Article 36 Briefing to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Weapons and Protection of Civilians
Considerations on the use of weapons in a possible military intervention in Syria
As the UK government considers a possible military intervention in the Syria conflict we believe that a fundamental principle must be that UK action should not exacerbate the situation on the ground when it comes to protecting Syrian civilians from explosive weapons.
No use of cluster munitions
The UK is one of the original signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and as such, the UK must work to prevent the humanitarian harm that will surely result from the use of these prohibited weapons. The UK and many others, including the US, have condemned Syria’s use of cluster munitions during the conflict. When working with the US military, the UK has a legal obligation under Article 21.2 of the Convention to “make its best efforts to discourage States not party to this Convention from using cluster munitions”. No country should use banned weapons to prevent the use of other banned weapons.
There are, however, reports that US officials are considering the use of sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, some of which can carry a weapons payload of cluster munitions (the Delta model carries 166 BLU-97 bomblets and was last used in Yemen in 2009, causing serious harm to civilians). In light of this, it is necessary that the UK does everything in its power to prevent the US from using cluster munitions.
No use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas
More generally there is a concern that the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide area effects, bears a high risk of causing serious harm to civilians in Syria. Research by Action on Armed Violence throughout the Syrian conflict has shown that it is precisely the use of explosive weapons in populated areas that has been the primary cause of civilian suffering. The UN Secretary General and a wide range of states have highlighted the grave humanitarian problems caused by bombing and bombardment in places where civilians are living.
While we share the concern about the need to protect civilians in Syria, the UK should not be adding to the misery in Syria by using explosive weapons in populated areas.
The UK government should:
- Condemn the use of heavy explosive weapons in densely populated areas, continue to reaffirm the emerging global norm prohibiting cluster munitions by condemning their use, and should condemn the use of chemical weapons, which is a violation of customary international law
- Make a commitment that it will discourage the use of cluster munitions by its allies that remain outside the treaty banning them – i.e. the US – and should make a commitment that it will not use any explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated areas.
These measures would help to strengthen stigmas regarding the unacceptability of different ways of using force and, crucially, would help to ensure that other countries do not add to the civilian suffering already heaped upon the Syrian population.