Is it really possible to significantly degrade the al-Assad regime’s capacity to engage in similar atrocities in the future, given the means at hand? How much humanitarian harm will the mission itself cause?
These are the key questions that those who advocate military intervention must address. They are moral and practical, but also legal, for international law is not just the charter, it also encompasses long-standing principles of necessity and proportionality.
Above all, where the objective of using force is humanitarian, minimizing the humanitarian harms from intervention follows from the logic of necessity, as both a legal norm and moral principle. By contrast, the trouble with using military force to punish is that necessity and proportionality cannot easily be applied to the calculus. A slap on the wrist would trivialize the gravity of the offense, while large-scale intervention would wreak death and destruction on many who are innocent.
Well-designed humanitarian intervention, as well as legal accountability for war crimes and atrocities, can send a strong signal to thugs and tyrants that they must reckon with the values that underpin international law. Yet conflating these two purposes — to save lives and to mete out justice — could end up undermining both.
Robert Howse is a professor at New York University School of Law. Ruti Teitel is a professor at New York Law School and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics.