The Illegality of Humanitarian Intervention: The Case of the UK's Legal Position Concerning the 2018 Strikes in Syria

Author:Agata Kleczkowska
Position:Institute of Law Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences, PL
Agata Kleczkowska, ‘The Illegality of Humanitarian Intervention:
The Case of the UK’s Legal Position Concerning the 2018 Strikes
in Syria’ (2020) 35(1) Utrecht Journal of International and
European Law pp.35–49. DOI:
The Illegality of Humanitarian Intervention:
The Case of the UK’s Legal Position Concerning
the 2018 Strikes in Syria
Agata Kleczkowska*
The aim of the article is to examine the legal position presented by the UK after the 2018
airstrikes in Syria, both from the perspective of the legality of humanitarian intervention as
well as the criteria employed with regard to a humanitarian intervention in the doctrine of
international law. The thesis underlying this paper is that humanitarian intervention is illegal
under contemporary international law, since neither the UN Charter nor customary norms allow
for a humanitarian intervention, and the UK’s legal position and the reaction thereto do not
change this state of the law. The pap er is divided into two parts. The rst part examines
the UK’s 2018 legal position in the light of international law, while the second part analyses
the humanitarian intervention as invoked by the UK from the standpoint of two criteria of
humanitarian intervention presented in the legal doctrine, that is, the reason behind the
intervention and its goals.
Keywords: use of force; humanitarian intervention; Syria; United Kingdom; chemical weapons
I. Introduction
On 7 April 2018 media and international organizations reported another case of the use of chemical
weapons against the civilian population in Syria in the town of Douma.1 It is estimated that 40 people
were killed as a result of the attack. Non-governmental organizations, like the Violations Documenta-
tion Center, immediately informed that bombs with chlorine were dropped by the Syrian Air Forces.2 In
response to the attack, the USA, the UK and France launched airstrikes on 14 April against three targets
in Syria, allegedly linked with the production of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. All three States
claimed that the reason behind the airstrikes was the use of banned chemical weapons against civilians
by President Assad’s forces. While the USA and France did not present any legal justification for the air-
strikes, highlighting only that their goal was deterrence against the further use of chemical weapons, the
UK issued its legal position, wherein it claimed that it acted on the basis of the doctrine of humanitarian
Even though humanitarian intervention is one of the most frequently discussed grounds of intervention
in the literature, there is not only no legal definition of a humanitarian intervention, but this concept is
understood very broadly even in the doctrine of international law. Thus, some authors define a humanitarian
* Institute of Law Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences, PL.
1 ‘Syria war: What we know about Douma “chemical attack” (BBC News, 10 July 2018),
east-43697084> accessed 1 July 2018 (Syria war: What we know about Douma “chemical attack”).
2 ibid. Likewise, on 14 April 2018 the French Government issued a ‘National assessment: Chemical attack of 7 April 2018 (Douma,
Eastern Ghouta, Syria). Syria’s clandestine chemical weapons programme’, available at 8/
world/Syrie-Synthe%CC%80se-Les%20faits%20-%20Version%20anglaise%20.pdf> accessed 10 January 2019, wherein it claimed
that the Syrian regime holds responsibility for the attack. On the other hand, OPWC does not provide information on who is
responsible for the attack (OPWC, ‘OPCW Issues Fact-Finding Mission Reports on Chemical Weapons Use Allegations in Douma,
Syria in 2018 and in Al-Hamadaniya and Karm Al-Tarrab in 2016’ (6 July 2018), available at
news/2018/07/opcw-issues-fact-finding-mission-reports-chemical-weapons-use-allegations attack> accessed 6 January 2019).

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