Upholding the norm against chemical weapons

The rationale for an American attack on Syria has come down to a single argument. If chemical weapons use is not met with immediate and lethal reprisals, the norm against such heinous attacks will erode, leaving Bashar al-Assad and dictators like him free to use chemical weapons with impunity. But does that argument hold up?

Prime Minister Harper makes the argument by warning us of the consequences of inaction.[i] President Obama says that “failing to respond to this breach of this international norm would send a signal to rogue nations, authoritarian regimes and terrorist organizations that they can develop and use weapons of mass destruction and not pay a consequence.”[ii]

But is there any evidence to support that claim?

Gas attacks have been rare. The last ones before the current Syrian case were carried out in the 1980s by Saddam Hussein. The main attacks were against Iranian troops during the Iraq-Iran war. Thousands were killed, but there were no reprisals. The world stood by and the United States remained Saddam’s steadfast friend throughout that decade. Indeed, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” recently recounted in some detail the now familiar story of US silence and even complicity in response to the Iraqi chemical attacks.[iii]

Toward the end of that decade Saddam used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilian Iraqis, again without any direct response from the rest of the world.

But an epidemic of chemical weapons use obviously didn’t follow. The fact is, the norm against chemical weapons is robust, and it remains so, not because of any military defence or enforcement of it, but because of a combination of powerful social, political, legal, and diplomatic norms and reinforcements.

Public revulsion at any kind of gas attack, whether against troops or civilians, is rooted in the collective psyche – bolstered especially by World War I history and related literature.[iv] Politically and legally, the norm is rooted in the 1925 Geneva Convention[v] and the near-universal Chemical Weapons Convention which entered into force in 1997.[vi] The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons guides and monitors ongoing programs to destroy existing stockpiles in compliance with the CWC. To date, more than 80 percent of the world’s declared stockpiles of chemical agents have been verifiably destroyed. (Syria is not a party to the Treaty and of course has not declared its stockpile.)

It’s true that every new use – however infrequent and whether or not other forms of violence, as in Syria, far exceed it – threatens the norm and must thus be met with a serious, uncompromising response that honors the norm and helps to sustain support for it.

In the Syrian case, a primary requirement is that there be a relentless, exhaustive investigation of the Syrian event – one that is independent of the politically-laden “assessments” offered by Washington. A legal and evidence-driven response by the international community to chemical weapons use in Syria could and should include

a) a Security Council reference to the International Criminal Court to bring alleged perpetrators to trial,

b) ensuring that the successor regime in Syria ratifies the Chemical Weapons Convention and carries out supervised destruction of all stocks and manufacturing facilities,

c) updating the Treaty’s regulatory regime to address issues such as transfers of dual use chemicals, and

d) fulfilling the international community’s promise to seriously pursue the establishment of the Middle East as a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction.

A military attack on Syria would have any number of unforeseen consequences. But the one thing that can be said with some certainty is that such an attack would be neither about, nor essential to, strengthening the norm against chemical weapons use.


[i] Bill Curry, “Obama leaves G20 with no consensus on Syria action,” The Globe and Mail, 07 September 2013.   http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/face-to-face-meeting-of-world-leaders-fails-to-break-impasse-on-syria/article14160379/

[ii]  Peter Baker and Steven Lee Myers, “Obama Falls Short on Wider Backing for Syria Attack,” 06 September 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/07/world/middleeast/obama-syria-strike.html

[iii] “A review of thousands of declassified government documents and interviews with former policymakers shows that U.S. intelligence and logistical support played a crucial role in shoring up Iraqi defenses against the “human wave” attacks by suicidal Iranian troops. The administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush authorized the sale to Iraq of numerous items that had both military and civilian applications, including poisonous chemicals and deadly biological viruses, such as anthrax and bubonic plague.

“In principle, Washington was strongly opposed to chemical warfare, a practice outlawed by the 1925 Geneva Protocol. In practice, U.S. condemnation of Iraqi use of chemical weapons ranked relatively low on the scale of administration priorities, particularly compared with the all-important goal of preventing an Iranian victory.

“Thus, on Nov. 1, 1983, a senior State Department official, Jonathan T. Howe, told Secretary of State George P. Shultz that intelligence reports showed that Iraqi troops were resorting to “almost daily use of CW” against the Iranians. But the Reagan administration had already committed itself to a large-scale diplomatic and political overture to Baghdad, culminating in several visits by the president’s recently appointed special envoy to the Middle East, Donald H. Rumsfeld.”

[The Fact Checker blog draws on this 2002 reporting by Michael Dobbs. See: “History lesson: When the United States looked the other way on chemical weapons,” The Washington Post, 04 September 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/history-lesson-when-the-united-states-looked-the-other-way-on-chemical-weapons/2013/09/04/0ec828d6-1549-11e3-961c-f22d3aaf19ab_blog.html]

[iv] The second half of the extraordinary, and certainly well-known and famous, poem of Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum est:

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

 But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

 And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .

 Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

 He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

 Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

 And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

 His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

 If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

 Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

 Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 

 Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

 My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

 To children ardent for some desperate glory,

 The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

 Pro patria mori.

[v] 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.

[vi] Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (Chemical Weapons Convention). See the CWC secretariat, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, website: http://www.opcw.org/about-opcw/

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