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Syria: Is this how you want international affairs to be conducted now?
by Rene Wadlow
2018-04-15 06:12:37
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In the emergency U.N. Security Council meeting called by Russia on 14 April 2018, the Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia asked of the representatives of the USA, France and the UK "Is this how you want international affairs to be conducted now?"  He was referring to the coordinated air strikes of the USA, France and the UK aimed at targets associated with Syrian chemical weapons programs.

The use of violence as an instrument of world politics is not a new idea as the Ambassador may know if he reflects on Russian history.  But Russian history may also remind him that it was a diplomat of the Czar who suggested the first Hague Peace Conference and its efforts to limit the means used in war. The 1925 Geneva Protocol is a direct outgrowth of the "Hague spirit."

syrwar01_400A suspected chemical-weapon attack on 7 April 2018 on rebel-held Douma, a city of some 130,000 near Damascus had killed at least 50 people and sickened hundreds more.  The attack may have been of weaponized chlorine and nerve agents possibly sarin.  The Assad government has been accused of using chemical weapons before - charges which the government has denied saying that chemical arms were used by rebel factions  such as Jash al Islam.

A major issue is that the use of chemical weapons, probably sarin or a sarin-like substance is in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare of which Syria is a party, among the 135 governments which have signed.  The attack was also a violation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction which came into force in 1997.  The Convention created The Hague-based Organization for the  Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).  Syria signed the Convention in 2013 as part of a compromise decision to have its chemical-weapon stock destroyed.

The use of poison gas strikes deep, partly subconscious, reactions not provoked in the same way as seeing someone shot by a machine gun.  The classic Greeks and Romans had a prohibition against the use of poison in war, especially poisoning water wells because everyone needs to drink.  Likewise poison gas is abhorred because everyone needs to breath.

There is a real danger that the Geneva Protocol of 1925, one of the oldest norms of humanitarian international law will be undermined and the use of chemical weapons "normalized". The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is already investigating the use of chemical weapons in seven other locations in Syria and new inspectors arrived in Syria on 13 April.

Chemical weapons have been used in armed conflicts in the Middle East before.  Although Egypt had signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, Egyptian forces used chemical weapons widely in their support of the republican forces in the Yemen Civil War (1962-1967) with very few international outcries.  As a result of the lack of any sanctions against Egypt, Syria requested Egyptian technical assistance in developing its own chemical weapons capabilities  shortly after 1967 - well before the al-Assad dynasty came to power.

Humanitarian international law is largely based on self-imposed restraints.Humanitarian international law creates an obligation to maintain the protection of all non-combatants caught in the midst of violent conflicts as set out in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977.  Moreover, there is an urgent need to focus special attention on the plight of children.  They are the least responsible for the conflict and yet are most vulnerable.  They need special protection.  The norms to protect children in armed conflicts are set out clearly in the Additional Protocols which has 25 articles specifically pertaining to children.  The norms are also clearly stated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally ratified  international treaty.  The Convention calls for the protection of the child's right to life, education, health and other fundamental needs.  These provisions apply equally in times of armed conflict and in times of peace.

As with the use of weapons prohibited by international treaty: chemical weapons, land mines, cluster munitions, the protection of children must be embodied in local values and practice.  The classic Chinese philosopher Mencius, in maintaining that humans were basically good, used the example of a child about to fall into a well who would be saved by anyone regardless of status or education.

wc00The Association of World Citizens has called for a United Nations-led conference on the re-affirmation of humanitarian, international law.  There needs to be a world-wide effort on the part of governments and non-governmental organizations to re-affirm humanitarian values and the international treaties which make them governmental obligations.

Limiting the use of chemical weapons or other banned weapons such as land mines and cluster munitions is only part of what is required. There needs to be negotiations in good faith to put an end to the armed conflict.  The Association of World Citizens has called for good-faith negotiations among all the parties from the start of what was at first non-violent demonstrations in March 2011.  Neither the Government nor the opposition were willing to set an agenda or a timetable for good-faith negotiations. The Government held out vague promises for reform but without giving details and without open discussion among those concerned. As the fighting has escalated, the possibility of good-faith negotiations has increasingly faded despite efforts by the U.N. mediators to facilitate such negotiations.

The situation has become increasingly complex as new actors play increasingly active roles.  The entry of Turkish forces and their Syrian allies into the city of Afrim after two months of fighting in the area of this largely Kurdish-populated city on the frontier with Turkey.  It is impossible to know if this is a limited show-of-force or the first steps of a broader anti-Kurdish  policy in northern Syria.

There is a growing awareness that there is a dangerous stalemate and that there is no military "solution". It is often at this "stalemate" stage of a conflict that parties turn to a negotiated compromise. (1) The dangers of a wider conflict with more States involved are real. Thus the situation requires careful concerted action both on the part of governments and non-governmental organizations.


1) See Louis Kriesberg and Stuart Thorson (Eds) Yiming the De-Escalation of International Conflicts (Syracuse University Press, 1991)


Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens





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