An argument one encounters from time to time in discussions of the possibility of military intervention on humanitarian or related grounds was voiced again this week by Brian Barder:
I am shocked by the views widely expressed in the blogosphere and by MPs on both sides of the house of commons according to which it would have been perfectly all right to go ahead and use force against Syria even if we had failed to get the authority of the Security Council for it. This careless willingness to subvert the whole basis of the UN Charter and the central provisions in international law governing the use of force in international relations is deplorable and disreputable.
What surprises me, for my part, is the way in which this makes of legality an absolute value, a principle to be respected without exception or qualification. Naturally, anyone committed to democracy and the rule of law must give proper weight to the legitimate procedures of democratic institutions and of law-making and legal adjudication. But there is an elementary moral distinction between (for short) fair procedures and good outcomes, and no one can reasonably settle on just one of those two values as the be-all and end-all of political or civic life. Thus, for example, we accept that there are judicial processes for adjudging a person's guilt or innocence when they are accused of committing a crime, and which we know under the heading 'fair trial'. But not every outcome of a fair trial is in fact just, there are miscarriages of justice and individuals are sometimes found guilty who are not and vice versa. Equally, not every democratic decision is just, and neither is every existing de facto law.
Now, those who believe in democracy and the rule of law by and large accept that when they are in a minority on some question they should nonetheless obey the law that has issued from the democratic process and been properly enacted into law. But there are cases where they should not accept this. So, you drive on whichever side of the road you are required to, irrespective of your own preference; but you should not go along with a democratically decided genocide or commission of crimes against humanity nor any laws embodying such decisions. Where to draw the line may in some cases be hard, but a moral line there is for all but the most obtuse worshipper of de facto authority.
I have already blogged about the difficulties of deciding on military intervention in Syria. But simply to put about vapid stuff regarding UN Security Council authorization evades the real difficulty. In that category - of vapid stuff - I would class the following from Ed Miliband:
[W]hen it comes to questions of military intervention, it is clear that effective engagement with international institutions is essential. Britain must therefore always seek to work with the United Nations and in accordance with international law, not by dismissing the UN as at best an irritation and at worst an obstacle to our objectives.
Hard-headed but full-hearted engagement with the UN is vital both because it helps establish the moral authority of any recommended course of action, and because it ensures that such action has the very best chance of success. The UN security council is the forum in which Britain should seek to make its case to the world, test that case, and where effective alliances should be built. This does not rule out acting without the authorisation of the security council but in accordance with international law, as was the case with Kosovo. But seeking to work through the UN must be the essential precondition of any action.
Miliband permits himself a get-out clause at the end ('does not rule out etc'), but he writes as though it were not already a well-tested fact that veto-wielding nations at the UN will block military intervention in Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population. And this, to state what should be obvious to him, is of an order of moral gravity that no contrary decision of any decision-making body can undo. There may be valid reasons against military action in Syria, but that the UN Security Council - through the exercise of the veto power by Russia and/or China - might not recognize the seriousness of this flagrant violation of international law isn't one of them.