CW attack in Khan Sheikhoun: Documents from the UNSC debate on responsibility

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

{Update 4 – 12 April 2017}

This posting brings together the most important documents circulating at this stage.

First, the minutes with the statements by UN Security Council (UNSC) members and debate on 28 February, during which a resolution to sanction certain Syrian individuals deemed responsible for the earlier CW attacks was vetoed, can be downloaded here.

On 5 April, the UNSC held an emergency debate after the chemical weapon attack against Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib Province, Syria that killed scores of civilians – the death toll is now approaching 100 – and hundreds of other casualties.

In a statement also issued on 5 April, the WHO gave credence to the hypothesis that the agent or one of the agents used might have been sarin:

The likelihood of exposure to a chemical attack is amplified by an apparent lack of external injuries reported in cases showing a rapid onset of similar symptoms, including acute respiratory distress as the main cause of death. Some cases appear to show additional signs consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents.

The full document is available from the WHO website.

The UNSC emergency session began with a report by Mr Kim Won-soo, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) has published his statement.

A detailed summary of the session presentations and discussion is available here.

At present, Russia, on the one hand, and France, United Kingdom and the United States, on the other hand, have started circulating draft texts for resolutions.

And he made the early French, UK and US draft available via the web.

A debate and vote on these draft resolutions was expected in the evening of 6 April (EST), but has been cancelled.

Also on 6 April the European Union released a statement denouncing the chemical attack, but supporting ‘the efforts of the OPCW in Syria with regard to the investigation of the use of chemical weapons and [considering] that such efforts have to be continued in the future by the international community‘.

The UN Security Council is meeting on 7 April to discuss the US airstrike against Syria. A briefing ahead of the meeting updates the status of the negotiations on a resolution condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

{Update}revised French, UK and US draft resolution on his blog.

{Update} Meanwhile the 4-page White House report on the chemical weapon attack against Khan Sheikhoun is also available.

More to follow as they become available.

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Now What? Responding to Alleged Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

As media are reporting, high-level discussions in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere are focusing on how governments should respond to the incident in Syria involving an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime. These discussions include consideration of military strikes against Syria. Earlier, in light of conclusions that the Assad government had used chemical weapons on a small scale, deliberations about arming Syrian rebels raised questions of international law and other sources of law (EU law, US law). See, for example, Pierre-Emmanuel Dupont’s Arms Control Law post on this issue.

At present, the debate about direct military strikes is dominated by non-legal questions, such as (1) clarifying what happened and who is responsible (on which see Jean Pascal Zanders’ posts on Arms Control Law and The Trench), (2) further danger to US credibility given existing controversies about President Obama’s “red line” statements, and (3) whether military intervention would be prudent or effective. However, as suggested by gathering momentum for military action, legal issues are on the agenda internationally and within governments contemplating the use of force. So, here are some preliminary, general thoughts on these legal questions.

International Law

In terms of international law, two critical, linked issues are (1) the principles on state responsibility (did a chemical weapons attack occur, and was the Syrian government responsible?), and (2) the rules on the use of force (does a chemical weapons attack attributable to the Syrian government provide a justification for other states to use force against Syria?).

The cleanest scenario would be for the evidence to show that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, and, then, for the Security Council to authorize UN member states to respond with military force to this threat to international peace and security.

For many reasons, this scenario is unlikely to be the one that plays out. At the moment, it appears as if definitive attribution of this attack to the Syrian government will prove time-consuming, difficult, and politically contentious, leaving enough room and time for differences among members of the Security Council to produce opposition to a resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria.

The next strongest basis for using force, the right to use force in self-defense, is not an option because the attack in question was not perpetrated against another state. Nor, at the moment, would an argument of anticipatory or pre-emptive self-defense be persuasive as a justification for using force.

That leaves the more controversial option of justifying a use of force under the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) principle, or (to the extent it is considered distinct from R2P) under the older idea of humanitarian intervention. This option is controversial because, among other things, whether a state can rely on these grounds to use force without Security Council authorization remains hotly debated, indicating that no consensus exists in international law on this question. The Syrian conflict, and the humanitarian debacle associated with it, has revealed the depth of disagreement about, and the difficulties associated with, the R2P principle in international law.

However, even given this controversy, the large-scale use of chemical weapons by a government against civilians in a civil war constitutes an atrocity of sufficient gravity that states can, with some force, argue that international law permits military action against that government without authorization of the Security Council. This argument will agitate the long-standing legal controversy in this area, but the controversy cuts both ways in that its existence means neither position is beyond the legal pale. Potentially effective ways to manage the controversy in order to tip opinion in the direction of using force without Security Council authorization include (1) producing clear and convincing evidence of Syrian government responsibility for a chemical weapons attack, (2) making good faith efforts to try to obtain Security Council authorization for a use of force, and (3) ensuring serious multilateral support for, and participation in, military action against Syria.

US Law

In terms of US law, military strikes by US armed forces would bring questions of constitutional war powers into play, as well as the War Powers Resolution (WPR). Most recently, controversies about the application of constitutional war powers and the WPR erupted in connection with the US air campaign against Libya. To much debate, the Obama administration argued that US military activities against Libya did not constitute “war” under the Constitution or “hostilities” under the WPR. Whether the administration would use the same reasoning with respect to military action against Syria depends on many factors, including the scope and seriousness of US military efforts.

However, we know enough to understand that Libya and Syria are not comparable. To date, US reluctance to get involved militarily in Syria flows, in part, from a realization Syria presents a harder target, and a more difficult operational context, than Libya. These differences would probably require more extensive, much riskier military activities than the US was able to undertake against Libya. Legally, it would be harder to sustain the position that such activities do not constitute “war” under the Constitution or “hostilities” under the WPR. Further, very limited military actions designed to permit re-use of the legal positions taken in the Libya incident could undermine the international legal case that military force is justified in responding to a large-scale atrocity committed with chemical weapons.

To avoid constitutional and statutory problems, the President could seek congressional authorization to use force, but the wisdom of US military intervention into the Syrian conflict has been, and currently is, at issue in Washington, D.C., even in light of the alleged chemical weapons atrocity. Given this, and the nasty political climate between the White House and Congress, it is difficult to believe that Congress would declare war on Syria absent some development that would dramatically change the political calculations inside the Beltway.


Me Thinks They Doth Protest Too Much: Espionage in the Cyber Age

This past weekend brought more Snowden flakes about NSA spying. However, this time the alleged espionage targeted not American citizens, “foreign nationals reasonably believed to located outside the US,” or China but American allies–European Union (EU) officials, diplomatic facilities, and computer networks. If true (as seems likely from US government responses–see below), these leaks combine with the previous disclosures about NSA surveillance to inform people of the scale, capabilities, and audacity of US intelligence gathering activities.

European leaders expressed shock and took much umbrage, with some dredging up the dark spying days of the Cold War and others issuing threats of adverse consequences for upcoming US-EU negotiations on a transatlantic trade agreement. Responses from President Obama, the Director of National Intelligence, and Secretary of State made the same point–the US engages in espionage as all nations do in order to protect foreign policy and national security interests.

This response was simultaneously true and disingenuous. All countries spy in some form or another, and, European public displays of anger aside, the spying includes keeping an eye on allies. And that includes the intelligence agencies of European countries whose leaders were shocked–so shocked!–at the US gathering intelligence on their possible future actions. The response was disingenuous because the US has an intelligence capability that is unrivaled in the world and the political and economic power to pursue espionage without fear of serious consequences. See, for example, the US-EU transatlantic trade talks will start as scheduled despite lots of frothing Euro mouths.

However, not too long ago, it was American officials and politicians who were frothing about Chinese cyber spying against the US government and US-based companies. Snowden’s apparent disclosure of large-scale US cyber espionage against Chinese government, business, and academic targets and, now, allegations about US spying on European governments, makes the past few months of portraying Chinese cyber espionage as beyond the pale look, well, less impressive. Even the US attempt to distinguish economic espionage against companies from classical state-on-state spying gets lost in the growing perception–now directly re-enforced by the US government–that all countries engage in espionage against allies and rivals whenever and however they see fit. In this light, earnestly repeated assertions by China that it does not engage in cyber espionage against the US and other countries and that it is the innocent victim of American spying appear, strangely, rather unseemly for a rising world power.

Should the protagonists in these events stop whining about espionage and just get on with it? Or, do these revelations suggest that the Internet has turned “everybody does it” espionage into an out-of-control phenomenon that damages individual privacy, alliances, and great power politics and requires some re-thinking? Existing international law is permissive of spying, and the few international legal rules that contain limits do not constrain the practice in any effective way. As already indicated, Snowden’s leaks have derailed the US effort to portray Chinese cyber espionage as outside “norms of responsible behavior in cyberspace,” and the coordinated chorus from top US government officials to the latest leak that “all nations do it” might well have ended the willingness of other countries to consider American ideas about re-thinking international norms about espionage in light of the global importance of the Internet.