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 –
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.