Which International Norms Would We Like to See Upheld?

Andrew Sullivan relays some very interesting news on US diplomacy with regard to Syria. Russia appears to be taking a cue from Secretary of State John Kerry’s apparent gaffe (CNN’s latest here) to pressure Syria to turn its chemical weapons over to international control.

Of late, the Obama administration has shown very little interest in publicizing its efforts to resolve the Syria crisis through diplomacy. In fact, when Kerry flippantly retorted to a reporter that,

“Sure, [Assad] could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

…he immediately followed himself up by saying,

“But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”

To everyone’s apparent surprise, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, replied by saying,

“We don’t know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus,” Mr. Lavrov said at the Foreign Ministry. “And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.”

Then, according to Russia’s Interfax News Agency, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said “that his government welcomed the Russian proposal…in what appeared to be the first acknowledgment by the Syrian government that it even possessed chemical weapons. ”

The British Prime Minister and the UN Secretary General were quick to support the offhand proposal. So now the Administration is in the position of having, just possibly, to take yes for an answer.

This turn of events does not necessarily prove that the pen is mightier than the sword, since Russia’s eager support comes in the context of Obama’s insistence that he can strike Syria without Congressional authority. Russia (and China) are longstanding opponents of the interventionist philosophy that underlies the “Responsibility to Protect (R2P),” partly out of concern that R2P will one day justify interventions against their own human rights abuses.

What I find most important is how Obama’s invocation of international norms contributes greatly to the complexity of this case.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Syria’s probable use of Sarin is, in fact, a violation of an international norm against the use of chemical weapons. This norm is codified in the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925, to which Syria is a party. The norm against stockpiling (as opposed to use) of chemical weapons is codified in the Convention on Chemical Weapons to which all but seven states including Syria (and Israel, FYI) are party. The International Committee of the Red Cross further contends that, treaty or no treaty, state practice clearly implies a prohibition against the use (with the possible exception of retaliation in kind to another State’s use), if not the stockpiling, of chemical weapons under International Customary Law.

The problem for supporters of a military strike against Syria is that many other international norms are in play here.

Since R2P is still an emerging philosophy, there is no internationally recognized norm legitimizing military intervention to uphold norms other than the right to self-defense outside of a UN Security Council authorization. Furthermore, as it appears in writing, R2P actually has three pillars, the first two of which should be exhausted prior to military intervention:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;

  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;

  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

International law, which can be understood as the more substantive cousin of international norms, would have Obama sit on his hands and watch Syria use Sarin to its heart’s content unless the UN Security Council authorizes military action. The Convention on Chemical Weapons calls for treaty administrators to “bring [cases of particular gravity], including relevant information and conclusions, to the attention of the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council,” so it’s of no help to Obama in this regard.

Also, Syria has violated other international norms. In fact, its use of chemical weapons against civilians is a mere escalation of Syria’s ongoing violation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which enshrines the protection of civilians as a principle of lawful warfare in all situations. Even if there were no law specifically prohibiting chemical weapons, the Sarin attack on civilians would still have violated Common Article 3. There is also evidence that Syria has employed cluster munitions and thermobaric weapons in populated areas (though you’ll never hear the US complain about the former because it refuses to accede to the Convention on Cluster Munitions which prohibits these weapons for reasons similar to those of the Geneva Gas Protocol).

In this context, a US attack on Syria may provide very mixed results for international norms. In my view, the most universal lesson to draw from a hypothetical US strike on Syria is that the US uses military force at its whim with little regard for norm or law.

Where I see some validity in the invocation of international norms is in the fact that there are relatively few instances of chemical weapons use. While state and non-state abuses of Common Article 3 barely register as news, chemical weapons have only been used eight times since 1925. The norm against chemical weapons may therefore be amenable to enforcement through military intimidation while it appears to be too late to apply the same tactic to military attacks on civilians writ large.

If this distinction is part of Obama’s thinking on Syria, it would seem to strongly militate in favor of changes to the international legal structure. If a Syria strike is to be viewed by history as something other than an arbitrary use of US military power, the US is behooved to advocate a restructuring of the UN Security Council so that five member states do not hold eternal veto over the upholding of international norms, or the enforcement of international law, or the prevention of humanitarian catastrophe. The first two pillars of R2P should be standardized and implemented to prevent or, failing that, to render inarguable the need for military intervention. Enforcement mechanisms should be standardized in international treaties. These efforts are all vastly more complicated than a limited military strike, which is already so complex that international consent seems impossible. Yet without such long-term efforts, Obama’s proposed Syria strike is just as likely to establish the US as a unilateral arbiter of moral obscenity as it is to preserve existing norms.


  1. […] Now what credibility does the US have to uphold these international norms? In his latest Op-Ed at The Guardian, George Monbiot takes a considerably less diplomatic (and more ruthlessly researched) tone than I did yesterday: […]

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