Law is where we start from. It is a rough attempt to codify our deepest values. If something is illegal most of us, most of the time, don’t do it; and if we see something grossly unlawful happening, we know we should stop it.
This brings us to developments in Syria. By the time you read this there may be more secure evidence about the use of chemical weapons; the response of the US Congress; and Assad’s reaction the Russian proposal to have Syria’s chemical weapons placed under international control.
Vile weapons have often been used by the powerful to crush opposition. But there are international treaties banning chemical weapons – the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. The Prime Minister has cautioned Parliament of “the importance of upholding the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons under international law”.
So, our immediate reaction is that “something must be done”. But what?
Bombing seems to offer a swift surgical solution. But the track record of limited and controlled military intervention is poor. Too often things escalate and end up worse than they were before and yet more innocent civilians are killed.
Armed force would also be illegal.
Frequent claims that the perpetrators must be “punished” also violate the law. Acts of “reprisal” - retaliation for an injury - have been condemned by the UN Security Council as “incompatible with the purposes and principles of the United Nations”. The notion that we can uphold the law by transgressing it defies logic, common sense, and any nation’s integrity.
The wording of the Geneva Gas Protocol is about wars between states, not civil wars. Nearly every country has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and this makes it binding on Syria even though she has not signed it. The trouble is that the enforcement procedure is convoluted and slow.
The spirit of the law can also be strengthened by diplomacy. The key could be Iran. President Ahmadinejad supported Syria with copious amounts of cash and weapons. But the newly elected President Rouhani wants to build bridges with the West and is in the strongest position to pressure Assad. We should end our decades-long hostility towards Iran to relieve the agony of the Syrian people and contain the growing threat to security in the wider area.
A military silver bullet will not solve the problem; but the wise deployment of law and intelligent diplomacy could. We should encourage our MPs to reject war and uphold the law.
Sussex Peace Alliance