Analyzing America's Syria Bombing from a Human Rights Perspective by Corinne Tagliariana
One of the news stories dominating this week is the Trump Administration’s decision to bomb a Syrian airfield in response to evidence that Syrian forces used chemical weapons in an attack against a rebel-held town on April 4, 2017. Much of the discussion has been about whether the bombing was justified based on the photographs of children killed by sarin nerve gas, whether the bombing will be effective in preventing such atrocities in the future, whether the bombings were legal without Congressional approval, and whether they had support amongst the U.S. population. However, I would like to approach the topic from a human rights perspective.
Human rights and Humanitarian law is created by numerous multilateral treaties, which are joined by state parties. The member states agree to be bound by the obligations and restrictions laid out in the treaty, the same way member states agree to trade treaties or treaties regarding international air travel.
These treaties also have monitoring and reporting bodies and accountability mechanisms to address violations. The primary treaty at issue here is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (CWC), which is overseen by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Syria, the United States, and Russia are all state parties to the CWC. Sarin gas is one of the Schedule 1 chemicals listed in the annexes to the CWC.
From a human rights perspective and from an international law perspective, clearly some action must be taken to address what clearly appears to be a treaty violation. Indeed, the OPCW immediately launched an investigation in response to the attack. Additionally, the CWC allows state parties to bring a case to the United Nations General Assembly or to the UN Security Council (UNSC) to take action in response chemical weapons attacks.
The UNSC can legitimate the use of force against state sovereignty if necessary to keep the general peace. However, Russia is a permanent member of the UNSC and has the ability to veto UNSC resolutions, which it has used in other instances over the duration of the Syrian Civil War. The US took unilateral military action on April 7, 2017, in response to what UN Ambassador Nikki Haley referred to as a failure of the international community to fulfill its “duty to act collectively.”
Although the military strikes were supported by US allies after the fact, mainly through statements condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons, they do not appear to have been taken with international support already in place. And although it is true, the international community often fails to take action to prevent or punish human rights abuses, the way to address those failures is not to further abjure international collective action.
Unilateral military action, especially when taken unpredictably and without a clear objective, weakens the international institutions that we rely upon. Allowing a regime to commit atrocities and treaty violations with impunity one day and then condemning them the next, all while failing to uphold our own treaty obligations does not incentivize more compliance with international treaties or greater respect for international institutions.
We absolutely have a duty to condemn and stop the use of chemical weapons, but for that to happen effectively we must work within the international system which originally prohibited their use.
Corinne Tagliarina is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at The University of Connecticut and teaches in the Human Rights Advocacy program at Utica College.