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08:10 PM September 8th, 2013

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By: Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas S. J., September 8th, 2013 08:10 PM

First, what seem to be the facts.  The United States and some of its allies seem to be convinced that chemical weapons were used by Syrian armed forces against the Syrian people in residential areas of Damascus.  Because of this, under the urging of President Barack Obama, the United Sates Congress is debating whether or not to take military action.

Russia, for its part, continues to insist that the evidence of use of chemical weapons is insufficient.  In fact, too, Russian support for the Assad regime is one of the major obstacles to achieving a peaceful solution to the crisis.  Russia has not said it, but it is almost certain that Russia will veto a UN Resolution authorizing the use of force if it should come.  China would be expected to follow.

Meanwhile, a sharply divided British Parliament has voted against joining the United States.  The Archbishop of Canterbury supported the decision.

But let us suppose that indeed the facts are that Syria has used sarin, a deadly chemical.  We will admit moreover that the thought of civilian populations being subjected to poison gas attack is revolting to civilized people.  Moreover it is certain that in international law the use of poison gas is prohibited.  What are the legalities involved in seeking to justify military intervention by the United States or the international community?

The use of chemical weapons has been banned by the Geneva Convention since 1925 and their use against civilians is considered a crime against humanity.  There seems to be very good reason to believe that this is being done by the Syrian government against the civilian population even if only as collateral damage from attacks against rebel forces.  In the light of these what can be legally done?  Is military action against Syria justifiable under present circumstances?

Under the just war theory in International Law, several conditions must be verified before military intervention may be launched.  The first is that any military intervention must be covered by a mantle of legitimacy.  The usual legitimating mantle is a resolution of the UN Security Council.  So far there is none.  And even if there should be, a Security Council resolution is subject to veto by any of the Big Five members.  What we are expecting is that any such resolution will be vetoed by Russia.

Is there an alternative to a UN resolution?  There is an internationally accepted principle called “Responsibility to Protect” established in 2005.  It is not a law but only a principle.  It is based on the assertion that sovereignty is not only a right but also a responsibility.  Sovereign states are expected to help prevent and halt four heinous crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.  According to this principle the international community has the responsibility to assist any state in fulfilling this responsibility.  The responsibility may include the use of coercive measures when needed, but military action should be the last resort.

But whether it is a UN-authorized action or one that is in response to the “Responsibility to Protect” principle, a serious difficulty is how to satisfy the requirement of proportionality.  The end of any action should be deterrence—to stop what is going on or to discourage further attacks.  The means to achieve the end, aside from having a genuine possibility of success, must not be an instrument for creating more harm.

It is highly doubtful that Bashar  al-Assad’s rule will be stopped by action against him. Moreover, there is strong likelihood that military intervention will lead to the escalation and spread of the conflict.

What alternative can there be?  During the Japanese–Sino War in the 1930s, the theologian Richard Niebuhr is said to have published an article titled “The Grace of Doing Nothing,”  and he is quoted as saying:   “We are chafing at the bit, we are eager to do something constructive; but there is nothing constructive, it seems, that we can do.” But the Holy Father says, yes, there is.  We can pray.

The Holy Father has expressed his concern about the futility of military action, thus: “To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution. Rather, let there be a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community.”  He added: “Without peace, there can be no form of economic development. Violence never begets peace, the necessary condition for development.  It is regrettable that, from the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, one-sided interests have prevailed and in fact hindered the search for a solution that would have avoided the senseless massacre now unfolding.”

He buttressed his appeal by a call for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Middle East.  Last Saturday, the Philippine Church responded to that call with vigil prayers in churches and chapel.

The Jesuit general has also joined the Pope’s appeal and has expressed his view that the contemplated action of the United States and France would be a serious abuse of power.

Here in the Philippines there is nothing else we can do but pray.

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