Syria and the Serendipity of Outrage

Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind – Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The idea of a moral community, of mutual and reciprocal moral obligations that bind all of humankind, is foundational to international law. Those that breach such obligations are sometimes said to have breached obligations owed to the international community as a whole, to have committed crimes against humanity, or even to be hosti humani generis (enemies of humanity).

For example, in 1915 the British, French, and Russians issued a joint declaration concluding that, by massacring the Armenians, the Ottoman Empire had committed “crimes…against humanity and civilization.” The Hague Convention of 1899 uses this same universal language in prohibiting methods of warfare that violate the “laws of humanity and the requirements of the public conscience.”

This rhetoric supposes the existence of a “conscience of humankind,” of universal moral values, and that those who breech these values undermine the fundamental dignity of human life. It is interesting to consider why some acts are considered to be especially “outrageous to the conscience of mankind” and how such notions of outrage relate to humanitarian intervention.

The United Nations estimates that the Syrian conflict has claimed at least 92,901 lives between March 2011 and April 2013. This is not including the many people who have been injured, subject to sexual violence and torture, or otherwise victimised. These mortality rates have been increasing steadily since the onset of the war and yet the international community has failed to move from the rhetoric of condemnation to real action to provide relief to the people of Syria.

With the apparent chemical weapons attack of August 21st it appears that the United States is now prepared to act on the basis of the need to deter the use of chemical weapons. While President Barack Obama is seeking approval from the US Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry recently stated “I can’t contemplate that the Congress would turn its back on all of that responsibility and the fact that we would have, in fact, granted impunity to a ruthless dictator to continue to gas his people.”

One might well ask whether the impunity to gassing your people differs from the impunity to kill by other means? Is there something materially different about the use of chemical weapons? With the use of chemical weapons, has the case in Syria reached some sort of humanitarian tipping point for international intervention? Are we witnessing the serendipity of outrage – a moment when outrage has reached sufficient magnitude to create an action imperative – or is there something more cynical at play?

Chemical weapons were first used in warfare in the First World War by the German forces. Official statistics show 1,176,500 non-fatal casualties and 85,000 fatalities directly caused by chemical warfare agents during the course of the war. It was the effects of these weapons – their inhumane and indiscriminate nature – that drove the creation of the Geneva Protocol in 1925, which banned the use of chemical and biological weapons. Chemical weapons, like other prohibited weapons, are said to violate the principle of humanity in International Humanitarian Law by causing superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.

The gruesome effects of Sarin gas (the chemical apparently used in the attack in Syria) on its victims are represented in the Mnemonic SLUDGE as they suffer: Salivation, Lacrimation (excessive production of tears), Urination, Diarrhea, Gastrointestinal distress, and Emesis (vomiting) before they die. Moreover, even exposure to relatively small doses of Sarin gas can lead to permanent neurological damage as well as deformity.

The recent Sarin gas attack in Syria was the deadliest incident of the war, claiming some 1400 lives. It was also the most lethal use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein murdered 5000 Kurds in Northern Iraq in 1988 with a variety of chemical agents. There is no question that such attacks are in violation of International Humanitarian Law, and all basic notions of moral conduct. They are truly, shocking to the conscience of humankind. Yet, the death of countless civilians by “ordinary” means is also something that should provoke outrage.

Research conducted by Barbara Harff shows that the magnitude of atrocities, and appropriate level of empathy, are dictated less by the number of people victimised and more by the nature of the victimisation itself (i.e. if the violence is especially gruesome).[1] This may help to explain why numerous “ordinary” war deaths have less impact that one chemical weapons attack. Perhaps such moral outrages also legitimate and necessitate intervention. A similar humanitarian tipping point was the publication of images of emaciated Bosnians peering woefully out from behind barbed wire in the Trnopolje concentration camp. Even in the age of responsibility to protect, humanitarian action in Syria has been subject to the same old debates dictated by national interest and willful blindness.

In my own research I have applied moral neutralization theory to identify several “techniques of neutralisation” used by bystanders to neutralise any perceived obligation to intervene.[2] These include:

  1. Denial of the Victim: bystanders often argue that victims are somehow responsible for their own suffering, that they brought violence on themselves, either through their own historical or contemporary violence, or through their inability to accept reasonable alternatives to violence. Apportioning the blame to all sides is also a means to avoid involvement.
  2. Denial of Responsibility: Bystanders justify their inaction by arguing that others are in a better position to intervene and are therefore more responsible for the consequences of non-intervention.
  3. Claim of Futility: Bystanders argue that to take action would be too difficult or too complicated. Moreover, intervention might require power and resources that are simply unavailable.
  4. Claim of Counter-Productivity: bystanders argue that their intervention would only make matters worse and exacerbate the humanitarian situation.
  5. Claim of Jeopardy: to intervene would be too risky and might expose the bystanders themselves to potential victimisation.
  6. Claim of Ignorance: Passive bystanders often claim that the victimisation they are witnessing is not clear, that there is not enough information available for reasonable certitude. A group of people (or perhaps even states) may also exhibitpluralistic ignorance where a subconscious decision is taken to ignore the victimisation at hand and to send cues to other bystanders that the apparent victimisation is actually going unwitnessed or not even taking place at all.
  7. Denial of Humanity: bystanders may tacitly (or even explicitly) argue that the victim is not equally human so they do not deserve to be rescued. In the case of bystander states the victims are not directly dehumanised but rather are condemned through the subtle discourse of exoticism: the victims are very different from “us” and therefore our moral obligations towards “them” are diminished.

Each of these techniques has been utilised by bystanders to the Syrian atrocities. The discourse claims: it is a war where all sides have committed atrocities, other parties are better placed to intervene, or to intervene would be too dangerous. It is true that amidst the chaos of the Syrian Civil War there is undoubtedly a degree of ambiguity as to the nature of the situation and the authors of atrocities. However, in modern wars there is more documentation of atrocities than has ever been possible in the past. Such documentation has been democratised as individuals are able to record evidence of violations, material that may eventually contribute to criminal proceedings. The OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) inspectors have now returned to The Hague and it is expected that we will soon have more facts about the chemical weapons attack of 21 August.

Unfortunately, it appears that any action in Syria will be tokenistic at best. The United States may act unilaterally, bombarding Syria to prevent the future use of chemical weapons and to punish President Assad for the use of the weapons. But, even if such attacks are successful in dissuading him from using these terrible weapons in the future, they will do nothing about the underlying humanitarian catastrophe. The rhetoric of outrage must be transformed into meaningful action in service of peace. We must be wary that the current proposed act of intervention (limited military strikes to destroy chemical weapons-related infrastructure) could actually embolden Assad by effectively setting parameters for atrocity: you can commit as many massacres of your people as you wish so long as you do so using conventional weapons. The people of Syria deserve better.


[1] Barbara Harff, “Empathy for Victims of Massive Human Rights Violations and Support for Government Intervention: A Comparative Study of American and Australian Attitudes,” Political Psychology,vol. 8, no. 1 (March 1987), p. 8.

[2] Kjell Anderson, The Dehumanisation Dynamic: A Criminology of Genocide, thesis prepared for the degree of Doctor of Laws at the National University of Ireland, 2011.

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