Chemical Attacks on Syria: a blot on Principles of International Law

‘To really change the world we have to change the way people see the world.’

The United Nations, as well as the International Committee of Red Cross, has sincerely initiated efforts to achieve international peace and global security. And success lies in the fact that today there are no conventional wars which devastated masses of lives.

However, the Gulf Crisis, War between Iran and Iraq, Palestine- Israel issue as well as Syrian Gulf War are incidences which throw light on circumstances where humanitarian grounds are actually criticized and international humanitarian law has failed to establish peace. Syrian Civil War is one amongst those armed conflicts which have actually ruined the peace of civilians. Moreover, lethal chemical weapon attacks are a blot, portraying the failure of international law.

Critical Analysis of Chemical Attacks in Syria: A Grave Threat to Human Rights

The recent chemical attacks by the USA on Bassad’s territory under the shelter of humanitarian intervention have actually brought severe criticisms in the international community. This is because the stand taken by the Trump government in support with the UK, France was without the permission of the UNSC and hence these attacks were termed as illegal. In the further pages, there will be a discussion on various international norms which are actually infringed by such stands by countries.

  • Jus ad bellum and jus in bello

The purpose of international humanitarian law is to limit the suffering caused by war by protecting and assisting its victims as far as possible. The law, therefore, addresses the reality of a conflict without considering the reasons for or legality of resorting to force. It regulates only those aspects of the conflict which are of humanitarian concern. It is what is known as jus in bello (law in war). Its provisions apply to the warring parties irrespective of the reasons for the conflict and whether or not the cause upheld by either party is just. Till 2015, the Syrian crisis were not termed as a humanitarian crisis and there was no step taken to rehabilitate or fight for justice of victims.

Moreover, the strikes did not fall within the exceptions to the overall prohibition on the use of force in Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter.  This is because Syria did not consent to the use of force on its territory; the strikes were not authorized by the UN Security Council; Syria’s alleged repeated use of chemical weapons on its own population did not constitute an armed attack that would trigger a right to self-defence for any of the three countries who carried out the strikes. Furthermore, to the extent the strikes should be perceived as a countermeasure in response to Syria’s unlawful use of prohibited weapons, and thus its violation of international law and it must be noted that armed countermeasures are prohibited under the jus ad bellum.

Thus, chemical weapons conflict with the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) principle of distinction that requires parties to a conflict not to use weapons that cannot distinguish between military and civilian objectives.  In the seminal Tadíc case, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) used chemical weapons as an example of a weapon that is inherently inhumane[1].

  • Principle of Distinction

The principle of distinction specifies that combatants must distinguish themselves from civilians. As a result, combatants must neither deliberately target nor indiscriminately or disproportionally harm civilians. The definition of who falls within the categories of combatants or civilians is therefore of crucial importance in IHL. The concept of “civilian” is “defined in contra-distinction to combatants: civilians are those who are not combatants”. In essence, whoever does not fulfil the criteria of a combatant is considered as a civilian. However, the recent attack by the USA violates the principle of distinction because chemical weapon attack did not just devasted the peace of the Syrian government but also took the lives of many innocent civilians.


A right to use force to deter the use of chemical weapons would only emerge in customary international law if there is a supportive general practice among states that is accepted as legally relevant (opinio juris). However, not all countries support this hence it is very difficult, at least now, to convert this practice as customary international law. Hence, the chemical attacks by the three governments are unlawful.

ICRC and UN: Hegemony of Big Powers

Although the main aim is peace, still the two organizations have at various times have been in conflict. This is because humanitarian laws and norms have at various times manipulated by UNSC. Although this report has never come out, their conflict is visible in their working. This is because UN is sometimes hegemony of big powers. The greatest example to the argument is US intervention in Iraq and even in Syrian civil war also. So, through these instances, the existence of relevance of laws comes to question – because justice needs to be equal for all.

Missile Strikes: Humanitarian Measures or Brutal Attack on Human Rights

The United Nations is established for ensuring peace and stability at the international level. However, the veto powers to the P5 nations is not always used to fulfil the objective of UN. This is evident from the recent Syrian issue. This is because whenever UNSC tries to take stand against Syrian government it is vetoed by Russia.  Recently UNSC 2554 RESOLUTION which urges all members to ceasefire has been revoked by Russia and Turkey and hence the problem continues.

This intervention was illegitimate because it was devoid of permission of UNSC. Using force for humanitarian purposes in the absence of UN authorization will be compatible with international law if ‘there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief’; ‘it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved’; and ‘the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim[2]. But the Missile strike aimed at curbing the atrocities in Syria didn’t do much good instead it was a brutal attack on human rights.

Conclusion and Suggestions


It has become the obligation of the states to revive the international humanitarian law. Through diplomatic, economic, and political activities, states can push the parties to the conflict to comply with international humanitarian law and end the targeting of innocent Syrian civilians. Nationwide condemn to states involved in violence and economic blockades can pave a way to deter unlawful force internationally. The time has come when Syrian insurgencies and violence be termed crime against humanity and invoke universal jurisdiction in the matter because justice delayed is justice denied.

[1]  Prosecutor v. Dusko Tadic, Decision on the Defence Motion for Interlocutory Appeal on Jurisdiction, IT-94-1 (2 October 1995), paras. 120-124.).

[2] International Humanitarian Law Sri Lanka Journal of International Law, Vol. 15, pp. 3-6.


Divyanshi Shrivastava

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Divyanshi Shrivastava is a second-year student of MNLU Nagpur. She has attended various national and international conferences on law and society. Recently she has been adjudged as the best speaker in a reputed conference. She loves reading and writing. She considers law as a tool to empowerment.


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