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 2:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
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 8:35 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 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 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?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT