UN Security Council has no responsibility to protect citizens behind state borders
Opinion: Fear that international system will be weakened by rash of interventions
Are these transparent attempts at cobbling some coherence together really necessary, or even useful? Perhaps, but with the continued failure of international law to provide a coherent route to intervention, it largely amounts to theatre. There are many reasons to refrain from intervention, but the real cause for such legal wrangling is fear, mainly of the ‘domino effect’: that with each intervention, each erosion of sovereignty, the international system is weakened and the likelihood of additional interventions increased.
A related fear, and one fuelled by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is ulterior motive and the abuse of ‘emerging norms’, such as morally obscene violations of international law. Already the question is being asked, “if Syria, why not Egypt?”
Considerable efforts have been made to address these concerns, most notably by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and the subsequent articulation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. Despite this though, and the Security Council’s unanimous decision to endorse R2P through Resolution 1674, legal authorisation of the use of force can still only be secured “through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter”.
Atrocities like the chemical attack in Damascus will happen again. And again, politicians and lawyers will labour in a vain attempt to make a square peg fit into a round hole. Eventually, they will tire, and either force the peg in, or give up. International law on the use of force is constitutive of state sovereignty and therefore state interests. The United Nations Security Council gives expression to conflicts of these interests, not the tools to overcome them. That Barack Obama, also a former president of the Harvard Law Review, can admit to being “comfortable going forward without the approval of the UN Security Council” says much in this regard.
There is a possible pathway to a better place. There’s even a template (though it has had a lot of bad press lately). It’s called the European Union. Speaking at that same symposium in 1998, Javier Solana noted “What sets this process apart from the Westphalian system is the willingness of states to cede elements of national sovereignty for the common good of a united Europe. It thus aims directly at eliminating those root causes of conflict that Westphalia could not overcome”.
Until there is a pan-global effort of this sort, in which the interests of the system can be separated from those of its citizens, the route to intervention will continue to be paved by dithering and death.
Neil Brady holds an MA in political science at University College Dublin where he studied for a thesis on humanitarian intervention.