well.

Under U.S. law, the President is sort-of-authorized to attack ISIS under a very sketchy interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. It is a very sketchy interpretation, but even that sketchy interpretation can’t justify air strikes on the Syrian government in Syrian territory and in defense of rebels involved in the Syrian civil war.  So the only legal theory that would support the U.S. position here is reliance on the President’s inherent powers under Article II of the Constitution without any claim of congressional authorization.  That’s all well and good, but it is another nail in the coffin for the congressionalist legal theory embraced by Candidate Obama in 2007.  Remember that? When Obama said the Constitution required the President to go to Congress unless the President needed to act against an imminent attack?  It seems so long ago.

Under international law, the Russians are already pointing out that using military force in a foreign country against that country’s recognized government is a violation of the U.N. Charter since there is no Security Council authorization here.  There isn’t even a clear “humanitarian intervention” theory here, at least not if the air strikes are only defensive.

And yet, I have little doubt that the U.S. will carry out the strikes if needed and that there will be almost no fuss in the U.S. about its constitutionality.  Article II is alive and well in the Obama era.  There may be little bit more fuss overseas about its legality under international law, since that seems a tough case to make. But it is hard to imagine that international law will act as much of constraint here either.

From Apology to Bazinga!: International Legal Rhetoric in Obama’s Speech and Putin’s Op-Ed

by Chris Borgen

In From Apology to Utopia, Martti Koskenniemi  mapped how international legal rhetoric can be used to “apologize” for power—to provide a fig leaf over the rude exposure of realpolitik—and how it can be utopian—making rules for a world that does not actually exist.  This week we have had two examples of international law and high politics: President Obama’s speech on Tuesday and Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in today’s New York Times. And while many in the U.S. seem most concerned about Putin’s apparent skepticism toward American exceptionalism, I suggest that more attention should be focused on what his op-ed and President Obama’s speech show about how Russia and the U.S. use international legal rhetoric in pursuit of their goals.

As President Obama’s speech tried to make the case for U.S.-led military action in Syria (if the current diplomatic initiatives fail), Vladimir Putin’s op-ed argued why the U.S. should not intervene. In looking at these two texts—attempts by an American President and a Russian President to speak to the American public, and, at times, to the world—we can compare and contrast how the language of international law is used by both leaders.

Putin’s argument plays on American fears and worries but it is framed in the rhetoric of international law. There are some scare lines, such as: “A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.” There is a description of a “reeling” Afghanistan where “no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw.”  And, he adds, don’t forget the divisions in Iraq and Libya.  It is not in “America’s long-term interest” to have U.S. military intervention be “commonplace.” Well, that last part is true enough.

There are also some parts that are a bit hard to swallow, like his implying that his policy is based on a concern over the security of Israel or blaming the ongoing civil war on the West supplying arms to the opposition (which staying silent on Russia’s arming of the murderous Assad regime). I half-expected Putin to follow-up some of his arguments with “Bazinga!”

But all of these various points, be they persuasive or not, are placed in a frame of international legal rhetoric.  Putin’s op-ed is an excellent example of Russia’s strategy of using the language of international law to try to persuade publics around the world of the wisdom of its own foreign policy, while implicitly or explicitly critiquing the policies of other states. Near the beginning of his essay, Putin explains… (Continue Reading)

What Does Putting Syria’s Chemical Weapons Under “International Control” Mean? (And Some Thoughts on Russia’s Use of International Legal Rhetoric)

by Chris Borgen

With the focus now on the Russian proposal to bring Syrian chemical weapons under “international control,” questions that remain include how would this actually work? Who would take control?

One likely participant in the implementation would be the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  From the OPCW website:

As of today the OPCW has 189 Member States, who are working together to achieve a world free from chemical weapons…

To this end, the Convention contains four key provisions:

1. destroying all existing chemical weapons under international verification by the OPCW;

2. monitoring chemical industry to prevent new weapons from re-emerging;

3. providing assistance and protection to States Parties against chemical threats; and

4. fostering international cooperation to strengthen implementation of the Convention and promote the peaceful use of chemistry.

See their annual reports here.

Although Syria is not a signatory to the CWC, given the OPCW’s expertise, it is a fair assumption that they would be involved in some capacity in any international control of Syria’s chemical weapons.  The OPCW has already been involved in attempts to address the Syrian crisis: the UN-led group of monitors that investigated the chemical weapons attack in Damascus primarily consisted of OPCW technical experts.

As for the new proposal… [Continue Reading]

Can the General Assembly Provide a Way Around the Security Council on Syria?

by Julian Ku

As Samantha Power (the new U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.) demands unilateral action and rages against the deadlocked Security Council, it is worth thinking again about the odd structure of the UNSC and its veto power for P-5 members.  In this light, I would point our readers to an interesting piece by Andrew Carswell forthcoming in the Journal of Conflict and Security Law entitled “Unblocking the Security Council: The Uniting for Peace Resolution.”  Essentially, there is some (very thin in my view) precedent from the Korean War era for the General Assembly to provide authority for the use of military force.  This might allow the U.S. to seek GA endorsement of a strike against Syria due to the deadlock in the Security Council.  As a practical matter, it is far from clear that a majority of the current GA would actually support the U.S. but even if it did, the legal significance of a GA act is uncertain to say the least.  Still, something worth discussing.

Unfortunately, the full article is not quite done but it will be out shortly. This link may provide (for a limited time) access to his almost complete draft. His abstract is below the jump.

Syria Insta-Symposium: Geoff Corn–The President, Congress, Syria: What If?

by Geoffrey Corn

[Geoffrey Corn is the Presidential Research Professor of Law at South Texas College of Law in Houston. His prior articles addressing war powers include: 123.]

It seems almost abundantly clear that President Obama has resolved the question of “what if” the United Nations Security Council is unwilling to authorize military action against Syria for use of chemical weapons. The U.S. will act without such authorization, unilaterally if necessary. Why? Well, we know there are numerous overt and sub rosa motives being discussed, but ultimately because of a U.S. conclusion that the UNSC has proven ineffective. To bolster the credibility of this assertion, which is obviously dubious to certain other permanent members of the Security Council and countless other states, international law experts, and observers, the President has asked Congress to endorse his planned punitive strike with express statutory authorization.

Many have hailed this decision to submit the matter to Congress as a positive manifestation of the President’s respect for the Constitution’s allocation of war powers. But in reality, while Congress may be developing what it views as an authorization to use military force, this is not exactly how the President views their effort. Instead, he, like predecessors who have also sought express statutory authority for military actions, views it much more as support for the use of military force. Just as President George H.W. Bush emphasized when he, in 1991, requested congressional authorization to use military force to implement UNSC Resolution 678 and oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, President Obama insists that while he wants this authorization, he does not need it. Of course, President Obama assertions of ‘desire’ versus ‘necessity’ follow the pattern of all modern presidents. However, by seeking authorization, the President does seem to be assuming a greater degree of risk than had he acted on his own asserted Article II authority. Thus, ironically, while the request for authorization will enhance strategic and constitutional legitimacy should Congress support the President, the risks associated with a down vote invokes the parable that, “it is easier to seek forgiveness than ask for permission.”

So, “what if” a majority of at least one house votes against his request, preventing enactment of an AUMF?  (more…)

Syria Insta-Symposium: The Significance of Chemical Weapons Use Under International Law

by Krista Nelson

[Krista Nelson, PhD, JD, is a recent graduate of Yale Law School]

The Obama administration’s advance toward air strikes stems from the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons, but under international law does it matter if civilians are being killed with chemical weapons rather than conventional means? And how does the prohibition on chemical weapons interact with international law on the resort to force?

From the law of armed conflict (LOAC) perspective, the use of chemical weapons in Syria was not a game-changer. LOAC is concerned with harm to civilians in armed conflict, whatever the means or methods. Certain weapons are a concern largely because a) they do not distinguish between people who can be attacked and those who are off-limits, and thus they violate the principle of distinction; or b) they cause more harm than necessary to permissible targets, which is not the main issue in the present case. In Syria, the principle of distinction seems to have been thrown out the window long ago; reportedly, thousands of civilians have been killed (even directly attacked) using conventional means. Of course, LOAC does not look kindly on weapons that cause particularly gruesome harm to innocent people, but the first and foremost problem is that civilians are being attacked with any weapons at all.

By contrast, the use of chemical weapons is a critical problem under arms control law. But arms control is not just concerned with use, which is the focus of LOAC – it covers other activities like weapons development, production, stockpiling, proliferation; and it applies in peace as well as conflict. Moreover, arms control has diverse aims with respect to weapons, ranging from reducing suffering or protecting civilians in conflict to preventing conflict from breaking out in the first place and shaping balances of military power.

Current Obama administration statements draw more from arms control than LOAC, citing various concerns from the particular suffering chemical weapons caused to the proliferation of other weapons of mass destruction. The administration suggests that the use of chemical weapons links the Syrian conflict to U.S. national security interests – a claim supported with arguments that Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons is bound up with other weapons (e.g., nuclear weapons), other actions (e.g., proliferation), and other countries (potential victims as well as perpetrators of weapons-related violations).

What arms control law does not provide is a trigger for the resort to force, the Obama administration’s preferred course of action and the main international legal controversy. Arms control provides no clear avenue around the international legal requirement of a UN Security Council resolution or a self-defense justification, neither of which the Obama administration claims to have. Indeed, one particularly relevant arms control treaty – the Chemical Weapons Convention – provides a framework for addressing non-compliance that points to multilateralism, UN Security Council participation, and conformity with international law. Chemical weapons use may be a game-changer for President Obama, but the rules of the game have not disappeared.

Statements on Syria bear less resemblance to justifications for NATO’s 1999 campaign over Kosovo (where an ethnic cleansing was taking place, triggering what has been called a “humanitarian intervention”) than to the 2003 Iraq War, which was justified with a mix of humanitarian and strategic ideas including emphasis on weapons of mass destruction. Unlike the present situation, attempts were made to justify the use of force using a UN Security Council resolution from the previous decade, as well as the notion of preemptive self-defense.

Perhaps the Obama administration thinks that combining expansive arms control concerns, including some humanitarianism, may effectively push against the rules on the resort to force. If the broad provisions of the proposed authorization for the use of military force are any indication, the U.S. government may tap into diverse concerns, looking for international legal justifications under the biggest umbrella it can find.

That approach would be a different and perhaps bolder challenge to rules on the use of force than humanitarian intervention or President Bush’s preemption. It is true that the significance of chemical weapons use varies in international law, but existing law does not seem to justify the role the Obama administration has assigned it. If the Obama administration has its way, the use of chemical weapons may punch above its international legal weight.

Syria Insta-Symposium: The “Law” in International Law: A Response to Carvin

by Sondre Torp Helmersen

[Sondre Torp Helmersen teaches at the University of Oslo and is an LLM candidate at the University of Cambridge.]

Stephanie Carvin recently contributed to the Syria Insta-Symposium with a post titled “A Legal Debate Devoid of Consequences (or Bringing Practical Judgment Back In)”.

Her call for a practical perspective is timely. The decision of whether or not to attack must be necessarily be a political decision, on which political scientists such as herself may offer sound advice. However, she apparently does not take full account of the fact that international law is (at least supposed to be) law.

She “crudely paraphrases” her position as follows: “if 15 men sitting around a table in New York say it is okay to strike, then somehow it is fine. If 15 men do not, then it’s not okay. This seems to be an incredibly poor way to decide how to respond to the attack.”

This line of reasoning is applicable to any legal regulation, domestic or international. Try replacing “attack” with any other matter regulated by domestic or international law, (more…)

Syria Insta-Symposium: Does the U.N. Charter Matter to the U.S. Senate’s Deliberations on the Use of Force? Nope

by Julian Ku

The legality under international law seemed to play an important role in the U.K. Parliament’s deliberations over whether or not to support a strike on Syria.  The UK government issued an (admittedly bare bones) legal opinion which advanced a version of humanitarian intervention. So now that the U.S. Congress has taken up the same question, how important is the U.N. Charter’s limitations on the use of force under Article 2 to the Congress’ deliberations?

As I suggested earlier, the short answer is that the UN Charter’s Article 2 will not be a serious impediment to the U.S. Congress’ decision whether to authorize the use of force.  The Obama Administration, as far as I can tell, has not even bothered to offer a statement as to why such a strike would be legal under international law, much less a full-blown legal opinion.  And if today’s U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings are any indication, there is zero interest among even skeptical Senators in discussing the UN Charter.

Based on my skim of the transcript, this is the sole serious discussion of the Charter, raised by Sen. Udall of New Mexico:

We are on shaky international legal foundations with this potential strike, and we need to know whether we exhausted all diplomatic and economic sanction options to affect Syria’s behavior. We need to increase our attention on the source of Assad’s ability to continue to ruthlessly kill his own people, and that is support from nations including Russia and China, who are cynically trying to hold the moral high ground. Assad would not be able to maintain his grip on power if he were not being supported from outside. The full force of international outrage should come down on those nations that are refusing to allow the U.N. to act and find a solution.

Here is Secretary of State Kerry’s  response to Sen. Udall’s broad point:

SEC. KERRY: So we have no illusions. Yes, is the U.N. Security Council having difficulties at this moment performing its functions? Yes. Does that mean the United States of America and the rest of the world that thinks we ought to act should shrink from it? No.

Well, that was easy.  Indeed, the only reference to “violating” international law in the transcript is to Syria’s violations, and not to any potential U.S. violation.  Like the President, the Senators seem comfortable going forward without a U.N. Security Council resolution, even if that is (in the opinion of most scholars) a clear violation of the Charter.  Unlike the UK government, none of the decisionmakers on this side of the pond seem to care. Does this mean we don’t need to pay attention to the Charter anymore?  It sure seems like it.

Another Set of Syria Views on Huff Post

by Deborah Pearlstein

For those still following along, an interesting array of views on the Syria situation in a conversation this afternoon on HuffPost Live, including Michael Scharf, Jules Lobel, Eric Posner, and yours truly. Would that the link went back a bit farther, you could listen in on a lively Miley Cyrus debate as well.

Syria Insta-Symposium: Mark Kersten–Whose R2P Is It? The Responsibility to Protect Post-Syria

by Mark Kersten

[Mark Kersten is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics and author of the blog Justice in Conflict. You can find him on Twitter @MarkKersten]

Who would have thought that the most pressing question regarding the Responsibility to Protect in 2013 would be: what is it? The answer to this question is as unclear today as any time in R2P’s political life. It might even be less clear.

In the midst ongoing questions regarding the legality and legitimacy of direct military intervention in Syria, scholars and observers have passionately rehashed the main tenets of R2P, defending or castigating it depending on their political persuasions and which interventions they’ve cut their political teeth on. At the core of their debate is that pesky, simple question: what, exactly, is R2P?

The cacophony of reactions to plans of a potential military intervention in Syria by the US (perhaps with some coalition of powers) has been a déjà vu of the year 2000. There has been a lot of talk about reconciling international commitments to preserve and protect sovereignty with obligations to preserve and protect inalienable universal human rights. All of a sudden, the phrase “humanitarian intervention” is back with a vengeance. Echoing Richard Goldstone’s famous judgement regarding NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, many are suggesting that a military intervention without UN sanction being “illegal but legitimate”. Of course, it was out of this rather curious and, for many, frustrating proposition as well as the inability to reconcile universal human rights with the sovereign prerogatives of states, that the concept of R2P was born. Which begs the question: how did we get back to square one?

The early- to mid-2000s helped establish not one R2P but multiple R2Ps and that these have never been sufficiently reconciled. There are two dominant and distinct versions of R2P at play. First is R2P as a package of norms. This package of norms represents liberal cosmopolitan convictions, namely that the commission of mass atrocities against individuals is of concern to all other human beings and that sovereign inviability of states is conditioned upon their respect of individual rights and freedoms. R2P as a package of ideals is broadly appealing. NGOs, activists and key normative entrepreneurs like the UN Secretary General have been working tirelessly for over a decade to talk these norms into reality. But R2P in this context is also sometimes fuzzy. This has been made clear over the question of who can legitimately authorize R2P. If R2P is a set of principles, then it can be authorized outside of the UN Security Council. After all, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) stated that, in the situation where the Security Council is deadlocked, intervention by a coalition of states or a regional organization would be appropriate. Legally, however, this is highly dubious.

Distinct from R2P as a normative prescription for world politics is R2P as a legal doctrine. It is less fuzzy and rests primarily upon the two paragraphs in the World Summit Document, accepted by the UN General Assembly in 2005. With the experience of Iraq looming over UN member states, virtually none were inclined to support granting authority to invoke R2P outside the Security Council. And so they didn’t. Hence, whatever its merits, R2P can only lawfully be invoked through the Security Council.

R2P as law and R2P as a set of normative ideals are often in tension. But it is also something else. R2P has emerged as a language with its own vocabulary. The various reports and commissions, UN resolutions, nation state policies, and diplomatic statements are R2P’s lexicon. But as a language, R2P is a double-edged sword. All language can, after all, be used and abused. R2P as a vocabulary provides the invaluable discursive space within which any intervention is weighed against its ability to protect civilians. But it also allows its defenders and its critics to abuse the concept by pretending that R2P is something that it isn’t – or at least not yet.

Proponents of R2P have largely been uninterested in resolving the nature and tensions inherent between the different conceptions of R2P. Instead, many have used R2P language dressed up as R2P law in order to propagate their own desired version of the doctrine. To do so, they cherry-pick from passages in the ICISS Report, UN Secretary General Reports, and previous interventions.

The ultimate aim for R2P proponents is to turn the conceptual doctrine into a legal doctrine and thus to establish it as an integral part of a liberal cosmopolitan international legal landscape. There has been a concomitant belief that so long as R2P keeps chugging along, receiving endorsements in UN reports and being put in motion in situations like Libya and Ivory Coast, then the concept’s trajectory would guide it to the promise land of legal stature. But this trajectory is very unlikely to be fulfilled if the tensions within different conceptions of R2P aren’t resolved.

Importantly, it won’t be the ‘realists’ against ‘liberal internationalists’ who will diminish the concept. It will be liberal internationalists against themselves. Look closely. The most vicious fight today over R2P is not between proponents and critics of R2P but between proponents of the concept who have fundamentally different visions of what R2P is and should be.

As a result, non-intervention into Syria would be neither a success nor failure of R2P. It would be both. It would be a failure because the type of suffering of Syrian citizens (since the beginning of the civil, not just since the chemical weapons attack) is precisely why R2P was created in the first place. But it would also be seen as a success because if R2P is understood as a legal doctrine with resultant obligations on the part states, then it can only authorized by the Security Council. Intervention into Syria without a UN mandate might be moral and it might be imminent. But whatever its enactors suggest, it’s not the legal version R2P, it’s the normative dream of R2P.

The case of Syria could actually save R2P by helping to decipher what it is and, more importantly, what it should be. R2P desperately needs conceptual consistency if it has any hope in emerging as an accepted norm in international relations. But if R2P is simultaneously a fledgling legal doctrine, a package of normative prescriptions as well as a widely used and abused language, it risks meaning everything to everyone and thus meaning very little at all – especially to those in whose name it was supposedly established. If this is R2P’s destiny, for every future Syria we will be doomed to debate what R2P is and isn’t at cross-purposes and ad nauseum.

Syria Insta-Symposium: Ezequiel Heffes and Brian E. Frenkel–The Decision-Making Process of the R2P Doctrine: Towards New (Old) Paths in the Use of Force in International Law

by Ezequiel Heffes

[Ezequiel Heffes and Brian E. Frenkel are LL.M. candidates at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and Teaching Assistants of Public International Law at the University of Buenos Aires, School of Law. This post reflects partial conclusions of our ongoing research at the University of Buenos Aires’s Law School as members of the project “Beyond the Jus In Bello? The Regulation of Armed Conflicts in the History of Jus Gentium and the Limits of IHL as an Autonomous Regime Before other Branches of a ‘Fragmented’ Public International Law.”]

In the last few years the general prohibition on the use of force enshrined in Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter has been approached differently from the classical view. In situations of mass violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, the responsibility to protect (R2P) and humanitarian intervention have begun to emerge as possible exceptions. As Jennifer Trahan correctly points out, from a legalistic point of view the UN Charter only allows intervention in two scenarios: UN Security Council authorized action, and the exercise of the “inherent right of individual or collective self–defence if an armed attack occurs” by one State against another State (Article 51 of the UN Charter).

In consequence both, R2P and humanitarian intervention, would be outside any legal framework. But perhaps, and only perhaps, by analyzing the use of force in international law from a different perspective, new proposals could be taken into account. In an earlier post on this blog, André Nollkaemper has presented the possibility that strikes could be part of a process of reconstruction of the law on the use of force, but what does this mean? An alternative view of the existence of the prohibition of the use of force in international law has to be approached.

Rosalyn Higgins has postulated in the past that international law is a legal decision–making process, i.e., it is a continuing process of authoritative decisions. This idea considers that rights and obligations of entities are created by participants –and not by subjects of international law, a notion that according to her has no functional purpose– and determined not by reference to the trend of past decisions, which she calls ‘rules’, but through a continuous and dynamic process of decisions made by authorized persons or organs. This participation, however, would depend in the end on their factual power to do so in order to be accepted by other established participants of that same system. Higgins affirmed in the same sense that if international law was only a set of rules, then it would be unable to contribute to a changing political world. This rejection means that “those who have to make decisions on the basis of international law –judges, but also legal advisers and others– are not really simply ‘finding the rule’ and then applying it. This is because the determination of what is the relevant rule is part of the decision – makers’ function; and because the accumulated trend of past decisions should never be applied oblivious in the context”. Precisely, Julian Ku raised a similar matter when he posted here that President Obama affirmed that international law is a “factor in the decisionmaking process in the U.S.” since U.S. officials were looking at Kosovo as a precedent for an intervention. The main issue therefore seems to be concerning the prohibition of aggression, is it possible to consider that it is only a set of rules? Could it be changed through the abovementioned process? Higgins answered these questions affirming that even when its prescription is a necessary rule of coexistence, it still must be taken into account the fact that it is “the practice of the vast majority of states that is critical, both in the formation of new norms and in their development and change and possible death”. This means that the foresaid prohibition could change without necessarily loosing its strength, and R2P and humanitarian intervention could be allowed only with the States’ consent. From a theoretical perspective this seems difficult, but not impossible.

Higgins’s theory is certainly susceptible to objections. Roland Portmann for instance affirms that there is a confirmed tendency today that supports the idea of having general rules of international law. Even though this could be taken into account, new paradigms shall be explored including other notions of the above–mentioned use of force regime having in mind that today the law created to maintain international order is not working, or it is working but only in a limited sense since it is not persuading some States to not use the force.

In the context of R2P, by adopting the World Summit Outcome Document, the UN instead of participating in this decision–making process decided to enclose possible new paths within the Charter (Secretary General Report “Implementing the responsibility to protect”; General Assembly Resolution 63/308; SC Resolutions 1674, 1894, among others). It decided then to incorporate all of these legal constructions but nonetheless expressly included the intervention and approval of the Security Council as a requirement. At that time none of the P–5 criticized this. On the contrary, they reaffirmed it (Resolution 1674/2006 unanimously adopted) perhaps as a way of legitimizing their delegitimized position. Nowadays, facing situations where SC action is blocked because of the veto of one or more P–5 members, the others are looking to go back to an alternative view outside Article 2 (4). This would be supported by Higgins’s design, which seems to be the most suitable guideline for the dynamic processes of the international community. It could be said therefore that certain States are continuously contributing in the creation of new international rights and obligations in order to develop new paradigms, either because they understand that the 1945´s does no longer solve current issues, or because it does not serves their interests. In any case, the struggle on the decision-making process cannot be denied. The changes on the UN conception about the R2P doctrine, the division within the Security Council and the veto possibility, the returning to old arguments, they all prove that the Article 2 (4) is no longer considered “sacred” and that there are some intentions to make a change.

Syria Insta-Symposium: Otto Spijkers–Can States Stand Idly By?: Bystander Obligations at the Domestic and International Level Compared

by Otto Spijkers

[Otto Spijkers is an Assistant Professor of Public International Law at Utrecht University]

It is interesting to compare the obligations of States at the international level with the obligations of individuals at the national level. Such a comparison is also interesting when it comes to the obligations of other States to intervene in Syria. In this post I will suggest some lessons we can learn from domestic experience.

Article 450 of the Dutch Penal Code states that any person who sees someone in immediate mortal danger, must provide support, if he can do so without endangering himself or others. If he refuses to do so, and if the death of the victim follows, the bystander will be punished with imprisonment not exceeding three months. In many other States, standing idly by when someone is in immediate mortal danger is equally a criminal offense. Does such a rule exist also at the international level? It seems safe to say that at the moment there is no general obligation of bystander States to intervene in certain predefined types of events, except perhaps in some extreme cases such as genocide. But should it exist?

Article 450 was included in our Penal Code in 1880. Inclusion of this article was defended at the time with the argument that the “popular consciousness” was annoyed by the impunity of people standing by when fellow citizens were dying.  Feldbrugge, who analyzed the theoretical foundations of similar provisions in domestic criminal legislation all over the world (see Feldbrugge, ‘Good and Bad Samaritans,’ in the American Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 14 (1966)), concluded that “many legislators have come to realize that certain behavior with regard to persons in danger is so offensive to the moral feelings of a community that the interference of criminal law is called for.” Clearly, a similar argument can be made to recognize a legal responsibility to intervene at the international level: doing nothing in extreme cases is offensive to the moral feelings of an international community, and thus intervention should be a legal obligation. As “extreme cases” requiring bystander State intervention, we could think of the commission of serious breaches of obligations owed to the international community as a whole (erga omnes), but this is not the place to explore this issue in great detail.

States that do not have a similar provision in their criminal code – essentially the Anglo-American legal systems – believe that the law should not enforce altruism on people. Similarly, when the Dutch legislator discussed the article in 1880, a minority believed that it was better to leave it to the indignation of the public than to punish the perpetrator as lawbreaker. You cannot legally oblige people to be a hero, so it was said, and put them in prison if they refuse. Another argument against including an article like 450 Dutch Penal Code is that in extreme cases, doing nothing can always be qualified as the commission of a crime by omission, or as providing aid or assistance in the commission of the crime (complicity). Applying this to the international situation, it seems inappropriate to regard all States that “do nothing” as faciliators of the wrongful act in such strong sense. There is thus a need to oblige bystander States to intervene.

Although intervening might be the “right thing to do,” there are good reasons not to intervene.  Rescue operations might end badly, with both the victim and the rescuer seriously harmed. And even if a rescue is successful, nobody is really any better off than before the victim got into trouble. The victim will probably have suffered some harm already, and the rescuer might be traumatized or physically hurt because of the rescue. A rescue attempt can also be very costly. And thus, the bystander is in an unenviable position and it is remarkable that anyone should ever intervene at all. The same reasoning can be applied at the inter-State level: the intervening State is seldom rewarded for its intervention, even if the intervention is entirely successful, which is rarely the case at the international level.

In order to commit the offense of Article 450 Dutch Penal Code, the bystander must have had a certain awareness of the danger the victim was in. Since intervening is not an attractive option, most bystanders will do their best to interpret what appears to be a victim in trouble as, in fact, a normal course of events. The indecisiveness of other bystanders – and bystanders can remain indecisive for a very long time – is often interpreted as a decision not to intervene. If others appear to have decided not to intervene, it is easier to do the same. This phenomenon is referred to as “pluralistic ignorance.”  Clearly, this phenomenon occurs also at the international level. If all other States are hesitant to intervene, then a particular indecisive State will follow what it regards as the majority opinion: do not intervene.

If the event is interpreted as the kind of event which obliges the bystander to intervene, the bystander has to accept that it is his personal responsibility to intervene. Once again, one must keep in mind the unattractiveness of intervention. And thus the bystander will still try to find justifications for not-intervening. One justification for not intervening is to convince oneself that the victim somehow deserved it, or was asking for it.  In general, this justification for not intervening is not accepted. As Feldbrugge concluded, “where the victim himself is to be blamed, entirely or in part, for having placed himself in a dangerous situation, there is no fundamental change in the duty of potential rescuers.”  The argument that the population in Syria does not deserve to be rescued because it brought itself in the position it is now in is thus not a good argument.

Feldbrugge noted that the ability – and thus responsibility – to help depends on the bystander’s nearness to the danger and his ability to effectively intervene. This would make neighboring States (Turkey, Members of the League of Arab States), or particularly powerful States (USA), more responsible than others (e.g. the Netherlands).  An interesting question is whether the perpetrator (Syria), after having wounded the victim (its own population), has a duty to provide assistance to that victim. Although such an obligation seems awkward, it also seems unfair to suggest that the perpetrator can leave his victim to die when innocent bystanders have a legal obligation to assist the victim. Feldbrugge had an interesting solution to this dilemma: “where the danger to the victim has been caused intentionally [as in the case of Syria, presumably], the lesser offense of failure to rescue is “absorbed” by the greater offense of attempted homicide.”

Finally, if the bystander has decided to intervene, he must consider the appropriate type of assistance. Feldbrugge noted, on the consequences of “negligent execution of the duty to rescue,” that “the decisive factor in this respect is the rescuer’s motivation.” In other words, a bystander cannot be blamed for a very clumsy and thus failed rescue attempt, as long as he seriously meant to rescue the victim. Of course, Dutch people immediately think of the role of Dutchbat in Srebrenica in 1995. Indeed, it seems unfair that a failed rescue attempt can traumatize a nation for decades, whilst States that did not even try to rescue the victim (the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica) have no such trauma.

True enough, Article 450 of the Dutch Penal Code only asks of the bystander that he makes a serious attempt to rescue the victim. But nobody likes to make a fool of himself in public. In the words of Latané and Darley: “the bystander to an emergency is offered the chance to step up on stage, a chance that should be every actor’s dream. But in this case, it is every actor’s nightmare. He hasn’t rehearsed the part very well and he must play it when the curtain is already up. The greater the number of other people present, the more possibility there is of losing face.” (Source: Latané & Darley, The unresponsive bystander: why doesn’t he help? (1970), p. 40.) When the whole world is watching, the possibility of “losing face” does play a role. I am sure it also plays a role in Obama’s thinking about whether to intervene or not.