More on Obama, Syria, and International Norms

Credit: Human Rights Watch

Credit: Human Rights Watch

A couple important updates to yesterday’s post on US support for international norms with regard to Syria:

First, just today, Human Rights Watch published an analysis of the recent attacks in Ghouta. They find considerable evidence for rocket-delivered chemical weapons attacks in two areas of Ghouta that are 16km apart. HRW strongly implicates the Syrian government in the attacks, confirming my suspicion that Syrian rebel forces are not known to have the equipment or the technical expertise to conduct the attacks as they occurred.

Our investigation finds that the August 21 attacks were likely chemical weapons attacks using a surface-to-surface rocket system of approximately 330mm in diameter—likely  Syrian-produced—and a Soviet-era 140mm surface-to-surface rocket system to deliver a nerve agent. Evidence suggests the agent was most likely Sarin or a similar weapons-grade nerve agent. Three local doctors told Human Rights Watch that victims of the attacks showed symptoms which are consistent with exposure to nerve gas, including suffocation; constricted, irregular, and infrequent breathing; involuntary muscle spasms; nausea; frothing at the mouth; fluid coming out of noses and eyes; convulsing; dizziness; blurred vision; and red and irritated eyes, and pin-point pupils.

Based on the available evidence, Human Rights Watch finds that Syrian government forces were almost certainly responsible for the August 21 attacks, and that a weapons-grade nerve agent was delivered during the attack using specially designed rocket delivery systems. The scale and coordinated nature of the two attacks; against opposition-held areas; the presence of government-controlled potential launching sites within range of the targets; the pattern of other recent alleged chemical weapon attacks against opposition-held areas using the same 330mm rocket delivery system; and the documented possession of the 140mm and 330mm rocket systems able to deliver chemical weapons in the government arsenal—all point towards Syrian government responsibility for the attacks.

So yes, it does appear that agents of the Syrian government violated international norms to the tune of grave breaches of the law of war and deprivation of the right to life.

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:

 For 67 years successive US governments have resisted calls to reform the UN security council. They’ve defended a system which grants five nations a veto over world affairs, reducing all others to impotent spectators…But now, as the veto powers of two permanent members (Russia and China) obstruct its attempt to pour petrol on another Middle Eastern fire, the US suddenly decides that the system is illegitimate.

Never have Obama or his predecessors attempted a serious reform of this system. Never have they sought to replace a corrupt global oligarchy with a democratic body. Never do they lament this injustice – until they object to the outcome. The same goes for every aspect of global governance.

In 1997 the US agreed to decommission the 31,000 tonnes of sarinVX,mustard gas and other agents it possessed within 10 years. In 2007 it requested the maximum extension of the deadline permitted by the Chemical Weapons Convention – five years. Again it failed to keep its promise, and in 2012 it claimed they would be gone by 2021. Russia yesterday urged Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control. Perhaps it should press the US to do the same.

Smallpox has been eliminated from the human population, but two nations – the US and Russia – insist on keeping the pathogen in cold storage. They claim their purpose is to develop defences against possible biological weapons attack, but most experts in the field consider this to be nonsense. While raising concerns about each other’s possession of the disease, they have worked together to bludgeon the other members of the World Health Organisation, which have pressed them to destroy their stocks.

As for the norms of international law, let’s remind ourselves where the US stands. It remains outside the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, after declaring its citizens immune from prosecution. The crime of aggression it committed in Iraq – defined by the Nuremberg tribunal as “the supreme international crime” – goes not just unpunished but also unmentioned by anyone in government. The same applies to most of the subsidiary war crimes US troops committed during the invasion and occupation. Guantánamo Bay raises a finger to any notions of justice between nations.

But Obama’s failure to be honest about his nation’s record of destroying international norms and undermining international law, his myth-making about the role of the US in world affairs, and his one-sided interventions in the Middle East, all render the crisis in Syria even harder to resolve. Until there is some candour about past crimes and current injustices, until there is an effort to address the inequalities over which the US presides, everything it attempts – even if it doesn’t involve guns and bombs – will stoke the cynicism and anger the president says he wants to quench.

I’ve omitted some of Monbiot’s more radical sentiments including his view that Israeli use of white phosphorus in Gaza constitutes the use of chemical weapons. I find that position unsupportable because the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) makes clear that white phosphorus is a legitimate weapon for use against military targets as long as no civilians are likely to be present. Using white phosphorus in Gaza was a violation of the principle of distinction in war but it was not a chemical attack.

In the comments, Monbiot responds to reader criticism of his anti-American bias:


“For 67 years the US has pursued its own interests at the expense of global justice.”

Except when the US went into Yugoslavia to save Muslims from genocide or launched a massive campaign to assist AIDS sufferers in Africa or assisted Indonesians post-tsunami or went into Haiti after the earthquake and so on.

Perhaps Monbiot never heard of any of that.


09 September 2013 8:46pm

I don’t claim that the US government never does any good. It sometimes acts beneficially when it loses nothing in so doing. But overall the imperatives it pursues are strategic ones, not moral ones. If it wants something badly enough, it pursues these aims with a ruthlessness that tramples any treaty or international law that stands in its way.

UPDATE: In a separate piece at Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion takes the US, Russia, and the UN Security Council to task (emphasis mine) for failing to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court:

There’s now a slight chance that the United Nations Security Council will respond to the slaughter in Syria by imposing international monitoring of Syria’s chemical weapons, as suggested by Russia. This step ought to prevent future use of such heinous weapons, but what it won’t do is bring justice to the war’s many victims (including the hundreds of civilians killed on August 21, likely by government forces using Sarin). Nor will it deter the deliberate or indiscriminate killing of civilians with conventional weapons, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of the death toll so far.

Russia (abetted by China) complains of rebel abuses but has so far blocked any action at the Security Council to provide accountability. And while US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry talk about “accountability,” “impunity,” and “punishment” – the US has not yet been willing to support referral of the Syria situation to the ICC.  Some 64 countries, including six current Security Council members – France, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Argentina, Australia, and South Korea – have publicly supported the court’s involvement. It’s high time that China, Russia and the US follow their lead.

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