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Editorial: Chemical weapons treaty must be enforced

Published: Sunday, Sep. 8, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Friday, Sep. 13, 2013 - 1:28 pm

The current debate about chemical warfare and possible U.S. intervention in Syria poses a fundamental question, with a fundamental answer: Should any nation in the world be permitted to unleash one of the most hideous weapons in existence?

The answer has to be an emphatic “No.”

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, administered by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, took effect in 1997. One hundred eighty-nine nations have signed on to this document, including Russia and China, who are currently dragging their feet in enforcing the doctrine. Only North Korea - Syria’s main supplier of these weapons - Angola, Egypt, South Sudan and Syria are the holdouts. Israel and Myanmar have signed but have yet to ratify it. With only a few holdouts, the international community has made clear that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.

Treaties should mean something, and they mean nothing if not enforced. That’s why Congress must authorize a military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. If it doesn’t, Syria might against unleash another chemical weapons attack – possibly against a neighbor. Rogue nations such as North Korea would feel emboldened to follow in Syria’s footsteps.

Yes, you can argue that the international community has been inconsistent in responding to use of chemical weapons. Despite the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of chemical and biological weapons after World War I, the world failed to act when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons during Iraq’s war with Iran, and in fact, the United States actually assisted Saddam during the time of these attacks. It also failed to act when Saddam killed thousands of Kurds with these weapons in 1988.

That’s all the more reason to act now. Had the United States and international community responded forcefully to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, we might have deterred despots like Syria’s Bashar Assad from doing the same.

Why, you may ask, is use of chemical weapons unacceptable and indiscriminate use of conventional weapons in Syria – murdering tens of thousand of people – OK? Obviously, it is not OK. Yet there are limits to what the United States can to prevent civil wars and the bloodshed unleashed by conventional weapons. What the Chemical Weapons Convention seeks to do is prevent a heinous weapon from being part of the everyday toolbox of modern warfare. Use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable. Use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. International treaties banning unconventional weapons are not an endorsement of conventional ones. They are merely an attempt to stem the spread of weapons that, in the wrong hands, could unleash unimaginable terror and loss of life.

Why, you may ask, does the United States have to bear the burden of enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention? It’s a good question, but it is one better addressed to Russia, China and other members of the United Nations Security Council. Because Russia and China have decided to protect their friend Assad and block any U.N. response to Syria, and because the British Parliament got cold feet in joining an international coalition, it will be up to the United States and France to serve as international leaders in this cause.

We do not take this position lightly. There are huge risks with a military intervention in Syria, no matter how limited it is. No one can truly know the full consequences in advance. It could draw the United States into a wider regional conflict. It could further destabilize the Middle East and hurt our international relations. Conversely, it could have minimal impact on the balance of power in Syria. The ideal outcome would be a military strike that leaves civilians unharmed, and prompts a negotiated settlement in Syria. But that is unlikely and quite possibly a pipe dream.

The Syrian civil war will continue, regardless of whatever President Barack Obama is planning. But if the United States is successful, the war will continue without further use of chemical weapons. That should be the goal of Congress, rather than some more grandiose plan of removing Assad from power and reordering the balance of power in the Middle East.

This is a time when no one can stand on the sidelines. Some in Congress – including those in our local delegation – are standing with the president. Others oppose intervention, and we respect that. But after President Obama speaks to the nation on Tuesday, there will be no place to hide. All members of Congress will have to vote their conscience. We hope they vote to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention.

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