Syria: a question of international law

There's still a lot of confusion among commentators over the purpose of any US-led military action in Syria. Some see the chemical weapons attacks as a backdoor way to reshape Syria's internal conflict. Others argue that if it isn't a backdoor way to do that, it ought to be.

Those in the latter camp include some serious heavyweights like Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman writes:

"If the US is to intervene in Syria, its options must have some strategic meaning and a chance of producing lasting success. They must have a reasonable chance of bringing stability to Syria, of limiting the growth of Iranian and Hezbollah influence, of halting the spillover of the Syrian struggle into nearby states, and helping to deal with the broader humanitarian crisis."

This, in my view, is absolutely wrong. The chemical weapons issue should be kept as separate as possible from the broader conflict – and that, as far as anyone can tell, is what Obama intends to do. 

The president spelled it out yet again, yesterday:

"I repeat, we’re not considering any open-ended commitment. We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach. What we will do is consider options that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons, understanding that there’s not going to be a solely military solution to the underlying conflict and tragedy that’s taking place in Syria."

Some of Obama's critics see this as an attempt to save face after Assad crossed the red line that the president set a year ago. But it's far more important than that. Use of chemical weapons in Syria, or anywhere else for that matter, poses a direct challenge to the rule of international law, and international law is something that we all need, whether we are conscious of that or not.

We are all familiar with national laws but international law – the idea that states, as well as citizens, must behave themselves – is a relatively new development. The body of international law has grown enormously during the last century or so and will continue growing in the future, probably at an even faster rate, as a result of globalisation.

When it comes to international law, most states are selective. They like to pick and choose, invoking it on some occasions while ignoring it on others. Accepting international law means sacrificing some degree of national sovereignty – an area where Syria and the other Arab countries have particularly anachronistic views. They still claim that whatever they do within their own borders is entirely their own business. Often it is not, and that is especially true when it comes to human rights and the protection of civilians.

In comparison with national law, though, international law is weak and relatively undeveloped with regard to enforcement mechanisms. As globalisation proceeds this problem will only get worse unless effective mechanisms are found.

Syria is an extreme case but there are plenty of other, more everyday, examples. There's not much point in spending years negotiating international conventions and treaties if countries can sign them and then ignore them without any penalty. 

Saudi Arabia, unbelievably, is a party to CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Everybody knows that Saudi Arabia flouts the convention daily and on a massive institutionalised scale but with the present system there's little anyone can do about it beyond cajoling and diplomacy. In terms of law enforcement that's the equivalent of having the police knock on someone's door to ask them if they would please not do any more robberies.

One enforcement mechanism that does exist – though often it's an ineffective one – is the UN Security Council. But the Security Council is a political body, not a court, and the veto system allows some members to prevent it taking action for reasons based on politics rather than law.

There is no quick or simple way to solve the enforcement problem. The best we can hope for is that mechanisms will evolve over time but that will only happen if we make the effort to develop them.

Every violation that occurs without a penalty tends to undermine the force of international law in general. There are certainly limits to what can be done about that at present. At a practical level it's impossible to address every infringement, even if the political will is there, because there are so many. But if we want to make any progress at all we cannot ignore the most horrific and blatant examples – and the Syrian chemical weapons attacks are one of those.

There are also good reasons for taking a particularly strong stand on chemical weapons, as Scott Gartner, a professor of international affairs, points out in an article for Huffington Post.

So far, in contrast to the growing nuclear club, the world has been remarkably successful in moving towards the complete elimination of chemical weapons. Worldwide, only five states have not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention – Syria, Egypt, North Korea, Angola and South Sudan, plus Israel and Myanmar which have signed but have not ratified. In addition to that, Gartner says, 80% of the world's known stockpiles of chemical weapons have been destroyed, and there are programmes established to destroy most of the rest.

Having got so close to eliminating them entirely, we can't afford to let Syria start normalising their use. Gartner writes:

"Chemical weapons prohibition works; this is not idealism run amok, the results are real ... If we can eradicate chemical weapons, we can save lives and avoid future military reactions and chemical-weapon-based red line-diplomacy."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 31 August 2103