A unilateral decision by the United States to launch airstrikes against Syrian military targets presents a clear dilemma for the United Nations.
On the one hand, the taboo against chemical weapons use is an important one to uphold. On the other hand, international law is very clear: the bombing of one country by another without the approval of the UN Security Council is patently illegal. (The exception is self defense.)
This statement by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres tellingly reflects the ambiguity at the United Nations over the propriety of the United States airstrikes last night.
I continue to follow the situation in Syria closely and with grave concern.
I was abhorred by the chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, and the death and injury of many innocent civilians.
I have long stated that there needs to be accountability for such crimes, in line with existing international norms and Security Council resolutions.
I have been following reports of the air strikes against the Shayrat Airbase in Syria conducted by the United States.
Mindful of the risk of escalation, I appeal for restraint to avoid any acts that could deepen the suffering of the Syrian people.
These events underscore my belief that there is no other way to solve the conflict than through a political solution. I call on the parties to urgently renew their commitment to making progress in the Geneva talks.
A political solution also remains essential for progress in the fight against terrorism.
The Security Council has the primary responsibility for international peace and security. I call on the Council to unite and exercise that responsibility.
For too long, international law has been ignored in the Syrian conflict, and it is our shared duty to uphold international standards of humanity. This is a prerequisite to ending the unrelenting suffering of the people of Syria.
As you can see, Guterres reminds that the Security Council is the ultimate arbiter of these kinds of interventions, but artfully avoids directly calling the US bombing “illegal” (while also invoking the horror of Syria’s chemical weapons use.)
Meanwhile, later today the Security Council is scheduled to hold a briefing today on the situation in Syria. The Council will hear from Jeffrey Feltman, the Under-secretary General for Political Affairs (and, incidentally formerly the top State Department official for middle east affairs in the Obama administration.) The Bolivian government apparently wanted to hold this session in private. But the United States, as the president of the Security Council this month, disagreed–and issued this blistering statement.
At the time of the bombing last night, diplomats on the Security Council were deep in negotiations over a draft resolution calling for an investigation into the chemical weapons attack. It is likely that those negotiations are effectively over.