Why It Doesn’t Seem to Matter that the Syria Strikes Violated International Law

by Julian Ku

Over at Vox, I have published an essay fleshing out the thoughts I first published here on the legality of the recent U.S. cruise missile attacks on Syria and the international reaction to it.

President Donald Trump’s surprising decision to launch a cruise missile strike on Syria was sharply criticized by Russia as a “flagrant violation of international law.” While it might be tempting to dismiss this claim as mere Putinesque propaganda, on this question at least, Russia is almost certainly correct. In the view of most international lawyers, the US strike on Syria is a crystal-clear violation of the UN Charter. So why doesn’t anybody, except Russia and some international lawyers, seem to care?

The uncomfortable answer seems to be that, at least with respect to this question — can a state use military force against a regime that uses banned weaponry against citizens? — international law simply doesn’t matter very much. And this suits the United States and the Trump administration just fine.

Please read the whole thing. I am especially pleased with this line, drafted with the assistance of one of the very smart editors they have over there:

So the UN will not become an irrelevant bystander, but neither will it operate as the final authority on the US decision to use force. This may not be ideal, but one important lesson of the reaction to the Syria strikes is that we should all start getting used to this reduced role for the UN, and stop the unrealistic fetishization of Article 2(4).

Almost Everyone Agrees that the U.S. Strikes Against Syria are Illegal, Except for Most Governments

by Julian Ku

The blogosphere is now so fast that we can get an enormous sampling of expert opinion in a very short time. So within 24 hours of President Trump’s military strikes on Syria, we have already heard from former Bush State Department Legal Advisor John Bellinger, former Obama State Department Legal Advisors Harold Koh and Brian Egan, former DOJ officials and law profs Jack Goldsmith and Ryan Goodman, as well as numerous law profs and other experts including our very own Deborah Pearlstein and Edward Swaine. The bottom line: Almost everyone (except for Harold Koh) thinks the strikes violate the U.N. Charter and many think it also violates the U.S. Constitution.

Most of what I have to say I said in 2012-13 on this issue, but I am struck by one group of important actors who seem relatively untroubled by the “illegality” of the U.S. strikes under the UN Charter: states.  With the notable exception of the Russian government, very few states have come out to criticize the U.S. strikes as a violation of international law. No one is saying it is illegal, but it is striking how few are willing to say it is illegal.  I’ve gathered a few statements and links below.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

Q: Does China consider the missile strike on the Syrian airbase to be within the scope of international law? Or do you think it violates existing rules about intervention in other country’s sovereign territory?

A: The Chinese side has always stood for a political settlement of the Syrian issue. Under the current circumstances, we hope all parties can keep calm, exercise restraint and avoid escalating the tension.

The latest developments in Syria highlight once again the urgency of resolving the Syrian issue through political means. We call on all parties not to walk away from the process of political settlement.

 

France and Germany (President and Chancellor):

The joint statement by Mr Hollande and the German chancellor Angela Merkel said that “President Assad alone carries responsibility for these developments” with his “repeated use of chemical weapons and his crimes against his own people.”

United Kingdom Defence Minister:

The UK says it “fully supports” the US missile strike in Syria and has urged Russia to put more pressure on the Assad regime to end the civil war.

The US targeted an air base it says was responsible for a chemical attack which killed dozens of civilians.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the UK was not asked to take part but backed the “wholly appropriate” strike.

European Union, President of European Council:

“US strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria.

Turkey, Deputy Foreign Minister:

TURKEY: NATO ally Turkey, which is a key player in the Syria conflict and has endured choppy relations with Washington recently, welcomed the strikes as “positive.” The deputy foreign minister added: “We believe that the Assad regime must be punished completely in the international arena.”

Turkey called for a no-fly zone in Syria in the wake of the US strike.

Japan, Prime Minister

JAPAN: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Japan “supports the US government’s resolve that it will never tolerate the spread and use of chemical weapons.”

This survey is not comprehensive and some large players, like India, have yet to weigh in.  But it seems only Russia and Iran have condemned the strikes vigorously.  The general support for the attacks in Europe, the Middle East, along withChina’s acquiescence, seems to show that many states are not very troubled by the violation of Article 2(4) most scholars think has occurred here.  Is this because it is a one-off attack? Or does it suggest Article 2(4) has very little pull with many foreign governments these days?

On the domestic US law front, FiveThirtyEight has counted 69 senators have already issued statements supporting the Syria Strikes and while there are critics on constitutional grounds, it doesn’t seem like close to a majority in Congress.

Of course, none of this means that the experts are wrong on the law. But it is at least worth noting the limited impact of the law so far on governmental actors, as the debate on the legality of the Syria Strikes continues.

The Syria Attacks: Haven’t We Had These Debates Already?

by Julian Ku

Reports of another horrific use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria seems to have affected President Trump. In comments today, President Trump said the chemical attacks against civilians “crossed a lot of lines for me” and changed the way he views Syria and leader Bashar al-Assad. Although it is always hard to interpret the President’s comments, he did cite his “flexibility” to change his policies. One might interpret this to mean that the U.S. my change course and directly use military force against the Assad government in Syria.

As tragic as this latest attack is, I also feel like I am in a time-warp that has sent me back to 2012-13 when similar chemical weapons attacks led to similar global outrage which led to an American debate about whether to launch military attacks on Syria.  President Obama famously decided to launch such strikes (without Congress or the UN) and then changed his mind and sought congressional consent.  He never got that, but he did work out an agreement with Russia and the Assad government to remove Syria’s chemical weapons capability.  That didn’t work out as well as he hoped (to use a tragic understatement).  But the factual and legal issues are almost identical today.

So as a service to readers, let me just link to some of the legal analysis we posted back then, much of which still applies today. Updates of course will be necessary, but this is the right place to start.

I argued in 2012 that a strict reading of the U.N. Charter prohibited any U.S. strike on the Syrian government without consent from the U.N. Security Council.  This would be the case even if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians during its civil war.  Former top UK legal adviser Daniel Bethlehem took issue with my formalist reading of the U.N. Charter.

Kevin wondered why the use of chemical weapons itself was so significant as opposed to the civilian deaths it caused.  Put another way, he pointed out that the use of chemical weapons, however horrible, was not necessarily any more of a war crime for legal purposes that the use of non-chemical weapons against civilians and non-combatants.  He also points out in a later post that the Rome Statute does not single out chemical weapons use alone as a crime, despite an initial proposal by drafters to do so.

Finally, we held an “insta-symposium” on Syria with many great contributions from scholars, legal and non-legal, on the difficult questions raised by the Syria conflict.  A list of those posts can be found here at the bottom of the first post in that symposium, from Stephanie Carvin.

Hopefully, this will help all of us refresh ourselves for the great Syria intervention debate, Round II (Donald J. Trump edition).

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.