In defense of the double standard for chemical weapons
As the US and other nations gear up for war in Syria, the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against civilians has received great, perhaps inordinate attention. A little over a year ago, US President Barack Obama called the use of chemical weapons a “red line”, though was vague about what would happen if that line were crossed. And while there were previous allegations of chemical weapons attacks, the most recent accusations concerning an attack in a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds seem to have been taken more seriously and will likely be used as a Causus Belli for air strikes against Assad’s forces in Syria. Yet, some have argued that this focus on chemical weapons use is rather inconsistent. Dominic Tierney at the Atlantic sarcastically comments, “Blowing your people up with high explosives is allowable, as is shooting them, or torturing them. But woe betide the Syrian regime if it even thinks about using chemical weapons!” And Paul Whitefield at the LA Times inquires, “Why is it worse for children to be killed by a chemical weapon than blown apart by an artillery shell?” These writers have a point. But, while it may not be entirely consistent, I will argue that the greater concern over the use of chemical weapons compared with conventional weapons is justified.
The current international ban on the use of chemical weapons dates back to the wake of World War I, where mustard gas and other chemical agents were commonly deployed with horrific effects. The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use of such poisonous gasses. The Protocol was later adopted by the UN and is now part of customary international law. The fact that no countries seriously objected to the protocol (indeed, Assad’s defense is that his regime did not engage in chemical warfare, not that the use is permissible) is testimony to its reasonableness. Still, it is worth noting that, according to UN estimates, chemical weapons caused fewer than 100,000 deaths in World War I – out of some 17 million killed overall. Casualties from chemical weapons appear to be a higher percentage, but not by much. This rarity extends to the Syria – hundreds may have been killed by chemical weapons, but tens of thousands have been killed in the conflict overall.
What’s more, Assad’s regime has already been in clear violation of the Geneva Convention, what with rampant killing and torturing of civilians. Indeed, it was the slaughter of anti-Assad protestors that prompted the internal conflict to begin with. If the Obama administration was really interested in protecting the human rights of the Syrian people with force, he would have intervened long ago. As Tierney and Whitefield inquire, what difference does it make that Assad was perpetrating war crimes with chemical weapons, in addition to conventional weapons?
Well, it makes some difference. Pace Whitefield, it is indeed generally worse to be killed by a chemical weapon than a conventional one. Chemical agents such as nerve gas typically cause significant suffering before death – choking, vomiting, chemical burns, defecation, convulsions and the like. For those lucky enough to survive, chronic neurological damage can be expected. Conventional weapons are not pleasant either, to be sure, and can similarly cause severe burns, painful wounds, infections, loss of limbs and so on. Nevertheless, the suffering is pretty much inevitable in a chemical attack, whereas at least those killed by conventional weapons may be killed quickly, even instantly. What’s more, chemical weapons are more dispersive than most conventional weapons, more likely to cause collateral damage to noncombatants. These factors indicate we have strong pro tanto reasons to prefer, if a conflict is going to occur at all, that conventional rather than chemical weapons be used.
Still, the critic will argue that marginal differences matter little. Somewhat more painful or less discriminatory attacks are small fries compared to the massive atrocities being performed in Syria. So there is some hypocrisy in the excessive outrage over chemical weapons. But that doesn’t make the distinction impertinent. In fact, failing to treat chemical weapons attacks as a separate and more grievous category in warfare would be a serious mistake.
Consider three policy alternatives:
1) Countries treat chemical weapons and conventional weapons as roughly equivalent, and categorically ban both types. This has the virtue of consistency and simplicity, but I think is overly pacifistic. True enough, in an ideal world, no one would ever use either conventional or chemical weapons. But we live in a non-ideal world, and such a pacifistic attitude would leave the international community without an effective method by which to prevent gross violations of human rights – indeed, enforcing the ban on all weapons on belligerent regimes would be extremely difficult.
2) Countries treat chemical and conventional weapons as roughly equivalent, and categorically ban neither. This again has the virtue of consistency and simplicity while avoiding the pacifistic implications of (1). But, it seems overly permissive – chemical weapons will be employed by various sides in internal and international conflicts, leading to more suffering on the battlefield and more collateral damage.
3) Countries categorically ban chemical weapons but do not categorically ban conventional weapons. This is roughly the current international regime, and strikes me as an appropriate compromise (though some conventional weapons are indeed also banned, such as land mines, and more almost certainly should be). It allows countries to pursue just wars while providing some limitation on the suffering and collateral damage induced in those wars. What’s more, it disincentives even those fighting unjust wars – if the use of chemical weapons are more likely to prompt an international intervention in an otherwise internal or regional conflict, various actors have some reason to avoid their use. Admittedly, this does not seem to have dissuaded Assad, but other regimes (including the US) do appear to have become more reluctant to use chemical weapons because of the ban.
So, the categorical ban on chemical but not conventional weapons is appropriate. As such, at least in some circumstances, the use of chemical weapons may well be an appropriate trigger for international humanitarian intervention. This may be as the straw that broke the camel’s back, one atrocity too many, or as a condition that changes an otherwise just war into an unjust one.
Now, nothing I’ve said here means that members of the international community are all-things-considered justified in intervening in Syria – I think that ultimately comes down to the separate empirical question of whether such an intervention would be effective at preventing atrocities in Syria, and the broader consequences of such an intervention. But in the very least, though the focus on chemical weapons may be a bit inconsistent given other grievous human rights violations already occurring, it is perfectly fair to treat the chemical weapons attack by Assad as a particularly grievous crime that provides at least some further reason for intervention.