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Gassing and selective applications of a ‘Red Line’: lest we forget

The gassing of people is considered exceptionally inhumane, officially a categorical “red line” dividing good from evil. This belief now threatens to trigger an escalation with unpredictable consequences.

lead Otto Dix, Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor). 1924. Tate Liverpool.As new rockets fly into Syria, it is time to consider the legal grounds on which the bombing is legitimised. This is important because it threatens to destabilise the already precarious region and displace, yet again, thousands of victims that the west is reluctant to accommodate.

The experience of chemical warfare in Britain has a complex history. British troops were one of the first to fall victim to chlorine gas attacks during the Battle of Ypres on January 2, 1915. Talented German chemists, among them the tragic Jewish Nobel Prize Winner Fritz Haber, were responsible for spearheading the chemicalisation of twentieth and twenty-first century warfare. British troops were one of the first to fall victim to chlorine gas attacks during the Battle of Ypres on January 2, 1915.

The legacy of WWI continues to haunt present-day reactions to chemical warfare. It was not so much the case that German gas attacks caused many causalities or to deny that the deaths that did occur were excruciating; it is rather the case that they dealt a major psychological blow to army morale, whilst awakening dystopian nightmares among the general British public.

The experiences of WWI would incentivise calls for laws against, what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls, ‘atmospheric terror’. The Geneva Convention brought western countries together to formulate an international legal architecture on the prohibition of asphyxiating, poisonous and other gaseous and bacterial methods of warfare. This was not the first attempt to impose laws on gassing, but instead a continuation of a centuries-long effort to ban poison and gas from the battlefield. Some of the earliest proponents of international law, including Grotius, were keen to forbid poison in times of war.

Signatories to the Geneva Convention

Among the signatories at the time were France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States. What is striking, however, is that the United States waited until as late as 1975 to deposit the instrument of ratification. 50 long years of delay allowed the US to deploy herbicide and defoliant chemical weapons in Vietnam, Korea, Laos among other places barely investigated or mentioned in conventional studies on the history of chemical warfare. The United States waited until as late as 1975 to deposit the instrument of ratification… The US, however, was not the only country that ignored or contravened international laws.

The US, however, was not the only country that ignored or contravened international laws. It took until the mid-1990s for the Italian government to admit that it had used chemical weapons in its lethal colonial wars in Ethiopia and Libya. France, the country currently with the longest pointing finger, actively used methods of asphyxiating in its nineteenth century colonial campaigns in Algeria and the French Caribbean. When the issue was recently brought up, by the French historian Claude Ribbe, its leaders refused to even discuss the possibility of having crossed the proverbial “red line” that they now actively seek to impose.

Hold no illusion, Britain is not an exception. Churchill thought of using chemical weapons against Nazi Germany and earlier was involved in their deployment in the 1917 battle of Gaza and the 1919 aerial attacks on Bolshevik soldiers. He was candid about his enthusiasm for the humanitarian potential of this new weapon: “Gas is a more merciful weapon than [the] high explosive shell, and compels an enemy to accept a decision with less loss of life than any other agency of war.” France, Britain, Germany, the US, none seemed very concerned when private companies helped Saddam Hussein to construct the chemical weapons arsenal used in the Halabja tragedy. France, Britain, Germany, the US, none seemed very concerned when private companies helped Saddam Hussein to construct the chemical weapons arsenal used in the Halabja tragedy.

The OPCW, the institution responsible for upholding the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), is only the latest effort to regulate and ban chemical warfare. Its role in gas attacks, sometimes misunderstood, is not to point a blaming finger, but rather to analyse and identify the kinds of weapon that have been used. The issue of responsibility, instead, is shared by the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism, an organisation that was set up in 2015 in response to chemical warfare in Syria. It was prevented from continuation in late 2017 when the Russian UN delegation blocked its mandate. The organisation, however, even with a mandate, seems relatively powerless.

The state of Israel, one of the biggest offenders of chemical warfare, never ratified the CWC, allowing it to deploy phosphorus in its 2014 Gaza campaign. It is ludicrous to imagine that the west would bomb Israel, or Saudi Arabia, another state known for its use of chemical weapons in Yemen. Only last year, the US-led coalition used phosphorus in the Battle for Mosul.

The image of poisonous gas clouds and its terrifying effect on respiratory failures historically has played a major role in placing chemicals and poisonous weapons central to laws on warfare. The gassing of people is considered exceptionally inhumane and officially is presented as a categorical “red line” dividing good from evil.

This belief now threatens to trigger an escalation with unpredictable consequences. What is often forgotten, however, is that many of the governments that historically have deployed chemical weapons are the same that now try to uphold this truth.

The need to ban chemical weapons, both nationally and internationally, should not be posed as a question. However, neither should a ban be used selectively to provoke new wars.


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