Monday, 2 September 2013

Chemical Weapons are a Precursor to Genocide

Calls for international intervention in Syria have been called for since the breakdown of recognisable government and the outbreak of civil war almost two years ago. The international community has stood by and watched as Syria disintegrated into a failed state with a fleeing population and an internationally armed and financed insurgency. These issues were previously reported on by Skríobh here and here.

The use of chemical weapons was described as Barrack Obama in August of last year as the decisive action that would 'change his calculus' in the United States' stance on the war in Syria and was thought to be reflective of the global stance towards the conflict. Since then, the stream of violence, targeting of civilians and war crimes have been recorded by both sides of the conflict. The United Nations have been steadfast in their resolution to delay intervention, by Chinese and Russian veto and a resounding public apprehension. In Britain, the fear of public dissatisfaction with the drawn-out and unpopular war in Afghanistan and the French government's fear of furthering claims of neo-colonialism since its quelling of an insurgency movement in Mali.

Public discourse has been loudest on the subject of intervention by the international community. However, the current international legal framework gives rise to a number of clear limits to the relationship between states. Under the United Nations Charter, which all recognised states are party to, is that each nation is its own sovereign state, capable and free to deal with its own domestic affairs as it sees fit. Historically, intervention has been the usurping of small, developing nations by the global superpowers such as the United States of America and Russia. These illegal actions damage the quality of governance, democracy and the free development of independent nations.

In the Syrian context, initial public protest and social reform are part of an emerging, more liberal Middle Eastern outlook sparked by the 'Arab Spring'. In a grand scale, public protests being met with authoritarian government force do not warrant international intervention. Isolated cases of police brutality, such as firing into crowds or the targeting of political groups by government-backed militias do not meet the threshold of warranting outside involvement. Even with the spread of weaponry through a nation, the armed uprising and outbreak of civil war is seen as within the scope of the independence of each nation. While individual tragedies may occur in this armed conflict, such as the death of civilians in airstrikes or destruction of important infrastructure, these acts can be easily be argued by the government as inadvertent or collateral damage in the quelling of armed uprising. Where this threshold changes is when there is a prolonged, government-sanctioned attack on an identifiable group of people. This occurs when isolated or sporadic deaths move in the direction of sustained targeting. These are crimes against humanity.

There is a spectrum of international law, varying from the denial of some human rights to the most heinous acts of genocide. The use of chemical weapons in a non-evacuated area shows an intention to specifically target non-combatants and would have limited military value. It is the most basic denial of the right to life and shows wanton disregard for the shared humanity of all people. It is the precursor to carrying out a genocide. For the United Nations, it takes such an act or the intention to carry out such an act that breaches this threshold. At this stage the use of force is a proportionate response. In the aftermath of NATO airstrikes in Kosovo, Kofi Annan said "It is indeed tragic that diplomacy has failed, but there are times when the use of force is legitimate in the pursuit of peace".

International involvement will invariably bring further suffering to the people of Syria. In doing so, there will be a need to deny both sides the possibility of carrying out further attacks, followed by the suppression of armed conflict and the beginning of peace-keeping operations. Social and political reform can only take place when the basic building-blocks of civilisation are put back in place, when refugees can return to their homes and attempt to put life back together. The peace-process will involve the decommissioning of both sides' weaponry to prevent further proliferation of arms and skills to neighbouring nations. The violence in Syria can be contained through appropriate military action in combination with the provision of humanitarian assistance. The Al-Assad regime has shown flagrant disregard for the value of human life and it is for the United Nations to act in a concerted effort to protect and provide for the shared values of its members.

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