(Updated May 2 with comments from CCDCOE).
On April 29, the Russian state news agency Sputnik cited two experts who claimed that the April 14 airstrikes carried out by the United States, Britain and France on Syrian government targets violated international law.
The Sputnik article referred to a news story in the Sydney Morning Herald, which quoted Lieutenant Colonel Kris van der Meij, a Dutch lawyer who works at the Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence (CCDCOE), a body accredited by NATO. Van der Meij previously worked as a legal adviser for NATO.
Van der Meij was quoted as saying he and his colleagues at the CCDCOE do not agree with the British government’s claim that the strikes were legal under international law if they were carried out “to alleviate overwhelming human suffering” -- in this case, resulting from the Syrian regime’s chemical attacks on civilians.
A representative from the CCDCOE later told Polygraph.info that Van der Meij’s comments "were taken out of context" -- that Van der Meij’s spoke of the concepts without specifically speaking of the Syrian conflict. The newspaper has not responded publicly yet, but even considering the CCDOE assertion, the Polygraph.info "verdict" does not change. ,
According to Van der Meij, there are only three formal legal justifications to use military force -- in self-defense, in accordance with a U.N. Security Council resolution, and at the invitation of a recognized government. He also clarified that while there was much discussion about formalizing the use of humanitarian intervention as a justification for military action, nothing has been adopted yet because different parties disagree on what constitutes legitimate “humanitarian intervention.”
An official with the U.S. State Department responded with a statement Monday calling the strikes "justified, legitimate and proportionate" stating that Russia was complicit in the Assad regime's "use of chemical weapons in violation of international law."
"This is a problem that has only been exacerbated by Russia's persistent refusal to use its influence with Syria to bring an end to the regime's continuing, unacceptable use of chemical weapons, and by Russia's vetoes of U.N. resolutions on Syria," the U.S.official said.
And U.N. officials, in the past, have directed accusations of war crimes at Syria and Russia.
"Let us be clear: Those using ever more destructive weapons know exactly what they are doing. They know they are committing war crimes," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said at the time of attacks on Aleppo in 2016.
The Sputnik article also cited Christine Chinkin, a professor of international law at the London School of Economics, and Mary Kaldor, a professor of global governance also at LSE, who jointly criticized British Prime Minister Theresa May’s justification for the attack in an open letter to the publication Open Democracy.
The two authors noted that while a number of international law experts support the concept of humanitarian intervention, it has not been formally recognized. Furthermore, they pointed out that while the attacks on Syria may be considered a “legitimate” response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, not only were they in violation of international law, it is also difficult to argue they alleviated human suffering since they were extremely limited strikes.
The arguments put forward by Chinkin and Kaldor in their open letter have been echoed by other experts. For example, Craig Martin, a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project, wrote an article stating that while the so-called “Responsibility to Protect” has been invoked to justify interventions like the one in Kosovo in 1999, it has not yet been codified as international law. Martin writes “there is little doubt” the Assad regime in Syria “has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity” in the last two years.Yet, he argued that if military intervention is “not lawful, then it represents nothing more than vigilante justice.”
During his announcement of the strikes, U.S. President Donald Trump explained the United States' rationale behind the strikes.
"The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons," the president said.
At the U.N. April 14, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley repeated the rationale.
"The targets we selected were at the heart of the Syrian regime’s illegal chemical weapons program. The strikes were carefully planned to minimize civilian casualties," she said.
"We did not give diplomacy just one chance. We gave diplomacy chance after chance." she added in her statement.
Still, experts on international law do not agree with U.S. and British. assertions of legality, though they acknowledge that this is a separate issue from the question of whether such a strike is morally justified.
“There is no UNSC no resolution; it’s a sovereign state; it’s an internal matter- there’s no conventional justification,” Tom Ginsburg, who teaches International Law at the University of Chicago, told Polygraph.info. “The responsibility to protect is a doctrine of uncertain status. It’s been invoked on a couple of occasions. The U.S. position on it has been uneven. I can’t really see how it would be legal. That’s all separate from whether it’s moral or a good idea. We have to separate positive law from these other issues.”
William Partlett, an associate professor of law at the University of Melbourne, also criticized the missile strikes’ lack of legality, noting that the failure of Western countries to abide by international law sets a bad example.
“In fact, it becomes far harder - if not impossible - for the United States, the UK, and France to condemn the use of force by other countries when they themselves grossly flaunt it,” Partlett wrote. “So if we care at all about the ‘rules-based order’, we should worry about ignoring international law constraints on the use of force. Otherwise we are admitting that [the] international legal regime on the use of force has completely broken down.”