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  • Chris O'Meara (a1)


The ongoing Syrian civil war calls for a re-evaluation of using force to protect human rights. This article does not rake over the much-debated issue of whether a right of humanitarian intervention exists as lex lata. Instead, it addresses the little reviewed normative issue of whether the right should exist in international law to support and reflect a pluralistic understanding of sovereignty. Despite advancements in international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international criminal law, this wider fabric of international law preserves Westphalian sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention. It denies any right of humanitarian intervention.



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1 Art 2(4) UN Charter prohibits the ‘threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state’. In addition to State consent, the only explicit exceptions to this prohibition in the UN Charter are the inherent right of self-defence under art 51 UN Charter and force authorized by the UNSC pursuant to Chapter VII UN Charter.

2 For a recent summary of the issues and relevant State practice, see Rodley, S, ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ in Weller, M (ed), Oxford Handbook on the Use of Force in International Law (Oxford University Press 2015) 775 . In terms of the latest State practice, Syria represents an opportunity lost for those, like Koh, who support such a right and was looking to Syrian intervention as a law-making moment to crystallize a new norm of customary international law. H Koh, ‘Syria and the Law of Humanitarian Intervention (Part II: International Law and the Way Forward)’ (EJIL: Talk!, 4 October 2013) <>. Instead, Syria points to the contrary, suggesting a halt to any supposed momentum behind customary development. When military action finally occurred, it was not based on humanitarian intervention. The governments of the United States, Canada, Turkey, UK, Australia and France instead justified their military response against Daesh/ISIS in Syria on the basis of individual self-defence and/or the collective self-defence of Iraq. See UN Doc S/2014/695 (23 September 2014) (United States), UN Doc S/2015/221 (31 March 2015) (Canada), UN Doc S/2015/563 (24 July 2015) (Turkey), UN Doc S/2015/688 (7 September 2015) (UK), UN Doc S/2015/693 (9 September 2015) (Australia), UN Doc S/2015/745 (9 September 2015) (France). Russia's intervention was based on President Assad's consent. ‘Russia joins war in Syria: Five key points’, BBC News (1 October 2015) <>. See further Henriksen, A and Schack, M, ‘The Crisis in Syria and Humanitarian Intervention’ (2014) 1 Journal on the Use of Force and International Law 122 .

3 Sir D Bethlehem, ‘Stepping Back a Moment – The Legal Basis in Favour of a Principle of Humanitarian Intervention’ (EJIL: Talk!, 12 September 2013) <>.

4 Bethlehem (n 3). He is backed by commentators such as Koh (n 2).

5 RG Teitel, Humanity's Law (Oxford University Press 2011).

6 Positivism as a jurisprudential ideology really took hold in the nineteenth century. This ‘positive revolution’ put the will and consent of States (rather than divine or natural law) at the centre of international rule making. See eg Neff, SC in Evans, MD (ed), International Law (4th edn, Oxford University Press 2014) 1317 for a further discussion of this development. For an overview of the Peace of Westphalia and its impact on the evolution of international law and the rise of the sovereign State, see eg Gross, L, ‘The Peace of Westphalia, 1648–1948’ (1948) 42(1) AJIL 240 .

7 Vattel, E, The Law of Nations, Or, Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns (1797, reprinted, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund 2008).

8 Oppenheim, L, International Law: A Treatise, Vol. I (Lauterpacht, H (ed), 7th edn, Longmans, Green & Co 1952) 341.

9 Henkin, L, ‘That S Word: Sovereignty, and Globalization, and Human Rights, Et Cetera’ (1999) 68 FordhamLRev 1 ; Schrijver, N, ‘The Changing Nature of State Sovereignty’ (2000) 70(1) BYBIL 65, 6972 ; Koskenniemi, M, Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument (Cambridge University Press 2006) 228–45.

10 Koskenniemi, ibid 240–5; Held, D, ‘Law of States, Law of Peoples: Three Models of Sovereignty’ (2002) 8 Legal Theory 1, 34 . In contrast, internal sovereignty speaks to the make-up of a State and its exclusive authority over its territory and people. Crawford calls this a monopoly of governing authority’, Crawford, J and Koskenniemi, M, The Cambridge Companion to International Law (Cambridge University Press 2013) 120.

11 Schrijver (n 9); Held, ibid 3; Crawford, J (ed), Brownlie's Principles of Public International Law (8th edn, Oxford University Press 2008) 447–8.

12 See further, Higgins, R, Problems and Process: International Law and How We Use It (Oxford University Press 1994) 4855 .

13 Reparation for Injuries Suffered in Service of the United Nations (Advisory Opinion) [1949] ICJ Rep 174, 178–9.

14 Lauterpacht, H, International Law and Human Rights (Stevens & Sons 1950) 6772 ; R McCorquodale in Evans (n 6) 301. For further discussion of the importance of NSAs in the sovereignty calculus and the rebalancing in favour of human beings, see Reisman, MSovereignty and Human Rights in Contemporary International Law’ (1990) 84 AJIL 866 ; Henkin, LHuman Rights and State “Sovereignty”’ (1996) 25 GaJIntl&CompL 31 ; Peters, A, ‘Humanity as the A and Ω of Sovereignty’ (2003) 20 EJIL 513 ; Schrijver (n 9) 88–9; Teitel (n 5); Trapp, KN, ‘Actor-pluralism, the ‘‘turn to responsibility’’ and the jus ad bellum: ‘‘unwilling or unable’’ in context’ (2015) 2 Journal on the Use of Force and International Law 199 .

15 UNGA Res 2625 (XXV), Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (1970) (Friendly Relations Declaration). This is subject to the right of self-defence under art 51 UN Charter and to UNSC authorized enforcement action under Charter VII UN Charter.

16 Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), The Responsibility to Protect (2001) para 1.35.

17 World Summit Outcome Document 2005, paras 138–139, adopted by UNGA Res A/RES/60/1 (2005).

18 Art 38(1) Statute of the International Court of Justice, 26 June 1945, 15 UNCIO 355. For a fuller analysis of the R2P doctrine and its status in international law, see eg Henriksen and Schack (n 2) 128–33.

19 UNGA Res 377 (V) (1950).

20 ICISS Report (n 16) paras 6.28–6.40.

21 Resiman (n 14) 872.

22 Statement of The Netherlands Delegate, UN Doc S/PV.4011, 12.

23 Held (n 10) 32–3.

24 A list of the ten core international human rights instruments and their monitoring bodies is available at <>.

25 Respectively, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, 999 UNTS 171; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966, 993 UNTS 3; UNGA Res A/RES/3/217 A (1948), Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

26 See eg Saudi Arabia's 2013 National Report to the Human Rights Council, UN Doc A/HRC/WG.6/17/SAU/1.

27 See eg Bates, E in Moeckli, D et al. , International Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press 201).

28 Henkin (n 9) 4.

29 Barcelona Traction, Light and Power Company, Limited (Belgium v Spain); Second Phase [1970] ICJ Rep 3, paras 33 and 34. Section II(E)(3) considers the repercussions of this characterization.

30 See Danish Institute of International Affairs, Humanitarian Intervention: Legal and Political Aspects (Gullanders 2000) 6472 for a discussion of this development. The latest example is UNSC Res 1973, where a R2P style recharacterization of sovereignty was ostensibly invoked to authorize the intervention in Libya (see n 112 and accompanying text).

31 Teitel (n 52) 111, describing the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. See also (n 158) regarding Russia's intervention in Ukraine.

32 eg the Human Rights Committee that monitors implementation of the ICCPR and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which is the standing court of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

33 This is particularly evident when contrasted with the UN Charter and international treaty systems that do not provide the same level of enforceability via compulsory jurisdiction and binding decisions. Similarly, the protection and enforcement of human rights in Africa, including via the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, face significant challenges. See M Schmidt, 391, and C Heyns and M Killander, 479 in Moeckli et al. (n 27) for an overview of these systems.

34 Greens and M.T. v United Kingdom (2010) 53 EHRR 21.

35 Leach, P, ‘No longer offering fine mantras to a parched child? The European Court's developing approach to remedies’ in Føllesdal, A (ed), Constituting Europe: The European Court of Human Rights in a National, European and Global Context (Cambridge University Press 2013) 166.

36 In respect of the extraterritorial application of the ICCPR, see eg Lopez Burgos v Uruguay, Merits, Comm No 52/1979, UN Document CCPR/C/13/D/52/1979, IHRL 2796 (UNHRC 1981); Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Advisory Opinion) [2004] ICJ Rep 136; UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No 31, Nature of the General Legal Obligation on States Parties to the Covenant, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.13 (2004).

37 In respect of the extraterritorial application of the Inter-American regime, see eg Coard et al v United States, Report N. 109/99 – Case 10.951, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 29 September 1999. In respect of the extraterritorial application of the ECHR, see eg Al-Skeini and others v United Kingdom (App No 55721/07) 7 July 2011; Smith and others v The Ministry of Defence [2013] UKSC 41.

38 Palestinian Wall (n 36) para 106.

39 Al-Skeini (n 37), Opinion of Judge Bonello, para 38.

40 Rawls, J, The Law of Peoples (Harvard University Press 1999).

41 Although customary international law, jus cogens and general principles may also be sources of IHRL. However, for analysis of the difficulties for IHRL with these sources, see Simma, B and Alston, PThe Sources of Human Rights Law: Custom, Jus Cogens, and General Principles’ (1992) 12 AustYBIL 82 .

42 SS ‘Wimbledon’ (1923) PCIJ Ser A, No 1, 25.

43 Although elements of irrecusability may also arise in IHRL, where State consent is questionable. See Fabri, HR in Alston, P and Macdonald, E (eds), Human Rights, Intervention, and The Use of Force (Oxford University Press 2008) 50–3.

44 This will be discussed further in Section II(E).

45 Dinstein, Y, The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict (2nd edn, Cambridge University Press 2010) 5.

46 ‘Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Precautionary Measures in Guantánamo Bay, 12 March 2002’ International Legal Materials 41 (2002) 532.

47 Principally through the law codified by The Hague Conventions and Declarations of 1899 and 1907, available at <> (Hague Law).

48 Principally via: Geneva Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 31; Geneva Convention (II) for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea, 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 85; Geneva Convention (III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 135; Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 287; Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions, 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, 8 June 1977, 1125 UNTS 3 (API); Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions, 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, 8 June 1977, 1125 UNTS 609 (APII) (Geneva Law).

49 Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion) [1996] ICJ Rep 226, paras 78–79.

50 This principle is codified in art 48 API and is reinforced by the principle of proportionality that effectively prohibits military attacks where civilian losses would be disproportionate to the military advantage.

51 Nuclear Weapons (n 49) para 78.

52 ibid para 79.

53 Being conflicts not of an international character. See Common art 3 to the Geneva Conventions and art 1(1) APII.

54 Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v US) (Merits) [1986] ICJ Rep 14, para 218; Hamdan v Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence 126 S. Ct. 2749 (2006) 65–70.

55 Prosecutor v Tadić (Interlocutory Appeal on Jurisdiction) ICTY-94-1 (2 October 1995) paras 96–136.

56 ibid para 97.

57 ibid para 126.

58 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 17 July 1998, 2187 UNTS 3 (ICC Statute).

59 Arts 8(2)(a) and (b) list war crimes applicable in IACs and arts 8(2)(c) and (e) in NIACs. Notable, is that the first category constitutes a list of 34 potential war crimes whereas only 19 crimes are specified for NIACs.

60 Tadić (n 55) para 126.

61 International Committee of the Red Cross Study on Customary International Humanitarian Law (2005) available at <>.

62 Crawford, EUnequal before the Law: The Case for the Elimination of the Distinction between International and Non-international Armed Conflicts’ (2007) 20 LJIL 441, 465.

63 Palestinian Wall (n 36) para 106.

64 See Borelli, S, ‘Casting light on the legal black hole: International law and detentions abroad in the “war on terror”’ (2005) 87 International Review of the Red Cross 39, 47ff.

65 Case Concerning Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo v Uganda) (Judgment) [2007] ICJ Rep 168, Separate Opinion of Judge Simma, para 27.

66 See eg The Public Committee against Torture in Israel et al v The Government of Israel et al, Judgment, HCJ 769/02, 11 December 2006; Serdar Mohammed v Ministry of Defence [2014] EWHC 1369 (QB). More generally, see Watkin, K, ‘Controlling the Use of Force: A Role for Human Rights Norms in Contemporary Armed Conflict’ (2004) 98 AJIL1 .

67 A State may, of course, invoke the international responsibility of another State for breaches of IHL under the International Law Commission (ILC) Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, with Commentaries, in Report of the International Law Commission on the work of its fifty-third session, UN Doc A/56/10 (2001) (ARSIWA). Such invocation is subject to peaceable dispute resolution, which will be discussed in Section II(E) below.

68 A belligerent reprisal ‘consists of action which would normally be contrary to [IHL] but which is justified because it is taken by one party to an armed conflict against another party in response to the latter's violation of [IHL] – for example, the use of prohibited weapons in retaliation for their prior use by an adversary’. Greenwood, C, Essays on War in International Law (Cameron May 2006) 297. See further Kalshoven, F, Belligerent Reprisals (Martinus Nijhoff 2005).

69 See Greenwood, ibid 309–15, for discussion of this development and the general trend against the use of belligerent reprisals, most notably pursuant to the express prohibitions stipulated by the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and API.

70 For further discussion regarding related controversies and the exceptions to the specific prohibitions, see Greenwood, ibid 315–25; Dinstein (n 45) 253–61. Certain States continue to defend the legality of belligerent reprisals, albeit under strict conditions, see UK Ministry of Defence, The Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict (OUP 2005) paras 16.16–16.19.2.

71 Cryer, R et al. , An Introduction to International Criminal Law and Procedure (2nd edn, CUP 2010) 3, 13.

72 See eg arts 1 and 5(1) ICC Statute.

73 Whilst an agreed definition is lacking under customary international law and the ICC has yet to have its jurisdiction ‘activated’ for such a crime, humanitarian intervention could potentially lead to individual criminal responsibility for senior military and political leaders for the crime of aggression. See Cryer et al (n 71) 312–33. For analysis that humanitarian intervention might not constitute the crime of aggression, see Trahan, J, the, ‘Defininggrey area’ where humanitarian intervention may not be fully legal, but is not the crime of aggression’ (2015) 2 Journal on the Use of Force and International Law 42 .

74 See eg art 27(1) ICC Statute. Although they may be entitled to immunity from prosecution before domestic courts. See section II(E)(2) below.

75 Judgment of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal 1946 (1947) 41 AJIL 172, 221.

76 These include war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, as defined by customary international law, O'Keefe, R, International Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2015) 22–6.

77 ibid 17–18.

78 SS ‘Lotus’ (France v Turkey) (1927) PCIJ Ser A, No 10, 18–19.

79 Fox, H and Webb, P, The Law of State Immunity (3rd edn, Oxford University Press 2013) 567.

80 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 10 December 1984, 1465 UNTS 85.

81 Arts 5–7 UNCAT.

82 Cassese, A, ‘Is the Bell Tolling for Universality? A Plea for a Sensible Notion of Universal Jurisdiction’ (2003) 1 JICJ 589, 594.

83 Noted in Arrest Warrant of 11 April 2000 (Democratic Republic of the Congo v Belgium) (Judgment) [2002] ICJ Rep 3, Joint Separate Opinion, para 51.

84 The exception is a UNSC referral to the ICC under Chapter VII UN Charter. An example is the Darfur referral pursuant to UNSC Res 1593 (2005) UN Doc S/RES/1593.

85 Crawford and Koskenniemi (n 10) 124.

86 Case Concerning Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo v Rwanda) (Judgment) [2006] ICJ Rep 6, para 64.

87 eg art 35 ECHR.

88 Arts 1(1), 2(3), 33 UN Charter. This is echoed by the Friendly Relations Declaration affirmation of the ‘principle that States shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered’.

89 Art 1 of The ILC Draft Articles on Diplomatic Protection (2006), UN Doc A/CN.4/SER.A/2006/Add.1 (Part 2) confines the definition of diplomatic protection to ‘diplomatic action or other means of peaceful settlement’. The right to use force more generally to protect nationals is controversial and academic opinion and State practice is divided. See eg Gray, C, International Law and the Use of Force (3rd edn, Oxford University Press 2008) 156–60.

90 By diplomatically protecting their citizens, States protect their own sovereign rights, not those of the individual. Mavrommatis Palestine Concessions (Greece v U.K.) (1924) PCIJ Ser A, No 2, 12.

91 Cassese, A, ‘ Ex iniuria ius oritur: Are We Moving towards International Legitimation of Forcible Humanitarian Countermeasures in the World Community?’ (1999) 10 EJIL 23, 24.

92 Fox and Webb (n 79) 537.

93 Or immunity ratione materiae that attaches to the acts of State officials.

94 R v Bow Street Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate and Others, Ex parte Pinochet Ugarte (No. 3) [2000] 1 AC 147.

95 Arrest Warrant (n 83) para 51.

96 Al-Adsani v United Kingdom (2001) 34 EHRR 273; Jones v Saudi Arabia [2006] UKHL 26; Jurisdictional Immunities of the State (Germany v Italy: Greece intervening) (Judgment) [2012] ICJ Rep 99.

97 ibid paras 58, 93, 100.

98 See Trapp, KN and Mills, A, ‘Smooth Runs the Water Where the Brook is Deep: The Obscured Complexities of Germany v Italy ’ (2012) 1(1) CJICL 153, 159–63.

99 Al-Adsani (n 96) para 54.

100 Art 22 ARSIWA.

101 Barcelona Traction (n 29) paras 33–34.

102 Commentary to Art 54 ARSIWA, paras 2–6.

103 Art 50(1)(a) ARSIWA.

104 Art 25(1) ARSIWA.

105 Commentary to art 25 ARSIWA, para 2.

106 Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros Project (Hungary/Slovakia) (Judgment) [1997] ICJ Rep 7, para 51.

107 Art 25(2)(a) ARSIWA.

108 Art 26 ARSIWA denies a preclusion of wrongfulness where a jus cogens norm is violated. The art 2(4) prohibition is sometimes described as having this peremptory status (see eg Simma, B, ‘NATO, the UN and the use of force: Legal Aspects’ (1999) 10 EJIL 1, 3). Such characterization is highly controversial however. In Nicaragua (n 54) para 190, the ICJ noted that the ILC and the United States (in its Memorial on the Merits in the case) characterized the prohibition on the use of force as jus cogens, but it has never ruled on this point.

109 Art 25(1)(b) ARSIWA.

110 Commentary to art 25 ARSIWA, para 17.

111 Statement by Mr Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, United Nations Human Rights Council (March 2015) available at <>.

112 UNSC Res 1973 (2011) UN Doc S/RES/1973.

113 UNSC Verbatim Record (17 March 2011) UN Doc S/PV.6498.

114 For details, see the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Report on the Human Rights Situation in Libya’ (16 November 2015), available at <>.

115 The Washington Institute, ‘Libya as a Failed State: Causes, Consequences, Options’ (November 2014), available at <>.

117 See eg Rodley, N and Çali, B, ‘Kosovo Revisited: Humanitarian Intervention on the Fault Lines of International Law’ (2007) 7 HRLR 275, 295–97 for a discussion of this problematic issue.

118 Which became a goal of the Libya intervention. See Pommier, B, ‘The use of force to protect civilians and humanitarian action: the case of Libya and beyond’ (2011) 884 International Review of the Red Cross 1063, 1067–9.

119 Stahn, C, ‘Syria and the Semantics of Intervention, Aggression and Punishment: On ‘Red Lines’ and ‘Blurred Lines’’ (2013) 11(5) JICJ 955 .

120 Crawford in Crawford and Koskenniemi (n 10) 132.

121 Whilst not establishing an independent right to use force, considerations of pluralistic sovereignty are relevant to the scope of the right of self-defence against NSAs, based on the ‘unwilling or unable’ doctrine. See Trapp (n 14).

The author is grateful for the comments of Dr Kimberley Trapp. Any errors remain his own.



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