Syria: Where Not All Deaths Are Treated Equally

Betcy Josean Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Denver, joins JiC for this thought-provoking guest-post on intervention in Syria and the unequal treatment of human lives – and deaths.

(Photo: AFP)

(Photo: AFP)

Currently, U.S. President Barack Obama is trying to persuade Congress to authorize limited military action against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in a suburb of Damascus. His Secretary of State, John Kerry, called the use of chemical weapons against civilians a “moral obscenity”. His statement reflects sentiments held by many in the international community regarding the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Outrage and condemnation began to reverberate across the global community soon after the appearance of heart-wrenching videos showing Syrians, many of them dying young children, displaying symptoms of a possible sarin attack. Prominent world figures forcefully and emotionally decried the attacks, often in the name of the civilians killed. For instance, British Prime Minister David Cameron stated that, “[a]lmost 100 years ago, the whole world came together and said that the use of chemical weapons was morally indefensible and completely wrong. What we have seen in Syria are appalling scenes of death and suffering because of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “if proven, any use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances is a serious violation of international law and an outrageous crime. We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity.”

Such denunciations essentially are based on the following premise: there are certain acts intentionally committed against civilians that the international community cannot tolerate; the use of chemical weapons during war against civilians falls within this category. Even Russia, which has been Syria’s steadfast ally during this conflict, limited its defense of the Assad regime to questioning the conclusion drawn by the United States and some of its allies that it was the Syrian government which perpetrated this attack. Russia did not base its defense of the regime on the permissibility of the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

Those condemning the chemical weapons attack against civilians do not rely solely on moral claims to ground their arguments. They also utilize international law to denounce this attack. The Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925 and 1949 Geneva Conventions have both played a central role in this rhetorical battle. The Geneva Gas Protocol prohibits states from using “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases” in international conflicts. The Geneva Conventions provide civilians with certain protections under international law like protection from deliberate attacks.

Two Syrian boys in the oynuyogun refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border (Photo: Reuters / Murad Sezer)

Two Syrian boys in the oynuyogun refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border (Photo: Reuters / Murad Sezer)

Even if you have not watched the videos of the alleged chemical weapons attack, it is not difficult to understand the intense desire to do something about what is happening to civilians in the Syrian conflict. Tens of thousands of Syrians are now dead, and it is increasingly difficult for many to continue to look away from that conflict. But the fact that the United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have died begs the question: why the current intense need to punish Syrian actors for these particular deaths? Violating Syria’s sovereignty in response to deaths from the chemical weapons attack without a UN mandate is an illegal act just as is a military intervention launched outside the UN in response to these other deaths. So, despite the international law violations committed by Syrian actors against civilians throughout the conflict, why is the United States contemplating violating another set of international laws in this instance but not the others? Why act in the name of nearly 2000 deaths from chemical weapons and not for the tens of thousands killed by other means?

Kevin Jon Heller asks a similar question in a post on Opinio Juris. One theme among the discussion around his query warranting further exploration lies in the origins of the chemical weapons taboo which the United States is using to justify any potential military action against Syria. The ban against chemical weapons has a lengthy tradition in the history of global norms and international law. Richard P. Price argues that this long held ban originated in the perception of leaders of “civilized” countries that these weapons inflicted particularly cruel suffering on civilian populations and thus, their use could not be legitimated, especially when they were also perceived to be less effective and more indiscriminate than other available weapons. We can see this sentiment continues to exert influence as reflected in the statements above from Kerry and others.

(Photo: AFP / GETTY)

(Photo: AFP / GETTY)

Yet, as Price notes, chemical weapons do not have a monopoly on cruel methods of killing in the 2+ years of the Syrian conflict (where they were allegedly used intentionally against civilians), or any other conflict for that matter. There are the deaths from brutal gang rapes that many Syrian women faced. There are the slow deaths from starvation or from being buried alive when one’s home was shelled by one of the belligerent parties in the conflict. There are the deaths from bleeding from wounds that could not be adequately treated. Then there are the recent deaths of children in a playground by incendiary devices (which are not banned as chemical weapons although it is illegal to use them intentionally against civilians). In terms of painful and cruel ways of dying, these rank pretty high.

All of these deaths potentially violate another long standing taboo in international law: the prohibition against intentionally targeting civilians. Even if the discourse around a military intervention might have shifted in emphasis from crimes against civilians to enforcing the chemical weapons norm, the civilian immunity norm still holds relevance because it served as an impetus for the creation of the chemical weapons taboo. So, if the protections afforded civilians really lie at the center of any military intervention against Syria (even if the reasons for the intervention are cloaked in the language of the chemical weapons norm), what about the thousands of intentional deaths committed by all parties in the past or those that will be committed in the future? Will they be addressed? Would they not also be worthy of international action simply by virtue of their staggering number? What about any intentional civilian deaths that might result from the military intervention? There is some evidence that military interventions increase violence against civilians. As the international community grapples with how to respond to the civilians killed by chemical weapons, it cannot forget its obligations to those who have already died and those who may yet still.

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
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4 Responses to Syria: Where Not All Deaths Are Treated Equally

  1. André Tschumi says:

    “Why act in the name of nearly 2000 deaths from chemical weapons and not for the tens of thousands killed by other means?”
    Professor Schabas gave the true right answer for this question: “My hunch is that the real explanation for the excitement about chemical weapons is that the UK, the US and France think that there should only be one type of weapon of mass destruction in the Middle East (or elsewhere, for that matter). And that is the weapon that they, and their local surrogate, possess. Any tolerance for the use of chemical weapons poses an immense threat to those who seek to retain their monopoly on weapons of mass destruction. Even the slightest use of chemical weapons from them requires an angry, punitive response. And they want us all to believe that sending rockets into Syria is a humanitarian gesture” (
    The “moral obscenity” and the violation of international law regarding the use of chemical weapons are clearly just excuses to justify the intervention.

  2. Danny says:

    Interesting post. Based on the willingness of Obama to ignore the security council and its lack of focus on the other war crimes Assad has committed, it’s clear that the US isn’t motivated by an interest in upholding international law. I think the most important question to ask is what effect would a limited strike on Syria have? Bombing chemical weapon storage facilities (if we have the intelligence to pull that off) seems like it would be a bad idea, and further destabilizing the Syrian government would certainly increase the risk these weapons coming under the control of other malicious actors. I think the best course of action is the one we’re sort of taking right now; put some war ships off the coast, threaten to send in some missiles and hope they turn over the nerve gas.

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