by Gabor Rona and Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum [Gabor Rona is a Visiting Professor of Law and Director of the Law and Armed Conflict Project at Cardozo Law School. Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Cardozo Law Institute in Holocaust and Human Rights, Cardozo School of Law.]
“It’s not war. We haven’t gone to war against Syria.”
These are the quoted words of former legal advisor of the U.S. Department of State Harold Koh in a recent New Yorker article addressing the legality of the April 6 U.S. missile strike on Syria. While there are many nuanced aspects to the debate about the strike’s legality, the question of whether the use of force by one sovereign nation against another is war is not one of them. See, for example, the Just Security post by Mike Schmitt and Chris Ford.
Professor Koh may have meant only to suggest that the attack does not rise to a level requiring Congressional consent in advance under the U.S. Constitution. But the question: “Is it war?” also has consequences relevant to at least three aspects of international law: 1) the law of state responsibility, 2) the crime of aggression as defined in the International Criminal Court, and 3) the U.N Charter’s prohibition on the use of force. It is the latter two international law issues that we address here.
But first, is it war? It is well established under U.S. law that unless Congress says otherwise, the U.S. considers itself bound to comply with its obligations under international law. International law to which the U.S. is bound includes the Geneva Conventions. The Geneva Conventions are clear that the use of force by one state against another constitutes an international armed conflict, i.e., a war. Congress has never said otherwise, and so, both domestic and international law dictate the same conclusion: the United States and Syria are at war.
Engaging in war is not necessarily unlawful, but starting a war is. The U.S. government should know because it spearheaded successful efforts to prosecute the Nazi leadership for the crime of waging aggressive war (then called “crimes against peace”) at Nuremberg. If that’s too dusty a precedent, then consider that the 124 states party to the International Criminal Court treaty agree that starting a war constitutes the international crime of “aggression.” (See the treaty’s Article 5.1(d)). Or if your exceptionalist bent leaves you cold when the amorphous notion of “international community” is invoked, consider what the U.S. reaction might be when North Korea drops a missile on a South Korean military base and says “It’s not war.”
Professor Koh also suggests that the U.S. attack, even absent U.N. Security Council authorization, is “not illegal.” He cites to the emerging doctrine of humanitarian intervention, according to which, under certain conditions that he concedes may not have been met here, State A may use force to put an end to atrocities in State B. But the U.N. Charter permits State A to use force against State B only if done in self-defense or with Security Council authorization. There is no free-standing right of humanitarian intervention in international relations under the U.N. Charter, or any other instrument of international law. The 2004 Report of the U.N. Secretary General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change is the primary source document for the notion of humanitarian intervention (following on the 2001 Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, produced under the auspices of the Canadian government). The Panel’s conclusions about the use of force for humanitarian purposes presume Security Council approval:
We endorse the emerging norm that there is a collective international responsibility to protect, exercisable by the Security Council authorizing military intervention as a last resort, in the event of genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing or serious violations of international humanitarian law which sovereign Governments have proved powerless or unwilling to prevent.
In other words, the Panel does not claim that the use of force for humanitarian purposes is legal in the absence of either Security Council authorization or conditions that trigger the inherent right to strike in self-defense. Rather, the Panel’s evident intention is to suggest that the Security Council should ipso facto consider mass atrocities against civilians to be a threat to international peace and security, thus triggering its power to authorize use of force pursuant to Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter.
The Panel then, once again, confirms the essential role of the Security Council:
In considering whether to authorize or endorse the use of military force, the Security Council should always address – whatever other considerations it may take into account – at least the following five basic criteria of legitimacy:
(a) Seriousness of threat. Is the threatened harm to State or human security of a kind, and sufficiently clear and serious, to justify prima facie the use of military force? In the case of internal threats, does it involve genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing or serious violations of international humanitarian law, actual or imminently apprehended?
(b) Proper purpose. Is it clear that the primary purpose of the proposed military action is to halt or avert the threat in question, whatever other purposes or motives may be involved?
(c) Last resort. Has every non-military option for meeting the threat in question been explored, with reasonable grounds for believing that other measures will not succeed?
(d) Proportional means. Are the scale, duration and intensity of the proposed military action the minimum necessary to meet the threat in question?
(e) Balance of consequences. Is there a reasonable chance of the military action being successful in meeting the threat in question, with the consequences of action not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction?
Professor Koh has suggested similar criteria here, but leaves out the all-important reference to the Security Council.
A year after the Panel delivered its Report, the U.N General Assembly endorsed the notion of a “responsibility to protect” (of which the notion of humanitarian intervention is a part) but also maintained reference to the role of the Security Council:
We (the international community) are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Whether the U.S. missile strike on Syria meets the criteria established by the international community for humanitarian intervention is questionable. For one, the missile strike was most certainly not an act of “last resort.” For example, while there may be little that the U.S. could do to pressure Assad directly, there is no indication that the Trump administration made any effort to drum up international support to pressure Moscow to lean on Assad after his latest provocation. Second, the propriety of the administration’s purpose is, at best, unclear. With the Trump White House having flip-flopped at lightning speed on whether there is or is not a place for Assad in Syria’s future, the situation is reminiscent of military intervention in Libya, which started as humanitarian intervention and quickly morphed into “regime change.” An additional source of legitimate concern about the administration’s purpose is the heavy cloud of suspicion that the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to deny a Hillary Clinton victory. What better way to show that Trump is not Putin’s pawn than by attacking a Russian ally? Finally, when considering “the balance of consequences,” one must question whether airstrikes are reasonably calculated to lessen, rather than intensify conflict, and thus, civilian suffering, in Syria.
Our doubts about the legality of the attack are not, however, an end in themselves. Jens Ohlin sees the many opinions objecting to the bombing on either domestic or international legal grounds and concludes that “everyone seems to have lined up against humanitarian intervention.” Not us. We firmly endorse the notion of humanitarian intervention but fault the Security Council for not doing its job. Thus, if anything good comes out of this debate, it should be a stark reminder of the need for Security Council reform concerning use of the veto power in the face of mass atrocities.
Meanwhile, as the former head lawyer for the State Department, Professor Koh’s opinion carries great weight. We hope he was misquoted. If not, we fear a future in which other countries itching to find “permission” from the U.S. to drop bombs on their nemeses might just agree with him that war is not war. We are equally concerned that such countries will misinterpret his end-run around the Security Council as open season for threats and use of force, as long as they’re couched in the language of humanitarian intervention.