Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


International law cannot justify attack on Syria

  • 30 August 2013

For the second time in a little over ten years, Britain and America (this time with the assistance of France) seem about to launch hostilities against an Arab country on the basis of the possession or use of chemical weapons.

To be sure, they argue that this case is different. In the Iraqi case, no weapons were to be found. Here, there are claims of an actual chemical attack. Surely this justifies a response? Well it’s a little bit more complex.

Chemical weapons are horrific and indiscriminate and are therefore largely used to strike fear in populations rather than to achieve particular military goals. After World War I – when both sides made widespread use of chlorine, phosgene and mustard agents – the world largely recoiled from their use. This resulted in the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol prohibiting the use of chemical or biological weapons. Syria is a party to this treaty, although not to its 1993 successor which, unlike the 1925 treaty, contains detailed enforcement mechanisms. 

This did not stop continued violations in the years since. In the 1930s, new neurotoxic organophosphates ('nerve gasses', although actually liquid) were developed by German scientists. Mussolini used chemical weapons against Ethiopia in 1935, the Soviets used them in Afghanistan, and the US helped Saddam Hussein use them against Iran. (He also, of course, turned them on his own, Kurdish, population.) In the aftermath of the Cold War, a new Chemical Weapons Convention was drafted but, as noted above, Syria is not a party.

There is, however, no general right to intervene to prevent the use or stockpiling of chemical weapons. It will be remembered that the purported justification by the US in Iraq was that that country had breached earlier UN Security Council resolutions specifically forbidding it to keep or build chemical weapons. 

There can also be no question of the US and its allies acting in 'self-defence' (permitted by Art.51 of the UN Charter), given that this is clearly a civil war.

Certainly, if either side has used chemical weapons in Syria, this would seem to be a 'threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression' within the meaning of Art.39 of the UN Charter (which would entitle the UN Security Council to authorise military action to prevent it). The problem is that the UN Security Council is split down the middle: three powers with vetoes (power to block resolutions) oppose the Syrian