Syrian Gas Attacks and the Responsibility To Protect

Doctors tend to a victim of sarin nerve gas near Damascus, Syria.

Doctors tend to a victim of sarin nerve gas near Damascus, Syria.

On Wednesday Syrian opposition groups released multiple videos supporting their claim that the Syrian government had launched chemical weapon attacks against opposition forces in the suburbs of Damascus. The attacks resulted in hundreds of deaths, including dozens of children. United Nations observers in Syria have so far been denied access to the area and are thus unable to confirm the attacks, but the videos leave little room for doubt that something took place. Most observers believe that the chemicals were some variety of sarin nerve gas, which induces nausea and drooling following by loss of control of bodily functions, convulsion, and ultimately death by asphyxiation.

Sarin was classified as a weapon of mass destruction by United Nations Resolution 687 of 1991, and its production or stockpiling was outlawed by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. If confirmed, the use of sarin gas would constitute an escalation of the ongoing conflict in Syria, notably crossing a “red line” established by the Obama administration earlier this year.

The videos that have been released are powerful and contain disturbing footage. Viewer discretion is advised.

The Russian government has issued a statement claiming that there is no evidence that sarin gas was used, and that if it was used, there’s no evidence that it was the Syrian government rather than rebel groups that were responsible for its use. This move suggests that reaching consensus at the United Nations on future action in Syria may prove difficult. At the same time, the “Responsibility to Protect” (or R2P) doctrine articulated by the United Nations in 2005 suggests that the international community has an obligation to act. R2P has three pillars:

  1. States have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.
  2. The international community has a responsibility to assist states in fulfilling their obligations under the first pillar.
  3. If a state “manifestly fails” to protect its population as required under the first pillar and peaceful measures by the international community under the second pillar have failed, the international community has “the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures,” which military intervention remaining the last resort.

The R2P doctrine is considered a norm rather than in legally binding international law, but its importance (both symbolic and moral) is rooted in the failure of the international community to address genocide in Rwanda and elsewhere. How exactly it may play out the Syrian context remains unresolved, but is certainly something worth watching.

What do you think? Does the responsibility to protect doctrine necessitate international intervention in Syria? Would such intervention be productive? Why? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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