Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

By Stefan Specian

In the five years the Syrian Civil War has been raging, the world has seen a country be torn apart by brutal, chaotic war. It has seen the deaths of countless innocent civilians, and has seen others trapped without food, water, or electricity for months.

Meanwhile, an entire region is destabilized by the ongoing hostilities, and Europe is flooded with refugees from the area. The Syrian Civil War is more than a localized humanitarian crisis; it has become a threat to international safety and security.

And yet years of talk between the United States and Russia have yielded almost no progress on ending the conflict, as both countries become more entrenched with their allies in the region.

It is clear now that such talks are likely to continue to make no changes to the situation at hand. Russia and the Assad regime have too much of an upper hand in negotiations, while the United States flounders to find diplomatic peace in Syria while also combating Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. As such, it is time for the United Nations to take drastic action to prevent further war crimes in Syria, and to ensure aid can reach those in need.

To do so, however, it will require that the General Assembly of the United Nations bypass the Security Council by calling upon General Assembly Resolution 377, better known as the “Uniting for Peace,” resolution.

In essence, the resolution puts into place an Assembly that can work around a gridlocked Security Council and issue collective measures to regain the peace. Often, these take the form of non-use-of-force measures, such as calls for embargoes, but there is precedent for use of force measures as well.

Could these measures include recommending the use of force to avert a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe? Larry Johnson, former Assistant-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs at the United Nations, analyzed the concept in an article in the American Society for International Law.

Outside the self-defense context and absent a Security Council Chapter VII use of force authorization,” he says, “it is difficult to see how an Assembly recommendation that States use force squares with the norm reflected in Article 2(4) [which lays out notions of national sovereignty], although some have suggested this course of action is possible.”

And so while it has never been done before, there is reason to believe that, were it to be proven that the only solution to the humanitarian crisis would be the use of force, and if the force utilized were proportional, that it would indeed be a possibility. Indeed, there are a few cases in which this argument has been made.

In 2013, the office of the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom issued a policy paper backing up the legal argument for such an intervention. It stated that, were the Security Council to block any action in Syria, especially after the use of chemical weaponry by the Assad regime, it would be allowed to intervene if three conditions were met:

The first of these is that, “there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale.” This is met by the Syrian crisis, given the complete destruction of cities such as Aleppo by constant fighting.

The second and third of these bring up the issue of using actual force, stating “it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force,” and that “the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim.” These both are not only in tune with the idea of a humanitarian intervention, but are in line with all concepts of “Just War.”

Of course this brings up the issue of state sovereignty. Would any intervention not violate the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Syrian state, in a manner that would directly violate the UN Charter? Perhaps, but only if at this point in the war there was a Syrian state left.

In reality, Syria has descended into a state not dissimilar from that of Somalia in the 2000s. It has become a weak and/or failed state, in which the government has lost control of its territory, and is unable to operate a state at all. Its only ability is to wage war against its own citizens, in the hope of maintaining a modicum of legitimacy.

As such, an intervention into the Syrian conflict to end the humanitarian crisis would not be a violation of state sovereignty, as no functionally sovereign state exists.

Of course, there is no guarantee such a measure would pass. And there is no guarantee that if it did, any state or coalition would be willing to jump into such a complex and international conflict, much less potentially come in direct conflict with Russia. But the diplomacy of John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov has failed, and if there is ever to be an end to this massive humanitarian crisis, it will only come from the United Nations taking immediate and unprecedented action.



-Larry D. Johnson, “Uniting for Peace”: Does It Still Serve Any Useful Purpose?

-Office of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Chemical weapon use by Syrian regime: UK government legal position

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