Taboo or Not Taboo?

7 October 2013, 0803 EDT

[Note: This is a guest post by Richard Price, Professor of Political Science at University of British Columbia and author of The Chemical Weapons Taboo.]

Counter-intuitively, the first large-scale attack of chemical weapons (CW) in twenty five years is having the effect of actually reinforcing the CW taboo. Notably, both sides in Syria continue to deny that they used CW, reinforcing view that CW use unacceptable for anyone wanting to be accepted as a legitimate state actor in the international community. While there are of course counter-narratives, the fairly widespread government, public and media outcry, and politics of response including their justifications which typically stigmatize CW, have served to reinforce the norm overall, as of course has the remarkable ascension of Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention and ambitious schedule to eliminate Syria’s CW capability. These dynamics embody a central insight of constructivist accounts of norms articulated by Kratchowil and Ruggie in their seminal article in 1986: that norms can be valid even when violated, what matters are their justifications and how others respond to such violations.

These reactions are significantly different from the last previous violation of the CW taboo, by Iraq in the 1980s, where that use was relatively ignored in comparison by governments. This is very significant, as the tepid reaction to Iraq at the time was consistent with the longer historical pattern, which had been that the use of CW since WWI was to be avoided, but use in areas outside the industrialized – “civilized” – world were, well, more quietly tolerated. But after the Iran-Iraq war and the use of CW by Iraq against its own Kurdish population, the international community responded with a dramatic expansion of the CW taboo in the form of the CWC. That has put the taboo on another institutionalized level which has enabled the eventual outcome of pressuring Syria to join the CWC to ensure broadly multilaterally supported CW disarmament, leaving only 6 states as non-parties to this agreement. Thus, even though the taboo was violated, there is not a stampede of would-be violators waiting in the wings to follow suit in the event of Syria escaping a US military response. This stands in contrast to, say, what many believe was the greater damage done by the Bush Administration to the torture taboo since many governments could well be more willing to follow suit.

One of the most potentially troubling developments in the discourse, however, has been the way some skeptics have raised the question of why there is all the fuss about CW as such a red line. Nothing wrong with such open inquiry of course, but what is troubling is what seems to be implied – if not always stated outright; namely, why should we care about this norm when more people are dying from other weapons? John Mueller in Foreign Affairs is skeptical that CW are really any worse than AK47s; but does this really imply that we shouldn’t care about limiting CW? (I’m mindful if the title goes further than he might have said himself, since the title for my own recent Foreign Affairs article was not approved by me before publication). If these are to be worthwhile critiques, then they need to come clean with the full implication.

Personally, I actually don’t think that being attacked by or dying from CW are necessarily intrinsically more horrible than dying from other weapons – though I’m not expert as I haven’t been attacked nor died from either to date. They are ALL awful. But one doesn’t have to think CW are ‘worse’ in that sense to nevertheless believe that the taboo is important to uphold. And one can do this recognizing that the price of the CW taboo has been to accept that its operation has played upon the discourse that simultaneously normalizes‘conventional’ weapons as I argued in my book, The Chemical Weapons Taboo.

Why? For one, we ought to appreciate that if it was the norm against CW that has actually served to incite outside action into doing something about the ongoing slaughter in Syria, then it has served an important humanitarian function that nothing else was able to do. The sad fact is that 100,000 ‘conventional’ deaths did not spur any country to meaningful action; the use of CW did. The conclusion we should draw is not to almost begrudge CW this status as some of the discourse seems to suggest, but rather be thankful something galvanized attention, that there are at least some limits whose violation won’t be tolerated.

We should be prompted to question not why we regard CW are so bad and why on earth we have this successful norm, but more positively why we don’t think “conventional” weapons are so bad as to provoke more forceful humanitarian reactions, especially now that we know from the case of CW that limitations in war aren’t silly utopian ideas, but can in fact be successful.

The title of a recent blog post by Charli Carpenter “Why Is the International Community Protecting the Wrong Norm in Syria” (commenting on a snapshot article by Betcy Jose in Foreign Affairs) betrays a misdirected tendency that suggests it is somehow a zero sum game of norm promotion. While Jose’s analysis is more careful than the title suggests in underscoring that we shouldn’t not care about the CW taboo, I still worry about the logic of the above and statements like Jose’s that “examining the civilian deaths through the lens of the norm against the use of chemical weapons is wrongheaded,” and “From a humanitarian perspective, the chemical weapons attack itself loses some of its significance; those deaths were just a few marks in a long tally of other crimes.”

More felicitously directed was Ban Ki-Moon’s comment that declaring that a red light for one form of weapons did not mean a green light for others. It is to be recognized that the dominant discourse against which the CW taboo and larger WMD discourses have operated has served to insulate other means of violence from heightened sensitivity, deemed as they are “conventional” weapons and the greater legitimacy that implies. However, the success in this domain has now been established enough as to provide the opening that demonstrates the possibility of humanitarian progress. That is, this empirical success buttresses the validity of the moral impulse to then not turn backwards and call into question that achievement due to the disappointment of not seeing equal and consistent progress on other norms we care about, but rather to build upon the current limits on inflicting human suffering that have been enforced and extend them where they have to date too often fallen short.

Second, those views that seem to begrudge the special status of CW miss the significance of the CW taboo that goes beyond weapon itself. A key reason they were banned at Geneva in 1925 was that they were seen then as what we might now anachronistically call the first WMD before their time – the threat of catastrophic attacks vs. cities from the air, while exaggerated by propagandists at the time in ways that backfired, has nonetheless been a genuine and legitimate concern of the marriage of toxic chemistry and air power. While CW have never quite lived up to that catastrophic billing, to some extent this is because of some of the effects of taboo itself. We saw in Syria their potential for mass civilian death, and that was actually not a massive strategic attack compared to what could have been wrought with the likes of past US and Soviet capabilities. While biological and nuclear weapons have far greater potential for devastating civilization, CW, because they have been used more often than nuclear and biological weapons, have nevertheless served as a canary in the WMD coal mine. If humanity can’t hold the line on this one ‘fringe’ WMD, then we ought to be very worried indeed in a world that has capacity to destroy civilization many times over. So as the ‘not-quite so necessarily catastrophic weapon of mass destruction,’ our response to the use of CW matters even more than the awfulness of the 1,400 recent victims as tallied against 100,000.

Third, suggesting that the wrong norm has been enforced relies on an implied counterfactual that is not established with any more confidence than the humanitarian gains of preventing further CW attacks that the reinforcement of the taboo has accomplished. As I’ve argued in a theoretical article, ‘if one weighs demonstrable human gains against the failures of an ideal, let alone making things worse in the hopes of more fundamental change [which ignoring CW use plausibly would have done] then those gains come out rather well. This is especially so if such gains cannot be demonstrably shown to render impossible, or even more unlikely, further progress toward more fundamental change.” The argument that promoting the CW taboo has been a bad idea would only carry water to the extent that it could plausibly establish that enforcing the CW taboo detracts from humanitarian achievement that would otherwise have occurred. This obscures the significance of the fact that not one single country was contemplating any intervention in the Syrian conflict prior to the CW incidents. So what has the focus on enforcing the CW taboo detracted from? It could perhaps be argued that all the focus has detracted from Syrian use of other ostracized (if somewhat less so) weapons such as cluster munitions, or simply has served to insulate Syria and the opposition from criticism from other forms of killing. Again, that presumes that absent concern about the CW taboo more would have been done regarding these other norms; I have seen no reason nor evidence to suggest this would be the case.