Denise LaponACUNS Member Denise Garcia is the Sadeleer Research Faculty and Associate Professor at the Political Science Department and the International Affairs Program at Northeastern University in Boston. She is the author of Small Arms and Security – New Emerging International Norms, Routledge 2006/Reprinted 2009; and Disarmament Diplomacy and Human Security – Norms, Regimes, and Moral Progress in International Relations, Routledge 2011/reprinted in 2012.

The Power of Global Norms

Global norms matter and their influence in world politics characterizes commonly expected behavior. Two branches of International Law are at play in President Obama’s decision on what do in respect to Syria: the global norms against chemical weapons and the law on the use of force. He seems to be about to disrespect the latter to uphold the former.

The use of chemical weapons in Syria is a grave breach of International Law meriting urgent humanitarian action. The first pressing step is a humanitarian no-fly zone authorized by the United Nations Security Council with the full support of the Arab League, not unilateral action. Resilient global legal norms now exist against the use of chemical weapons stipulated by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The United States is included in the countries that have ratified the CWC and is therefore a party. The CWC includes an intrusive verification regime that reinforces inspectors should be able to access places where chemical weapons were possibly used in Syria. The CWC has near universal adherence and hence sets strong global norms.

The law on the use of force is primarily based upon the United Nations Charter’s Article 2.4 that prohibits the use of force in international relations. The only two clear legal exceptions are self-defense and UN Security Council authorized action. The International Court of Justice found that the principles making the use of force unlawful are also customary international law. This means that there is no excuse to ignore this global norm.

The preoccupation with alleviating the suffering of victims of war, through the creation of shared global norms prohibiting certain weapons or behavior, rose to the international agenda in 1864, when the first Geneva Convention was adopted. This inaugurated the first legal rules setting limits on behavior during war. The Convention was a result of the advocacy work of Henry Dunant, a citizen from Geneva who had the idea of creating a treaty that mandates states care for the wounded during war. The 1864 Convention gave rise to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and is the forerunner to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Dunant was the recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. In 1899 and 1907, on the occasions of the first and second Hague International Peace Conferences, respectively, efforts to create global norms limiting war-time human suffering continued through the control of indiscriminate weapons. The first Hague Convention banned the use of asphyxiating or deleterious gases. This paved the way for the 1925 Geneva Protocol that placed a larger ban on gases. The protocol acted in response to the horrors resulting from the use of chemical weapons during World War I.

It was the combination of chemical weapons’ problematic military utility, the growing abhorrence at their use, and a powerful emerging taboo that brought about their prohibition through a long normative route. The use of chemical weapons is against a long-established taboo that has stigmatized them throughout the 20th Century. The use of weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, is the object of condemnation in general. The use of chemical weapons is particularly the target of opprobrium and therefore deemed highly illegitimate. Research has shown the evolution of this powerful normative taboo.

Syria is amongst the only five countries in the world that has not signed nor acceded to the CWC, in company with Angola, Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan. This Convention represents a significant cornerstone of international weapons law and international law in general and is considered customary law by jurists and the ICRC.

This means that even countries that have not agreed to be bound by the norms arising from the CWC; i.e. who have not ratified, must follow its proscriptions of non-use; in other words: non-use of chemical weapons is a global norm recognized as principled conduct. This is because the CWC is almost universally adhered to and it is customary in the practice of nations.

The 193 members of the UN are bound by the norm against the use of force, and it is therefore a universally accepted norm, due to the fact that they have all ratified the United Nations Charter.

A swift humanitarian regionally-led diplomatic solution is imperative. This is because more arms to the fractured opposition to the Syrian regime and a purely military intervention – especially unilateral – are unlikely to lead to a breakthrough, and will only further empower the regime and its allies in the region. A no-fly zone will pave the way to a follow-up conference in Geneva mediated by the UN-Arab League Special Representative on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, with all the actors in the region.

The long history that proscribed chemical weapons and made the unilateral use of force illegitimate represents humane politics in world politics where global norms are to be upheld.

Photo Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré