Russian President Vladimir Putin said: I would like to draw your attention to one absolutely key aspect: In line with international law, only the U.N. Security Council can sanction the use of force against a sovereign state. Any other pretext or method which might be used to justify the use of force against an independent sovereign state is inadmissible and can only be interpreted as an aggression.
Laurie Blank, Director, International Humanitarian Law Clinic, Emory Law School, Emory University
President Putin’s statement is not 100% correct, but rather presents an overly-limited view of the international law that governs the use of force.
The international legal framework governing the use of force is based in the UN Charter and seeks to limit as much as possible the situations in which states use force against other states. Therefore, the UN Charter contains a prohibition on the use of force against the sovereignty or territorial integrity of another state (article 2(4)). This prohibition is fundamental to one of the UN Charter’s primary goals — ending “the scourge of war”. However, international law contains three exceptions to that prohibition
1) Consent. This exception does not appear in the UN Charter, but is customary law. If the state where force is being used consents to that use of force, then it is not a violation of international law.
2) UN authorized operation. This is what President Putin is referring to. If the UN authorizes the use of force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, then that use of force is lawful under international law. The operation in Libya in 2011 is an example.
3) Self-defense. A state can use force against another state (or against a non-state actor/group) in individual or collective self-defense. This exception appears in Article 51 of the UN Charter, which states that nothing in the UN Charter impairs the inherent right of self-defense for states. Self-defense is lawful in response to an armed attack or imminent armed attack and the force used must be necessary (meaning there is no non-forceful alternative to stop the attack) and proportionate (meaning that the force used is proportional to the goal of ending the attack).
So there are three exceptions to the prohibition on the use of force. In the specific situation of Syria, neither consent nor self-defense applies. Some argue that there is a right to use force in humanitarian intervention, what is called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which says that when a state commits atrocities against its own people, it abdicates its claim to sovereignty, in essence, because it is no longer doing its primary job of protecting its people, and the international community can come in (use force) to stop the atrocities. At present, R2P is not accepted as law, but it is of course a morally powerful argument and continues to develop more and more adherents.
Kyle Matthews, Senior Deputy Director, Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Concordia University
Putin is correct in that if any military action is taken without the consent and approval of the UN Security Council, then it is illegal. This is the fundamental problem with the UN in that despite evidence of mass atrocities being committed by Assad (saying nothing of the use of chemical weapons), Russia remains Syria’s key ally on the Security Council and by employing it’s veto, can block the international community from containing a real threat to international peace and security. A real play out of 1999 when Russia threatened to veto any action to protect Kosovars. Kofi Annan (seeing what Russia was about to do) visited NATO and endorsed action. What is morally the right thing to do in international affairs is not not always legal, simply because the UN Security Council is the most political organ in the UN. Most decision are not made on the basis of international law but on shortsighted national interest calculations.
I would love to hear Putin explain his 2008 unilateral intervention in Georgia, in which the Responsibility to Protect was invoked by Russian officials and the UN Security Council was bypassed.
Emily Crawford, Post-doctoral Fellow and Associate, Sydney Centre for International Law, University of Sydney
President Putin is partially correct, in that only the Security Council is authorized to determine the existence of, and take action to address, any threat to international peace and security. However, sovereign States retain the right, under Article 51 of the UN Charter, to collective or individual self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.
The situation in Syria is complex, because it is an internal armed conflict, and so does not trigger the conventional law regarding the use of force. Some may see unilateral use of force against Syria as aggression; however, some would also argue that any force used against Syria to stop the commission of war crimes or crimes against humanity would be permissible under the ambit of the Responsibility to Protect concept, which has been endorsed by the UN and was used in relation to Libya. However, any recourse to the responsibility to protect concept would also require UN Security Council sanction.