17 June 2013
A shared responsibility trap: supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition
Cross posted on EJIL: Talk!
In the last few weeks, a shared responsibility trap has arisen in relation to the conflict in Syria. On 4 June 2013, the Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic documented that anti-government forces have engaged in a wide range of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. At the same time, several States are inching towards openly supplying the Syrian opposition with arms. On 27 May, the Council of Ministers of the European Union decided not to renew the arms embargo against Syria. On 14 June, the United States announced that it plans to provide weapons in response to its finding that Syria has used chemical weapons.
States that are now considering supplying weapons to the opposition forces in Syria run a risk of falling into a shared responsibility trap. They may have noble motives in seeking to save the population from atrocities. They may even consider that they should act in the spirit of the responsibility to protect, and should exercise a shared responsibility to protect individuals against the Assad regime. But there is a twist to such noble aims. States that provide weapons to the opposition will eventually share the responsibility for whatever the opposition does with those weapons.
Of course, delivering weapons to opposition groups that aim to overthrow the sitting government of the Republic of Syria is wrongful in itself, irrespective of any wrongs that may be committed by the opposition. This was discussed earlier by Dapo Akande at EJIL talk. Depending on their nature and purpose, such delivery can be contrary to the prohibition on the use of force (article 2(4) UN Charter). This will also hold for the military action needed to enforce a no-fly zone that is now being considered. It could be argued that arms deliveries that would have as their sole purpose the protection of civilians (which appears to have been the aim of the EU Ministers) need not be contrary to the prohibition on the use of force. But the assumption that such deliveries can be clearly distinguished from other deliveries and be limited to protection purposes seems doubtful. In any case, this would not make them lawful, as arms deliveries would remain contrary to the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of Syria. Arms deliveries to the opposition in Syria moreover may be contrary to UN Security Council Resolution 2083 (2012), which prohibits supplying arms to persons or entities linked to Al-Qaeda. It has been reported that a recent supply of weapons to the Syrian rebels by Qatar, with US approval, ended up being used by groups linked to Al-Qaeda.
The exceptions that in other cases may remove the wrongfulness of arms deliveries do not lead to a different outcome in this particular factual context. There is neither a Security Council Resolution that allows for such deliveries, nor consent of the Assad government (which, to the dismay of many Western governments, still qualifies as the government of Syria). Weapons deliveries cannot be qualified as a lawful countermeasure, also taking into account that the true aim of such deliveries would appear to be the overthrowing of the Assad regime rather than only ending the wrongs. As pointed out by Dapo Akande, nor does the label ‘humanitarian intervention’, which was accepted by both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands as a potentially lawful option, provide a lawful exception. The fact that the US now throws chemical weapons into the equation does not make weapons deliveries lawful. Use of chemical weapons may lead to aggravated moral concerns, but there is no basis in international law for transforming a wrong into a right when chemical weapons are used.
All of this means that States supplying weapons will in principle be responsible for their own acts, quite irrespective of what the opposition does with such weapons.
However, the wrongs may become connected. It has been said (for instance, in Austria’s policy paper) that States that supply weapons to opposition forces may be complicit with the opposition forces. The argument is not an easy one to make. International law does not have a rule that provides for complicity of States for aiding non-state actors (unless perhaps a treaty provision applies, such as the Genocide Convention). The EU safeguards that have been built into the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports seek to prevent such complicity. They do not allow for trade in arms when there is a clear risk that the equipment might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law, or where the export of weapons would provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination. Violation of this Code of Conduct does not lead to responsibility under international law.
However, an assessment of the legal consequences of the supply of arms has to take a more long-term perspective. The ulterior motive would appear to be to secure the demise of the Assad regime and to propel the opposition into power. The Dutch government has outlined this scenario in a letter to the House of Representatives of 4 June. This states that ‘[t]he lack of legitimacy of the Assad regime, and the wide recognition of the [Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces] as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people, has led the government to believe that supplying material to the [Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces] in extraordinary situations and under specific conditions need not be contrary to public international law.’
As a matter of international law, this is a doubtful legal basis for considering the delivery of weapons to be lawful. Neither the legitimacy of a sitting regime nor the recognition of opposition forces as the legitimate representative of the people of Syria are relevant for the assessment of lawfulness of arms deliveries to the opposition (perhaps this may be different in the context of self-determination, as discussed by Dapo Akande).
But the letter does provide an interesting insight into the preferred, and perhaps expected, trajectory. The thought appears to be that in the process of eroding the legitimacy of an incumbent regime, and prior to the rise of a new regime that is considered to be the representative of the State, a grey zone exists in which providing support to rebels need not be contrary to public international law. In the abstract, this is not an unreasonable position. However, a State that concludes that the process has indeed made sufficient progress and supplies weapons faces a double risk.
If the Assad regime does survive, which is increasingly likely, arms deliveries will be considered unlawful. In that case, the argument that the regime was at some moment no longer legitimate will not be a valid one under public international law. Weapons deliveries will then be wrong, aside from how the opposition uses the weapons.
But if the opposition forces do prevail, as is hoped by the States now considering the supply of weapons, another risk presents itself. No one will complain that the supply of arms has breached the principle of non-intervention. But the supply of arms may well result in a shared responsibility. Syria, as a State, can, on the basis of the principle laid down in article 10 of the Articles on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, be held responsible for wrongful acts committed by the then opposition groups.
This scenario exposes the shared responsibility trap. Driven by moral concerns that lead them to abandon their bystander role, States may start to supply weapons to the opposition, propelling the opposition to victory. But once that victory has been achieved, those States may share the responsibility for the acts of what were once the opposition forces.