Monday, September 2, 2013

Syria and the Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention

by Fernando Teson

Bleeding Heart Libertarians

September 2, 2013

Some supporters of the proposed intervention in Syria call it a genuine case of humanitarian intervention (see here and here). In reply, critics may:

A) Deny the validity of the doctrine itself (if you fall into this category, you can safely stop reading), or

B) Accept the doctrine but deny that it can justify the intervention in Syria.

I have long defended the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, and have argued that a number of past actions may have been justified under the doctrine (see here). I would like to explain, therefore, why my position on Syria falls under B) above: the military action proposed by the Obama administration (limited aerial bombings) would not be justified under the doctrine. In contrast, a full-fledged intervention that would overthrow Al-Assad while neutralizing Al-Qaeda could be justified under the doctrine if it complied with the principle of proportionality. Given the predictable dire consequences of a full invasion for the region and the world, such action is unlikely to be proportionate, and therefore the United States should stay out.

(One word of caution. The legal humanitarian intervention doctrine differs from its moral counterpart. Most international lawyers require United Nations Security Council authorization as a condition for the lawfulness of action (not Congressional authorization, which is irrelevant to international law.) I disagree, but mine is concededly a minority view among international law scholars. I do not think the UNSC will authorize the intervention in Syria, but, be that as it may, I will focus here on the moral version of the doctrine, just because I do not believe the authorization vel non changes the moral position.)

Any act of war, and therefore any armed humanitarian action, must have a just cause. The only available just cause is rescuing large numbers of persons from deadly attacks (by their government or others). A war to make a point, or save the nation’s prestige, or advance the national interest, or even punish a war criminal, is never justified. Killing for symbolic reasons is impermissible.