The United Nation’s Security Council is supposed to be the place where decisions are taken on maintaining international peace and security.
In theory, it is where agreements are reached over the use of foreign military intervention. So far, there has been no such agreement on Syria.
Article 42 in Chapter Seven of the UN Charter allows “operations by air, sea, or land forces” belonging to UN member countries if all other options are exhausted.
With any of the five Security Council members able to veto intervention in Syria, acting without the UN is possible, according to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
“In some circumstances it can be bypassed, but international law is defined by the UN,” said Fabius.
It is possible that thousands of Syrians have died or been injured by chemical weapons. Both the Syrian government and rebels are accusing each other of using toxic agents.
However, for the West, there is a need for certainty.
“Our priority is to make sure that the world knows the facts of what has happened,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Mindful of repeating the war in Iraq, Hague is being cautious.
With no UN mandate on Iraq, a so-called “coalition of the willing” was led by the US. One of the reasons for intervention given was the humanitarian interest in bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq.
However, the UN must also consider its failure to act in the 1990s.
Up to one million people died when genocide took place in Rwanda.
Scores were persecuted and massacred in the Bosnian conflict.
When Russia’s Security Council veto prevented UN intervention in the Balkans, NATO sprung into action without a UN mandate.
After 10 months of threats, NATO bombed Serb forces stationed in Kosovo. The attack was justified as a “humanitarian emergency”. The US talked about “illegal but legitimate” action. The intervention marked a turning point in relations between NATO and the UN.
Iraq may be causing the West to be more careful when it comes to intervention without a UN mandate, but US President Barack Obama has warned the Syrian regime that a “red line” will have been crossed, if it is discovered that chemical weapons have been used and the Pentagon has been asked to “prepare options for all contingencies”.