Syria, chemical weapons and the limits of international law

Consider this shocking fact: Despite horrific images of yet another chemical weapons attack in Syria, the U.S.-led humanitarian intervention to protect civilians on April 13 was fundamentally illegal. Under current international law, President Trump lacks the authorization to launch a single missile to stop future attacks, even for the clear and just purpose of saving civilian lives.

No matter how wise you consider this intervention, legal scholars generally agree that the United Nations Charter doesn’t allow the use of military force to prevent chemical weapons attacks — no matter how evil — without U.N. Security Council approval. This fact seems both morally wrong and harmful to the goals of opposing “rogue” regimes and protecting human rights.

My research into the Syrian crisis highlights the fact that when it comes to protecting the innocent from atrocities, international law is fundamentally broken.

Before the next horrific round of attacks on civilians begins – in Syria or elsewhere – it is important to improve the U.N.’s flawed legal framework for authorizing the use of force in response to chemical weapons attacks on civilians.

But how?

Rules from the past

Let’s start by considering the process that’s in place today.

Under the U.N. Charter, states can use force against other states only for self-defense or when authorized by the U.N. Security Council. The council includes five permanent members with veto powers: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia.

These rules were created following World War II and were designed to enhance global stability. By giving a veto to the five major powers, the Charter ensured that no Security Council decision would lead to conflict between these major powers.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met at Yalta in February 1945 and agreed to veto power by the ‘big five.’ National Archives and Records Administration
In our era, however, they allow a single state to paralyze any Security Council decision, including action to prevent mass atrocities against civilians.