If deterrence is to work, those who deploy chemical weapons must be held accountable
France's initiative to combat chemical weapons will rejuvenate a failing international non-proliferation regime
On Monday, the inhabitants of Eastern Ghouta, who have been punished with endless bombing raids over the past half decade for daring to defy the tyranny of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, were subjected to yet another chemical attack. At least 13 people were injured when rockets loaded with chlorine gas landed on the rebel-held enclave. Miraculously, there were no fatalities on this occasion. But that this latest attack took place at all is an indictment of the international community. Lest we forget, it was in Eastern Ghouta that Mr Al Assad’s forces released the deadly nerve agent sarin in August 2013, killing some 1,400 men, women and children.
Chemical weapons constituted, in the words of the then US president Barack Obama, a “red line”—and veering over it, he warned, would invite punitive action from Washington. The horrific consequences of Mr Obama’s subsequent inaction for ordinary Syrians are there for the world to witness. But the implications of the spectacular collapse of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the 1997 arms control treaty that prohibits the use of chemical agents, triggered by Mr Al Assad go beyond Syria. The abject failure of institutions, including the UN and powers such as the US and the EU, to enforce rules or bring prosecutions is resulting in the slow demise of deterrence. If Mr Al Assad can evade international action and thrive despite deploying chemical weapons, why, others cut from the same despotic cloth are bound to ask, can’t they? And it won’t just be states that will then rush to include chemical weapons in their arsenals but non-state actors, too.
Proliferation will thrive when disregarding the non-proliferation regime carries no consequence: there have been hundreds of chemical attacks since 2012 and at least 14,000 people have been killed in them. While others look away, French president Emmanuel Macron has decided that it’s time for action. The International Partnership against Impunity for Use of Chemical Weapons, launched on Tuesday in Paris, has already drawn 30 countries in a joint effort to inhibit the use and spread of chemical weapons. It will not replace but support and reinforce, through intergovernmental intelligence sharing and collective sanctions, the existing mechanisms to bring to account regimes and individuals complicit in the use of chemical weapons. A website launched on Tuesday names and shames individuals known to traffic in chemical weapons, and Mr Macron has sanctioned 25 companies and people.
None of this, it goes without saying, will end the Syrian nightmare: this week, Mr Al Assad’s minions will attend yet another UN-organised round of “peace talks” in Vienna even as he continues to spill the blood of Syrians at home; next week, they will materialise in Sochi as representatives of Syria’s “legitimate” government. But Mr Macron’s initiative will rejuvenate the faltering anti-proliferation regime and send an urgent signal that the law will, sooner or later, catch up with criminals.
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