Why do states use cluster bombs and nerve gas on their own people?

What is it that leads governments to massacre large numbers of their own citizens, and even resort to indiscriminate and inhumane weapons like cluster bombs and chemical weapons? A recent fact-finding mission  by Human Rights Watch indicates that the Syrian government has continued to use large-scale, indiscriminate violence in populated areas, including two documented instances of cluster munitions attacks on March 29th and April 3rd in the city of Aleppo. These attacks, according to HRW, “killed scores of civilians and destroyed dozens of civilian homes without damaging any apparent opposition military targets.” This evidence comes at the same time that multiple Western intelligence officials have confirmed with “varying degrees of confidence” that Syrian security forces have used sarin nerve gas against opposition forces, sparking a tense debate in the West about whether Assad has crossed the Obama Administration’s “red line”, and what kind of response that should precipitate (for interesting and opposing views from credible scholars see here, then here).

Now, Syria is not a party to either the Convention on Cluster Munitions (a comprehensive treaty banning their use) or the Chemical Weapons Convention (which prohibits the production or stockpiling of sarin), so in a narrow sense its actions are not technically a violation of treaty obligations. They are, however, a clear violation of international humanitarian law, and go against the widespread international norms against these weapons. As a result, any remaining legitimacy the Syrian government may have in the eyes of other countries (and its own citizens) is likely to be further eroded. The use of sarin in particular, which has been classified as a weapon of mass destruction by UN Resolution 687, could very well force Obama’s hand and precipitate stronger U.S. action against Assad’s regime, if not through direct military intervention then through increased support to the opposition. Indeed, it now appears likely that the U.S. will soon start supplying lethal weaponry to the Free Syrian Army.

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Living in the Shadow of the Ottawa Convention: The Convention on Cluster Munitions

Arms control issues have been receiving a lot of attention lately. On April 2nd, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of the long-debated Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), establishing new regulations meant to prohibit the international sale and transfer of conventional weapons to the world’s worst human rights abusers. This landmark event occurred just two days before the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, the annual day of advocacy and outreach for organizations involved in the global campaign to ban landmines and other deadly weapons which disproportionately harm civilians during and after armed conflicts. In the United States, President Barack Obama gave a forceful speech on April 8th in Hartford, Connecticut in favor of stronger domestic gun-control legislation. All this coming as the world discovers the true extent of U.S. drone strikes in South Asia and the Middle East, with all the strategic, legal, and moral problems this raises.

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