A Response to Syria: The Failure of International Law

“Dorn (Walter Dorn, chair of security and international affairs at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto) recalled the words of Canada’s ambassador to the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN, who boasted in 1924 that this country was ‘a fireproof house far from the sources of conflagration.’

 ‘The problem with the League of Nations was that nations stopped using it and supporting it,’ Dorn said. ‘And those are the flammable materials that ended up coming right to Canada’s shores in World War Two.’

  •  Analysis: Can Canada fix the UN, and should it even try?, Written by Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News, 12/07/02


In 1994, the Rwandan Genocide shocked the world. Over the course of approximately 100 days, more than 500,000 people, more than 10% of the country’s total population, was killed. When the International Community and the Security Council of the United Nations were informed of the situation on the Ground by Canadian Lt. General Roméo Dallaire, the International Community and the Security Council did nothing. 

At that time we saw how weak International Law and treaties could be. In the wake of World War II, we said that we should never forget its horror. However, the World was only too willing to have another horror because no country would act to prevent it.

It is true that in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide, the International Community did have the impetus to create the – “long talked about” – International Criminal Court (ICC). However, that court was never empowered with any armed force – either a civilian police force or military armed force – to implement its decisions. Consequently, the ICC has been a weak player on the international scene. We can see this by looking into the cases that it took on. In trying to prosecute persons who participated in the atrocities of civil wars that racked the former Yugoslavia, one could see that suspects were able to avoid capture as long as they avoided the spotlight. For once the spotlight was on suspects, Western governments were forced to act because of their public’s demands. Ostensibly, one truth became clear: International Law still requires countries to enforce it. When countries don’t act, International Law fails.

If one needs convincing, let us come up with a list. One can think of the places where the International Community has not acted. Think of Darfur or Congo. Think of Religious intolerance in China or much of the Middle East. Think of the Roma persecution in Eastern Europe or Human trafficking issues elsewhere.

Now think of the French intervention in Mali. While not perfect, the French intervention has been better than the rise of Al Qaeda supported forces. The same could be said of NATO’s intervention in Afghanistan. In both cases, there have been fewer deaths. In both cases, there is more rule of law. In both cases, there is a stronger acceptance of difference minority rights and individual rights. While Western intervention in Mali and Afghanistan has not been perfect, Afghanistan no longer has summary executions in its main athletic stadium, nor is Mali’s extensive history being destroyed. So while one can concede that recent western interventions have not made the world a perfect place, one can clearly argue that they have made the world a better place. And in my world, I am willing to sacrifice the perfect for the good, the improvement or the better.

Consequently, this leaves us with the issue of Syria. One might be surprised to find that Chemical Weapons have been banned by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 and Geneva Conventions and their Protocols. With that being said, violations of the Chemical Weapons Ban have occurred. The Government of Saddam Hussein used chemical agents in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and against their own citizens during the 1991 uprisings. According to the UK newspapers the Daily Mail, “the United States helped Saddam Hussein attack Iran with chemical weapons in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.” (CIA ‘helped Saddam Hussein carry out chemical weapons attack on Iran’ in 1988 under Ronald Reagan, By Rob Cooper, UPDATED: 19:44 GMT, 27 August 2013)

To be specific, in the 1980’s, the US – who ratified the Geneva Protocol (1925) in 1975 –  helped Iraq to procure, produce or launch chemical weapons on various occasions. In fact, CIA officials knew so much about the programme that they could estimate “that Iraq is capable of producing at least two tons per day of the nerve agent.”  So instead of condemning or stopping Iraq, the US helped Iraq to violate International Law.

With that being said, one might say that we live in a new world. For in 1993, the world came together to sign another treaty to end the use of Chemical weapons. Known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, it is the latest attempt to stop the use of Chemical Weapons. If one sets aside for the moment that Syria is one of five non-signatory countries, one can see the basic problem: who is going to enforce it?

To date, no one – besides the US president Barack Obama – wants to enforce International Law. The Arab League, the Secretary General of the UN, NATO, and many American Allies have said the same thing: the act of using chemical weapons is horrific, but we will not act against their forces that use them. Instead, we will talk about the need for a “negotiated” political solution: a solution that neither side of the conflict wants to come to.

What is remarkable is that these statements have been used before. In the 1930’s, Britain and France searched for a political solution to deal with a resurgent Germany.  In the 1980’s, Britain and the United States opposed efforts of Brian Mulroney, the Canadian Government and its allies in trying to punish South Africa for maintaining its system of Apartheid Government. Again, Britain and the United States wanted a “negotiated” settlement. Each time, governments failed to learn from the past and failed to act.

This was not true of Walter A. Riddell. In 1935, as the Canadian Delegate to the League of Nations, he proposed an embargo of oil, coal, iron and steel embargo against Italy after Italy made aggressive incursions in Ethiopia. For this, Mr. Riddell was publically shamed by the MacKenzie-King Government. The “Riddell incident”, as it came to be known, included a public repudiation of Mr. Riddell’s proposal. However, Mr. Riddell’s public shame would be vindicated upon the beginning of World War II. For Walter understood that for International Law to be relevant, it had to be enforced.

Lester B. Pearson understood that lesson.  He proposed that Canada and the world act during the Suez Canal Incident. As Ambassador to the UN, Mr. Pearson – a Canadian – proposed that buffer zone be created using the troops from the world’s armed forces. His notion gave life to the concept of peacekeepers. Mr. Pearson understood that the only way to create International Law was by acting. This concept can clearly be seen in the Martin Government’s fight to create the international norm known as the “Responsibility to Protect”.  International Law, in other words, only has value when we all act to protect it.

It is in our self-interest as Canadians to protect these laws. For by having these international norms, Canadians can be protected at home from terrorism, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. By having these norms enforced abroad, we lessen the possibility of having another September 11th on North American Soil. With these international norms, when travelling abroad, Canadians may not have to suffer death and damage. For like many Canadians, my friends have been to London and Madrid, while I have been to Boston. Any of us could have suffered from those bombings; if we had been in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Or think about the Air India bombing. In 1985, terrorist bombs killed 329 people: of which 268 were Canadians. Those Canadians died because of a conflict half way around the world that they were not personally involved with.

I am lucky. My parents immigrated to Canada from Barbados and Jamaica. All three countries fought under the British Crown in World War II to protect the freedom we now enjoy. My history is solidified because people before me were willing to sacrifice and take a stand. With the victory of the allies in World War II, Canadians were able to help create a world which ensured that the greater good won out. A world were, while the benefit of the majority is important, the needs, skills and interest of minorities are taken into account and protected. This is the balance in which we live. A balance which leads us to greater benefit because we are willing to share our good fortune and acknowledge those of us who have contributed more. Canadians have all of this because we were willing to fight for an international norm. Consequently, we should stand up to protect those norms. Even if this means that we all, me included, have to take up the fight. For if not, any country would be able to have chemical, biological and/or nuclear weapons. Terrorism would abound and we would be worse off today. So I say to President Obama thank you; while at the same time I wonder; I wonder why my Liberal MPs are only worried about Syrian refugees; I wonder why the NDP says we should talk more; I wonder why the Conservatives cannot call Parliament back. Chemical weapons have been used. In my mind, this is a sin like no other. If our forefathers went to war to protect our world, I ask my own Parliament, and all federal politicians (including Liberals), why can we not do more in Syria?

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