To eliminate WMD we need to disarm patriarchy

Civil society must stop the use of chemical weapons being used as a pretext for US-led bombing in Syria. A gendered understanding demonstrates that the only sustainable strategy is to pursue disarmament and strengthen international humanitarian law.

Rebecca Johnson
30 August 2013

Before the poison gas attacks killed families in a Damascus suburb last week, Syria upheld its right to retain chemical weapons as a counterweight to nuclear arsenals held by the US and Israel. Syria therefore refused to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), one of only a handful of states to reject this multilateral treaty. Before the CWC was opened for signature in 1993, many countries had been producing and stockpiling these inhumane weapons, viewing them as legal. They were even given legitimacy as the “poor man’s deterrent”. The gendered comparison with nuclear weapons is chillingly revealing.  Now a state outside the CWC has used poison gas weapons banned by the treaty. The humanitarian consequences have been appalling, but should not be used as a pretext for the UK or others to intervene with bombs of our own.

We have to look carefully at what caused this chemical attack, and consider how best to demonstrate international revulsion, prevent further attacks, and recognise the consequences of UK policy responses for other conflicts and weapons. The case for establishing a zone free of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, as repeatedly proposed by the League of Arab States and supported by the United Nations and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) members, including Syria, is stronger than ever. Even before this regional zone is achieved, Syria and the remaining hold-outs must accede to the CWC now. This treaty, the UN and the International Criminal Court can already provide the tools to identify the criminals – whether state or non-state – compile the necessary evidence and bring the perpetrators to justice. This would reinforce international law and do far more to deter further uses and promote political solutions than the airstrikes that are being demanded by gung ho advocates in the US, UK and France.

Syria’s arguments for retaining its chemical arsenal uncomfortably echo British government arguments for replacing Trident and refusing to join multilateral efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. David Cameron’s public pronouncements on the Syrian gas attacks have veered between sanctimoniously claiming that US-UK military actions are required to “punish” Bashar al-Assad’s government and pontificating that military strikes will “deter” future chemical weapons use. How is this supposed to work? Who do they plan to target? The US and UK claim (but haven’t produced) evidence that the Assad regime is responsible for crossing the “red line” that President Obama set two years ago. Assad’s spokespeople point the finger at opposition groups, arguing that the red-line threat provided unscrupulous terrorists with the incentive to stage a chemical attack to bring the US military into the war. We don’t yet know for certain what was used and who ordered and carried out this crime against humanity. For that reason alone the rush to military action is wrong-headed. But let’s look more closely at why some group or faction in the Syrian war apparently thought that using chemical weapons would bring military or strategic gains. The perpetrators – on behalf of the government or the opposition – were certainly not deterred by red lines or military threats; these may even have backfired and provided unintended motivations for gassing thousands of civilians, including children who had been asleep in their beds.

If given adequate time and access, the UN inspectors should be able to ascertain whether chemical weapons were used, and whether these were consistent with what is known of Syria’s existing stockpile, or if the horrifying scenes had been caused by cruder “home-made” weapons. Why, then are our governments pushing for military action before the UN evidence has been properly gathered and assessed, repeating the mistakes they made with Iraq in 2003?

We can stop them from bombing Syria, but it will take more effective civil society and political pressure in our countries and from the rest of the world. If chemical weapons have been used, the international community must act. The key issue is how, and with what objectives?

 The desire to “do something” can best be answered through international law, not more weapons. The CWC is the legal basis for the UN being able to send inspectors to investigate the poison gas attacks, and it is also the basis for the legal recognition that using chemical weapons is a war crime and a crime against humanity. The CWC entered into force in 1997 and has over 185 States Parties. It prohibits a state from using chemical weapons or engaging in military preparations to use such weapons. It makes it illegal for governments to “develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone”, and also extends to making it illegal to promote or assist in any prohibited action, whether perpetrated by individuals, groups, or another State.

Though Syria has refused to sign it, the CWC’s universal ban on the production, use and stockpiling of chemical weapons is applicable because it has become an integral part of international law. This does not provide justification for retaliation or punishment bombings from Western governments; it provides the basis for a process to identify the perpetrators and their suppliers and bring them to justice. Bombing would “punish” innocent Syrian civilians. A well-enacted judicial process will punish only those actually responsible for these crimes against humanity.

Treaties cannot prevent every possible violation, as the Syrian case shows, but they have a very important role in delegitimising the weapons, minimising their numbers and availability, and providing legal tools for dealing with perpetrators and preventing future uses. Before the CWC there were large stockpiles of chemical weapons in over 20 states. The CWC built a strong disarmament regime and stopped chemical weaponry being treated as a deterrent or currency of power. All the major stocks have been or are in the process of being eliminated. Abhorrent as it was, the Syrian attacks should not be portrayed as a failure of the CWC, but as an aberration that proves the treaty’s worth. If Syria had joined the CWC it would have destroyed its chemical weapon stocks. That wouldn’t have prevented the current war, but it would have greatly reduced access, motivation and incentive for using chemical weapons, since by no stretch of strategic imagination could they be thought to bring military advantage.

Efforts to rid the Middle East of all WMD have been impeded by US, UK and French policies with regard to their own and Israel’s nuclear weapons, which have fed into Syrian narratives justifying its chemical arsenal. The US also has to take some responsibility for inadvertently elevating the importance of Syria’s chemical weapons with its inept deterrent strategy of declaring that it would get involved in the war if that red line were crossed. These governments – along with Russia and others – must also bear some responsibility for equipping Syria – and most other unsavoury regimes – with far too many weapons systems in the past, including precursors and delivery equipment for chemical arms. During the Cold War and in the 25 years since, these countries have started wars and become embroiled in others’ conflicts through the hubristic arrogance of weak and ideological leaders, degrading their own nations’ security (and economies) as a result. David Cameron’s speech in the House of Commons evokes Tony Blair’s mistakes, but clearly hasn’t learned the lessons. Barack Obama wanted to change America’s role and reputation, but will be vilified alongside George W. Bush if he now compounds the chemical weapons crime with bloody strikes of his own.

Even if the chemical weapons users were identified with irrefutable certainty, punishment attacks are contrary to international law; and since the red line threat didn’t deter, what makes anyone imagine that Western military strikes will do a better job? With or without the fog of war, the complexities of international relations ensure that operations and communications intended to deter all too often miss their mark. So do weapons.  Yet militarism has become so ingrained in patriarchal politics, that no matter how often it fails, this is still the male primate response when called on to “do something”. Airstrikes would only make things worse for the Syrian people. It’s time to try something different.

The Syrian war has not arisen overnight or in a vacuum. From chemical weapons to rocket launchers, the killing on both sides is carried out with armaments designed and produced by the “defence industries” of Cold Warriors, spread through arms sales. Whether on behalf of Assad or the opposition groups, the weapons in Syria are overwhelmingly wielded by men in defence or pursuit of institutions and religions that systematically oppress the female half of their societies and violate the security, rights and opportunities of women and girls. As the drumbeats of war keep sounding, a growing web of women peacemakers, feminist scholars and nonviolent activists are seeking alternative ways to prevent and address patriarchy’s wars.

: Nobel Peace Women blockade AWE Aldermaston  photocredit: R Johnson 2010

Nobel Peace Women blockade AWE Aldermaston. Photo: R Johnson 2010

The Nobel Women’s Initiative recently convened an international conference in Belfast on Moving beyond militarism and war: Women-driven solutions for a nonviolent world. Learning through discussions with activists from Africa, Latin America, Europe, Asia-Pacific, North America and the Middle East, the conference ranged from international campaigns to stop arms sales and the development of endless weapons (with specific focus on banning nuclear weapons, drones and killer robots), to local women-led campaigns to protect our environment and build community action to halt armed conflict and sexual violence perpetrated in warzones, workplaces and homes. Though this was just a small sample of the women campaigning for peace, justice and human rights around the world, it was extraordinary to realise how many of us have faced violence, rape, legal threats and actions – and carried on, more determined than ever. It was also inspiring to learn from each other and participate in the sharing of stories and ideas, the solidarity actions planned and friendship networks we forged.

Women are making changes all over the world, but we haven’t yet realised the rights, laws and powers we need to prevent the warmongers attacking sleeping families with poison gas or cruise missiles. We can do this only if women lead the way to build stronger, more diverse civil society movements underpinned by democratic decision-making, human rights, humanitarian laws and disarmament. These debates were taken forward this month when activists from the global “Women in Black” networks met in Uruguay to bring together women who have been putting feminist peace ideals into practical nonviolent actions to oppose oppression, violence against women and war. Across Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, women are demanding full inclusion in democratic change and reasserting their rights to participate fully in all aspects of education, political and social life without being subject to sexual violence.

As Women in Black in London continues into its 20th year of weekly vigils around the Edith Cavell statue near Trafalgar Square, some women also joined grassroots activists who converged on Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Burghfield in Berkshire, for two weeks of nonviolent opposition to Trident replacement. The Burghfield Disarmament Camp has been threatened with legal action, but intends to go ahead with its nonviolent blockade of the nuclear bomb factory on 2 September.

This latest environmental protest is organised by Trident Ploughshares and Action AWE to focus public and political attention on the need to prevent billions of pounds being wasted on Trident replacement when the UK should be joining the rest of the world to ban all nuclear weapons. The Burghfield Disarmament Camp followed a week of actions coordinated by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) actions at the Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp in July and a civil society peace camp this August at the Büchel airbase, where US tactical nuclear weapons are still deployed as part of NATO’s nuclear planning. Organised by civil society activists including the German affiliates of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), Greenpeace and others, the nonviolent protests included a 24-hour “musical” blockade in which a variety of musicians, health and humanitarian workers, bikers and other self-identified affinity groups peacefully kept the military gates closed for a day and a night.

Though most of these campaigns are mixed, women are in the forefront of the new approaches and nonviolent activism.  Our gendered analysis shows that the only long term, sustainable way to deter and prevent the use of inhumane weapons is through building up international law and human rights, not selling and launching more weapons. Militarism has failed to bring peace and security time and time again. If you want security without chemical and nuclear weapons, women and peace activists are pointing the way.


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