The question of whether the use of force can be justified based on humanitarian grounds has in recent years re-attracted considerable attention due to a range of incidents, including the air strikes in Syria in April 2018, Turkey’s ongoing military incursions in Syria, and the killing of Iranian major general Soleimani in January 2020. As shown by research conducted by the Just Security blog, the reactions to the air strikes in Syria highlight that the approaches to the illegal use of force among states around the world differ widely. While this is perhaps not altogether surprising, state practice also reveals significant divergence within the EU on this matter, despite being supposed to contribute to strict respect for international law and to pursue a common foreign and security policy.
One of the EU’s objectives is to contribute “to the strict observance and development of international law” which includes respect for the principles contained in the UN Charter (Article 3(5) TEU). Additionally, not only are the EU Member States required to “assist each other in carrying out tasks” stemming from the EU Treaties (Article 4(3) TEU), they must also collaborate “to enhance and develop in their mutual political solidarity”, refraining from actions that would undermine the effectiveness of the Union “as a cohesive force in international relations” (Article 24(3) TEU). Relying on the official statements made by three EU (and NATO) Member States, the Netherlands, Germany and France, in response to the use of force in Syria and Iran, this blog post argues that the absence of a common position regarding the illegal use of force among the EU Member States seriously hampers the Union’s objectives of acting as a cohesive unit on the international stage and of collectively upholding respect for international law.