Do we need UN approval for military intervention?

This article is being written with the situation in Syria in mind, a mind which in my case is frustrated with the almost complete absence of meaningful outside support for the rebels, freedom fighters and people of Syria. But the question to be examined here will apply equally to other situations in which some states are pondering a (military) humanitarian intervention.

One reason given for the lack of any intervention so far is the refusal by China and Russia and their veto power at the UN Security Council. I will explain why this is rather a lame excuse than a reason and that these two countries (or any other of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council) cannot prevent others from coming to the rescue of oppressed populations in countries ravaged by brutal dictators –

"Let's hope nobody notices how useless we are."

“Let’s hope nobody notices how useless we are.”

and that applies even if we want to take the UN framework seriously, for which there are probably fewer reasons than there are against doing so. It is true that Russia and China can veto a UN Security Council resolution and thus deny it from passing. But this is by far not the same as having the power to veto our foreign policy, as Western countries sometimes argue in an obvious search for a scapegoat. Not only for weeks or for months, but meanwhile for years, the US and some European countries have been trying to get Russia and China to give the green light for more robust action against the Syrian military. Curiously, I don’t think China would ever consider France to have a veto power over its foreign policy in Asia, despite France having exactly the same veto power at the UN Security Council.

Sure, Russia and China can use their veto to prevent the UN Security Council from setting up a UN peacekeeping operation or from authorizing military action. But first, we don’t need that. We (let’s say NATO) can act without a UN mandate or without UN support. NATO has been perfectly capable of carrying out effective military campaigns without UN backing in the past (for example in Kosovo). And second, the veto power works both ways. If we decide to intervene in Syria on the side of the beleaguered population or the rebels against Assad, what can the UN Security Council do against that? Well, as long as at least either the US, France or the UK are on board, the UN Security Council can do nothing because of these countries’ veto power. So, just as the veto power prevents a UN mandate, it will also prevent condemnation or sanctions against those who act without such a mandate.

There are many reasons both for and against a military intervention in Syria: political, military, humanitarian, ethical, but legal limitations there are not. I have the impression that many Western governments (especially ever-reluctant Germany) are almost happy about Russia’s and China’s stance because it gives them an excuse: “We would so much love to help the people of Syria, but oh, these evil Russians are preventing us from doing so.” Bullshit. As in domestic law, it is even more the case in international law: if you break it and nothing happens to you, it ain’t real law.

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Human Rights, Law, Military, Politics, Syria and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Do we need UN approval for military intervention?

  1. List of X says:

    Those Syrian rebels are part freedom fighters, and part islamists. If the rebels win, islamists will likely take over, because they know what to do next, and freedom fighters just want to be free from Assad. So helping the rebels will most likely replace the Allawi sect oppressing Sunni’s by Sunni oppression of Allawis. Question is, does the US or NATO really wants to be involved in that?

    • It’s up to us to prevent that. The islamists are only as strong as they are now because we haven’t been helping the freedom fighters. By sitting back for two years and being afraid of islamists, we have created exactly what we were afraid of.
      Also, I work under the assumption that Assad will sooner or later fall, whether we intervene or not. He hasn’t been able to control large parts of his country despite a huge military machine. He is on the decline (although admittedly holding on much longer than I had thought). If we can even influence a little bit what will come afterwards, I think it’s worth a try.
      And that doesn’t even address the ethical question.

    • List of X says:

      We could bomb the Assad’s military installations to try to prevent further gas attacks, but unless we put a large invasion force, we can’t have a real chance of getting and keeping a Syrian regime that we find acceptable. And that would be another Iraq, at best.

  2. De Benny says:

    I think Andreas wants to point out that there is a legal way of getting involved there, I don’t think he says it should or must be done…
    On the other hand: If nothing happening makes things right, then this would mean the veto powers (and their satellite states) can do whatever they want. International law doesn’t apply to them as they can veto (or have their big brothers to veto).
    I guess this could also be elaborated a bit more to saying: Whoever is capable of doing what he wants can. This would in the end mean that there is no law at all, chaos breakes lose and the strongest will survive somehow.

    • And if there is no agreement whether these “specific and serious preconditions” have been met, nothing happens if some countries take action without a UN mandate and they have at least one of the P5 on their side.

    • Arthur H. Lambauer says:

      Unfortunately You are right. But this is barbarism instead of law and order. Barbarism which entails a spiral of force and open war.

  3. Clemens says:

    Well said Andreas: especially the stance of many German politicians is completely disgusting and dishonest. A particularly weird highlight was Sigmar Gabriel suggesting that Merkel should travel to Russia and seduce Putin over the weekend…

    To some extent I can understand people who are of the honest opinion that military invention does not lead anywhere and/or is too costly. But this constant talk about first getting the Russians on board is bizarre. In fact, if Russia is trying to veto what you are doing it’s a clear indication that you are doing the right thing!

  4. Moshe Ben Ezra says:

    How do they know that Assad used chemical weapons on his own people and that it wasn’t a staged event by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and/or Mossad? Everyone knows now that 9/11 and Boston Marathon Bombing were staged events and that Israeli Zionists were involved in 9/11 Inside Job. Why wouldn’t Israel attack Syria if they so want. Why kill US soldiers for something that Israel is setting up as fake staged events on foreign ground? Every intelligent and self-respecting person knows that Alqaeda does not exist and that taliban does not reach Syria. These are all staged, fake events by the abovementioned Zionist people. This is to not blame all the Jews, but only the Zionists.

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