UK government says it is legally justified to take unilateral action against Syria without UN backing

The UK government has said that unilateral attacks on specific Syrian targets would be “legally justifiable” without the backing of the United Nations (release).

The UK government is currently seeking a resulution of the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the Charter of the UN, which would condemn the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian authorities. An agreement in the council requires the backing of the five permanent members – China, Russia, the UK, the US and France. China and Russia have historically vetoed action against Syria.

However, in a note released today, the government said that the legal basis for humanitarian intervention “to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons” is available – even without the backing of the council.

If action in the Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures to deter and disrupt the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime if three conditions are met:

  1. 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;
  2. It must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and
  3. 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).

The note from the governement said that all three of these conditions have been met.

A spokesperson for number 10 said:

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.