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A Message on the Recent Chemical Attack in Syria

Koby Langley

American Red Cross Senior Vice-President for Services to the Armed Forces

The recent images of Syrian children and adults struggling to breathe after being exposed to a chemical warfare attack stirred deep emotions in so many around the world. It was a stark reminder of why attacks on civilians and the use of chemical weapons are universally prohibited in modern conflicts.

This month, we recognize April 29th as a Day of Remembrance for All Victims of Chemical Warfare. This day calls on us to not only reflect on the most recent use of chemical weapons in Syria and remember the victims, but to also seek a greater understanding of why the use of these weapons is so strongly condemned today.

As I watched the reaction to the chemical weapons attack, I was struck by the number of questions I received regarding chemical weapons attacks, and it reminded me that these kinds of attacks are so far removed for our everyday understanding of warfare.

 

Chemical and biological warfare is different than “traditional warfare” because it is indiscriminate and causes prolonged pain and suffering to victims before they perish. In addition, chemical weapons can have a long-lasting generational impact – even genetic and natural resource impacts.[1]

Because of this, for nearly 100 years, the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons have been banned by treaty obligations and customary international law, which applies in every country in the world. [2]

 

The Geneva Conventions are the most important rules limiting the barbarity of war. The American Red Cross and the entire global Red Cross and Red Crescent network around the world uphold these conventions in all that we do, while also educating people in our countries about the limits of warfare. [3] For very good reason, every country in the world has signed the Geneva Conventions, as these Conventions provide specific rules to safeguard combatants, or members of the armed forces, who are wounded, sick or shipwrecked, prisoners of war, and civilians, as well as medical personnel, military chaplains, and civilian support workers of the military.

This is a part of our mission: to uphold these important Conventions, and to educate and provide clear, factual, messaging around the world that chemical warfare is unacceptable and illegal, and that there are universally adopted limits in armed conflict to minimize unnecessary and indiscriminate human suffering.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it best, when reflecting on this day of April 29, and the importance to our Global Humanitarianism:

"On this Remembrance Day, let us renew our efforts to rid the world of these and all other weapons of mass destruction. Only by working together, can we realize a world free of chemical weapons."

We must all take this moment to educate ourselves on the abhorrent nature of chemical weapons, share this knowledge, and educate others about why we have drawn this clear humanitarian line as a global citizenry. Above all, as we reflect on those affected by the ongoing terrible tragedy in Syria, we must never forget those who suffer because of indiscriminate warfare, and we must remain diligent in doing our own part to help ensure that we do not repeat the past. Learn more, and share the word at www.RulesofWar.org

 

For more on why Rules of War and International Humanitarian Law are so important, take a look at these pieces from the International Committee of the Red Cross here: Rules of War (in a nutshell); Victory by Any Means.

[1] Gary D. Solis, The Law of Armed Conflict 732 (2016).

[2] International Committee of the Red Cross, Customary International Law study 74 (2005) (the use of chemical weapons is prohibited); The prohibition of the use of chemical weapons in International Humanitarian Law is sacrosanct. Dating back to the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the depravity and illegality of the use of chemical weapons as a means of warfare has been revisited and reinforced by the Geneva Protocol on the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Meds of Warfare of 1925; the Washington Naval Treaty; the 1993 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (“1993 Chemical Weapons Convention”); as well as numerous Resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly. 

[3] Int’l Comm. of the Red Cross, ICRC Strongly Condemns Use of Chemical Weapons aound Mosul  (2017) (“The use of chemical weapons is absolutely prohibited under international humanitarian law. We are deeply alarmed by what our colleagues have seen, and we strongly condemn any use of chemical weapons, by any party, anywhere.”).

Major Developments in the Use and Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

1675 - The Strasbourg Agreement.  The first international agreement limiting the use of chemical weapons, in this case, poison bullets.

1874 - The Brussels Convention on the Law and Customs of War.  Prohibited the employment of poison or poisoned weapons, and the use of arms, projectiles or material to cause unnecessary suffering. 1899/1907 Hague Peace Conferences Bans on poisoned weapons, ‘asphyxiating or deleterious gases’. 

1915-1918 - Europe, World War I.  1.3 million casualties, 90,000 fatalities from chemical weapons; first large scale use of CW at Ieper, Belgium.

1925 - Geneva Protocol.  Ban on CW use, but no prohibition on development, etc.

1972 Biological Weapons Convention.  Comprehensive Biological Weapons prohibition - 170 parties, 10 signatories by 2014.

1930s - China and Abyssinia Use of chemical weapons in China and Abyssinia. 

1980s - Iran-Iraq War Including use by Iraq of CW against civilian populations.

1993 - Chemical Weapons Convention. Signing of the CWC in Paris, 13 January.