The Chemical Weapons Controversy


After World War I, many world leaders took a stance against chemical and biological weapons by setting prohibitions against their use in a convention at Geneva. This prohibition has generally been long since accepted as an international norm of war. Nations realized a long time ago that war is unpreventable. The world will never stop armed conflict entirely. Conflicts exist and will exist for all of time, but that does not mean that they cannot be made a little less terrible than they might have otherwise been. The international taboo against chemical weapons after World War I has been, for the most part, successful at greatly diminishing their use in warfare. After the Geneva Protocol of 1925, chemical weapons have not been used on the same scale as they once were.

Many are criticizing the Obama administration for condemning the use of chemical weapons by Assad after the recent attacks. What makes death from, say, sarin gas different than civilian casualties from conventional warfare, critics argue? But this stance of the Obama administration transcends the Syrian conflict. Civilian casualties and all indiscriminate killings are undesirable for all sides of a conflict. But, war has existed for all of time, and it will exist for the rest of time. The United States, as a world superpower, many maintain, should be the enforcer of the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. It is in the interest of the U.S. to be the front line in blocking further use of chemical weapons and to constrain war as much as possible.

Until there are standards that outlaw war entirely, the world can adapt to this fact by preserving any standard that make war less terrible. This international standard that discourages warring powers from using chemical weapons over bullets is good for civilians of all nations in war. Every time a leader decides to utilize chemical weapons, he chips away at this established international standard. The United States has the international clout and militaristic power to enforce this standard for the sake of all future conflict by disciplining regimes that break the standard. But, there are many on both sides of this argument of whether or not it is the duty of the United States to act as a world police

Regardless, when the Obama administration chastises the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons, it is more about Syria. It is about the future of war and what type of war the world wants to lead. The hope of the United States is to constrain war to maximize the preservation of life. Even though war is inevitable, many people reason, it does not mean it cannot be made less terrible.

The Obama administration has the power to draw a line against Assad’s regime and its use of chemical weapons on the Syrian people. The international norm becomes threatened if leaders like Assad are allowed to slaughter civilians with chemical weapons. If world leaders are conditioned to believe that any use of such weapons is accompanied by the wrath of U.S. missiles, then the warfare standard set in Geneva, and subsequent agreements like during the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, is strengthened.

In addition to the fairly well-maintained standard, chemical weapons are frowned upon because they are horrific killers. Bullets and bombs are used to win conventional wars. That is the convention. That is how it is. Chemical weapons, on the other hand, are simply only tools of terror. Bombs and bullets can be targeted. The same is much less true for chemical weapons like sarin gas. After World War I, the realities of chemical warfare were realized. Chemical weapons like mustard gas often backfired and did little for either side in combat. They are tools that terrorists use to incite terror and to indiscriminately kill mass amounts of unarmed civilians. They are not used to win wars, gain tactical advantages, or anything of the sort. A chemical war just exacerbates killings.

Any military action against Syria for its use of chemical weapons will probably not help the rebels at this moment in time. It will not help end the civil war. Regardless, the U.S. has expressed a great interest in preserving the long-established norm of warfare. The United States, for now it seems, cannot accomplish much in Syria with Russia blocking any action and both sides, the rebels and Assad, unwilling to participate in negotiations. But at least the U.S. is able to take a stance against chemical weapons, because that benefits not only the current civil war, but all war, for all civilians, and for all time.

– Rahul Shah

Sources: The Week, The Washington Post, Slate
Photo: Whale Oil


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