On Wednesday the UN’s relief chief Stephen O’Brien called on individual Security Council members with military assets in Syria—a category that includes the UK—to act on civilian protection.
Below is our briefing on his remarks and their implications.
Briefing: UN relief chief calls on individual Security Council members with military assets in Syria—including the UK—to act on civilian protection.
- UN relief chief Stephen O’Brien has called on individual Security Council members to take concrete steps to stop aerial bombardment of civilian areas.
- Military action to protect civilians in Syria is legal even without a further UN resolution.
- The British public support action to protect civilians in Syria so long as it doesn’t endanger British military personnel.
- A no-bomb zone would fulfil the practical, legal, and political requirements for action to protect civilians.
In his Statement to the Security Council on Syria yesterday, Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, made the following call:
“I call upon all Council members who have operational military assets in Syria to take concrete steps to halt the aerial bombardment of civilian areas in order to deliver on your existing international obligations and, above all, to protect civilians and allow us to deliver humanitarian assistance to those in need.”
This call includes the UK with air assets deployed in Syrian air space; with an obligation as a permanent member of the Security council—as one of the founder members of the UN—to uphold the integrity of the multiple UN Security Council resolutions flouted daily by the Assad regime and its allies.
The international system of international humanitarian law that the UK has strived to develop over generations is unravelling. The deliberate bombing of populated areas, of schools and hospitals, flouts customary international law, flouts the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols, flouts UN Security Council resolutions 2139, 2165, 2191, and 2254, and flouts International Syria Support Group agreements undertaken by parties to the conflict.
Force is legally justified on grounds of humanitarian necessity
The UK has a responsibility to act, and the UK Government has a clear understanding of the legal justification for action. Under certain circumstances the UK Government regards humanitarian intervention as legal even without a UN Security Council resolution. Those circumstances were defined in a Foreign and Commonwealth Office note circulated to NATO allies in October 1998 prior to the Kosovo intervention, as follows:
Security Council authorisation to use force for humanitarian purposes is now widely accepted (Bosnia and Somalia provided firm legal precedents). A UNSCR would give a clear legal base for NATO action, as well as being politically desirable.
But force can also be justified on the grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity without a UNSCR. The following criteria would need to be applied:
(a) that 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;
(b) that it is objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved;
(c) that the proposed use of force is necessary and proportionate to the aim (the relief of humanitarian need) and is strictly limited in time and scope to this aim—ie it is the minimum necessary to achieve that end. It would also be necessary at the appropriate stages to assess the targets against this criterion.
This view was reaffirmed in the Government’s legal advice following the Assad regime’s August 2013 massacre of civilians using Sarin chemical weapons. It was further reaffirmed by Government in January 2014 in written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
Yesterday’s full remarks of UN relief chief Stephen O’Brien to the UN Security Council should make it clear to all that criterion (a) is met.
Criterion (b) has been tested to the limits of diplomacy as evidenced by the list of resolutions and agreements flouted by the Assad regime and its allies. The only remaining test is whether a threat of action might make action itself unnecessary.
Criterion (c) requires that such action be strictly limited to that necessary to the aim—the relief of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale. Any action must therefore be appropriately limited and targeted, and must cease once the aim is achieved.
Public opinion on protecting civilians in Syria
A YouGov poll of over 2,000 adults in the UK this month asked the following question: Would you support or oppose an internationally enforced no-fly zone over Aleppo and parts of northern Syria, which would prevent aircraft from bombing areas where civilians may live?
The results were 64% support; 6% oppose; 30% don’t know.
Also this month a ComRes poll with a similar sample size asked a slightly different question and achieved a very different result.
30% agreed that ‘the UK should use military aircraft to enforce a no fly zone in Syria.’ 40% said that ‘the UK should not try to enforce a ‘no fly zone’ in Syria.’ 29% responded ‘don’t know.’
Looking at both polls it is clear that preventing bombing and protecting civilians are outcomes favoured by the UK public. However putting UK military aircraft at risk raises concern.
A further question in the ComRes poll underscores that there is concern about putting UK military personnel in harm’s way. Asked whether the UK should send soldiers to take action against Syria, 63% were against, 17% for, and 21% responded ‘don’t know.’
What is required in the public mind is a measure that protects civilians from bombing, but does not endanger UK military personnel. A no-bomb zone rather than a no-fly zone satisfies these requirements.
No-bomb zone versus no-fly zone: What is the difference?
Patrolled no-fly zones are expensive to run, and bring an element of risk to aircrews. In the case of the Iraq no-fly zones, air patrols had to be maintained for over a decade at great cost. Preemptively attacking air defences would risks unintended casualties. As some air defences in Syria are Russian, attacking them is clearly undesirable.
A no-bombing zone requires the giving the Assad regime and its allies an ultimatum to stop air attacks against civilians or face retaliation. The Assad regime and its allies would have the option to simply stop in which case no action would be needed.
If the Assad regime and its allies bombed civilian targets after the no-bombing zone was declared, their aircraft would not be shot down. Instead retaliation would consist of carefully targeted strikes away from civilian areas against Assad regime military assets only, such as runways or aircraft on the ground.
If Russia carried on bombing civilian targets, then enforcement action would again target Assad regime military assets only. There would be no direct military action against Russia. Russian aircraft would not be shot down and Russian bases would not be targeted, but Russia would pay an indirect cost via its client, the Assad regime.
A no-bombing zone does not require any air patrols over Syrian territory. The UK has the capacity to track aircraft over Syria from beyond Syrian airspace, and to respond to violations with weapons launched from beyond Syrian territory.
A no-bombing zone can be enforced by retaliatory strikes using stand-off weapons launched from beyond Syrian airspace so that UK personnel are not at risk. Both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have the precision stand-off weapons necessary to enforce a no-bombing zone from outside Syrian territory.
Making the no-bombing zone Syria-wide would avoid the risks of a limited zone encouraging population displacement or of inviting testing actions by violators along its perimeter.
A no-bombing zone is not a safe area. A no-bombing zone aims only to protect civilians against air attack, and does not require troops on the ground.
“While my job is to relay to you the facts, I cannot help but be incandescent with rage. Month after month, worse and worse, and nothing is actually happening to stop the war, stop the suffering.”
— Stephen O’Brien, 26 October 2016.