Why Some Killing Matters More
Why are chemical weapons a “red line” in a war where so many have been killed? Stephen Erlanger (“A Weapon Seen as Too Horrible, Even in War,” NYT) recounts the long history.
Roughly 16 million people died and 20 million were wounded during World War I, that “war to end all wars,” yet only about 2 percent of the casualties and fewer than 1 percent of the deaths are estimated to have resulted from chemical warfare.
Nevertheless, the universal revulsion that followed World War I led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use, though not the possession, of chemical and biological weapons. In effect from 1928, the protocol is one of the few treaties that have been almost universally accepted and become an international norm. Syria, too, is a signatory.
No Western army used gas on the battlefield during the global slaughter of World War II. Hitler, himself gassed during World War I, refused to order its use against combatants, however willing he and the Nazis were to gas noncombatant Jews, Gypsies and others.
Since World War II and the atomic bomb, which redefined warfare, chemical weapons have been categorized as “weapons of mass destruction,” even if they do not have the killing power of nuclear weapons.
The Geneva Protocol was not even the first effort to ban the use of poison in war, said Joanna Kidd of King’s College London. “Throughout history, there has been a general revulsion against the use of poisons against human beings in warfare, going back to the Greeks,” she said. Some date a first effort to ban such weaponry to 1675, when France and the Holy Roman Empire agreed in Strasbourg not to use poisoned bullets.
It was only in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, started by Iraq after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, that chemical weapons were again used in large amounts, and by the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein against Iranian forces and his own Kurds. The Iraqis used both first- and second-generation nerve gases to blunt Iranian offensives in southern Iraq and forestall defeat. Given American and Western unease with Iran’s revolution, there was little public outrage as Muslims used poison on other Muslims.
The world’s indifference altered sharply, however, in March 1988, when Mr. Hussein killed between 3,200 and 5,000 Kurds around the town of Halabja and injured thousands more, most of them civilians, some of whom died later from complications.
The Halabja killings, considered the largest chemical warfare attack ever directed at civilians, led to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, in force since 1997, which bans not just the use but also the possession, manufacture and transfer of chemical weapons. It has since been signed and ratified by 189 states, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which carries out the treaty. Syria is among only five states — with North Korea, South Sudan, Angola and Egypt — that have neither signed nor ratified it.
Tellingly, said Camille Grand, who worked on chemical disarmament for the French Foreign Ministry, Iraq never used its chemical weapons again — not in the Persian Gulf war in 1991, although American troops were prepared for their use, or in the 2003 American invasion, which overthrew Mr. Hussein.
“Halabja changed nothing but changed everything,” Mr. Heisbourg said. “In the gulf war the dechemicalization of Iraq became a war aim, and we achieved it, even though we didn’t know or believe it.”
The answer is ultimately unsatisfactory, perhaps because the impetus for the ban is visceral rather than rational. For whatever reason, humans have for centuries seen some ways of killing as more atrocious than others. And the norm against their use has largely been adhered to, even by the worst of the bad guys.
Still, this reaction strikes me as bizarre:
Former Senator Richard G. Lugar said the difference lay in the danger of proliferation. “We are talking about weapons of mass destruction, we are talking about chemical weapons in particular, which may be the greatest threat to our country of any security risk that we have, much more than another government, for example, or another nation because they can be used by terrorists, by very small groups,” he told the BBC. “The use of these weapons of mass destruction has got to concern us, and concern us to the point that we take action whenever any country crosses that line and uses these weapons as have the Syrians.”
Others say that by using gas against its own civilians Syria is violating taboos built up over more than a century that need to be defended. “We signed up for over 100 years to not use these weapons,” Ms. Kidd of King’s College said, “and if we just stand by and not do anything, what is the value of the treaty and the norm?”
Mr. Grand agreed, saying that “it really breaks a taboo and puts Syria in breach of its own commitments in Geneva and a long list of international norms.”
While militaries find chemical weapons hard to control, given the vagaries of wind and weather, they can be effective against the unprepared, and especially deadly to unsuspecting civilians. “You just have to watch the videos from Syria from Aug. 21,” Mr. Heisbourg said. “This is killing people like cockroaches and using the same chemicals to do it.”
Thousands of people were killed by machetes in Rwanda, he noted. “That’s gruesome,” Mr. Heisbourg said, “but the production and sale of machetes is not considered a threat to international security.”
While I can understand the argument for enforcing international norms so that they remain international norms, it’s absurd to argue that their use in a civil war constitute a threat to international security or that punishing Assad for using them will dissuade al Qaeda. Not only is terrorism on a mass scale at least as reprehensible as using sarin gas but the United States is already dedicating massive resources to kill al Qaeda leaders and rank-and-file militants. It’s unlikely, indeed, that their using chemical weapons would illicit a stronger response than their using passenger jets.
Further, while the Chemical Weapons Convention is indeed one of the more internalized parts of international law, it bears repeating that its enforcement mechanism is the United Nations Security Council, not the President of the United States or even the United States Congress.