The arguments advanced to justify the illegal US/French/UK attack upon Syrian CW related facilities incorporated buckets of sanctimony and numbing hypocrisy. There has been no serious discussion of the justification given by the three; because it was known to be patently false. And, worse, by setting themselves above the law, these three permanent members of the UN Security Council, hammered another nail into the now, well advanced, shape of the Security Council’s coffin. And, there’s been no serious discussion of this dangerous reality.
On 16th April, Pearls and Irritations posted an article by Scott Burchett in which he posted 7 questions raised by the attack on Syria on 14th April. His list was apposite and, predictably, those questions have not figured in the justifications/explanations offered for their action, by US/UK/France.
Instead, the three have claimed that they acted to defend the international law, particularly that embodied in the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. The sanctimony this claim embodied was matched by its hypocrisy.
Specifically, their action violated international law embodied in fundamental aspects of the Charter of the UN which outlaws any attack upon a State not authorized by the Security Council, and at least in the case of the US and the UK, their own domestic law, which requires parliamentary approval of any such military action. The French Presidential system is less clear on this point.
These are not mere legal quibbles. These rules exist for the very real reason of seeking to prevent anarchic exercise of national power in violation of the rules-based order for the conduct of international relations, established in the Charter, 70 years ago. And, the point of this is that no one can know, although history teaches repeatedly, where such nationally determined exercise of military power will lead. We certainly don’t know, in the present circumstances, and it appears nor do the three aggressors. In particular, there is utter confusion if not mystification within the US of what might be its policy on Syria.
No one is buying the sanctimony expressed about the need to prevent further use of chemical weapons. All the analyses being offered deal with the conflict which exists between the US and Russian/Iranian policy towards Syria and in the Middle East more generally, including the role and interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Much has been written in the current period, about the revival of great power competition, indeed about a new Cold War, which has shoved aside, rendered impotent, the rules-based order, centred on the UN Security Council. This latest action, taken by three Permanent Members of the Security Council, has pushed the Council further towards irrelevance.
So, to Scott Burchett’s very sound list of 7 questions should be added an 8th question: what is the future of the Council and that order? Can it survive, or at least maintain a modicum of credibility and authority, in the face of such hypocrisy. Where is the valiant defense by these three in the face of so many other violations of international law and norms, including those relating to human rights in so many other instances: in Yemen, with respect to the Kurds and Turkey, Gaza, to mention just a fraction of such instances, in the Middle East.
It seems that CW were used, again, in Syria a week ago. There is the need to establish the facts of this: what happened and the source of that use. For this purpose, a technical team had been dispatched by the OPCW. The three were not prepared to await their findings, preferring to determine, in advance, that the Assad Regime, possibly aided by Russia and Iran were responsible. Pure politics.
Presumably, they would argue that there would be no point in waiting, because of their certainty that any action which would then be recommended against Syria, for example, would be vetoed by the Russians. This would be a fair prediction, given the current record of Security Council debate and vetoes. Again, pure politics, as against any willingness to search for common ground or common solutions, in accordance with international law.
No discussion of this current debacle would be complete without reference to US domestic politics. Trump is enmired in legal and personal difficulties. His Presidency is increasingly being seen as untenable; the Editorial Board of the New York Times has written twice to that effect, in the last week (the latest is: “The President is Not Above the Law”; 15th April). And, the Times is by no means alone. What the Americans should or can do about Trump is elementally their business, but it is also important for the rest of us because of the ever-present possibility that Trump will attempt to fight his way out of his pit through foreign expeditions.
His appointment of John Bolton as National Security advisor is woeful. Bolton is on record as wanting to go to war with Iran and DPRK. Trump is required by law in a few weeks’ time to re-certify the nuclear agreement with Iran. If Bolton has his way Trump will not. After that, he is scheduled to hold talks with Kim Jong Un. What will Bolton advise Trump on that?
In the context of his earlier appointment in charge of Arms Control at the State Department, I was present when Bolton declared that “there is no such thing as international law, there is only national sovereignty”.
In many salient ways, the conduct of international relations has been moved back into an arena of traditional power competition, largely defined in military terms; sidelining the so-called “rules-based order” to which our government has stated it attaches basic importance. But, this too is hypocritical, as we have made clear repeatedly, that our version of those rules is that emanating from Washington. And, lamentably, Labor is echoing this.
By our actions, we seem to assert that, the rules are those that others must follow. This has the effect of weakening the rules to the point we are now witnessing where the Security Council almost never does an objective job, but is reduced to a tawdry piece of theatre, playing from a dull script, with easily predictable endings.
A compelling analysis of the stakes at issue today, following this latest illegal incursion by the west into the Middle East, and more generally in the conduct of current international relations, is provided by Ramesh Thakur in Pearls and Irritations, 17th April. Must read.
Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations, Executive Chairman of UNSCOM, the Special Commission to disarm Iraq.