Abuja based Legal practitioner Theodora Olumekor writes on the Legality of the use of Chemical Weapons In Mordern Warfare

The Syrian Civil War began as a result of the fear faced by President Bashar al-Assad when his authority was challenged by protests demanding an end to the authoritarian practices of his regime. Opposition Rebel Groups began to form and by 2012 the conflict had expanded into a full-fledged civil war. The United States of America and the European Union were critical of Assad as his crackdown continued and there was a call for him to step down. Meanwhile, Syria’s long standing allies Iran and Russia continued their support.

Musa, a 25-year-old Kurdish sniper, on top of a building in the destroyed town of Kobani, also known as Ain al-Arab, in Syria in January 2015.
Credit: The New York Times

This tussle of power and the refusal of President Assad to step down and make the state a democratic state resulted to the war, which has been going on for 6 years now with no end in sight.

International law is the set of rules generally regarded and accepted as binding in relations between states and nations. It serves as a framework for the practice of stable and organized international relations. International law is applicable to countries and not private citizens. Under international humanitarian law, a war crime is seen to be an act that constitutes a serious violation of the jus in bello i.e. the law in war which gives rise to individual criminal responsibility.

Law in war for better understanding is a legal term that refers to the aspect of International Humanitarian Law, which addresses the reality of conflict without considering the reasons or legality behind the use of force. In other words, it is concerned with the limitation of the suffering caused by war and the protection of its victims. Its provisions apply to all parties to the conflict irrespective of the reason for the conflict and whether or not a party’s cause is just or not.

Recently, there have been a number of chemical attacks especially the one on a rebel-held town in Syria called Idlib province, which affected a number of civilians and heartbreaking videos show how women and children were terribly affected by the attack. This isn’t the first chemical attack in Syria since the beginning of the civil war. An attack occurred in Aleppo towards the end of 2016 and even after several warnings against the use of this form of force in war; the Syrian Government has refused to stop its use. In that instance I would be looking at the International Humanitarian laws and how it can be related to the recent happenings in Syria.

Article 50 of the First Geneva Convention defines grave breaches of the Convention to include:

willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment including biological experiments, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health and extensive destruction or appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out willfully and wantonly”.  

This provision is reproduced in Article 51 of the Second Geneva Convention, Article 130 of the Third Geneva Convention and Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention thus providing full protection for combatants injured both on the field and at sea, prisoners of war and most importantly in this context the Civilian population.

Against this background, the question of whether chemical attacks are war crimes is raised. Flowing from the definition of war crimes under the law in war and specifically the articles of the Geneva Conventions above it is clear that President Assad’s actions constitute a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions i.e. a war crime.

In retaliation to what the Syrian Government did, the United States attacked by sending missiles to a Russian airfield to show their stand on the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

Looking at the civil war that held in Nigeria between 1967 and 1970 where the weapons used were guns which have evolved to bombs used by the deadly Boko Haram sect to kill innocent civilians and flowing from this it seems that developing countries are following the methods of violence used by developed countries.

In light of the threatening use of the chemical weapons by the Syrian Government, I would suggest that the United Nations and other powerful international bodies should take a stand and take necessary ACTION against the use of the chemical weapons and even the manufacturing of such weapons in the world.

What are your thoughts? 

Theodora Olumekor

Theodora is currently a Junior Associate at Nigerian Law FIrm Perchstone and Greys as is a part of their Corporate and Commercial Law Group as well as the Dispute Resolution Group of the firm. 


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