We may now be relegated to the side lines whilst the prospect of military action in Syria gathers momentum, but we could have an important lasting role in bringing those responsible for the atrocities to account.
Barak Obama will seek Congress agreement for any military action. Provided, if he needs it, Congress give him the green light the President, in my view, will need in international law to seek approval from the UN Security Council before any action. If, as anticipated, China and Russia, veto any move does he need to go further? President Obama will have to decide if he should seek a referral to the General Assembly under the rarely used Resolution 377 “unification for peace”. Many, including myself, believe he should. In last week’s Parliamentary debate David Cameron said before any military action he would “pursue every avenue at the UN”. Britain’s position as permanent members of the Security Council is interesting; can we support military action given the parliamentary vote?
Assuming that all fails, Washington will cite the developing concept of Responsibility to Protect or R2P as it is referred to. Following the controversy in Kosovo the civilised world realised the need to circumvent deadlock at the UN when it was clear atrocities were taking place. The conditions for intervention are stringent but premised on the basis that all peaceful means have been exhausted and any action is targeted and the minimum necessary. Such action would be controversial, for example the UN Secretary General has asked for diplomacy to be given a chance, suggesting it had not run its course, but the concept has wider support that perhaps appreciated. It has been endorsed in a World Summit in 2005 and expressly referred to in the narrative of resolution 1973 authorising action in Libya: Russia did not block that resolution.
We may be watching all this from some way back, keeping in touch with those on the front line, but what of the aftermath? Those responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity need to be brought to account. Should a separate tribunal be set up? These have always been controversial, depicted as victor’s justice and proving difficult to close down; as we have seen with the problems experienced winding down the one for the former Yugoslavia. What of the International Criminal Court? This is not recognised by Syria and the USA have not ratified their agreement, where as we are great supporters.
Should those who have committed these crimes come near our shores they could be put on trial here, provided there was evidence, for grave breaches of the Geneva Convention, even though the events did not occur in the UK? We have shown willingness before in appropriate cases, to do so.
Military action may not command the necessary support in the country or Parliament but everyone will agree that there should be no hiding place for those who commit these crimes. In that way we may be able to take the lead.