At the heart of this growing phenomenon of mass violence and social disintegration is a crisis of values. Perhaps the most fundamental loss a society can suffer is the collapse of its own value system. Many societies exposed to protracted conflicts have seen their community values radically undermined if not shattered altogether. This has given rise to an ethical vacuum, a setting in which international standards are ignored with impunity and where local value systems have lost their sway. Olara Otunnu, then Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Report to U.N. General Assembly, 1998
A suspected chemical-weapon attack on rebel-held Douma, a city of some 130,000 near Damascus has killed at least 50 people and sickened hundreds more. The attack may have been of weaponized chlorine and nerve agents possibly sarin. The Assad government has been accused of using chemical weapons before – charges which the government has denied saying that chemical arms were used by rebel factions such as Jash al Islam.
A major issue is that the use of chemical weapons, probably sarin or a sarin-like substance is in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare of which Syria is a party, among the 135 governments which have signed. The attack was also a violation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction which came into force in 1997. The Convention created The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Syria signed the Convention in 2013 as part of a compromise decision to have its chemical-weapon stock destroyed.
The use of poison gas strikes deep, partly subconscious, reactions not provoked in the same way as seeing someone shot by a machine gun. The classic Greeks and Romans had a prohibition against the use of poison in war,especially poisoning water well because everyone needs to drink. Likewise poison gas is abhorred because everyone needs to breath.
There is a real danger that the Geneva Protocol of 1925, one of the oldest norms of humanitarian international law will be undermined and the use of chemical weapons “normalized”. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is already investigating the use of chemical weapons in seven other locations in Syria.
Chemical weapons have been used in armed conflicts in the Middle East before. Although Egypt had signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, Egyptian forces used chemical weapons widely in their support of the republican forces in the Yemen Civil War (1962-1967) with very few international outcries. As a result of the lack of any sanctions against Egypt, Syria requested Egyptian technical assistance in developing its own chemical weapons capabilities shortly after 1967 – well before the al-Assad dynasty came to power.
Humanitarian international law is largely based on self-imposed restraints. Although the International Criminal Court has a mandate to try crimes of war and crimes against humanity, its impact on the way armed conflicts are currently carried out is small. Thus, restraints need to rest on the refusal of soldiers and militia members to carry out actions that they know to be against both humanitarian international law and the local value system. This is especially true of the non-harming of children in times of armed conflict.
Humanitarian international law creates an obligation to maintain the protection of all non-combatants caught in the midst of violent conflicts as set out in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977. Moreover, there is an urgent need to focus special attention on the plight of children. They are the least responsible for the conflict and yet are most vulnerable. They need special protection. The norms to protect children in armed conflicts are set out clearly in the Additional Protocols which has 25 articles specifically pertaining to children. The norms are also clearly stated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally ratified international treaty. The Convention calls for the protection of the child’s right to life, education, health and other fundamental needs. These provisions apply equally in times of armed conflict and in times of peace.
As with the use of weapons prohibited by international treaty: chemical weapons, land mines, cluster munitions, the protection of children must be embodied in local values and practice. The classic Chinese philosopher Mencius, in maintaining that humans were basically good, used the example of a child about to fall into a well who would be saved by anyone regardless of status or education.
The Association of World Citizens has called for a United Nations-led conference on the re-affirmation of humanitarian, international law. There needs to be a world-wide effort on the part of governments and non-governmental organizations to re-affirm humanitarian values and the international treaties which make them governmental obligations. Such a conference would bring together into a coherent synthesis the four avenues of humanitarian international law:
1. The Geneva Conventions – Red Cross-mandated treaties;
2. The Hague Convention tradition dealing with prohibited weapons, highlighting recent treaties such as those on land mines and cluster munitions, as well as the 1925 Geneva Protocol;
3. Human rights conventions and standards, valid at all times but especially violated in times of armed conflicts;
4. The protection of sites and monuments which have been designated by UNESCO as part of the cultural heritage of humanity, highlighting the August 2016 decision of the International Criminal Court on the destruction of Sufi shrines in northern Mali.
The Association of World Citizens firmly believes that there must be a concerted effort to uphold humanitarian, international law in times of armed conflict. The political situation in Syria is at an increasingly complex stage as we have seen with the recent meeting of the Presidents of Turkey, Iran and the Russian Federation. Violations of humanitarian international law will make negotiations in good faith even more difficult to achieve. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can play a useful role in reminding governments of their treaty obligations and of the need to fill the moral vacuum with a renewed respect for the dignity of each person.
Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation on and problem-solving in economic and social issues.