Last Saturday US, British and French forces bombed three chemical weapons facilities in Damascus in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces in Douma on 6–8 April that killed around 70 people.
Others will discuss the strategic context and consequences of the allied air strikes on Syria. As a student of UN-centric global governance, I want to make the larger ‘structural’ argument that—considered in its totality—the strikes reflect and will further contribute to a broken system of international order.
First, they highlight the West’s self-appointed role as the moral policeman of the world. State sovereignty is the bedrock principle of the contemporary, essentially Westphalian, global order. Erosion of the principle includes demands that governments’ domestic behaviour conforms to international normative standards.
But there’s the matching demand that states’ international use of force be constrained by international law. The international community hasn’t elected Britain, France and the US to act as the arbiters and enforcers of state behaviour by other countries acting within their borders.
Syria and its patron, Russia, vehemently denied that a chemical attack had even taken place, let alone that President Bashar al-Assad was responsible. Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova insisted that ‘Damascus has neither the motive to use chemical weapons nor the chemical weapons themselves’.
A second aspect of the broken international system, therefore, is the lack of international criminal investigative and accountability mechanisms to ensure compliance with prevailing norms and humanitarian law that’s credible, effective and timely. Such mechanisms would ensure the punishment of perpetrators while also deterring repeats of the abhorrent conduct by thugs in the future.
The third is the lack of enforcement mechanisms. This is why countries with core humanitarian values step in to fill the void. The international community has proscribed the possession and use of chemical weapons. If they are used, then—realistically speaking—who other than the West is going to do anything about it? The alternative is to reduce the abolition of chemical weapons stockpiles and manufacturing infrastructure, as well as the global prohibition on their use, to empty gestures.
Unfortunately, the politics of a permissive environment for punishing heinous war crimes works against the requirements of a forensic examination that can provide the necessary proof of culpability. Consider the case of Khan Sheikhun in Syria’s Idlib province. Held by the rebels at the time, the town was attacked with chemical weapons on 4 April 2017, killing more than 80 people. Assad denied responsibility while Moscow claimed that a warehouse bombed by the Syrian air force may have been used as a storage site for chemical weapons by the rebels. All sides agreed to an independent investigation by the UN’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The US claimed that jets from the Shayrat air base had bombed the town, and on 7 April it hit the base with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The unilateral, non-UN–authorised strikes were warmly applauded by most Western and several other countries. On 6 October, the UN Human Rights Commission’s independent inquiry commission pinned the blame on the Syrian air force. The OPCW–UN Joint Investigation Mission confirmed this finding in its own report on 26 October.
In other words, it took six months for independent investigations to confirm regime culpability. Had the US waited until then, it seems highly unlikely that President Donald Trump could have mustered support domestically or internationally for punitive raids long after the provocation had faded from public minds.
A fourth consideration is the veto clause that allows just one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to paralyse decision-making by the world’s only duly-constituted law enforcement body. China and Russia have employed the veto on numerous occasions to block UNSC action against Syria. Reflecting on Syria’s savage civil war Amnesty International rightly concluded six years ago that the Security Council is ‘tired, out of step and increasingly unfit for purpose’.
Since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad that began in 2011, around 500,000 people have been killed in total on all sides, and around 13 million have been displaced internally or become refugees. Some of the rebel groups backed by the West are no less unsavoury than the regime that is backed by Russia.
With the complex internal sectarian divides intersecting with regional power rivalries, existing international institutions have proven totally inadequate to the challenge of coping with the multiple crises.
In the 1999 Kosovo war, most Western analysts concurred with the Kosovo Commission that the NATO bombing of Serbia was illegal but legitimate. It was illegal because it hadn’t been authorised by the UNSC. Nor was it a response to an armed attack on a NATO member. But it was held to be legitimate because its primary purpose was to halt humanitarian atrocities by the murderous Slobodan Milosevic.
The legality–legitimacy distinction now haunts the UNSC more broadly. It has the legal authority to bind the international community but is so badly out of alignment with the real world that its actions are increasingly illegitimate. Three of the five permanent members—the very three that have just bombed Syria—are Western. Their 60% dominance is wildly out of proportion to their population and economic weight in world affairs.
Another three elected members are also Western (presently, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden). With six of the 15 Security Council seats—40%—Western representation is grossly disproportionate to UN membership and global population distributions.
It’s easy for Australia to say this is the best we have and we must live with it. We wouldn’t be so sanguine and respectful of UNSC decisions, on the grounds that there’s no alternative, if the US were the only Western permanent member and there was only one additional Western elected member on the council.
Thus, this is the final measure on which the Syria crisis highlights the sorry state of world order arrangements. The major Western countries have failed to prioritise the reform of the Security Council with the requisite urgency. Meanwhile, a short-term measure would be for the UK and the US to back French efforts for a code of conduct that would see a voluntary exemption of humanitarian crises from the veto.
Ramesh Thakur is a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and is emeritus professor at the Australian National University.
This article first appeared in The Strategist, Monday 16 April 2018