Civilians wait to receive food rations in the Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz August 29, 2012.
Civilians wait to receive food rations in the Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz August 29, 2012.
Youssef Boudlal / Courtesy Reuters

The recent U.S.-Russian deal to bring Syrian chemical weapons under international scrutiny has been hailed as a victory of sorts for the norm against the use of such weapons. As Sohail Hashmi and Jon Western persuasively argued in Foreign Affairs, that is a norm well worth upholding. It is an important part of an international system of rules called international humanitarian law, which strives to reduce the negative impacts of war. Its foundations were laid by Henri Dunant, who was so moved by soldiers’ suffering during the Battle of Solferino, a 1859 engagement in the second war for Italian unification (and one of the bloodiest European battles of the nineteenth century), that he launched a hard-fought campaign to compel states to agree to limit their wartime behavior. Against all odds, he succeeded. In 1864, most of Europe signed the first Geneva Convention, which provided protections to wounded soldiers under international law. 

Dunant’s advocacy initially focused on wounded soldiers, but he and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had been created to monitor these and subsequent international law obligations, soon took on the plight of civilians in armed conflict. Although the notion that civilians should not be intentionally targeted during war was long-standing and widespread (it is an important element of just war theory and Islamic law), the ICRC aimed to strengthen and universalize civilian immunity by codifying it in international treaties. The bounds of those treaties were hotly debated, but the basic requirement that civilians be protected from intentional attack generally was not. It thus became a keystone of modern humanitarian law, shifting the focus of international humanitarian law somewhat away from belligerents.

Today, civilian immunity arguably ranks among the most important norms that the global community wants to protect. And that is what makes discussions about Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons so puzzling. Much of the debate about U.S. military strikes stressed the importance of preserving the taboo on chemical weapons, which were banned in part because of their indiscriminate nature: They are difficult to control and can harm civilians who are not the intended targets.

But in Syria’s case, it appears that the Syrian regime aimed to kill civilians with its alleged chemical attack on the suburbs of Damascus last month. Hardly anyone concludes that the civilian deaths were simply collateral damage in an operation meant to take out the rebels. Therefore, examining the civilian deaths through the lens of the norm against the use of chemical weapons is wrongheaded. Civilians died because Syria violated the taboo against deliberate attacks on civilians. Some have even suggested that the general lack of global condemnation following other intentional attacks on Syrian civilians might have paved the way for this most recent atrocity. If that is so, the international community should expend as much effort (if not more) protecting the civilian immunity norm as it is protecting the chemical weapons taboo. Doing so could serve double duty, preventing these kinds of targeted attacks on civilians, as well as the use of chemical weapons in such attacks. 

International humanitarian law emerged to mitigate the miseries of war, particularly of those least involved in waging it, such as civilians. The norm of civilian protection is one of the reasons why the international community moved to outlaw the use of chemical weapons in the first place -- and why the taboo on chemical weapons must remain robust. But it is also why all of the other intentional civilian deaths among the 100,000 killed throughout the Syrian civil war were illegal. From a humanitarian perspective, the chemical weapons attack itself loses some of its significance; those deaths were just a few marks in a long tally of other crimes. And that is why the world should not be convinced that the U.S.-Russian deal will accomplish international humanitarian law’s essential purpose of minimizing war’s destructive impacts. Although the agreement arguably preserves the vitality of the chemical weapons taboo, it leaves the civilian immunity norm in a vulnerable position. It does not address past or future intentional killing of civilians with more conventional weapons. In debates over whether and how best to preserve international humanitarian law, it is thus important not to lose sight of one of its most important objectives: the protection of civilians.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • BETCY JOSE is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Denver.
  • More By Betcy Jose