The official final text of Security Council resolution 2118 (2013) on Syria is now available, as is the full proces-verbal of the Council’s discussion after the adoption of the resolution (text available here; ODS search strangely still showing it as under embargo; S/PV.7038). The main points of the resolution have of course received much attention from the press, and there is also commentary by John Bellinger on Lawfare and Ryan Goodman on Just Security, here and here). There are a couple of features of the resolution that I find particularly interesting.
First, there’s the fact that in its last preambular paragraph the Council unanimously endorsed the view that all Council decisions, and not just Chapter VII resolutions, are legally binding. This was of course due to careful diplomacy between the US and Russia, with the former wanting a legally binding instrument and the latter refusing to agree to a Chapter VII resolution. The compromise between the two is reflected in the preambular paragraph when the Council is ‘underscoring that Member States are obligated under Article 25 of the Charter of the United Nations to accept and carry out the Council’s decisions’ and then in a number of operative paragraphs which use the verb ‘decides’ to impose legally binding obligations.
In other words, while decisions under Chapter VII are legally binding (even though resolutions under this chapter will frequently include non-binding recommendations as well), they are not the only decisions with binding force. This is I think the first time that the Council so openly adopted this view, which was endorsed before it by the ICJ in the 1971 Namibia advisory opinion. Doctrinally of course the issue was not settled and continued to be debated; for an overview see John Bellinger’s post as well as this excellent report linked to by Ryan. But now the matter does seem to be finally settled, with the ICJ’s interpretation of the Charter garnering unanimous support of the Council.
The PV of the meeting, at which many delegations stressed the legally binding nature of the resolution, only supports the resolution’s text. I think Ryan is wrong when he argues that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov ‘took a swing at the legal strength of the Resolution’ when he stated that it was not passed under Chapter VII. As I see it, Russia is in full agreement with the US and the UK that the resolution did create binding obligations – this is at least implicit in his following statement on p. 4 of the PV:
Particular responsibility lies with those who back and sponsor the opposition; they have to ensure that chemical weapons do not fall into the hands of extremists. We draw attention to the fact that the resolution contains requirements set by the Security Council that apply to all countries, especially Syria’s neighbours. They must report to the Council any attempts by non-State actors to obtain chemical weapons. It would be even more unacceptable for them to support such attempts. All similar cases will be immediately considered by the Security Council with the objective of taking the necessary measures. (emphasis mine)
What Chapter VII brings to the table is not necessarily the binding nature of the measures enacted, but telling us what the measures can substantively be under the Charter, e.g. the authorization to use force. And this is what the Russians are (rightly) concerned about; they don’t want there to be any plausible argument that the Council has implicitly authorized force, and this is what they achieved. But that does not mean that they do not consider the decisions made within the resolution, e.g. for Syria not to use chemical weapons, to cooperate with the OPCW, etc., to be non-legally binding.
The second striking thing about the resolution is its determination in the first operative paragraph ‘that the use of chemical weapons anywhere constitutes a threat to international peace and security.’ In other words, any use of chemical weapons by anyone anywhere is ipso facto a threat of international peace and security, and justifies the Council’s intervention. The Council has previously made such determinations only rarely, as e.g. in resolution 1368 (2001) in which it found that any act of international terrorism was a threat to international peace and security.
Also of note is op. para. 19, in which the Council ‘demands that non-State actors not develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery, and calls upon all Member States, in particular Member States neighbouring the Syrian Arab Republic, to report any actions inconsistent with this paragraph to the Security Council immediately.’ Note how the demand is addressed to non-state actors directly and is very precise in scope; this of course raises the issue whether the Council can create legally binding obligations for non-state actors, and whether it has done so in this particular instance (cf. the ICJ’s Kosovo advisory opinion). The Council buttressed this ‘demand’ (but not a ‘decision’?) by deciding in op. para. 20 that ‘all Member States shall prohibit the procurement of chemical weapons, related equipment, goods and technology or assistance from the Syrian Arab Republic by their nationals, or using their flagged vessels or aircraft, whether or not originating in the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.’
Finally, the Council’s decision in op. para. 21 to impose Chapter VII measures in case of non-compliance is also I think a novelty – although it clearly wouldn’t prevent a veto regarding the adoption of a further resolution, it would render that veto even more politically suspect.