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.