Skip to content

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.

Share on

21 Comment on this post

  1. Hello,

    Thanks for this interesting post. I agree with your claim that “the use of chemical weapons may well be an appropriate trigger for international humanitarian intervention”, in the sense that this use constitutes a reason for a military intervention undertaken with an humanitarian intention. However, I am not sure about your argument for this claim.

    1. Against the validity of the argument. As I am writing, it not clear who exactly is responsible (both in a causal and moral sense of the term) of this atttack. Even though the chemical attack is not likely to have come from the coalition/rebels, it’s not so clear that the order was issued or approved by Assad himself or, for that matter, by a specific group of people that we can classify as being an active, long-term part of it. Indeed the political situation in Syria makes it very difficult to identify such a group with certainty. Hence it’s stilll not possible I think to weigh all relevant interests — as the concept of a just war requires. The objection is reinforced if some of the relevant interests depend upon the identity and persistence of the parties in the conflict.

    2. On your premises. Your argument in favour of an intervention can be supported by the fact that Assad’s way of waging the war/inability to control his forces is directly or indirectly harmful to non-belligerants (actual and future) — whether or not this involves the use of chemical weapons. This is consistent with rejecting the hypocrisy objection from the NY and LAT journalists. As you say, it simply adds to the charge, which has been justified since the beginning of the civil war, on his inability to discrimate between belligerants and non-belligerants.

    Second, I am not convinced that there is any moral distinction to draw between chemical and non-chemical weapons. The difference in suffering seems to be merely a matter of degrees, and if one goes beyond the suffering and include the type of agents undergoing the suffering, the concept of a weapon becomes irrelevant to the distinction.

    3. Naive juridical question. You state that chemical weapons are forbidden by international law. But do international conventions (such as the 1993 Paris Convention against chemical weapons) legally bind States that did not sign it? For Syria did not sign the Paris Convention…

    1. Adrien,

      Thanks for the comments. You press the question of whether Assad himself can be clearly linked to the chemical attacks, or whether pro-Assad forces engaged in the attack without his knowing. Well, the rogue element story is entirely possible – but I don’ think it matters much, as Assad’s regime is responsible for the actions of the agents fighting for his cause. If the regime wants to come out and say the atrocities were committed by rogue commanders against its strict orders and offer up individuals for prosecution, fine, but that hasn’t happened yet. Instead, Assad is blaming rebels for the attacks. And unless you take that possibility seriously, I think holding Assad’s regime responsible is entirely appropriate. But there is the more complex issue of the various agents involved, as you point out, including the question of whether the rebels should really be supported (they appear to have targeted civilians in at least some cases as well). For this and other reasons, I didn’t mean for my post to be an overall argument in favor of intervention – just that the use of chemical weapons by Assad is a significant factor in favor of it.

      It’s fair enough to say that chemical weapons and conventional weapons ultimately just differ in terms of degrees of suffering – but degrees matter a great deal. Degree is the difference between a proportional and non-proportional response, or the difference between reasonable and unreasonable risk of collateral damage. And it’s the international community’s responsibility to limit the degree of suffering in these conflicts, to the extent that it can do so without causing inordinate suffering itself.

      As for the juridical issue, I’m not an expert in this area, but my understanding is that Syria acceded to the Geneva Protocol in 1968: . But even if this is no longer binding for some reason (maybe Assad or prior rulers reneged on the Protocol?), the international community can justly impose these standards on non-signatories. Consider: Sudanese President al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court, even though Sudan was not a signatory to the ICC treaty. And in any case, I wouldn’t want to rest the moral case for humanitarian intervention on despots’ willingness to sign treaties.

      1. Okay, thanks for you reply. Mine boils down to this:

        On the responsability question: Holding the regime qua single, identifiable moral agent responsible for the use of gas prior to any verification about the chain of events that lead to this outcome is NOT entirely appropriate. It would be appropriate only if we had clear evidence that there is a single, identifable moral agent (in the collective sense) that intentionnally performed the action or allowed out of negligence. But given how entangled Syrian politics is these days, I think it’s fair to say such evidence is yet to be released, and therefore, your conclusion a little bit premature.

        Moreover, if the decision came from a dissident group on which Assad has lost control, and which lacks the structure required for entering into negociations, the use of chemical weapon might actually supports a claim contradictory to yours; indeed, it might support the claim that the West should NOT get involved in a war where civilians could be taken in hostage by rogue warmongers (terrorists?) armed with gallons of neurotoxic gas.

        I agree with your third paragraph, which is, I believe, compatible with what I saida in my first reply.

        On the legal question:

        …even if this is no longer binding for some reason (maybe Assad or prior rulers reneged on the Protocol?), the international community can justly impose these standards on non-signatories. Consider: Sudanese President al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court, even though Sudan was not a signatory to the ICC treaty. And in any case, I wouldn’t want to rest the moral case for humanitarian intervention on despots’ willingness to sign treaties.

        Sure, the international can impose some standards to particular countries. Implicit in my question is this: Where is the limit? Speaking of “international law” sounds very sweeping and vague if it results in conflating, for instance, non-conventional such as those corresponding roughly to Human Rights, with, for instance, conventional norms such as those constraining the width of railtracks.

        So the question is: What makes it the case whether a conventional norm (such as the ban of chemical weapons) can be legally forced upon a non-signatory State by the international community — if we continue with the assumption that Syria did not sign such a convention? After all, if all that matters is actual harm to non-belligerents, then non-conventional norms such as those corresponding roughly to Human Rights and/or conventional norms that binds Syria in virtue of its membership to UN already kick in. In this situation, it would seem there is no independent legal argument against a non-signatory Syria from the ban on chemical weapons convention per se, don’t you think?

        1. On the rogue elements: the question of whether Assad himself ordered the chemical attacks is more relevant to the question of punishing Assad, compared with the present question of whether to intervene in Syria. Crucial to the justification of intervention is that it can reasonably be expected to reduce the amount of suffering (including attacks on civilians and chemical attacks) in the conflict. It would be no great injustice – quite the opposite! – if the Assad regime needed to be toppled in order to bring about that end. To be sure, if the agents making the attacks are not associated with a centralized command structure, that makes it more difficult to disrupt them via air strikes. And we do indeed have to be worried about interventions causing even more atrocities, though it is important to note that civilians are already being cruelly used as pawns in the war in the absence any intervention. In any event, those are strategic/empirical questions rather than moral questions, and outside the scope of my present argument that the use of chemical weapons strengthens the case for intervention.

          On the legal argument: I’ll refer you to my response to Gabe below. On consideration, I’m of the opinion that the legal case for humanitarian intervention in general based on various conventions is murky at best, but the moral case could nevertheless still be made. I still think that the use of chemical weapons significantly strengthens the case for humanitarian intervention – in that sense, there is an independent moral argument pertaining to chemical weapons, whether or not there is a distinct legal one.

          1. On the rogue elements: My point is precisely that you have, as of now, no clear-cut evidence that a military intervention would indeed reduce the overall amount of suffering. This is simply because we, as of now, do not know exactly who used the gas, and therefore cannot foresee with a reasonable probability of success whether a military intervention would help prevent further uses against civilians. You may know that neurotoxic agents can be diffused by using simple gun shells, hence do not need any sophisticated weaponry; and you surely know that targeting chemical facilities is simply not an option (those have been built in civilian areas and gas is extremely volatile).

            For all those reasons, it’s very hard to tell how a military operation should proceed, and what it should aim at. The only variable of the humanitarian/just war equation whose value we have sufficient clues about is the identity of the victims and their interests. This obviously falls short of supporting your conclusion; in particular, we need a clearer idea of the chances of success of such an operation (chances of success are a core component of the standard notion of a just war; it is therefore essential to your argument, and goes beyond a merely empirical matter, as you seem to suggest).

            On the legal argument: I agree that a moral argument does not need anything from the legal aspect, and was just asking out of curiosity. I also agree with the main line of thought you develop in your reply to Gabe.

  2. Good stuff. I like what you’ve said here but I’m left confused on one issue:

    In your last paragraph you dissociate the distinction between chemical and conventional weapons from the issue of international intervention. I think you mean that a violation of the categorical ban isn’t a sufficient condition for intervention. But then, what is the use of the ban at all?

    You hinted to something about allowing just wars to proceed, but I’m not clear on how that works: will a country at war worry about international law if they are convinced that intervention isn’t imminent (cf. Syria)? If the ban is meant to clarify the boundaries on what might and what certainly won’t trigger intervention, then we are just talking about a rule of thumb for leaders of countries at war trying to avoid interventions. In that case, I feel like the ban(s) on civilian atrocities is really the relevant rule of thumb and separate bans on specific kinds of atrocities serve little or no purpose. What do you think?

    1. Well, typical understandings of just cause for war are multifaceted – it would be a mistake to think any one condition is ever sufficient. But there are a range of jointly sufficient conditions, and the use of chemical weapons may well be a member of that set. So, perhaps intentional use of chemical weapons PLUS proportionality of response PLUS reasonable assurance of victory PLUS no reasonable alternative would be sufficient for intervention to be justified (maybe you want to add some more conditions in there). Alternatively, you could conceptualize the situation as a set of competing reasons for and against intervention. Maybe without the use of chemical weapons, the reasons against intervention outweigh the reasons for, but chemical weapons are enough to tip the balance in favor of intervention.

      As for whether the ban on chemical weapons will do any disincentivizing work, as killing civilians is already banned – I think it will, if the international community really is more likely to intervene if chemical weapons are used (and this situation, I think, proves that it is). It’s hard to prove that regimes really have been disincentivized, but I do believe that the conventions have had an effect on reducing many (though not all) nations’ willingness to use chemical weapons. Of course, some regimes may well ignore all this. In such a case (like the present with Syria), the cause becomes less about disincentivizing and more about using force to prevent more atrocities. But maybe intervening in this case will itself disincentivize other regimes from using chemical weapons – if Assad falls, self-interested despots may see using chemical weapons as too risky to their rule.

      1. What exactly is the relationship between a condition among others of just cause (the ethical question you deal with here) and a ban on the books as international law (a legal question you don’t talk about)?

        Does the language of this ban talk about it in terms of international intervention?

        1. Those are some tough questions. The legal status of humanitarian intervention is complicated. The Geneva Protocol doesn’t mention it. In fact, the Geneva Convention, Protocol II, Article 3, explicitly states: “Nothing in this Protocol shall be invoked as a justification for intervening, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the armed conflict or in the internal or external affairs of the High Contracting Party in the territory of which that conflict occurs.” ( The Chemical Weapons Convention does have a provision for intervention under certain circumstances, but as Adrian noted, Syria is not a signatory. Any legal basis for military intervention would have to come from sources other than these various treaties. For an illuminating discussion of these issues, see Hurd (2011): . For this reason, I suspect, the UK has recently laid out legal justification for intervention not on the basis of the Geneva Protocol but rather on the simple humanitarian need to prevent gross suffering: .

          But I’m no legalist, and the present question is primarily moral, rather than legal. Legal documents still matter for the moral case, insofar as they reflect commitments made by various parties and reinforce the general strength and acceptability of the norms – signing of the conventions are relevant here insofar as they reflect a clear consensus on the unacceptability of chemical attacks and other atrocities. The law is also important for sovereignty/moral imperialism – the fact that previous Syrian regimes have acceded to the Geneva Protocol (and even the present one does not repudiate it) helps ensure other countries are not enforcing their parochial norms on a distinct culture. But I’m willing to say intervention could be morally permissible, even obligatory, even if it turns out to be illegal.

  3. The silliness of this post begins in the use of rationalism without context, meaning without empiricism: data. I won’t waste much time on the lack of a “slam dunk” on responsibility for the attack. I won’t add links but you can google the source


    The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack is no “slam dunk,” with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, U.S. intelligence officials say.
    President Barack Obama declared unequivocally Wednesday that the Syrian government was responsible, while laying the groundwork for an expected U.S. military strike.
    “We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out,” Obama said in an interview with “NewsHour” on PBS. “And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences.”

    In fact I won’t much time with anything
    The Independent

    Toxic legacy of US assault on Fallujah ‘worse than Hiroshima’
    The shocking rates of infant mortality and cancer in Iraqi city raise new questions about battle.
    Dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was bombarded by US Marines in 2004, exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to a new study.
    Iraqi doctors in Fallujah have complained since 2005 of being overwhelmed by the number of babies with serious birth defects, ranging from a girl born with two heads to paralysis of the lower limbs. They said they were also seeing far more cancers than they did before the battle for Fallujah between US troops and insurgents.
    Their claims have been supported by a survey showing a four-fold increase in all cancers and a 12-fold increase in childhood cancer in under-14s. Infant mortality in the city is more than four times higher than in neighbouring Jordan and eight times higher than in Kuwait.

    Foreign Policy

    Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran
    The U.S. knew Hussein was launching some of the worst chemical attacks in history — and still gave him a hand.
    The U.S. government may be considering military action in response to chemical strikes near Damascus. But a generation ago, America’s military and intelligence communities knew about and did nothing to stop a series of nerve gas attacks far more devastating than anything Syria has seen, Foreign Policy has learned.
    In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.

    Philosophy has become abstraction without representation.
    Politics is not a formal game.

  4. BBC May 6: “UN’s Del Ponte says evidence Syria rebels ‘used sarin’
    Testimony from victims of the conflict in Syria suggests rebels have used the nerve agent, sarin, a leading member of a UN commission of inquiry has said.”

    etc.etc. It’s not just a question if Assad’s personal responsibility.

    1. Thanks for the news review, Seth. I don’t know who your post is directed at, but if it’s me, then let me invite you to read my posts (as well as the author’s replies to them) more carefully.

      Indeed, Assad’s personal responsibility is out of the question. The questions I asked are:

      (1) Are we 100% sure that the gas attack was attributable to Assad’s REGIME (here, collective responsability matters, not individual responsibility) on the whole, as opposed to seditious, terrorist-like elements? No demonstrative evidence on this question has been publicly released yet.

      This pertains to the author’s intial post. For if there is room for reasonable doubt, then, even though there may aldready be ground for blaming Assad’s regime, the gas attack adds nothing to the blameworthiness (even if the previous blameworthiness already constituted a reason for doing something about Assad’s regime).

      (2) Are we 100% sure that a military strike — as opposed to a political solution — would best benefit the civilian population? Given how spread throughout the entire country the chemical storage facilities are, and given that seditious, terrorist-like elements may be involved in further uses of neurotoxic gase, the chances of success of such an action looks rather dim from my point of view.

      This pertains to the author’s initial post. For then a military action may turn out to be suboptimal as far as the chances of success — relative to the victims’ interests — are concerned; hence the “just war” justification may be still wanting.

  5. The post is a discussion of semantic formalism and war. The reference to double standards is a feint; the argument is that the term does not apply.
    But in the world of facts not ideas it does apply. The US supported Saddam Hussein in his use of chemical weapons and used white phosphorus and depleted uranium in Fallujah. What category do those weapons fit when used against a civilian population? And then there’s the history of agent orange.

    The post is not a serious discussion of politics it’s a glib discussion of ideas.
    Add to that there is still the possibility if only that that the rebels we responsible. This is a “great game”” A US military spokesman said the goal was a response “JUST MUSCULAR ENOUGH NOT TO GET MOCKED”. Not a formal game but a game no less absurd than the ones you prefer.

  6. Adrien, neither you nor the author of this post have followed the situation in Syria. You can’t talk to me about Al Nusra or other Sunni Al Qaeda linked groups. You can’t, or haven’t, said anything about the massacres committed by the rebels, the fears of Christians, Shia and Alawites in Syria or about the sidelining of the Syrian civil opposition by fundamentalist and foreign fighters and their backers in the Gulf states (US allies). You talk about the idea of geopolitics but not geopolitics itself.

    “Are we 100% sure that the gas attack was attributable to Assad’s REGIME… as opposed to seditious, terrorist-like elements?”
    It’s not a question of “terrorist-like elements”. One of the main suspicions is that it was Assad’s brother, a commander of the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armored Division, out to revenge a recent assassination attempt.
    You’re concern-trolling a logician, better if either of you could talk about US foreign policy. Better still if you knew arabic or could at least demonstrate that you’re following debates among those who do.

    Chemical weapons and heavy artillery are both weapons. Apples and oranges are both fruit. If apples are not oranges, where’s the double standard?
    If the US sees a “red line” except when it doesn’t, that’s a double standard.
    And Israel is not a signatory to the chemical weapons convention.

  7. I’ll post this a second time, since it’s in moderation. Maybe the added text will allow it to go through:
    I hate to link to Leiter but you probably wouldn’t give credence to a non “philosopher”. Read it all.

  8. Thanks for the link. It is very thought-provoking and as far as I can tell, consistent with the opinion I have tried to defend.

  9. Interesting how the US sees chemical weapons as completely unacceptable yet have used in recent wars which are arguably worse. Drones and napalm bombs to name a few, the world still awaits the USA to apologise for decimating vietnam and cambodia for no real reason other than a show of power. Also i do wonder were a nuclear bomb being used in that glorious 2nd world war sits as an acceptable form of violence.

  10. Also in your article you note how it is the case that we live in an unideal world were evil regimes get weapons and need stopping. I wonder what your view is on the fact that the USA, UK, France and Germany apparently the good guys are 3 of the top 6 arms sellers in the world, the USA being happy to arm Iraq during its war with Iran in which the USA was aware of Iraq using chemical warfare.

Comments are closed.