At the centenary of chemical warfare, a visit to Flanders’ World War I battlefields

YPRES, Belgium – Beautiful vistas and bright sunlight cannot blind the visitor to the pain of this place.

This place is Flanders Fields, the name given to the part of west Belgium, close to the French border, that saw intense battles and horrendous casualties during World War I. This town – Ypres in French and Ieper in Flemish, but called “Wipers” by British WWI soldiers – played a central role. So too nearby Passchendaele/Passendale. Both towns were leveled, and like many in the region, were rebuilt in the old manner after the war ended.

During the war, upwards of half a million persons died in this area alone.

Our visit to Flanders Fields occurred on the 4th of July. Memories linger, and were sparked again by today’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1st large-scale use, in Ypres, of chemical weapons; mustard gas, to be precise. It was the 3d compound to be attempted, after chlorine and phosgene proved less reliable as lethal weapons, according to our tour guide, Raoul Saracen, a retired history teacher. Initial efforts to fight back against chemicals also were crude: before the development and widespread distribution of gas masks, Canadian troops resorted to breathing through kerchiefs soaked in ammonia-rich urine.

The cruelty of chemical warfare did not stop its use. Recording other places where chemicals have been used was a signpost in Langemark, the cemetery where German soldiers (including several with whom I share a surname) are buried. Tokyo, Japan, Halabja, Iraq, and Ghouta, Syria, receive mention, though more recent gassing sites in that last country have yet to be added.

The thousands of headstones in the many Flanders Fields cemeteries of course give pause. So too the cramped trenches, still on display at Sanctuary Wood Museum.

Yet it was a different site that stole my breath – the “dressing station,” a kind of field hospital, at Essex Farm Cemetery. The station’s cement-bunker cells were small, dark, and saddening, a truly concrete reminder of the scourge of war.


Syria After the Chemical Weapons “Red Line”

This week, the Syrian Arab Republic accedes to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). With weapons inspectors already in country beginning their work to destroy President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal, Syria’s ascension to the CWC is a victory for diplomacy, the campaign against chemical weapons, and international law. Last week, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body monitoring compliance with the CWC and currently working to dismantle Syria’s weapons, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

The tension over Syria’s chemical weapons began over a year ago. Last July, Syria publicly confirmed the country’s chemical stockpile. Following the announcement, President Barack Obama warned that Syria’s use of chemical weapons in its civil war would be a “red line” that would be met with “enormous consequences.” Subsequent reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria increased international pressure for a formal investigation and possible military intervention. In light of the mounting tension, President Assad agreed to a Russian proposal to submit its chemical weapons to international monitoring and eventual destruction. The destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons is remarkable progress, yet should not obscure the country’s ongoing humanitarian crisis and international crimes committed with conventional weapons. The international community should continue to pressure Syria to comply with the Geneva Conventions and consider ICC referral if atrocities continue.

In an essay published this week in UCLA Law Review Discourse entitled, “A Legal ‘Red Line’? Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons in Civil Conflict,” we analyze the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons under international law. We find that while chemical weapons are firmly banned in international armed conflict, the prohibition is less clear in noninternational armed conflict. We also argue that the use of chemical weapons in Syria does not, by itself, cross a legal “red line” that would justify military intervention. The situation in Syria highlights the legal complexities of chemical weapons use in a civil conflict and the need for reform. States should ratify a 2010 amendment to the Rome Statute that would make chemical weapons use illegal in all conflicts and also allow for ICC prosecution of individuals who carry out chemical weapons attacks in civil war. The international community should also remain committed to the prevention of international crimes and resolution to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria.

The final version of the essay can be downloaded here.

Military Intervention in Syria: The International Law Framework

Amid reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in a recent attack, the United States government has been leaning toward the likelihood of a military intervention in Syria.  Secretary of State John Kerry stated on Monday that there was “undeniable evidence” that Syrian government had used chemical weapons against its own people.  Kerry called for “accountability” in light of this type of attack, which he called a “moral obscenity.”  Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told the BBC that U.S. forces were ready to carry out a strike against Syria, and that such a strike could take place within several days.  Senior U.S. officials also stated that strikes could be carried out as early as Thursday (August 29).  Finally, President Obama held telephone talks with the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the French President Francois Hollande, in order to potentially lay out the groundwork for a near-future military strike.  In addition to the United States’ government’s recent assertions that a military strike against Syria may be in the works, other countries followed suit and expressed similar sentiments, highlighting the possibility of a joint military action against Syria by the United States and some of its allies, namely Great Britain and France.  David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, recalled members of Parliament from vacation and announced that lawmakers would vote on Thursday on any proposal for action.  Cameron characterized the alleged attacks as “absolutely abhorrent,” called for action from the international community, and stated that Great Britain was considering a proportionate response.  Both the UK Foreign Minister and the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius hinted that a military action without United Nations Security Council authorization may occur, because of great humanitarian need.  It is thus possible that the United States, Great Britain, and France would engage in some type of presumably limited military action against Syria without Security Council approval, in what could constitute a true humanitarian intervention (because both Russia and China seem to oppose any type of military intervention against Syria, it is highly likely that these countries would block any proposed Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria).

Does international law authorize states to use force against other states in instances other than self-defense and Security Council authorization? Some have suggested that the 1999 NATO-led military intervention in Kosovo constitutes a precedent for humanitarian intervention, and that this precedent could apply to the Syrian situation. However, Kosovo was referred to as “sui generis” by the United States’ officials, who were at the time quick to point out that Kosovo could not be used as precedent for the assertion that states may use military force against other states based on humanitarian need and without Security Council approval.  In addition, scholarly opinion is at best mixed on the subject of whether humanitarian intervention has become an international norm authorizing the unilateral use of force.   It is thus doubtful that the case of Kosovo can serve as strong legal precedent for the Syrian situation today.  It will be interesting nonetheless to follow academic debate on this subject, and we hope that more Intlawgrrls will post on the topic in the near future.

Does the fact that Syrian authorities have likely used chemical weapons somehow change the legal analysis about the use of force? In other words, would countries such as the United States, Great Britain, and France have a better legal argument to justify their potential military intervention in Syria without Security Council authorization just because chemical weapons seem to have been used by Assad? Not necessarily.  As Kevin Jon Heller pointed out on Opinio Juris:

Why is the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians with chemical weapons unacceptable, but not the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians with ordinary weapons? Why should the US be willing to intervene if chemical weapons kill 1,000 civilians, but not if ordinary weapons kill tens of thousands?

In other words, the use of chemical weapons, as well as indiscriminate attacks against civilians, are terrible and violate international humanitarian law; however, they do not influence the legal analysis about the unilateral use of force…. unless one can prove that humanitarian intervention has risen to the level of a binding customary norm, constituting thereby an exception to the ban on the use of force absent self defense and Security Council authorization.

Finally, it is interesting to highlight recent commentary on the Syrian situation by Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations and former high-level government official.  Haass had been a proponent of the so-called “involuntary sovereignty waiver” theory in the 1990’s – the idea that countries which engage in reprehensible actions, such as harboring weapons of mass destruction, promoting terrorism, or committing atrocities against their own people lose their sovereignty and thereby invite intervention by other countries (such as the United States) (Professor Michael Kelly and yours truly have written about the involuntary sovereignty wavier theory in law review articles as well as a recent book).  While Haass seemed to embrace the idea that law-abiding nations could legally intervene in unilateral military fashion against “rogue” states, his response to the Syrian catastrophe seemed more nuanced. Haass stated that while military action may be needed against Syria to prevent a further use of chemical weapons, any such military action should be carefully calibrated to avoid another prolonged military conflict.

While military action may be needed and necessary in Syria, it is uncertain whether international law in its present state truly authorizes countries to engage in unilateral military action against Assad’s regime.  If the United States, Great Britain and France decide to launch a military offensive, their actions may constitute the first instance of humanitarian intervention and may lead toward the development of new customary norms of international law.