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International law: Will UK military intervention in Syria be deemed legal?

As Government put forward their plans to intervene in Syria to the United Nations Security Council, questions over the legality of such actions are beginning to arise, reports the BBC.

Given the difficulty in determining the legality of military intervention with regard to international law, it is generally agreed that countries seeking such action must refer to the UN Security Council to ultimately authorise it.

Despite the lack of an international court to determine outright whether certain military intervention is legal, there is a framework to refer to: the Responsibility to Protect, which endorses military force when such action is based upon humanitarian principles.

The Responsibility to Protect developed as a result of the Kosovo and Rwanda disasters in the 1990s. The legal guidelines centre around three crucial points. These points are outlined in the 2005 UN World Summit Outcome Document as the responsibility of each state to protect their own from crimes against humanity and war crimes as well as an obligation to assist other states in preventing these crimes from happening to them. In addition, the prevention of such crimes must be attempted in a peaceful manner yet, if all peaceful routes are exhausted, military force can legitimately be used.

Although it would appear that US and UK military intervention in Syria would be deemed legal when consulting the above guidelines, the UK Government will refer to the UN Security Council to have their decision endorsed in order to ensure maximum legitimacy for their choice to intervene using military force.

If members of the UN Security Council do not favour military intervention, the "Responsibility to Protect provides a legal framework for the international community to use military force as a last resort - either by way of a regional coalition or a so-called 'coalition of the willing'," reports BBC Legal Correspondent, Clive Coleman.

The Responsibility to Protect provides a limited power to act in that it stipulates that military force may be used only when peaceful avenues have been exhausted and, furthermore, only to specifically protect civilians and prevent the atrocity from continuing. However, ultimate responsibility to legally justify military intervention lies with governments not lawyers.

Seeking the approval of the UN Security Council, Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed a resolution to the council to condemn the chemical attack by Assad and authorise the action of military intervention in the pressing case of Syria. The resolution will be considered by the five permanent members of the council.

Calling upon his colleagues for their support, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed his wish for the council members to unite in protecting Syrian civilians, stressing that, "The council must at last find the unity to act. It must use its authority for peace."

Whilst the possibility for military intervention has received support from the UK, US and French governments, the positions of Russia, China and Iran in this case are less clear. In the past, these governments have refused to endorse military action in Syria. The Russian Foreign Ministry quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying: "Attempts at a military solution will lead only to the further destabilisation [of the area]."

Officials in Iran have expressed their concerns about military action in Syria due to the consequences of international warfare on the area as a whole. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, commented: "The region is like a gunpowder store and the future cannot be predicted."

However, UK Government has determined non-intervention to be worse, with David Cameron stating that other nations "could not stand idly by" and neglect to act in defence of innocent Syrian civilians. Yet, military intervention should perhaps be withheld until reports are given to confirm that Assad was most definitely behind the attack.