Over the last few days, various media outlets have reported that the US, UK and other countries believe that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict (see BBC report). Apparently, there is not yet conclusive evidence of this and the US and others are investigating the matter. However, US President Obama has stated that use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer.”
“Horrific as it is when mortars are being fired on civilians and people are being indiscriminately killed, to use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law.
“All of us, not just the United States, but around the world, have to recognise how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations,” he said
So, the question is whether, as a matter of international law, the use of chemical weapons would justify intervention in Syria. Military intervention in Syria either directly (by the armed forces of other States) or indirectly (by providing arms to the Syrian opposition) would, in principle, be contrary to Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter. The issue is whether there are any arguments that may be used to get round the prohibition of the use of force in that provision. In previous posts I have considered the legality of arming the opposition in Syria (and also here) and after examining the different arguments that may be used, concluded that none of them has a strong basis in international law. It does not seem to me that the use of chemical weapons changes the position as a matter of international law.
The main argument that could be used to justify intervention if it is established that chemical weapons have been used would be humanitarian intervention. However, to my knowledge, the United States has never relied on this as a legal basis for intervention (I would be grateful for clarification if I am wrong on this). More importantly, most States reject the view that international law permits States to use force in other States for humanitarian reasons. Perhaps views on this are changing – for example it is not clear whether French and Arab support for arming the Syrian opposition are based on a humanitarian intervention type argument. Perhaps a use of chemical weapons might change the views of others such that we see the law changing. Read the rest of this entry…