The question of whether to support the United States’ threat to launch a limited military strike against Syria dominated the recent meeting of the Group of Twenty at St. Petersburg. This raises vital issues, such as whether the United States can ignore the UN Security Council and take this course of action without violating the United Nations Charter, what would be the effect if the United States fails to obtain the approval of the UN Security Council because of the use of the veto power, and what changes in the balance of power have taken place to affect decisions taken by the UN Security Council.
Under international law, the use of force is allowed only in case of self-defense or when the United Nations Security Council has approved the use of force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. As the United States is not under attack by Syria and cannot claim self-defense, the United States is required to obtain the approval of the UN Security Council before it may launch a military strike against Syria.
The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect also provides for collective action by the international community through the UN Security Council and in accordance with the UN Charter, if military intervention is required to protect a population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,
The United States has sought to obtain the high moral ground by arguing that it has evidence Syria has used chemical weapons against its own people and that this should not be allowed to go unpunished because it would be a signal that other rogue states could do the same with impunity. The United States argues that the issue cannot be brought before the UN Security Council because Russia (and China) will use the veto.
If so, this would show that it is timely to amend the UN Charter and abolish the veto power. President Putin pointed out that it was upon the insistence of the United States that the veto power was given to the five Permanent Members.
The NATO bombing campaign in the conflict regarding Kosovo was made without the sanction of the UN Security Council but the United Kingdom justified it on the basis of humanitarian necessity.
UN Secretary General Ban Kim-moon, however, has pleaded that the United States must wait for the report of the UN Chemical Inspection Team before acting on its threat and that any decision to attack should be taken within the framework of the UN Charter, as a matter of principle.
The G 20 failed to reach agreement on whether to support the United States on military action against Syria, with Russia standing firm on its opposition. The media reports are that the United States received support for a military strike in Syria without UN Security Council approval from only four countries: France, Canada, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. France, however, stated that this action must await the UN chemical report. Earlier, the United Kingdom Parliament opposed military action.
The refusal of the British Parliament to support military action against Syria is a severe blow to the prestige of the United States and British governments. This confirms that they suffer from a credibility problem, arising from the time it was confirmed that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction. As in the present case, the UN Secretary General had pleaded that the UN inspection team be given time to complete its work in searching for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. The United Security Council voted against the draft Resolution to grant authority for military action against Saddam Hussein but the United States with its Coalition of the Willing proceeded to invade Iraq on a controversial interpretation of a previous UN Resolution.
The world has changed since the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia. This took place at a time when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had disappeared, leaving the USA as the sole superpower. Since then, the United States has become a weakened power, due partly to the cost of the Iraq war. While the United States will remain unchallenged for quite some time in terms of military power, China has risen as the second economic power in the world, surpassing Japan. India and Russia have also emerged as stronger economies. India is ranked as the world’s third leading economy in terms of GDP PPP (purchasing power parity) and Russia, which has profited from its wealth of oil and gas, as the sixth. Economic power translates into political power.
The G 20 has replaced the Group of 7/Group of 8 as the main economic Council of the world’s wealthiest countries. This was announced at the G20’s Pittsburg Summit in 2009. The BRICS are all members of the G 20 and are now challenging the West’s stranglehold over the International Monetary Fund and will put up a development bank to rival the IMF. China plans the Yuan to be used as an alternative currency to the dollar. Nevertheless, though the BRICS are beginning to flex their economic muscle, they still lag far behind the developed economies in terms of per capita income. They also depend on investments from the United States and other Western countries to finance their economies for faster economic growth. Nevertheless, the United States no longer has the economic power it wielded in the 20th century.
Russia has been unwilling to support any Resolution granting authority for military action, arguing that Russia went along with the UNSC Resolution for a no-fly zone in Libya to protect the civilian population but this was used to take sides and effect a regime change. The US explanation that regime change is not one of the objectives of the limited military action does not appear to convince.
None of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) at the G 20 Meeting supported military action in Syria. President Putin quoted remarks of South African President Jacob Zuma to explain the sentiment opposing military action without UN approval: “Small countries in today’s world in general are feeling increasingly vulnerable and unprotected. There is the impression that any superpower at any moment at its discretion may use force.”
The opposition to military action includes the Vatican State. Pope Francis has urged the abandonment of this “futile pursuit” of a military solution, with the Vatican laying out the case for a negotiated settlement that guarantees the rights to all Syrians, including minority Christians. The Vatican has lamented that one-sided interests had prevailed in Syria, preventing a diplomatic end to the conflict and allowing the continued “senseless massacre” of innocents, according to a report of the Christian Science Monitor.
The Christian Science Monitor had reported that Arab Christians have come out strongly against US military action in Syria. Ignatius Joseph III Younan, Patriarch of Antioch for the Syrian Catholic Church, issued a statement at a conference of more than 50 Christian regional leaders sponsored by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad in Jordan: “We stress that we reject foreign intervention in Syria.” The Arab Christians fear that an attack would create a backlash against their communities, pointing to the devastation of Iraq’s Christian community following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Pope Anba Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Church in Egypt with a congregation of 9 million, likewise issued a statement that “We don’t accept any foreign intervention to protect minorities . . . It is basically a pretext to advance their countries’ interests in the Middle East.”
The Pope’s call and the plight of the Christian minorities in Syria and other parts of the Middle East will find empathy in the Philippines, if we recall that the NATO bombing of Libya resulted in a high number of collateral damage, which included the death of Filipino nurses. Our conscience calls for measures to stop the bloodshed and ease the suffering of the Syrian people. Filipinos also cannot ignore that we have a big Filipino diaspora in the Middle East. Their safety and interests are foremost in our minds. We are also aware that an unstable Middle East increases the price of oil, which increases the cost of living.
The Philippines as an ally of the United States is sensitive to the views of the United States. At the same time, our foreign policy should be guided by the rule of law. Like many other countries, we rely on the rule of law to protect our security and territorial integrity.
A military strike against Syria must pass through the UN Security Council. Certainly, no nation should use force unilaterally and assume that it is morally superior to other nations. Neither can it be assumed that any member of the UN Security Council can defy the collective conscience of the Council and world opinion if there is overwhelming evidence. The UN Charter was agreed upon by the Great Powers and accepted by the world community. All countries must respect the UN Charter based on the principle of Pacta Sunt Servanda. This is the fundamental basis of international law.