Skip to main content

Why U.S. needs U.N. OK on Syria

By Mary Ellen O'Connell, Special to CNN
updated 4:32 PM EDT, Fri August 30, 2013
A protester demonstrates against potential U.S. intervention in Syria on Saturday, September 7, in Chicago. President Barack Obama has sought congressional approval to attack Syria in response to allegations that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on their own people. A protester demonstrates against potential U.S. intervention in Syria on Saturday, September 7, in Chicago. President Barack Obama has sought congressional approval to attack Syria in response to allegations that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on their own people.
HIDE CAPTION
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mary Ellen O'Connell: U.S. says U.N. approval won't affect plans for response to Syria
  • She says ignoring international law, facts can produce tragic results such as Iraq War
  • O'Connell: Obama right to denounce chemical weapons, shouldn't react outside U.N. law

Editor's note: Mary Ellen O'Connell holds the Robert and Marion Short Chair in Law and is research professor of international dispute resolution at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She is a specialist on the international law of armed conflict and is the editor of "What Is War? An Investigation in the Wake of 9/11" (Martinus Nijhoff/Brill, 2012).

(CNN) -- Administration officials have said that neither the U.N. Security Council nor the actions of allies would affect their response to Syria. Apparently producing conclusive evidence to link the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the use of chemical weapons against the nation's citizens may not matter either.

And yet even a brief review of 25 years of U.S. military action teaches the tragedy of ignoring law and facts.

Mary Ellen O\'Connell
Mary Ellen O'Connell

Just two years ago President Barack Obama recognized the need for a U.N. Security Council resolution to allow military action in Libya. Resolution 1973 authorized "necessary measures" to protect civilians. The resolution was needed because the use of military force is banned by the U.N. Charter unless it is in self-defense to an armed attack, has Security Council authorization, or, perhaps, is taken with the consent of a government fighting an insurgency, as in Afghanistan.

Even officials from the George W. Bush administration recognized the need for a Security Council resolution when the United States and United Kingdom invaded Iraq in 2003. The two nations tried to recycle resolutions from the 1990-1991 Gulf War when it became clear Security Council members would not vote for a new resolution to attack Iraq. The case for war with Iraq was too weak; Security Council members wanted to give U.N. weapons inspectors more time.

Kerry: We know Syria used chemicals
Syrian conflict hits your money
New chemical attack in Syria?

Secretary of State Colin Powell also tried to justify the Iraq invasion by referencing NATO's 1999 intervention in Kosovo, which also went forward without the required Security Council authorization. Authorization had been withheld because the Security Council doubted bombing would get the Serbs to grant Kosovo independence and were not sure who was responsible for some of the conflict's mass killings. Indeed, rebels have an interest in showing that they are victims in order to draw in assistance.

Just a few years before the Kosovo intervention, President George H.W. Bush had declared a new world order under the rule of law. He could point with well-earned pride at how, in the Gulf War, the United States led a worldwide coalition, authorized by Security Council Resolution 678, to liberate Kuwait -- in 100 hours of combat. The United States received generous assistance to support its military action, with allies sending either troops, material or financial support.

That war was fought against Saddam Hussein, the last known leader to have used chemical weapons in war. He used them to suppress Kurdish Iraqis and against Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War. He likely then used them against his own soldiers to cover up the use against Iranian troops when U.N. weapons inspectors came to investigate Iran's claims of chemical weapons use.

Obama is right to speak against chemical weapons use in the most categorical of terms. But the use of chemical weapons is banned by international law. Responding by violating the international law ban on resorting to force will only undermine America's standing to condemn the crimes of others. Washington officials should put their prodigious talents and resources to use finding a lawful and effective way to respond to chemical weapons use in Syria and to aid in ending a tragic war without creating more tragedy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mary Ellen O'Connell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT