Syria, Chemical Weapons and International Law

Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

After the UK Parliament narrowly voted against possible military intervention in Syria as part of a response to its recent chemical weapon use, I thought I would have a look at what the law says on the issue.

So, was the vote a “disgrace” (M. Gove) or should the UK pursue “other ways to put pressure on President Assad” (E. Milliband)?

Chemical weapons are one of those rare issues where there is essentially no argument at an international level.  Even those countries which stubbornly hold onto their nuclear weapons (like, um, us) are in agreement that chemical warfare is beyond the pale.

The current prohibition is found in the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction; or the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) for short – it came into force in 1997.  189 nations have ratified the Convention – approx. 98% of the world population.

Helpfully, Article XII of the CWC is titled “Measures to Redress a Situation and to Ensure Compliance, Including Sanctions” and it sets out the following:

1. The Conference shall take the necessary measures, as set forth in paragraphs 2, 3 and 4, to ensure compliance with this Convention and to redress and remedy any situation which contravenes the provisions of this Convention.  In considering action pursuant to this paragraph, the Conference shall take into account all information and recommendations on the issues submitted by the Executive Council.

2. In cases where a State Party has been requested by the Executive Council to take measures to redress a situation raising problems with regard to its compliance, and where the State Party fails to fulfil the request within the specified time, the Conference may, inter alia, upon the recommendation of the Executive Council, restrict or suspend the State Party’s rights and privileges under this Convention until it undertakes the necessary action to conform with its obligations under this Convention.

3. In cases where serious damage to the object and purpose of this Convention may result from activities prohibited under this Convention, in particular by Article I, the Conference may recommend collective measures to States Parties in conformity with international law.

4. The Conference shall, in cases of particular gravity, bring the issue, including relevant information and conclusions, to the attention of the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council.

The eagle-eyed among you will notice the lack of a mention of targeted missile strikes – even on humanitarian grounds. Article XII(4) does include “in cases of particular gravity” a reference to the UN Security Council, which could include military action in extreme cases – but only as approved by that body.

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