On International Law and Military Intervention

The use of chemical weapons and mass killing of civilians in Syria have escalated calls for the United States and its allies to launch military strikes in Syria. John Kerry (US Secretary of State), Samantha Powers (US Ambassador to the United Nations), and other members of President Obama’s administration have articulated a humanitarian rationale for attacking Syrian government forces with air and missile strikes.

The European Union and NATO remain politically divided, however, with only limited support for direct military action against the Syrian government forces.

Meanwhile, American public opinion is strongly against military action according to many polls, which cite war-weariness as a major factor.

Often ignored in the debate on intervention in Syria are the international laws of war. International laws on the conduct of warfare (including the ban on the use of chemical weapons) have been elaborated through customary law (extending back at least to the sixteenth century), the Geneva Conventions, and other modern treaties. The United Nations (UN), signatory nations, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) all exercise enforcement powers for the international laws of war.

War crimes are complicated, but the ICC provides a basic legal definition on its website: “‘War crimes’ include grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict and in conflicts ‘not of an international character’ listed in the Rome Statute, when they are committed as part of a plan or policy or on a large scale. These prohibited acts include:

  • murder;
  • mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
  • taking of hostages;
  • intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population;
  • intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historical monuments or hospitals;
  • pillaging;
  • rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy or any other form of sexual violence;
  • conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities.”

The ICC can prosecute cases of war crimes, but often only once a military conflict has been resolved.

The UN remains the international body most effectively able to intervene in an active war, such as the Syrian Civil War, to enforce the laws of war. Yet, the Security Council has been unable to reach agreement on a response to alleged Syrian government abuses of the laws of war, largely because of Russia’s status as a Security Council permanent member and its alliance with Syria.


The United States and Russia have apparently finally agreed on an approach to identifying and dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons. This agreement paves the way for a UN Security Council resolution to enforce the laws of war (at least on chemical weapons use) in the Syrian Civil War.

Despite the tentative agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, the debate over military intervention continues. Sebastian Junger, a war reporter and author, argues passionately for military intervention in the Syrian Civil War based on both humanitarian and international legal rationales, for example.

Sebastian Junger’s op-ed appears in the Washington PostNPR and the Washington Post reports on the US-Russian agreement. NPR also provides a report on the history of chemical weapons.

The ICC website has information on international law and the laws of war. The UN Security Council provides information on its structure and resolutions.

Readers interested in a historical perspective on the laws of war may consult Michael Howard, George J. Andreopoulos, and Mark R. Shulman, eds., The Laws of War: Constraints on Warfare in the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

This entry was posted in Civil Conflict, Civilians and Refugees in War, History of Violence, Human Rights, Laws of War, Revolts and Revolutions, Strategy and International Politics, War, Culture, and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

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