There have been increasingly frequent references by politicians and commentators, including some lawyers, to the internationally accepted principle of governments’ “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) their own citizens from humanitarian disasters and the responsibility (not ‘right’) of the international community to intervene to protect people who are so threatened if their own governments are unable or unwilling to do so. It’s being suggested, quite wrongly, that the R2P allows us and the Americans and others to attack Syria to punish its government for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, or to deter it from doing it again, without the need for the UN Security Council to give its approval in advance. In the hope of squelching this dangerous error, I sent the following letter to the Guardian, which published it as the lead letter in its issue of 27 August 2013, in time (I hope) to be read by MPs and others before the Syria debate this afternoon:
According to your report (Kerry: US will act against Assad, 27 August), “the UK and US have both signalled that they are prepared to act [against Syria] without a UN mandate. International law experts say intervention could be legally justified without a security council resolution under the UN’s ‘responsibility to protect'”. According to another report, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, “did not rule out Labour giving its backing to military intervention without a UN resolution”.
But the 2005 World Summit outcome document in which the heads of state unanimously approved the new international norm of the “responsibility to protect”, subsequently approved by UN security council resolution 1674, states that:
“The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with chapters VI and VII of the charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the security council, in accordance with the charter … on a case-by-case basis…” [my italics].
Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former US presidential special envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson, who co-chaired a working group on the responsibility to protect (R2P), stressed in the group’s report that “R2P’s implementation is to be done in accordance with the UN charter, which means that the central decision-making authority is the UN security council”.
I wonder who are these “international law experts” who advise, absolutely wrongly, that military action against a sovereign state (other than in self-defence) without the authority of the security council can be justified under R2P? According to another report, “Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, warned that any attack on Syria without security council sanction would be ‘a crude violation of international law’. He compared the situation to the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003”. Lavrov was right on both counts.
Attorney-general Dominic Grieve should act immediately and above all publicly to nip in the bud this dangerous misconception that R2P allows any country to evade the plain requirements of international law as laid down in chapters VI and VII of the UN charter, before its constant repetition is wrongly assumed to legitimise another US-UK act of aggression like that committed against Iraq in 2003.
It seems that Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who refers in his column in today’s Guardian to R2P as if it provided an alternative to Security Council authority for attacking Syria, had not read my letter in yesterday’s Guardian, or the key R2P documents either. This seems a little lax on his part, since he’s a lawyer and Chair of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee as well as a Conservative MP and a former foreign and defence secretary. I hope MPs who contribute to the debate this afternoon will have done their homework more thoroughly.
Footnote: “All Members [of the United Nations] shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” UN Charter, Article 2.4.