As the dust settles on Saturday’s pre-dawn joint missile raids on Syria by the United States, Britain and France, many global experts and lawmakers contend that the unilateral strikes, without an authorization from the UN Security Council (UNSC), are an outright violation of the UN Charter and existing international law, with some saying the action amounted to a “war crime.”
The three Western nations also faced strong criticism at home with many saying their latest military adventure went against the constitutional provisions and principles of their respective countries.
The US and its allies have justified their action as a response to Syria’s alleged chemical weapons attacks in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, but Moscow and Damascus have maintained that those “false flag” attacks were “staged” by Western-backed opposition groups.
A journalist films the wreckage of a building described as part of the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) compound in the Barzeh district, north of Damascus, during a press tour organized by the Syrian information ministry, April 14, 2018. The SSRC was one of the targets of Saturday's pre-dawn joint missile strikes by the US, Britain and France.
Syria and Russia have alleged that the missile strikes were aimed at destroying the evidence of opposition complicity as it came hours before inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were about to begin their fact-finding mission at the site of the alleged gas attack in Douma on Saturday.
“The unilateral action is illegal because the OPCW had sent an experts’ panel to Syria to investigate reports of the [alleged] Douma chemical weapons attack. British Prime Minister Theresa May did not have the authorization of her parliament to carry out this raid, nor did the US Congress give the go ahead to President Donald Trump,” Ranjit Nair, president of World Institute of Advanced Study at India-based Center for Philosophy and Foundations of Science, told CGTN Digital summarizing the criminality of the Western action.
“We see the specter of a neo-imperialism stalking the world, with scant respect for international institutions such as the UN and its specialized agencies,” he added.
The decision to launch the missiles just hours before the OPCW probe was about to begin represents “quite an extraordinary moment,” Joe Lauria, independent journalist and former Wall Street Journal correspondent, told RT. “But I should say it’s not unusual. The United States has done this kind of thing before,” he added.
The OPCW said on Saturday that their fact-finding mission will continue despite the airstrikes.
Legal view: UN Charter violated
The United Nations Security Council holds an emergency meeting concerning the situation in Syria, at United Nations headquarters in New York City, US, April 14, 2018. /VCG Photo
A statement from a group of international lawyers asserted that the Western strikes violated the UN Charter and international law.
“Under international law, military strikes by the United States of America and its allies against the Syrian Arab Republic, unless conducted in self-defense or with United Nations Security Council approval, are illegal and constitute acts of aggression,” said the statement signed by seven international lawyers including former US attorney-general Ramsey Clark.
The other signatories included lawyers Inder Comar, Ryan Alford, Marjorie Cohn, Jeanne Mirer, Curtis F. J. Doebbler and Abdeen Jabara.
“The use of military force by a state can be used in self-defense after an armed attack by another state, or, with the approval of the United Nations Security Council. At present, neither instance would apply to a US strike against Syria,” the statement argued referring to the Article 51 of the UN Charter, which deals with self-defense.
“An act of violence committed by one government against another government, without lawful justification, amounts to the crime of aggression: the supreme international crime which carries with it the evil of every other international crime,” it said citing the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946.
A protester holds a placard as he wears a mask depicting US President Donald Trump as he demonstrates against UK involvement in any military escalation in Syria at Whitehall in London, Britain, April 13, 2018. /VCG Photo
The lawyers also described the US backing of armed rebels in Syria in a bid to oust President Bashar al-Assad’s government as illegal. “We must point out that for the last several years, as is now common knowledge; the US has armed rebels/insurgents to overthrow the current government of Syria. This is illegal under international law.”
The lawyers urged the US and its allies to abide by its commitment to the rule of international law and to seek to resolve its disputes through peaceful means.
Concurring with the legal view, Lauria said none of the three nations can prove that they were acting according to the UN Charter, and therefore in self-defense.
“They did not prove that they were acting under Article 51 of the UN Charter, which is self-defense – the US was not acting in self-defense. They did not get Security Council authorization, and the US Congress did not weigh in on this, so it’s illegal internationally and under US law,” he said.
Trump's decision 'illegal'
Demonstrators take part in a protest against the US bombing of Syria in front of the White House in Washington, DC, April 14, 2018. /VCG Photo
Several American lawmakers across party lines were among the first to condemn the joint strikes slamming Trump for failing to obtain Congressional authorization for the move.
“It is Congress, not the President, which has the constitutional responsibility for making war,” Senator Bernie Sanders said, denouncing the strikes as “illegal and unauthorized.”
"I haven’t read France’s or Britain’s 'Constitution,' but I’ve read ours and nowhere in it is presidential authority to strike Syria," said Thomas Massie, from Trump’s own Republican Party.
Echoing the view, Senator Tim Kaine described Trump’s decision as illegal and reckless. “Today, it’s a strike on Syria – what’s going to stop him from bombing Iran or North Korea next?” he questioned.
These lawmakers seem to have a valid point if one takes a look at the US Constitution, which gives only Congress the power to declare war. Although there remains some ambiguity as to what constitutes a “war” and the action that the President can take without congressional authorization, the War Powers Resolution that was drafted some three decades ago clearly defines the division of powers.
The President is allowed to “introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities,” only “pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”
This categorically means that in the absence of a congressional authorization, the President is allowed to initiate combat only if the US is under attack. In Syria, however, the US is certainly not under attack. This makes Trump’s case for Syria strikes rather weak.
May's action 'legally questionable'
Protestors shout slogans and carry placards as they demonstrate against UK involvement in any military escalation in Syria, at Downing Street in central London, April 13, 2018. /VCG Photo
While May defended her decision to join the US-led strikes as “right and legal,” the British Prime Minister faced criticism from across the political spectrum for failing to put her plans to vote in the Parliament. May has said she would address the Parliament on Monday.
British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said the military action was “legally questionable” claiming it would make real accountability for war crimes less likely.
"Theresa May should have sought parliamentary approval, not trailed after Donald Trump,” Corbyn added.
Another Labour politician Andrew Adonis slammed May’s arguments for the strikes as “nonsensical” in a scathing opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper.
Suggesting that “the August 2013 Commons vote, when MPs rejected [former prime minister] David Cameron’s motion to support bombing Syria in similar circumstances, will have weighed heavily with May and Tory whips,” Adonis argued that there were no constitutional or security reasons for parliament to have been sidelined this time.
Adonis speculated that May might have felt indebted to Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron – after they expelled Russian diplomats following the “ex-spy poisoning” row between Moscow and London – to join them in Syria airstrikes but that there was no compelling legal arguments that justified the British prime minister’s decision.
Macron's 'irresponsible escalation'
This file photo shows (from left) French President Emmanuel Macron, US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May attending the Summit of the Heads of State and of Government of the G7 plus the European Union in Taormina, Italy, May 26, 2017. /VCG Photo
Macron was similarly criticized by his political opponents and accused of igniting tensions in the region.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, one of Macron's old rivals in the 2017 presidential race, called the operation "a matter of North American revenge, an irresponsible escalation.”
"The strikes against Syria are without proof, without a UN mandate, and against it, without a European agreement and without a vote of the French Parliament," Melenchon said on Twitter.
“It feeds the idea that the West is hostile to the Arab world. These strikes weaken our diplomacy," tweeted Bruno Retailleau, president of right-wing The Republicans group at the senate.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen expressed concerns over "unpredictable consequences" of the strikes.
Marc Weller, professor of international law at the University of Cambridge and the editor of the Oxford University Press Handbook on the Use of Force in International Law, summed up the rationale put forward by the three Western countries.
"The justifications put forward by the US, Britain and France for the air strikes in Syria have focused on the need to maintain the international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, to degrade President Assad's chemical weapons arsenal and to deter further chemical attacks against civilians in Syria, Weller wrote in a piece for the BBC.
Legally, the claim to enforce international law on chemical weapons by violent means would return the world to the era before the advent of the UN Charter, he wrote.