by Marjorie Cohn and Jeanne Mirer / Common Dreams
The drums of war are beating again. The Obama administration will reportedly launch a military strike to punish Syria’s Assad government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. A military attack would invariably kill civilians for the ostensible purpose of showing the Syrian government that killing civilians is wrong.
“What we are talking about here is a potential response . . . to this specific violation of international norms,” declared White House press secretary Jay Carney. But a military intervention by the United States in Syria to punish the government would violate international law.
For the United States to threaten to and/or launch a military strike as a reprisal is a blatant violation of the United Nations Charter. The Charter requires countries to settle their international disputes peacefully. Article 2(4) makes it illegal for any country to either use force or threaten to use force against another country. Article 2(7) prohibits intervention in an internal or domestic dispute in another country.
The only time military force is lawful under the Charter is when the Security Council approves it, or under Article 51, which allows a country to defend itself if attacked. “The use of chemical weapons within Syria is not an armed attack on the United States,” according to Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell.
The United States and the international community have failed to take constructive steps to promote peace-making efforts, which could have brought the crisis in Syria to an end. The big powers instead have waged a proxy war to give their “side” a stronger hand in future negotiations, evaluating the situation only in terms of geopolitical concerns.
The result has been to once again demonstrate that military solutions to political and economic problems are no solution at all. In the meantime, the fans of enmity between religious factions have been inflamed to such a degree that the demonization of each by the other has created fertile ground for slaughter and excuses for not negotiating with anyone with “blood on their hands.”
Despite U.S. claims of “little doubt that Assad used these weapons,” there is significant doubt among the international community about which side employed chemical weapons. Many view the so-called rebels as trying to create a situation to provoke U.S. intervention against Assad. Indeed, in May, Carla del Ponte, former international prosecutor and current UN commissioner on Syria, concluded that opposition forces used sarin gas against civilians.
The use of any type of chemical weapon by any party would constitute a war crime. Chemical weapons that kill and maim people are illegal and their use violates the laws of war. The illegality of chemical and poisoned weapons was first established by the Hague regulations of 1899 and Hague Convention of 1907. It was reiterated in the Geneva Convention of 1925 and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court specifically states that employing “poison or poisoned weapons” and “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials or devices” are war crimes, under Article 8. The prohibition on the use of these weapons is an international norm regardless of whether any convention has been ratified. As these weapons do not distinguish between military combatants and civilians, they violate the principle of distinction and the ban on weapons which cause unnecessary suffering and death contained in the Hague Convention. Under the Nuremberg Principles, violations of the laws of war are war crimes.
The self-righteousness of the United States about the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad is hypocritical. The United States used napalm and employed massive amounts of chemical weapons in the form of Agent Orange in Vietnam, which continues to affect countless people over many generations.
Recently declassified CIA documents reveal U.S. complicity in Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, according to Foreign Policy: “In contrast to today’s wrenching debate over whether the United States should intervene to stop alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government, the United States applied a cold calculus three decades ago to Hussein’s widespread use of chemical weapons against his enemies and his own people. The Reagan administration decided that it was better to let the attacks continue if they might turn the tide of the war. And even if they were discovered, the CIA wagered that international outrage and condemnation would be muted.”
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States used cluster bombs, depleted uranium, and white phosphorous gas. Cluster bomb cannisters contain tiny bomblets, which can spread over a vast area. Unexploded cluster bombs are frequently picked up by children and explode, resulting in serious injury or death. Depleted uranium (DU) weapons spread high levels of radiation over vast areas of land. In Iraq, there has been a sharp increase in Leukemia and birth defects, probably due to DU. White phosphorous gas melts the skin and burns to the bone. The Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in time of War (Geneva IV) classifies “willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health” as a grave breach, which constitutes a war crime.
The use of chemical weapons, regardless of the purpose, is atrocious, no matter the feigned justification. A government’s use of such weapons against its own people is particularly reprehensible. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the purported attack by Assad’s forces “defies any code of morality” and should “shock the conscience of the world.” He went on to say that “there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”
Yet the U.S. militarily occupied over 75% of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for 60 years, during which time the Navy routinely practiced with, and used, Agent Orange, depleted uranium, napalm and other toxic chemicals and metals such as TNT and mercury. This occurred within a couple of miles of a civilian population that included thousands of U.S. citizens. The people of Vieques have lived under the colonial rule of the United States now for 115 years and suffer from terminal health conditions such as elevated rates of cancer, hypertension, respiratory and skin illnesses and kidney failure. While Secretary Kerry calls for accountability by the Assad government, the U.S. Navy has yet to admit, much less seek atonement, for decades of bombing and biochemical warfare on Vieques.
The U.S. government’s moral outrage at the use of these weapons falls flat as it refuses to take responsibility for its own violations.
President Barack Obama admitted, “If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it . . .” The Obama administration is studying the 1999 “NATO air war in Kosovo as a possible blueprint for acting without a mandate from the United Nations,” the New York Times reported. But NATO’s Kosovo bombing also violated the UN Charter as the Security Council never approved it, and it was not carried out in self-defense.
The UN Charter does not permit the use of military force for “humanitarian interventions.” Humanitarian concerns do not constitute self-defense. In fact, humanitarian concerns should spur the international community to seek peace and end the suffering, not increase military attacks, which could endanger peace in the entire region.
Moreover, as Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies and David Wildman of Human Rights & Racial Justice for the Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church wrote, “Does anyone really believe that a military strike on an alleged chemical weapons factory would help the Syrian people, would save any lives, would help bring an end to this horrific civil war”?
Military strikes will likely result in the escalation of Syria’s civil war. “Let’s be clear,” Bennis and Wildman note. “Any U.S. military attack, cruise missiles or anything else, will not be to protect civilians – it will mean taking sides once again in a bloody, complicated civil war.” Anthony Cordesman, military analyst from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, asks, “Can you do damage with cruise missiles? Yes. Can you stop them from having chemical weapons capability? I would think the answer would be no.”
The United States and its allies must refrain from military intervention in Syria and take affirmative steps to promote a durable ceasefire and a political solution consistent with international law. If the U.S. government were truly interested in fomenting peace and promoting accountability, it should apologize to and compensate the victims of its own use of chemical weapons around the world.
I’m hoping that this is resolved via the “proper” channels. I’m assuming, from what I read here (or perhaps I’m just hoping), that there is a movement toward bringing Assad and his “cabinet” up on war crimes.
I’m no expert, obviously, but while I feel for the people of Syria who have been subjected – and yes, subjugated, to this situation, given recent history, an invasion is not the answer. . .
Brian Brady says
“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”—(then) Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), December, 2011
“The same people who told us that we would be greeted as liberators; about democracy spreading across the Middle East; about striking a decisive blow against terrorism; about an insurgency in its last throes – those same people are now trumpeting the uneven and precarious containment of brutal sectarian violence as if it validates all of their failed decisions. The bar for success is so low that it’s almost buried in the sand.”– (then) (then) Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), Sep 2011
“The president has no authority to unilaterally attack Iran, and if he does, as Foreign Relations Committee chairman, I will move to impeach,” — (then) Senator Joe Biden (D-DE), November, 2007
People. who hate America, are fighting people, who hate America. People, who hate America, may kill and people, who hate America. I’m not seeing how our national interests are anything but watching this thing play out.
I’m equally perplexed and can only think of a couple of possibilities:
1. Obama, given the recent freeze in recent relations with Russia and given Syria’s long time history as a Russian ally, may be looking to seize the moment to bolster his image as a decisive leader as well as get under Putin’s craw…
2. We have munitions with expiration dates coming up. See napalm stored at Fallbrook. It’s a lot cheaper to drop them on someone than dispose of them properly, and once used contractors get to sell the government more.
(the second point is halfway joking… or is it?)
3. The Syrians really are that bad and we’re looking to get some good PR in the middle east by taking out a real bad guy. It does happen.
“neoconservative”… who are you pasting useless labels on? Obama?
“almost guaranteed loss of American lives”
What makes you think that’s going to happen with limited precision airstrikes? How many US or British casualties were incurred in Operation Desert Fox?
“Russia is a PITA but doesn’t pose an imminent threat.”
If they were would we bomb Syria? What does that have to do with anything?
“argument about balance of powers. ”
No it’s about our necessary presence in the middle east for resources vital to our national interests and security. We tend to do things that will make us welcomed there and one of those things is playing policeman when the rest of the world seems indifferent. The results can be arguable on their success but we’re there, we need to be until the magic beanstalk AKA alternative energy is actually invented, and everyone who sits at the adult table of discussion realizes that though there are many different angles on how to do it.
As for Iraq I’m quite certain now all went splendidly as planned including the majority of Americans believing it was a grave mistake. If the polls showed otherwise we’d have a hard time convincing the world we were all the victims of Bush and his lies, don’t blame us for that.
We denied Russia, France, and China sole drilling rights to the last high pressure light sweet crude fields on the planet.
We denied Saddam the ability to use the revenues from that oil to rearm the largest and most experienced armed forces in the region.
We enabled the petrodollar monopoly on OPEC oil sales to endure indefinitely.
We used a country as a shooting gallery, luring Al Qaeda and other western hating militants to meet their maker at a time and a place of our choosing.
We gain a permanent (or at least 50 years as the lease lasts) military presence in a country above or bordering other countries that the 5 combined by 2020 will hold 70% of the world’s proven conventional petroleum reserves. All within combat radius of an F-22.
All of this allowed to be portrayed as a legacy of one dumb hick who went home to Texas, we blame him and come out looking helpless and victimized- as if it all came from the mind of a bumpkin with a double digit IQ, and not the combined talents of thousands of degreed analysts working for a federal government with budgetary expenditures of $3.8 trillion a year.
It was brilliant.
bob dorn says
The first casualty of war is truth.
Those in this comment chain who think they can bring light to the Syrian dilemma by invoking their own cherry-picked and highly styled history lessons aren’t facing the issue—- people are suffering grotesque pain before dying.
We might think about giving up some of our national treasure to work with Doctors Without Borders and a nation bordering Syria, say our allies Turkey and Jordan, or Lebanon, or even Iran to form large new towns where refugees have already gathered, but we don’t do that, do we?
Certain wars are sacred to people who throw around PITAs and “neoconservatives” into the arguments against helping Syrians… who blithely assure us that that this is just a Muslim or Arab family fight we should watch.
Keep your egos under control, tough guys. Babies are dying.
Brian Brady says
“who are you pasting useless labels on?”
Not who but rather what? Points 1 and 3 are straight from the traditional neoconservative argument.
“We might think about giving up some of our national treasure to work with Doctors Without Borders”
That’ s a good idea and I might join you in donating to them. I’m not interested in forcing my neighbors to do so though.
“Babies are dying.”
This is tragic but it’s not a discussion stopper. That argument has been used by internationalists for decades and yet….American intervention results in dead babies as well….sometimes more dead babies.
Policy by intent rather than results always ends up in a disaster. The 1990’s sanctions against Iraq killed children and probably caused the Iraq War. The American costs of liberating Iraq are going to be felt for decades: a broken school system for our kids, crumbling roads and bridges, a bankrupt social security system, etc.
This isn’t ego; it’s mathematical fact:
At a certain point, this country is going to have to make a choice between Americans and Middle-Easterners. I’m not interested in foreign dictators dragging down the one nation, which has produced the most prosperity for the most amount of people, in the history of humankind.
Sooner rather later, we’re going to have to say “enough is enough” to policing the world. World leadership through example interests me a lot more than using force.
bob dorn says
An attempt to aid refugees could also be considered an intervention, one that might save lives and put the U.S. in a better light than we now are in. I suspect you don’t want “the one nation, which has produced the most prosperity for the most amount of people, in the history of humankind” to spend money on the rescue of people, and choose to make intervention stand for something lethal. You’re not talking talking to people; you’re saying all this tough stuff to the mirror.
And that “choice between Americans and Middle-Easterners” you talk about says shows what you think of an entire people and culture. You probably can’t imagine the consequences of such a thought, Superman. A little reading into early and middle 20th C. totalitarianism might change your mind.
Brian Brady says
You’re suspicions are incorrect, Bob (but understandable). I don’t think aiding refugees is intervention and I think that’s a fine thing to do. But if it isn’t done with the help of Syria’s neighbors, we’re in for a shooting war. As you may know, a fence line incident can quickly escalate into a shooting war. Refugee camps turn into foreign based which foment resentment which begets an attack on the US.
Our 70-year history of intervention in the Middle East has been a disaster. We help one side and make enemies of the other, making us a convenient target of future generations’ ire. I’ve come to believe what Reagan said about the politics of the Middle East- it’s irrational.
The most important thing is this– we can’t afford it anymore. Policing the world led to a destruction of our currency. Attacking Syria is a bad idea from a political, moral, and economic view.
“The most important thing is this– we can’t afford it anymore. Policing the world led to a destruction of our currency.”
That’s a peculiar statement to make…. what do you think our fiat currency is based on? Why do you think the US controls have the world’s wealth? Do you think the decades of prosperity we’ve had was because the world wanted it that way?
Our currency has, since 1973, been backed by OPEC oil exports due to agreements made with the Saudis as since they are the #1 exporter are allowed a swing vote in OPEC matters. The agreement included protecting the Royal Family from any threats, internal or external.
This has allowed us the ability to print money out of worthless paper and trade it to other nations for real goods, resources and services as fast as they needed dollar assets to purchase and use OPEC petroleum. (Evidence of this is obvious in the way the Saudis are so heavily vested in US properties and holdings, as they’ve been given dollars for their oil for decades)
In essence being world policeman and the “petrodollar” scheme gives our currency clout no one else’s has- and protecting this was almost surely the underlying reason we went into Iraq because Saddam, with Iran and Venezuela on board, was about to upset that status quo more than the minimal way he had when he broke from OPEC and began selling oil in Euros in 2000.
I’m guessing your point was that policing the world costs us money? Sure it does but without the petrodollar scheme the dollar would have a fraction of its worth.
Put most simply we’re the dealer in the monopoly game.
Brian Brady says
“I’m guessing your point was that policing the world costs us money? Sure it does but without the petrodollar scheme the dollar would have a fraction of its worth.”
“Put most simply we’re the dealer in the monopoly game.”
Unless the Arab Spring hits Saudi Arabia then it’s every player scrambling to become the dealer. That Russia/China deal circumvented the dollar, and that was a BIG deal. A few more deals like that, and the dollar is in serious trouble.
I don’t know that more force is going to make us stronger in the eyes of the next Arab generation. I don’t need to tell you that it’s a new world there.
bob dorn says
Hey, John, pay no more attention to this Brian Brady person. He doesn’t know what he wants until somebody else expresses an idea he can oppose… a debate sorta guy. I’d bet he dug the Second Iraq War, of George II, dreaming of those petrodollars. Just guessing though, because he doesn’t seem to have a positive plan.