- Posted August 31, 2013 by
London, United Kingdom
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Are chemical weapons a ‘red line’?
British Media: Legalizing the Syrian Intervention?
“Before the war, the first victim is the truth” goes the old saying. Nowhere is this truer than in these days before the UK intervenes in Syria. Inaccuracies in the communication of news reports produce a risk to the public due to the power of the media and of public opinion in mediating government responses to conflict.
Yesterday, two of the biggest UK news providers (the BBC and the Guardian), published articles on the legality of intervening in the Syrian civil war. Obviously, the intervening powers, in this case the UK, US and France, want to maximise the legitimacy of their action in world opinion. On the legality of military intervention, international law is clear: intervention is legal in two cases only, when authorized by the UN Security Council, or in self-defence.
If we are to believe what the authors of the three aforementioned articles reported on August 27th, then we would believe that there exists a third way of legalising military intervention, through the “Responsibility to Protect” UN norm. If the public believe that such mainstream news must, in general be true, that intervention in Syria through R2P is legal, there is a danger that they will change their views about supporting the UK government's plans for intervention. In short, the risk here is of the communication of erroneous information to the general public which can impact on how that public reacts to its government's war making plans.
What UN member states agreed to under the “Responsibility to Protect” is written in black and white in paragraphs 138-139 of the UN 2005 World Summit Outcome Document. Indicatively, a part of paragraph 139 states that:
“… we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter”
According to Aidan Hehir, the University of Westminster's expert on the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P in short), predicating R2P's action on Security Council approval creates a “structural barrier to effective action”. In other words, intervention in the Syrian civil war under R2P is only possible following a UN Security Council resolution which specifically refers to the Syrian crisis. R2P therefore provides no novel avenue for intervention when the Security Council is unable to reach consensus.
Any UN Security Council vote authorizing a military response to the latest atrocities in Syria, the chemical attacks on the Eastern Ghoutta district of Damascus, is extremely unlikely considering Russian and Chinese interests in Syria. A similar vote, authorizing Resolution 1973 and intervention into Libya in March 2011, resulted in NATO overstepping their mandate and orchestrating regime change against the wishes of the Russia and China. This time around, there will be no consensus at the UN Security Council, with Russia and China using their Security Council permanent member veto powers.
According to the first article “Syria: Would foreign intervention be legal?” published by BBC News on 27th August, the BBC's legal correspondent Clive Coleman states that in situations such as these, when the Security Council is “hamstrung” by permanent members exercising their veto powers, “R2P provides a legal framework for the international community to use military force as a last resort”. In the second article, “Iran warns west against military intervention in Syria” published by the Guardian on the same day, authors Lewis, Chulov, Borger and Watt state that “International law experts say intervention could be legally justified without a security council resolution under the UN's "responsibility to protect".
The risks of countenancing the communication of such inaccurate reports to the general public, the huge majority of which would not be in a position to judge on their validity, are many. Most compelling are risks which stem from manipulating British public opinion, bringing about support for intervention in a brutal sectarian war which risks enveloping the broader Middle East if not the world.