Syrian Chemical Attacks On Civilians And The Failure Of International Law

On Saturday, April 7th, the Assad regime attacked Douma with chemical bombs. Publicized photographs of the aftermath were nothing short of disturbing, with the 70 people now reported dead, including women and children. The horrendous and fatal nature of this incident has since resulted in the retaliative bombing of airfields by the United States forces, according to BBC. The chemicals used in the original attack included sarin and mustard gas and possibly other unidentified agents. This is not the first assault of this kind in Syria, with Al Jazeera reporting that 18 have been carried out across the country since the civil war started in March 2013. The U.S. ambassador to Syria has reportedly accused the Assad of using chemical weapons (CWs) as many as 50 times. Whatever the number and whatever the intent, the use of CWs is condemned and accountability is required.

The consequences of chemical bombings are excruciating for those affected; it is inhuman and considered to be a breach of human rights. Sarin, an odourless and tasteless gas, causes nervous system failure, resulting in extreme vomiting and death within 10 minutes. Mustard gas is known to cause extensive internal and external blistering, frequently leading to death and an increased susceptibility to cancer, should one survive. Al Jazeera reports suggest that the main use of these chemical bombs is to force people to flee, but the utilization of such harmful substances on civilians cannot be justified for any reason.

Forces in Syria are accountable to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which they signed in December 2013, but due to the lack of power in international law the consequences are limited. Furthermore, Resolution 2118 of the United Nations states, “no party in Syria should use, develop, produce, acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer such weapons.” This was created in 2013 and onus falls on the United Nations to enforce these rules.  Faith in international law and how effective it will be in putting an end to a seven-year war in Syria is diminishing with every attack that takes place. Why is international law so weak in Syria? Probably due to the opposition of two of the UN’s biggest members – the U.S. and Russia. Holding veto power affords each significant power over the UN, one that has been regularly exercised over the resolutions and proposed interventions.

Accountability for the use of CWs, as stated since 2013 by the UN, has now become especially important. The brash retaliation of further bombings is not a supported form of resolution. Instead, as suggested in the chemical weapon inquiry that is taking place this week, the Assad involvement must be proven and then held peacefully accountable. Moreover, the U.S. and Russia need to encourage a non-violent shut down and destruction of the production of CWs. The two great powers should stand as role models to the world. While their relationship is a times fraught, for the greater good of innocent and the civilians of Syria, they must do better to peacefully negotiate the end of chemical attacks.