Why is the International Community Protecting the Wrong Norm in Syria?

by on 2013-09-27 in Duck- 20 Comments

syria26n-webFormer Duck guest blogger Betcy Jose has published an excellent Foreign Affairs Snapshot pointing out the irony of a robust norm enforcement operation in Syria to protect the chemical weapons taboo, while perversely ignoring, even permitting, the violation of a far more foundational norm: the norm of civilian immunity.

The whole piece is great but I especially liked the “puzzle” paragraph:

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… 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.

Seemingly, the chemical weapons taboo is much more robust than the norm against killing civilians per se, given that it was so much more readily reinforced. Jose’s piece focuses on calling this out (quite rightly) as a moral inconsistency. But what explains this puzzle? How might we make sense of this in political terms, particularly if the chemical weapons taboo is based on the desire to avoid indiscriminate killing of civilians, as claimed by both the conventional scholarly wisdom and much mainstream political commentary.

I wonder if the answer is that the taboo is so strong not primarily due to the spectre of dead civilians, but rather the way that weapons of this particular type threaten international order and state sovereignty. If that were true, it would be less puzzling that it would provoke such a disproportionate reaction – although no less morally problematic.

First, aside from being indiscriminate, they are uncontrollable and as such they threaten not just civilians but also policymakers and their allies. States are historically far more terrified of weapons that can, once deployed, backfire on them or fall beyond sovereign control than with equally horrifying weapons whose deployment and effects more subject to the limitations states place on them.

Secondly, the chemical taboo arose partly through the association of chemical weapons with the earlier prohibitions on poisons – a weapon that fell into disrepute due to its “treacherous” nature: that is, its use by spies, assassins and “women” to subvert the powers that be. Like the anti-assassination norm, poison was treated not only as non-chivalrous but as uniquely threatening to the powerful and thus to international stability and order. Chemicals are (perhaps disproportionately) horrifying to powerful states and states-persons in general partly because they tap into the fear of the weak deploying invisible threats against which little defense is possible.

In short, the ban is for both reasons perhaps stronger because it satisfies what Ward Thomas calls a “power-maintenance function” in international society:

Norms are not only socially constructed but also geo-politically constructed. Weapons or practices that have the potential to close the gap between the strong and weak states in international society are more likely to be restricted than those that reinforce the relative advantage of strong states; and the more directly a norm reflects the interests of strong states, the stronger the norm will be.”

And as Vaughn Shannon points out, that norm strength will be evident not only in compliance rates but also in the reactions (or overreactions) of third parties to instances of norm violations.

By contrast, the civilian immunity norm – while admittedly foundational to the contemporary laws of war -is perhaps weaker in political practice because it is built primarily on moral principles – the responsibility of the strong to sacrifices on behalf of the weak.


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  • John O.

    Part of the difference between these norms may lie in the difficulty of identifying when an attack on civilians is deliberate. In the case of chemical weapons, the norms prohibits their use which makes violations easy (or at least, easier) to identify. In the case of civilian immunity, the norm proscribes the “intentional” targeting of civilians rather than simply killing civilians. Identifying violations in this case may be more complicated because we need evidence, not only that civilians were killed, but that they were deliberately targeted in an attack. It is not clear how we could ever get this information reliably which makes enforcement of the norm very difficult in practice.

  • Jason Weidner

    I would think that chemical weapons are easier to “securitize” in the Copenhagen meaning of the term, meaning easier to construct in terms of a “threat” that requires some kind of response.

  • David McCourt

    Interesting post. And I think I am with Ward Thomas here, really bringing in the relationship between norms and rule/power.

    On a side note: is there any purchase here in a reflexive comment on all the discussion about norms and constructivism in IR itself? We are accustomed to thinking of realism has having some impact, can the same be said of constructivism? In other words, has constructivism ‘taught’ policy-makers about norms??

  • http://airforceamazons.blogspot.com/ Kellie Strom

    Arguably neither norm is being protected. The Kerry-Lavrov agreement isn’t designed to penalise CW use (against civilians or otherwise) as much as it is designed to prevent proliferation to non-state forces.

  • http://isomorphismes.tumblr.com/ isomorphisms

    That’s a compelling thesis.

  • RMPrice

    I worry that the wrong implication is being drawn by those who wonder – why all the fuss about CW anyway? Betcy is careful to underscore that we shouldn’t not care about the CW taboo, though others like John Mueller have gone further in positing that being attacked by CW is no more worse than bullets or bombs. One
    doesn’t have to think they are ‘worse’ in that sense to nevertheless believe that the taboo is important to uphold, is worthwhile, and that the use of CW does deserve strenuous efforts to be ostracized even if we are disappointed that the upholding of the larger norm of civilian immunity itself is so much more unevenly upheld. Might I write a guest blog post here as I have a longer version of this argument?

  • Charli Carpenter

    Hi – our policy on guest posts is just to email one of the permanent contributors with an idea or a draft. Looking forward to it! Cheers

  • Tijax

    There have been a lot of objections that drawing a red line for chemical weapons is hypocritical: because we covered for Saddam, because of Israel, because Hiroshima was a weapon of mass destruction. But what actor could you rely on to enforce the principle that killing civilians is wrong? If you want to claim evidence of US hypocrisy, you don’t need to connect the dots to client states or events seventy years ago, all you need to do is include a link to the apache helicopter video. All parties in Syria are being somewhat careless with civilian lives, and people are collecting evidence from the Libyan campaign that not everything was surgical there. Any military power trying to argue that targeting civilians is wrong is going to face counterarguments about their own past behavior. Even if they can show Assad is more blatant the argument will be messier and there will be people with a vested interest in using the limelight to bring attention to particular tragedies. There is some hope of keeping the genie in the bottle with regard to chemical weapons, and Russia, the US, Iran, etc. are not trading accusations about it. I think there would be more recriminations if the principle involved was targeting civilians.

  • Betcy Jose

    Charli, thank you for discussing my piece in this great post. I think you’re on to something with your hypothesis (which is one I would have explored in my piece if I had the space and time). At least in the Syrian conflict, it appears that when the international community is confronted with various norm violations, violations of norms which protect state interests receive priority on its agenda. Yet, I argue if the international community had moved to address violations of the more morally oriented norm, the civilian immunity norm, it might have also been able to prevent violations of the state interest-oriented norm. This is because it appears that unaddressed intentional civilian targeting in Syria created a permissive environment which contributed to the use of chemical weapons. Because I agree with Richard and others that the chemical weapons taboo is also important to preserve, I feel for both humanitarian and state interests, it is important that the international community expend more effort protecting the civilian immunity norm.

  • Philip

    Taught them in what respect? Constructivism obviously wasn’t the first theory to pick up on the importance of norms. Far from it. The innovation of constructivism isn’t the focus on norms itself, it’s the way that it deals with them and attempts (in its various forms) to reconcile them with the other referent objects of IR theory – states, nature, material power, etc.

    Were practitioners ever incapable of making this articulation? I think not. The theory just caught up with the practice.

  • David McCourt

    Maybe. I’ll think on that. (And thanks for entertaining the random side-note.)

    I know other bodies of thought in IR had mentioned norms, but I think norms and constructivism are fairly well connected in the IR 101 mindset (Realism = power, liberalism = cooperation, etc.) The use of terms like ‘chemical weapons taboo’ then just seemed too striking to not see some theory effect going on. So not ‘taught them’ as in putting theory into practice–the impact would be more diffuse than that. A matter of IR-trained policy-makers drawing on academic terms when framing policy. Maybe.

  • Philip

    It’s possible. A valid empirical question!

  • http://chaosandgovernance.wordpress.com/ Nicholas Lees

    The suggestions in the post and in the comments are very compelling. Another potential explanation, developing some strands from the constructivist literature in this area: the taboo against chemical weapons is related to a wider set of fears about technological threats to human and environmental life-processes.

    The effects of radioactive contamination on survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki helped to create a link between nuclear weapons and poison. Shocking images of children with birth defects as a result of prenatal exposure to teratogenic contaminants such as radioactive fallout and Agent Orange consolidated the public perception that such weapons belonged in a common category. Campaigners have attempted to link other weapons technologies such as depleted uranium to birth defects in areas where such weapons have been deployed.

    Bullets and bombs may shred and maim, but this set of technologies cause harm by interfering in ongoing life-processes. Various disasters such as Chernobyl and, to a lesser extent despite the vastly greater harm it caused, Bhopal hardened public perceptions about the civilian use of related technologies. The opposition to genetic modification was preemptive rather than motivated by scientific evidence of actual or potential harm.The insidiousness of this special category of harm seems to evoke a very strong sense of ‘wrongness’. Whilst I’m not doubting that chemical weapons and nuclear radiation cause harm, the fears they generate seem disproportionate to the actual harm and suffering they cause. This may be because, diffuse and associated with the poisoning of the biotic systems on which our lives depend, they generate a particular kind of ‘ontological insecurity’ which the mere shelling of civilians in far away places does not.

  • RedWell

    I think Carpenter is on the right track, but like you, I was also thinking the following point is also essential: targeting civilians happens all the time. While I think you might be conflating intentional killing of noncombatants with “secondary effect” killings, the point is that enforcement would be a non-starter for most governments because the practice of killing civilians is effectively universal.
    Even a state with no fear of being charged with hypocrisy could not afford to care about enforcing this norm.
    By contrast, chemical and other weapons are rarely used, so it’s easier to be consistent and efficacious with enforcing that rule. In conjunction with the fear of material threat, as Carpenter points out, and we’ve got an easy explanation for ignoring the “more important” norm.

  • Tijax

    Syria is different in terms of civilians being intentionally targeted by central command. I see the difference you mention, but I think most activist types would be fairly eager to blur it if it gave them a chance to be in the limelight shouting at the US. And different activists if it was Russia, Turkey, etc…

    I’m curious about the state with no fear of being charged with hypocrisy over killing civilians. Do you have a candidate, or is it a thought experiment? If the latter I’m interested in the rest of your argument. I guess that even if they had never been guilty of collateral damage in the past they probably would be after participating in such a strike. But maybe you mean something else.

  • RedWell

    The “no fear of hypocrisy” state was indeed hypothetical. My point, rather, was that no one can enforce the norm against targeting civilians because the practice is too widespread. Even if we forget about the ethical guilt that every powerful state bears regarding the deaths of noncombatants, there is still the practical problem of enforcement. Policy makers calculate that it is more feasible to take a stand on a more discrete issue (chemical weapons) than engage in a fool’s crusade to stem the tides (ending the more pervasive targeting of civilians).
    Also, at the risk of sounding like I think war can be cleansed, I also want to suggest that “collateral damage” (as defined by people like Michael Walzer) is qualitatively different in terms of intention and ethical culpability than intentionally targeting civilians. That’s a tangential issue but relevant to my idea of a hypothetically clean state.

  • Charli Carpenter

    I don’t buy the argument that “no one can enforce a norm” if violations are widespread. Drunk driving is widespread but there is a strong norm against it that gets enforced every time someone takes away a friend’s car keys or a cop arrests someone. And one of the best ways to enforce a frequently violated norm is to make an example of a particularly bad offender to scare lesser violators straight.

  • RedWell

    That’s fair, but not quite my point. I’m not saying the norm can’t be enforced, simply that enforcement is unlikely because the costs are too high and the benefits unclear. In the drunk driving analogy, most of us recognize that we may die if we let these folks on the road. In the case of noncombatant killing, outside governments perceive no material threat and no obvious reward, particularly with enforcing a practice that is so widespread.

  • Tijax

    With drunk driving as you mention, many private citizens enforce the norm because it is widely perceived as legitimate. A counter-example would be minimum marijuana posession: widespread, and although many people avoid using it, there are many people who do not use it, but will not narc, or even discourage its use. So in addition to the narrative of the war on drugs, other people look at the data and see a means of social control against the poor and black. With marijuana in the contemporary inner city, or Prohibition among Catholic immigrants in the 20s, the norm is seen as something imposed by an outside culture, rather than something most of the parties involved accepted as binding.

    I have a friend who, whenever drug arrests are mentioned, says that the cops are constantly smoking themselves. I believe he is exaggerating, just as I believe there is a difference between bombing a village and collateral damage from a drone strike. But it is a much messier line, with many more caveats, and people will not accept the norm the way tin other cases (I have never heard anyone claim that cops usually drive drunk themselves.) Assad could also just take a page from the Pentagon playbook and claim that all the males who got killed were potential combatants anyway. If a prohibition is perceived as being enforced in such a biased or hypocritical way, then the message it will send will be about power not morality, and may very well serve to undermine the legitimacy of the norm.

  • Tijax

    Thanks, I meant to reply before. I may not really belong here, just followed a link. I don’t have any IR background, though I lived all but 2 of the past 10 years outside the US.

    I’m not sure the issue would be war being cleansed. There are two components. One is the Vietnam era jokes “military intelligence” and belief that just war theory isn’t worth even engaging with, as well as the reflex of seeing all military action as driven by bloodthirstiness. I was born after Vietnam ended but that perspective still permeates a lot of people I know. In reaction to that I also found the narrative of how war drives technological innovation, improved medicine, etc. But the development of total war made that argument much less tenable, partially because during the atomic age, there was the great fear of an escalation which would through us back to the stone age. One change is how the collective unconscious of countries like the US perceive war, the other is whether we can return to a time when war doesn’t have to mean complete destruction, and can be part of how society evolves. And I think keeping weapons of mass destruction off the table is more important for that than norms against targeting civilians. We can hold the line on chemical weapons, can be perceived as holding that line, and can rely on the support of nations who might subvert us for if we tried to make this about something else.