Monday, 28 April 2014

Stop the barrel bombs: A moral and legal responsibility to use force

Update: PDF version here – please share.

Today’s BBC News story on the ongoing bombing of Syria’s civilians by the Assad regime is just the latest of countless reports. The bombing continues daily even if many Western news outlets now report it infrequently. For anyone who wants to know more about how the bombs are impacting men, women, and children, there are more than enough gruesome images of severed arms and legs, of children with their skulls split open, all available just a few clicks away.

A cooler assessment of the bombing’s impact is available in counts of lives taken, in counts of attacks, and in counts of refugee flow increases.

The Violations Documentation Center in Syria today lists 10,365 individuals killed in air attacks since the start of the conflict, 9,892 of them civilians, 1,656 of them under 18, and of those 1,150 children up to the age of 12. This is a minimum count of confirmed killed, not an estimate of the true total. The numbers will likely be higher by the time you click a link.

Of the over 10,000 individual killings by aircraft documented by the VDC, 2,887 took place since the start of this year, a rate of over 700 confirmed killed by air attacks per month.

Just looking at numbers killed doesn’t take account of the horrific scale of injuries. One doctor from Aleppo describes 40 to 50 injuries from one barrel bomb attack as the norm, an overwhelming escalation compared to his earlier experiences with mortar attacks that might injure 7 or 8.

Since February 22nd when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2139, which amongst other things demanded an end to air attacks on civilians, activists have logged at least 1,006 reported air attacks by Assad’s forces.

In February, UNHCR reported aid workers as saying the aerial bombing of Aleppo was causing one of the largest flows of refugees of the war, as many as 500,000. And the bombing has now continued for a further two months. The total number of refugees registered with UNHCR is now over 2.6 million.

Most recently there have been many reports of chlorine being used in barrel bombs, turning them into crude chemical weapons. While the 21 deaths in 14 attacks cited in a report by The Telegraph is a fraction of the number killed by the more usual non-CW air attacks, the chlorine bombs represent a clear breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by Syria last September, as well as being a breach of UNSC Resolution 2139 in common with the rest of the air attacks, and a crime under international humanitarian law.

To some, all this is enough to make a case for military intervention. Others doubt whether intervention can be effective, or believe it would be illegal, or think it would be impractical or prohibitively expensive, or think that it is not the responsibility of Western nations.


I’ve previously argued (here and here) that the likely risk of civilians being killed in a military intervention is massively outweighed by the number of lives being taken by Assad’s air attacks. That case is even stronger now than then.

In NATO’s seven-month Libya air campaign, investigations by The New York Times, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty, counted between 40 and 115 civilians possibly killed by NATO aircraft. While it is right that NATO should be fully accountable to those it was tasked to protect, this number is a fraction of the number now being killed per month by air attacks in Syria: a minimum of over 700 every month as cited earlier.

Military action to disable Assad’s air force, more limited in aims and targets than NATO’s Libya campaign, would therefore most likely prevent very many more civilian deaths and injuries than it might cause.

When the Libya intervention is discussed, objectors point to the fact that Libya is still unstable to argue that military intervention was a failure. NATO’s mission was to protect civilians during the conflict, not establish stable government; nonetheless one can favourably compare Libya’s postwar instability with the situation in Syria. In all of 2013 there were reportedly 643 violent deaths in Libya. In Syria death tolls are now in excess of 200 daily according to the UN Secretary-General’s March report.

So much safer does Libya seem than Syria that the UNHCR has registered 17,589 Syrian refugees in Libya.

It’s also sometimes argued that war in Mali was a result of the Libya intervention, and thus demonstrates the folly of intervention in Syria. This ignores both the history of conflict in Mali, and the scale of the ongoing destabilisation in Lebanon and Iraq that is directly connected with allowing Syria’s war to rage on.

Military action against Assad’s air force would not in itself be likely to end the war, nor would it ensure a stable future for Syrians or their neighbours, but it would almost certainly prevent a big portion of the further suffering now promised to them. For those with the military means to act, there is a moral imperative to do so.


Indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas is prohibited under international humanitarian law.

The recent use of chlorine bombs violates the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is a signatory.

UN Security Council Resolution 2139 on Syria “demands that all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs…”

The Assad regime is therefore clearly, deliberately, continuously violating international law. But would a targeted military action to disable Assad’s air force also violate international law? Not according to UK Government legal opinion.

Minister of State Hugh Robertson reaffirmed in January that under certain circumstances the UK Government regards humanitarian intervention as legal even without a UN Security Council resolution. Those circumstances were defined in a Foreign and Commonwealth Office note circulated to NATO allies in October 1998 prior to the Kosovo intervention, as follows:
Security Council authorisation to use force for humanitarian purposes is now widely accepted (Bosnia and Somalia provided firm legal precedents). A UNSCR would give a clear legal base for NATO action, as well as being politically desirable. 
But force can also be justified on the grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity without a UNSCR. The following criteria would need to be applied: 
(a) that there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief; 
(b) that it is objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; 
(c) that the proposed use of force is necessary and proportionate to the aim (the relief of humanitarian need) and is strictly limited in time and scope to this aim—ie it is the minimum necessary to achieve that end. It would also be necessary at the appropriate stages to assess the targets against this criterion.
In a parliamentary debate on the Kosovo intervention in 1999, UK Defence Minister George Robertson declared that:
We are in no doubt that NATO is acting within international law. Our legal justification rests upon the accepted principle that force may be used in extreme circumstances to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Those circumstances clearly exist in Kosovo. 
The use of force in such circumstances can be justified as an exceptional measure in support of purposes laid down by the UN Security Council, but without the Council's express authorisation, when that is the only means to avert an immediate and overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe.
The current situation in Syria is similar in that narrowly targeted military action to stop aerial attacks would clearly be in support of the purposes of Resolution 2139, even though that resolution doesn’t expressly authorise the use of force.


A patrolled No-Fly Zone such as was implemented over Bosnia, and later over northern and southern Iraq, would be an expensive open-ended commitment. It would also require the kind of capability to suppress enemy air defences only held by the US, so would not be an option without active US participation.

Use of Patriot missiles in Turkey has been proposed by some, but they’re better suited to defend against missile attack and can’t be safely used against enemy aircraft  if friendly aircraft are operating in the same space.

Providing anti-aircraft weapons to rebels is seen as a serious security risk in case they might come into the wrong hands and be used against civilian aircraft.

The best option in Syria seems to be limited strikes against selected targets, whether deterrent strikes against a few choice targets to try and persuade Assad to comply with Resolution 2139 or a wider campaign of strikes against Assad’s air capacity.

Not only would this cost less than a full no-fly zone, but as the duration of a limited strike action would be shorter than a patrolled no-fly zone, and as air defences wouldn’t need to be targeted to the same degree, there should also be less risk to both air crews and to civilians on the ground.


There are only a few states capable of mounting carefully targeted military strikes against Assad. They include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Of those, Britain, France, and the United States are the only ones with previous experience of conducting such operations, and are also the only permanent members likely to support such action given Russia and China’s history of support for the Assad regime.

The capacity to act, the privilege of permanent membership of the Security Council, the protection of veto power in the Council; all of these mean a moral, legal, and political responsibility to act falls upon the governments of Britain, France, and the United States.

Continued failure to act undermines the moral standing of the UK, France, and US. It undermines the legal standing of UN Security Council resolutions, of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and of all international humanitarian law. It undermines the political position of UNSC permanent members, and undermines the current international order. It threatens our security.

This responsibility falls on these three governments collectively and individually. If one fails to act, that does not absolve the others. Each has both the power and the responsibility to act.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Words alone

Update on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139

Previous post: Enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139

Text of resolution 2139
United Nations Security Council, 22 February 2014

Report of the Secretary-General on the implementation of Security Council resolution 2139 (2014)
UN Security Council 24 March 2014. Also available here in English and Arabic.
During the reporting period, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, including aerial bombings, shelling, mortars and car bombs in populated areas, caused mass civilian death and injuries and forced displacement. Publicly available reports indicate that clashes between government and opposition forces continued in most parts of the Syrian Arab Republic. There were continued reports of artillery shelling and air strikes, including the use of barrel bombs, by government forces. Car bombings and suicide attacks, including against civilian targets, resulted in civilian deaths and injuries. Many such attacks were claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the Nusrah Front. Clashes also took place between armed opposition groups and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, mainly in the north. Government-controlled cities and towns, including Damascus, were subject to mortar attacks by armed opposition groups. Reported daily death tolls were on average in excess of 200 people, including civilians.

Syria: UN official cites ‘bleak’ humanitarian situation, urges unhindered access to civilians
UN News Centre, 28 March 2014
The United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator warned the Security Council today that as the Syrian civil war grinds on and millions of desperate people remain cut off from aid, “the humanitarian situation remains bleak, and will continue to be bleak, unless we are granted full and unhindered access, through the most efficient and direct means.”

“I told the Council that we need to see a significant step-change in the speed and scale of humanitarian aid, if we are to save lives and keep pace with the ever-growing needs,” said Valerie Amos, speaking to the press after briefing Council members on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s latest report on implementation of the key elements of resolution 2139 (2014), which focused on humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas, including across conflict lines and across borders, and the expansion of humanitarian relief operations.

Ms. Amos, who is also the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said while the Council’s resolution had demanded an end to the fighting and enhanced access for aid and relief workers, the situation for desperate civilians had not changed and the violence had only intensified in the four weeks since the text’s adoption, with many people killed and injured.

Moreover, since 22 February, some 300 cases of sexual violence have been recorded in Damascus and Rural Damascus alone. “I am also very concerned that hundreds of thousands of people have been newly displaced from areas like eastern Aleppo and Yabroud in the south – driving them further from the reach of humanitarian assistance,” she added.

Her words echoed the grim picture the Secretary-General painted in his report of the situation on the ground, characterized by indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, including aerial bombings, shelling, mortars and car bombs in populated areas, causing mass civilian death and injuries and forced displacement. He adds that reported daily death tolls over the past month were on average in excess of 200 people, including civilians.

The report also says heavy fighting was particularly intense in Aleppo, Dar‘a and Rural Damascus governorates. At least 500,000 people have been displaced from the eastern part of the city of Aleppo since late January. Approximately 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are sheltering in camps close to the Turkish border, while some 22,300 people fled to Turkey during the reporting period. In Dar‘a, “fierce fighting between Government forces and armed opposition groups escalated, leaving around 159,000 people displaced as at the end of February,” says the report.

The Secretary-General goes on to note that as the conflict intensifies and fighting
between armed groups increases, more people are slipping out of the reach of humanitarian organizations. Around 3.5 million people are now estimated to be in need of assistance in hard-to-reach areas, an increase of 1 million since the beginning of 2014.

Syria: Defying Security Council on Aid Access
Human Rights Watch, 28 March 2014
The Syrian government’s refusal to allow aid to enter the country through border crossings held by opposition groups is undermining aid deliveries to hundreds of thousands of desperate people. The government’s refusal violates the international laws of war.

In a resolution adopted unanimously on February 22, 2014, the UN Security Council demanded that “all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, including across conflict lines and across borders.”

Since that date, the Syrian government has for the first time allowed assistance to enter the country through Qamishli, a government-held border crossing on its northern border with Turkey. But the government has reiterated its categorical rejection of UN requests to ship aid through other border crossings in Turkey and Jordan that are opposition-held.

“No one should be fooled by Syria’s agreement to open a single border crossing in the north,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Syria’s refusal to consider allowing aid to enter through border crossings controlled by the opposition means that the situation of the vast majority of people in desperate need of help remains unchanged.”

Syria crisis: UN says no aid improvement despite vote
BBC News, 29 March 2014
The UN has said that there has been no humanitarian improvement for millions of Syrians since the Security Council passed a resolution last month to increase aid deliveries.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said that much of the blame lay with President Bashar al-Assad's government.

On Syria, US and UN are all talk and no action
Washington Post editorial, 3 April 2014
It’s been nearly six weeks since the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2139, which ordered the regime and rebels to “promptly allow unhindered humanitarian access” and threatened “further steps” in the case of noncompliance.

Since then, according to U.N. humanitarian coordinator Valerie Amos, the war of starvation has worsened. The number of Syrians cut off from international aid has grown since January by 1 million, to 3.5 million. At least 180,000 people are in areas directly blockaded by government troops, which refuse to allow in supplies of food or medicine. In direct contravention of the U.N. resolution, the Assad regime has authorized aid convoys to cross only one of eight border posts identified by U.N. relief coordinators.


The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, called Ms. Amos’s report “harrowing.” She said the Assad government “is the sole reason for the lack of progress in cross-border assistance” that “would allow the U.N. and its partners access to almost 4 million people.” She said: “The Assad regime’s murderous appetite for deploying artillery, ‘barrel bombs’ and airstrikes against civilians . . . is the No. 1 factor driving displacement and the broader humanitarian ­crisis.”