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2016 | Secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group friends of Syria, Syria - Humanitarian intervention outside the Security Council.

This report is submitted by the Secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria.

The UK position is that a state is permitted under international law to take exceptional measures including military action in order to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, but only where three strict criteria are met, namely that:

(i) 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;

(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and

(iii) 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 prohibition of force in Article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations is limited in scope and allows humanitarian action where such action does not compromise the territorial integrity or political independence of the state in question and is consistent with the purposes of the UN.

UN Security Council Resolution 2139, reinforced by subsequent resolutions, demands an end to shelling and aerial bombardment in populated areas, and demands that in particular the Syrian authorities promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, including across conflict lines and across borders.

Following UNSCR 2139, monthly reports by the UN Secretariat to the UN Security Council have provided ample evidence of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief.

In failing to respond to these monthly reports with measures to enforce its own resolutions, the UN Security Council has failed to fulfil its function under the Charter.

It follows that conditions (i) and (ii) have been met. A humanitarian intervention by the UK, whether aid drops, no-bomb zone, or other measure, would be legal provided it was in support of purposes laid down by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2139 and subsequent resolutions and that it also complied with the UK Government’s third test for humanitarian intervention: that ‘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.’

As the aim is to protect civilians, any action should avoid harm to civilians. A clear legal framework would be required, including concrete examples of what military action may be considered, a clear and transparent list of criteria, and a clear explanation of the parameters.

A General Assembly ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution would offer recommendations only and not binding measures, and is not necessary in order for the UK to take action. 

As the UK Government has long maintained that humanitarian intervention outside the Security Council is legal if implemented in accordance with its three tests, the dire emergency in Aleppo and wider Syria allows legally justified action now without any further delay by a superfluous General Assembly process.