Law, Morality, and War in Syria

The civil war in Syria has re-captured the international media spotlight. On the ground, the situation is complex and constantly evolving, with events ranging from bullets fired at United Nations inspectors to Russian naval ships on alert in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the West is bracing for a military intervention to “punish” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly deploying nerve gas against his own civilians. Disturbing photos of lifeless children have made observers painfully aware of the merciless brutality of war.

The push for Canada to intervene is emotionally and morally compelling. Accumulating body counts remind us of our indifference when hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were slaughtered in 1994. Our subsequent interventions is Kosovo and Libya, however, remind us that inaction is not the only option. Many people believe that we have the power and obligation to stop the suffering. Nonetheless, this is not a consensus view. Many experts agree that a Western intervention is likely to be unsuccessful and can only prolong the suffering.

Similarly dominating the media are two legal claims worthy of investigation. First, Western politicians allege that by using chemical weapons against his own civilians, President Assad has violated international law. Is this the case? The original intention of the Geneva Protocol was only to prohibit their use between states but not in purely domestic wars. The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits their use against civilians, but Syria is not a party to that treaty. Due to widespread state practice and sense of obligation, however, a reasonable case can be made that the unconditional prohibition on chemical weapons is customary international law. This would mean Syria has violated the prohibition, regardless of its non-party status.

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