Legal advice backs UK military action against Syria on humanitarian grounds
on 29/08/2013 13:13:03
Downing Street has released the legal basis for intervention ahead of a Commons debate today which endorses a targeted strike even if Russia and China block an agreement at the United Nations.
It has also released evidence from the Joint Intelligence Committee, which found that a chemical weapons attack did occur in Damascus last week and that it is "highly likely" that Bashar Assad's regime was responsible.
A No10 spokeswoman said: "Today we have laid in the library of the House information on what we know about the attack in Damascus last week and the Government's position on the legality of any military action in response.
"This reflects the PM's commitment to build a consensual approach and to ensure that MPs can properly consider the issues before voting on the UK response.
"The judgment of the Joint Intelligence Committee is that a chemical weapons attack did occur in Damascus last week; that it is highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible; that there is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability; and that no opposition group has the capability to conduct a chemical weapons attack on this scale.
"The Government's position on the legality of any action makes clear that if action in the UN Security Council (UNSC) is blocked, the UK would still be permitted, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, to take exceptional measures including targeted military intervention in order to alleviate the overwhelming humanitarian suffering in Syria.
"The Cabinet endorsed the recommendation from the national security council and the Prime Minister will set out the proposed Government response in the House this afternoon.
"Ministers agreed that it is fundamentally in our national interest to uphold the longstanding convention on chemical weapons and to make clear that they cannot be used with impunity.
"Any response should be legal, proportionate and specifically in response to this attack and everyone around the Cabinet table agreed that it is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict nor about trying to determine the outcome."
The JIC found there are "plausible alternative scenarios'' to Assad's regime being behind the attack and has given the Prime Minister full access to ''highly sensitive'' intelligence.
It could not, however, come up with a "precise motivation" for the attack.
In a letter to Mr Cameron, its chairman Jon Day said: "There is little serious dispute that chemical attacks causing mass casualties on a larger scale than hitherto (including, we judge, at least 350 fatalities) took place.
"It is being claimed, including by the regime, that the attacks were either faked or undertaken by the Syrian Armed Opposition. We have tested this assertion using a wide range of intelligence and open sources, and invited HMG and outside experts to help us establish whether such a thing is possible.
"There is no credible intelligence or other evidence to substantiate the claims or the possession of CW (chemical weapons) by the opposition. The JIC has therefore concluded that there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility."
Here is the Government's legal position on military intervention in Syria, issued by Downing Street today, in full:
CHEMICAL WEAPON USE BY SYRIAN REGIME - UK GOVERNMENT LEGAL POSITION
1. This note sets out the UK Government's position regarding the legality of military action in Syria following the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Damascus on 21 August 2013.
2. The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is a serious crime of international concern, as a breach of the customary international law prohibition on use of chemical weapons, and amounts to a war crime and a crime against humanity. However, the
legal basis for military action would be humanitarian intervention; the aim is to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons.
3. The UK is seeking a resolution of the United Nations Security Council under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations which would condemn the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian authorities; demand that the Syrian authorities strictly observe their obligations under international law and previous Security Council resolutions, including ceasing all use of chemical weapons; and authorise member states, among other things, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians in Syria from the use of chemical weapons and prevent any future use of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons; and refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
4. If action in the Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, provided three conditions are met:
(i) 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;
(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and
(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).
5. All three conditions would clearly be met in this case:
(i) The Syrian regime has been killing its people for two years, with reported deaths now over 100,000 and refugees at nearly 2 million. The large-scale use of chemical weapons by the regime in a heavily populated area on 21 August 2013 is a war crime and perhaps the most egregious single incident of the conflict.
Given the Syrian regime's pattern of use of chemical weapons over several months, it is likely that the regime will seek to use such weapons again. It is also likely to continue frustrating the efforts of the United Nations to establish exactly what has happened. Renewed attacks using chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would cause further suffering and loss of civilian lives, and would lead to displacement of the civilian population on a large scale and in hostile conditions.
(ii) Previous attempts by the UK and its international partners to secure a resolution of this conflict, end its associated humanitarian suffering and prevent the use of chemical weapons through meaningful action by the Security Council have been blocked over the last two years. If action in the Security Council is blocked again, no practicable alternative would remain to the use of force to deter and degrade the capacity for the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
(iii) In these circumstances, and as an exceptional measure on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity, military intervention to strike specific targets with the aim of deterring and disrupting further such attacks would be necessary and proportionate and therefore legally justifiable. Such an intervention would be directed exclusively to averting a humanitarian catastrophe, and the minimum judged necessary for that purpose.