They died twitching, hallucinating and choking on white froth that poured from their noses and mouths. Their doctors believe that they were killed by nerve gas.
– Anthony Loyd – Aleppo – The Times – 26 April 2013
Isopropyl methylphosphonofluoridate is a thoroughly rotten substance. Discovered accidentally by the ‘father of the nerve agents’, Gerhard Schrader, in 1938 Nazi Germany, it has since grown in notoriety under the common name Sarin. So much so, that 188 States have ratified a UN convention prohibiting its use and production. States that have not ratified it? Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan and the State in which Yasser Yunis’ family died hallucinating, foaming at the mouth, twitching – Syria.
If true, the master of rhetoric, Barack Obama has called the reports of the use of chemical weapons in Bashar al-Assad’s civil war with the Syrian rebels a ‘game changer’, hinting at intervention in the divided country. Intervention in another State’s affairs, however, is not a game.
The Malians are feeling the effects of the intervention in Libya, which, in the resulting power vacuum, rendered Muammar Gaddafi’s stockpiles of arms free to just about anyone in the region with marauding or Jihadist tendencies. The French now find themselves in the awkward position of fighting alongside an unelected government installed after the 2012 military coup. But were the international community supposed to just sit back and watch the slaughter of the people of Benghazi, just as they did when an unknown number (they lost count after half a million) of Tutsis were shot, bulldozed, raped and macheted to death in 1994?
Although military intervention has been an option open to the UN Security Council under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter since its 1945 inception, there have been reservations as to when Chapter 7 powers are to be used. Humanitarian military intervention, as such interventions have become known in the international discourse, has become increasingly acceptable, the principle strengthened somewhat in the 1990’s by the UN/NATO intervention in Bosnia and Bill Clinton’s intervention (albeit it unauthorised by the Security Council) in Kosovo. Strengthened, maybe, but still controversial.
Humanitarian intervention is being built as an extension to the principle ‘responsibility to protect’, the principle that States should protect their own citizens from human rights abuses. ‘Responsibility to protect’ is beginning to tend towards meaning a responsibility towards all peoples by the entire international community. But this is an erosion of the principle of State sovereignty, a State’s right to conduct its own affairs without interference, a central tenet to international relations. It is a principle that was crucial to the creation of, what we call today, ‘international law’.
Kofi Annan asked the question in 2000, ‘if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?’ The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty was formed to answer that question. It answered thus: ‘The defence of State sovereignty, by even its strongest supporters, does not include any claim of the unlimited power of a State to do what it wants to its own people.’
The answer failed to put the question to bed. Although the Commission argued military humanitarian intervention was acceptable, it failed to come to any robust conclusion as to on what conditions.
So what is to be done about Syria? It is a question that has been asked for over two years now. For US senator John McCain, the ‘red line’ has been crossed, a red line a Times editorial headline accurately described as ‘thick’. There seems to be the feeling that decision time is upon our august and tenacious leaders. And because things aren’t complicated enough already, questions have been raised about the reliability of the evidence that Assad used chemical weapons.
One option is to intervene, bombing the murderous Assad and his cronies into the Syrian dust, liberating a nation into a glorious new era free from oppression. But that is an option that, in the complex power situation, would potentially empower far right Islamist factions which would spell further human rights violations in the future. Or do the international community sit back and let the conflict come to its natural conclusion? Let the civilians twitch and foam, let them continue to be murdered and hope that it all blows over. Answers on a postcard…
Benjamin F. Owen