Chemical weapons justice for Syria

OPCW-men-at-work-in-SyriaThere appears to be agreement at the international level that those who employ chemical weapons should be punished. But in the Syrian case it has been clear that this does not equate to a guarantee of swift prosecution. In a new journal article, Brett Edwards and Mattia Cacciatori examine the emergence and politicization of the chemical weapon justice agenda.

The chemical weapon norm has been repeatedly violated by parties in the Syrian civil war. The gross violation of such an internationally-sacrosanct norm would appear to provide clear impetus for collective action; including criminal justice. After all, chemical weapon issues have received heightened attention as compared to other war-crimes. Chemical weapon atrocities are also subject to a comparatively well-developed set of international instruments.

Yet, the diplomatic discourse on this matter has been particularistic and impotent. Most recently, a specially developed attribution mechanism (the Joint Investigative Mechanism) became the victim of disagreements, which had dogged the initiative since its inception. This leaves us currently, in a situation which borders on farce: all sides agree that chemical weapon attacks have continued to take place; all sides agree punishment is important; and all sides are apparently eager to take action on this issue. Yet collective action between all major powers against impunity, even on this narrow issue, seems a bridge too far.

It is clear, that the apparent deadlock on the issue of chemical weapon justice, centres at one level on a situation in which veto powers in the UN Security Council have committed to differing accounts of who is behind chemical weapon use in Syria. Whether this reflects a genuinely-held consensus on the issue within intelligence communities and in the higher echelons of government is beyond the scope of our analysis.

It is also clear that selective outrage has been the norm, in the context of a broader bloody and vicious civil war. In our paper we argue there is a need to take into account more than cynical patronage alone to understand the politics surrounding this issue. Analysis needs to go beyond narrowly construed strategic conceptions of the drivers of public diplomacy.

That is to say, while it is clear that quests for justice have undoubtedly been made sub-servient to other state interests during the conflict, as well as broader struggles to define the international order, justice as a value and a concept still matters in diplomacy; and has helped define the scope of the politically desirable and possible in this area. This is in the sense that justice has informed decision making in both national and international forums. In laying out our argument, we point to areas of agreement, disagreement as well as practical initiatives particularly in areas such as war-crime documentation, multilateral attribution processes and prosecution.

Our study is presented as a historical case-study as part of an attempt to point to key contingencies, moments, path-dependencies and re-current patterns of behaviour. Our central argument is that there have been substantive disagreements between states on the issue of justice, which reflect broader positions on transitional justice. However, justice initiatives are tightly intertwined with other drives and interests of states.

This has contributed to a situation in which where has been a partial stalling of the justice agenda in relation to chemical weapons. However progress toward ensuring some form of accountability on the issue was made through a number of distinct formal international mechanisms and through civil-society evidence collection, curation and archive systems during the period studied.

Our findings helps contextualise events in Spring 2017, which led to U.S. airstrikes against the Syrian regime. They help us understand the structures of the disagreements within the UNSC and OPCW in particular, which have served to motivate, but also curtail initiatives to ensure accountability for those who employ chemical weapons. Including the work of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (which was terminated in the context of a split UNSC at the end of 2017), work under the auspices of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the OPCW Fact Finding Mission; the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on International Crimes Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic as well as the recently established International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons.

Brett Edwards is a lecturer in security and public policy at the University of Bath. Mattia Cacciatori is a lecturer in conflict and security at the University of Bath. They are authors of “The politics of international chemical weapon justice: The case of Syria, 2011–2017”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. It is available here.

How Human Rights Watch Tried to Suppress a Targeted Killing Norm

14203284_10153734268660894_3046983579658798280_nThe United States has been persistently trying to build support for its case that its targeted killings should be considered legal. Human Rights Watch has been actively trying to resist this effort, with varying degrees of success. This clash offers us deeper insights into how the global rules of the game are determined.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently stated, “It’s long past time for the US to assess the legality of its targeted killings, as well as the broader impact of these strikes on civilians.” HRW has doggedly resisted U.S. efforts to normalize what has long been taboo: the killing of specific individuals outside conventionally understood battlefields.

International relations scholarship tells us a lot about how human rights groups try to introduce new ideas to improve the human experience and how states attempt to thwart these efforts.  But it tells us less about the inverse: Namely, how human rights groups aim to impede state-led campaigns to expand their ability to act in the global arena.

My recent article explores the ways in which HRW, a prominent member of the anti-targeted killing network, strove to do just that. My article demonstrates how HRW initially tried to entirely suppress the emergence of a targeted killing norm by demanding the United States halt its denials and admit to the practice. HRW also named and shamed the United States and its allies for violating human rights and sovereignty norms.

Then came bin Laden’s death, which was a watershed moment in changing global opinion about this practice, from one which largely opposed it to a tepid, and perhaps temporary, tolerance of it. This change in global opinion contributed to a change in how HRW resisted targeted killings. It switched strategies by focusing on suppressing the emergence of an unbridled norm, one that might clash with deeply entrenched protections afforded to state sovereignty and human rights.

For instance, it sought to limit the number of US actors engaged in targeted killing by pushing for the end of CIA participation in the program.  It also pressured the United States to be more transparent about civilian deaths in a bid to restrict the practice and hold it accountable for “collateral damage.”

By showcasing this contestation between norm champions and norm suppressors, the article also further refines Finnemore and Sikkink’s exemplary norm life cycle model, highlighting the dynamism in global normative debates. Normative content is not static, remaining unchanged once its advocates take it up. It is subject to modification as a result of the battles waged over its prescriptions and parameters throughout the norm life cycle. These conflicts have the potential to both strength and weaken norms.

In my article, I also emphasize that normative death and regress is a possibility at any stage in this model. Normative ideas can fail to emerge. Even well-established norms are vulnerable to attacks which may eventually lead to their demise. Furthermore, there is nothing inevitable about the normative journey. Just as entrepreneurs can help their ideas advance through the norm life cycle, norm suppressors can stall their progress and move them backwards.

Additionally, I illustrate how similar state and non-state actors act, both as advocates for new ideas and resistors to those ideas. Among other things, both sets of actors effectively deploy frames to attract supporters and weaken their opponents. They also comparably form alliances to further their objectives. Furthermore, I argue that norms scholars should study “bad” norms, norms that widely differ from their rights-protecting counterparts that dominate the scholarly landscape. Doing so is not only more faithful to a neutral understanding of norms (shared understandings of appropriate behavior in a given situation), but will also help us understand a wider range of political phenomena like the current global rise of right wing populism, regulatory moves to control cyberspace, or the growing push to limit or abolish gay rights.

Studying norm suppression not only fills noteworthy gaps in the scholarly corpus, but also helps us better unravel intriguing puzzles like why some norms fail to emerge and others find more success. These insights allow us to better understand how norms operate in the global arena, significantly contributing to theoretical and policy-making debates.

Betcy Jose is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Colorado Denver. She works on issues related to global norms, international humanitarian law, and civilian self-protection. She has published in Critical Studies on Terrorism, International Studies Review, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, Foreign Affairs, World Politics Review, and Duck of Minerva. She is currently working on a book manuscript exploring contestation in armed conflict norms to be published in 2018. Her Twitter handle is @betcyj.

Israel and the Gulf States: Towards a Tacit Security Regime?

blog_israel_gulfThe nuclear threat posed by Iran has brought Israel and the Gulf States closer together. This nascent tacit security regime allows these countries to address the common threat while sidestepping the more intractable issue of Palestinian statehood.

Israel and the Arab Gulf States do not have diplomatic relations; indeed, some do not even recognize Israel as a state. However, shared concerns of Iran have, since 2006 brought these erstwhile foes closer together. These relations, short of an explicit alliance, are an expression of realpolitik rather than shared values or of deep intimacy. However, the Israelis, Saudis and Emiratis, underpinned by shared perceptions of threats to be countered and interests to be realised, have been cooperating on security related matters for some time.

For Israel and the Gulf States, the nuclear deal with Iran singed in July 2015 has done little to curb Iran’s regional conduct or indeed its longer term nuclear ambitions. Another motivation that bring the sides closer relates to disagreements with the Obama administration over its Middle East policies and deep concerns that in the long run their main security guarantor will lessen its commitment to their security and further decrease its military and diplomatic leverage across the region.

Although relations between the sides warmed up in recent years, they are not new. For example, Oman and Qatar, whether it was to find favour in the eyes of the Americans or to anger the Saudis, established official relations, albeit partial ones, with Israel. Israel opened missions in both countries, but the second intifada in 2000 and Operation “Cast Lead” in Gaza led to their closure. Now, however, it seems that Saudi Arabia in particular is more willing to acknowledge its ongoing dialogue with Israel, if only to test how its public will react to more overt relations. It already got the attention of Iran and Hezbollah.

This new openness that carries with it a heightened political symbolism, is gradually breaking a long-held taboo that any Saudi, let alone one identified so closely with the ruling family, could ever appear in public with their erstwhile foe. These days, one does not have to look hard to find opinion pieces by senior Israelis or Saudis in each other media outlets. State-run media in the Gulf appears to be softening its reporting on Israel, running columns floating the prospect of direct relations, quoting Israeli officials, and filling its news holes with fewer negative stories on Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. The outspoken Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was also very candor speaking about the startling relations of Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, and the Jewish state and noted that “For the first time, Saudi Arabian interests and Israel are almost parallel … It’s incredible.”

Faced with crumbling Middle East state order, Israel is, again, actively looking to form ties with states and non-state actors, some even former enemies. While in the past they stood in the shadows of others, the Gulf states too have adopted a more assertive foreign policy needed to confront regional changes. It remains unclear, however, if the two sides will be willing to take the same foreign policy risks, this time towards each other, to realize the full potential of their relations.

The fact is that the shared antipathies towards Tehran does not preclude competition or divergent interests pursued in other fields. Gulf States, have strongly supported the recent adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 regarding Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Furthermore, Saudi officials make clear that unless Israel is willing to engage seriously with the Arab Peace Initiative and with it, tangible progress towards realising Palestinian self-determination, overt ties with Jerusalem will hardly move beyond the symbolic handshakes at academic symposia. Netanyahu too remains hamstrung, politically as well as ideologically by a domestic constituency unwilling to accept substantive territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

The hierarchy of threat in favour of Iran trumped any immediate desire among the Gulf states to push the Arab peace initiative, however signalling it’s still “on the table”. Furthermore, at the end of 2015, the most senior cleric in the Kingdom, Shaykh Abdulaziz al-Shaykh stated that ISIS was in reality an adjunct of the Israeli army. Such statements emanating from such an authoritative figure are indicative of the current boundaries of the relationship on the Arab side.

Internal constraints on all sides will continue to determine the type and intensity of external engagement. Indeed, neither side is willing to pay the price needed to realize the strategic potential inherent in their relations. Both sides are benefiting from the advantages of covert ties without having to pay a political price for pulling them out of the closet.

This nascent tacit security regime between Israel and the Gulf states has, for the most part, been shaped by its lowest common denominator, the perceived threat from Tehran, while sidestepping perhaps the more intractable issue of Palestinian statehood. Whether, overtime, the contours of the regime can foster the confidence building measures that will be required to reach a formal treaty satisfactory to all sides will, in truth, be the real test of its leverage beyond the immediate purchase of hard security. For now, all concerned remain the best of adversaries.

An attempt to change force such relations from the shadows would undermine what has been achieved so far but even so, there is a wide range of policy options between full diplomatic relations and a total lack of contact, and the actors involved can and indeed have taken advantage of this. Israelis in particular have increasingly taken the opportunity to express in public forums the interests shared between Jerusalem and what Major General Herzi Halevy, Head of Israeli military intelligence, referred to as “pragmatic Sunni countries” and the opportunities therefore to be realised.

Israelis and Arabs alike hope that the Trump administration will reverse the Obama-era policy of leading from behind. But if Trump follows suit and makes good on his pledge to Make America Great Again, beginning at home, Washington’s Middle East allies could find comfort in their secret, under the-table relations. Those already become an important template for understanding shifts in alliances and regional security systems, across the wider Middle East and beyond.

Clive Jones holds a Chair in Regional Security (Middle East) in the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University, United Kingdom. Yoel Guzansky is Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. They are the authors of “Israel’s relations with the Gulf states: Toward the emergence of a tacit security regime?”, Contemporary Security Policy, 38, forthcoming. It is available here.