Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Attacking Syria would be a war crime

Much of the discussion among the political class in Washington concerns the details about a threatened US attack on Syria. The questions under discussion are: How much will it cost? How long will it take? Is success guaranteed? Etc. The discussion among the pundits assume implicitly that the US has the right to attack Syria.

A logically prior question is: does the US have the right to attack Syria?

In fact, it does not. Consider Article 2 of the Charter of the UN. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. Notice that this bans the use of force and also bans the threat of force. So Obama is violating the UN Charter even by threatening to attack Syria. Since the US has signed the UN documents, this provision of the UN Charter is binding on the US government.

Syria has never attacked the US. If the US does attack Syria, that will constitute a war crime. Launching a war of aggression was termed "the supreme war crime, a crime against peace." Top German leaders were hanged at Nuremberg for this war crime. Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, declared that “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Mike Ratner, head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, makes the point that a US attack on Syria Violates International Law.

In his speech this evening, Obama went on and on about how terrible chemical weapons are. He claimed that the US was working to ban chemical weapons. However, he omitted four very relevant points.

(1) The US used chemical weapons - Agent Orange and napalm - against the civilian population of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. We killed three million people in order to demonstrate to the world American "leadership".

(2) In 2004, the US attacked the Iraqi city of Fallujah using white phosphor and depleted uranium, which of course are chemical weapons.

(3) It is a fact that Israel used chemical weapons against Gaza in recent years, burning civilians with white phosphorous. That was a war crime and a crime against humanity, in the words of the Goldstone report, commissioned by the UN. Nobody held Israel accountable, nobody talked about bombing Israel. Instead the US government voiced full support for Israel's use of chemical weapons. There is no way Israel would have attacked Gaza refugees without US support.

(4) Finally, while Obama was eloquent about how terrible it is to kill women and children, he forgot to mention that he has killed about 3,000-4,000 people in Pakistan and Afghanistan using drones, and an estimated 74% were civilians who happen to be in the wrong place. Here is a story from the Washington Post two days ago. Here's a story from last year by Gareth Porter, the source of the 74% figure, Cover-Up of Civilian Drone Deaths Revealed by New Evidence.

Funny how Obama omitted these four devastating points. Most of the pundits and politicians never mention these inconvenient facts. These facts have disappeared down an Orwellian Memory Hole. But while few are voicing these sentiments inside the Washington beltway, many are voicing them around the world.


dhogaza said...

"(1) The US used chemical weapons - Agent Orange and napalm - against the civilian population of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. We killed three million people in order to demonstrate to the world American "leadership". "

By this definition, TNT is a chemical weapon. So is Roundup.

Get real.

I oppose US intervention in Syria.

I also appear the left's typical eating of our own which has so frequently in history played into the hands of the right.

Just come out and say it, like many of my fellow leftists are: Obama is to the right of W. With the implication that W had more sound reasons to invade Iraq than Obama has to *consider* punishing Syria for the use of Sarin.

Don't beat around the bush. Eat our own, then complain when the tea party occupies the white house.

dhogaza said...

"I also appear" - oppose

dhogaza said...

And while you're implying guilt on Obama for events that took place 40 years ago, you could also blame him for slavery in the south, for genocide against native americans, etc.

Don't be shy now. Don't back down from the logical conclusions of your argument.

Thomas said...

dhogaza, USA also used tear gas and vomiting gas in Vietnam, and those clearly are chemical weapons even if USA at the time denied it. (And if you think it was humanitarian to use non lethal gases, well, the point was to flush out people from tunnels so you could kill them with conventional weapons...)

White phosphorous is a borderline case. It's legal to use it for generating smoke for concealment, dubious to use it as an incendiary and illegal to use it as a chemical weapon (since the smoke is poisonous). When Saddam used it a US report defined it as a banned chemical weapon...

bluegrue said...

which of course are chemical weapons.

It is your privilege to consider them such, but they are not in the legal sense under neither the Geneva Protocol nor the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (see section 9(c)). White Phosphorous was used in Iraq primarily as an incendiary device and depleted uranium as a bullet. Chemical and radiological effects were secondary effects "only" and hence the use of the weapons legaly does not count as use of chemical weapons, like it or not. As perverse as it is: you are not allowed to shoot white phosphorous at a soldier, you may shoot it at the wall behind him to drive him out of his cover. And no, I do not condone the use of white phosphorous nor of depleted uranium or other heavy metal ammunition. However, redefining the meaning of "chemical weapon" does not help you make your point.

Tom Curtis said...

I am with dhogaza on this one. This blog post plays very fast and loose with facts.

Specifically, depleted uranium and White Posphorus are not chemical weapons. Nor is Napalm, nor Agent Orange. None of the above are mentioned in the schedules of the chemical weapons convention, nor have an intended direct effect of killing or disabling the enemy (even temporarily) by their toxic effect (ie, meet the definition of a chemical weapon).

Further (for Thomas), while riot control agents are banned under the treaty, the moral logic of prohibiting the use of agents against enemies in time of war, which are permitted against your own citizens in time of peace is not clear. Therefore that they were used by the US in Vietnam is irrelevant to their obligations under a treaty that was not negotiated til the 1990s.

Alastair said...

Say you are Obama and a civil war breaks out in an arab country which has a large stock of chemical weapons. Wouldn't you tell the arabs that use of these weapons was a red line past which they should not cross, so stopping their use? Of course when they were used, and his bluff was called, it was Obama face which became red!

How does he get out of this without losing face? A quick strike on palaces such as that employed by Regan against Gadaffi seemed like a good idea, but there are risks as the British Pariament pointed out.

Then he got his euraka moment, which gives him a way out. Ask Congress? The Republicans are bound to vote it down, if only to spite him. Then he avoids military action and puts the blame on the Tea Party.

All this bluster is just a sham, to hide his real anti war beliefs. Or is it?

Anonymous said...

Whatever else may be true, Obama is not going to get his war on Syria.

But it's not just Republicans who are now opposing him.

Between the massive spying on Americans (and lying to cover it up) and his Syria saber-rattling, his Presidency is effectively over.

Yet another lame dick.

Hope has turned to Dope (and sadly, not the kind you can even get a buzz off of)

William Connolley said...

> force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.

Doesn't work. Obama etc. have been careful to say they aren't trying to topple the regime. They make no threats against the territorial integrity or indep of anyone - at least, that's the claim. So your argument falls apart.

Brian said...

Tom C - from my earlier post it's pretty clear that I strongly disagree with John, but I don't think he's playing fast and loose with the facts. He's making an ethical/normative argument that Agent Orange and napalm are chemical weapons.

The critique I would make though is that this type of argument needs to clearly distinguish between when it is a legal analysis versus some other type of analysis. Law and ethics overlap only partially.

Tom Curtis said...

William, the UN Security Council has a non-binding resolution distinguishing between acts of aggression and wars of aggression. No matter what else may be the case, and attack on Syria would be the former, which is still illegal under international law. It may, or may not be a war crime (ask a lawyer). However, the argument that it would be illegal under international law still stands, if not the over blown comparisons to Nuremburg.

Tom Curtis said...

Brian, a chemical weapon is a weapon that kills or disables enemy combatants by means of its toxic effect and is intended to do so. John is redefining it to mean any weapon that has a chemical effect. By his definition, bullets are chemical weapons because if enough get into the water supply it will lead to lead poisoning. In fact, by his definition, everything is a chemical weapon, right down to the diesel fuel used to drive trucks across the desert. So massive a rewrite of a definition, unflagged, is playing fast and loose with facts.

If he wants to argue that the use of WP, napalm, depleted uranium and agent orange are ethically wrong I would be strongly inclined to agree. But it is not because they are chemical weapons.

Hank Roberts said...

> making an ethical/normative argument
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

Chemical weapons are horrible. They're also defined. My dad volunteered out of his biology PhD program the day after Pearl Harbor and was sent off to study chemical warfare for a while. He didn't like what he saw being prepared for, and was glad not to see a repeat of the WW-I gas warfare.

Personally, I'd say that drone assasains are sloppier and cause more collateral damage -- that's also a normative argument, meaning killing civilians.

Machiavelli would likely not have tolerated an assasain who killed so many innocent bystanders, time after time, if he were handling our foreign policy in this regard.

I have no point to make here. It all stinks.

Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

By this definition, TNT is a chemical weapon. So is Roundup.

Get real.

I guess that makes TNT use on civilians and Roundup use on the biosphere totally ok then. Since US soldiers do this regularly then of course we should honor them and glorify it, especially on this holy honored day, lol. What goes around, comes around.

Keeping it real.

Jeffrey Davis said...

How, except for American fatigue, is Syria different from the Rwandan Genocide?

dbostrom said...

Not even a memory hole, more like the "invisible" objects that reroute light so as to appear to vanish. In this case, our cognition simply slides around things we find are uncomfortably dissonant with our self-regard.

William Connolley said...

TC: I was responding to the argument, as stated, which clearly fails. You're now quoting a non-binding motion which is, errm, non-binding and therefore irrelevant. Exactly which law do you think it would be breaking - you are, presumably, thinking of something not-yet-mentioned, so why not mention it?

Elsewise, I find the assertion that napalm is a chemical weapon bizarre (other than in the trivial sense that TNT is also a chemical weapon, as already said). I'm baffled to see the sensible Brian agreeing that it is, and would like to hear his reasoning.

Tom Curtis said...

William, non-binding, but any member state of the UN can accept the resolution and thereby draw the distinction between aggression and war of aggression. Absent some such resolution, any use of force by a sovereign state on another sovereign state other than in self defense, or as authorized by the Security Council would violate the Charter of the UN, which as John points out is a treaty binding the US, and hence in violation of international law. It may or may not be a violation of US law on the grounds John gives (it would not be a violation of Australian law on that ground).

David B. Benson said...

Depleted uranium is not a chemical weapon any more than a lead bullet is. Further, since it is depleted, it has the same radiological effect as lead, namely none.

Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

Depleted uranium is not a chemical weapon any more than a lead bullet is.

Well, I guess it's perfectly ok to throw lead and uranium around them.

Idiot. There is a name for people like you. Straights. You are the people that got us into this mess. You will be the people with the tattered suits on zombie apocalypse day, trust me.

Brian said...

William - I was probably being unclear. Napalm and Agent Orange clearly aren't chemical weapons from a legal perspective, but that's not necessarily the perspective John was using.

Tom C was arguing John was clearly wrong or worse in his use of facts. I'm not saying John was right, but that the bright line you'd apply to legal analysis wasn't necessarily involved there.

Having said that, I think it is pretty hard under any consistent analysis to consider napalm to be a chemical weapon except for secondary toxic effects. Agent Orange is a closer call.

Personally I think neither are chem weapons from a normative perspective but still felt Tom was over-harsh.

EliRabett said...

Depleted uranium is depleted in the U-235 isotope, and is still radioactive because the U-238 decays, just much slower than U-235

Hank Roberts said...

Hey, if spreading toxic metals over the landscape were a crime, the old Romans would have been sentenced to losing their civilization after a handful of generations, the way they spread lead around.

And us, hell, we haven't been a so-called civilization half as long as the Romans had lead, but we've both established that using it is real stupid, and used far more of it already.

Could we not mix "fucking stupid" (lead, depleted uranium) with "used only to kill" (sarin)

Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

Could we not mix "fucking stupid"

How 'fucking stupid' is blaming the dead instead of blaming the living!

Hank has Dunning-Kruger on the brain. Hank is worse than straight, he's a square.

Tom Curtis said...

Thomas, depleted uranium is still radioactive (as indicated by Eli). Further, depleted uranium shells shatter and oxidize on impact creating a toxic dust that can disperse significantly. According to the Australian Army, being within 50 meters of a vehicle struck by DU is sufficient to place people at risk. Where a very large number of depleted uranium rounds are used, the soil of the region may become toxic, as appears to have happened in a number of areas in Iraq.

With regard to this discussion, however, the toxic effects have a delayed onset, and so do not contribute in any way to the effectiveness of DU as weapons, and hence they are not chemical weapons by any reasonable definition.

David B. Benson said...

Tom Curtis --- Thank you.

Thomas Lee Elifritz --- This is a science blog. I recommend you assume everyone here is interested in what is actually true until otherwise demonstrated. In your earlier comments here you managed to show up rather badly in that regard.

Behave yourself.

John said...

Dear William Connelly:
You write that Obama is not trying to achieve regime change in Syria. How do you know that? Because that is what Obama says!

Recall what the late, great journalist IF Stone said: all governments are run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed.

It was the great financier, J. P. Morgan, who once said that when someone says why he is doing something, there is the public reason, and also the real reason.

This is true for governments, businesses, and powerful individuals.

Consider an example from the business pages of the newspaper: very often you read that a corporate CEO has resigned his position (paying megabucks a year) in order to "spend more time with his family," and everyone pretends to believe this is the reason, even if the man is divorced and has no children. Or the man resigned "to pursue other interests", like looking for another job.

But how do we know the man wasn't fired? Because he says so!

Martin Vermeer said...

Further, since it is depleted, it has the same radiological effect as lead, namely none.

David, David, David... our resident nuclear expert. Did you ever graduate from Google University?

Russell Seitz said...

WDR being within 50 meters of the target of a Warthog firing a gatling gun - is a seriously bad idea independent of the metallurgy and toxicology of its projectiles.

Bear in mind that a gubic meter of surface soil or rock typically contains grams per m3 of udepleted uranium.

Russell Seitz said...

Not to mention all those gubs

Tom Curtis said...

Russel Seitz, the GAU 8/A (ie, the A10 Warthog's gun) has a rated accuracy such that 80% of the rounds will fall in a 12 meter diameter circle at its design range (1.2 km). As the Warthog will be strafing, yes it would be bad news to be 50 meters fore or aft of the target relative to the direction of attack, but you are unlikely to be hit by rounds or shrapnel if you are 20 meters or more to the side.

There will be even less risk of kinetic damage at twenty meters from the target of an M1 Abrams anti-armour round (which uses a DU penetrator).

Anonymous said...

The talk of chemical weapons misses All the talk of CW's misses John's main point.

And the folks who claim that Obama's threatened attack would not violate UN principles really have no case (or clue)

In addition to what John quoted, the UN charter also makes it clear that

"All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered."

Indeed that's the whole point of the UN.

Furthermore, to make things perfectly clear, in 1974, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution defining aggression

"Any of the following acts, regardless of a declaration of war, shall, subject to and in accordance with the provisions of article 2, qualify as an act of aggression:

(a) The invasion or attack by the armed forces of a State of the territory of another State, or any military occupation, however temporary, resulting from such invasion or attack, or any annexation by the use of force of the territory of another State or part thereof,
(b) Bombardment by the armed forces of a State against the territory of another State or the use of any weapons by a State against the territory of another State;

(c) The blockade of the ports or coasts of a State by the armed forces of another State;

(d) An attack by the armed forces of a State on the land, sea or air forces, or marine and air fleets of another State;

(e) The use of armed forces of one State which are within the territory of another State with the agreement of the receiving State, in contravention of the conditions provided for in the agreement or any extension of their presence in such territory beyond the termination of the agreement;

(f) The action of a State in allowing its temtory, which it has placed at the disposal of another State, to be used by that other State for perpetrating an act of aggression against a third State;

(g) The sending by or on behalf of a State of armed bands, groups, irregulars or mercenaries, which carry out acts of armed force against another State of such gravity as to amount to the acts listed above, or its substantial involvement therein.

Article 4

The acts enumerated above are not exhaustive and the Security Council may determine that other acts constitute aggression under the provisions of the Charter.

Article 5

1. No consideration of whatever nature, whether political, economic, military or otherwise, may serve as a justification for aggression.

2. A war of aggression is a crime against international peace. Aggression gives rise to international responsibility.

3. No territorial acquisition or special advantage resulting from aggression is or shall be recognized as lawful."

David B. Benson said...

Martin Vermeer --- I stand corrected but you need to learn some manners it seems.

we see that U238's half-life is 4.468 billion years. Boy is that a radiation hazard!

Martin Vermeer said...

David I forgot the smiley... my remark was really about you, not about U238, but OTOH you didn't owe me a demonstration that you know how to use Wikipedia ;-)

EliRabett said...

The comparison has to be the total radiation before depletion and after. Since 235 is a small fraction of the isotopic composition of uranium, the depleted stuff has ~half the activity of the natural uranium

Anonymous said...

I would actually do the numbers for depleted uranium, but that would involve a google search and a subsequent "visit" to my house by men wearing dark sunglasses.

Rib Smokin' bunny.

Martin Vermeer said...

> the depleted stuff has ~half the activity of the natural uranium

Sure. But it's not just about the level of activity, but also about what it does in the organism. Firstly note that uranium in granite-rich bedrock is behind the radon issue, which is even epidemiologically significant -- because of the way it collects indoors and in wells, and decays inside the lungs, where the also radioactive polonium particles produced settle.

What DU from weapons does is anybody's guess -- the belief that it is harmless is mostly based on lack of any thorough investigation, a state of affairs that some folks are not unhappy with.

EliRabett said...

Try bog normal heavy metal poisoning for a start

Martin Vermeer said...

Eli, plausible