Today, civilian immunity arguably ranks among the most important norms that the global community wants to protect. And that is what makes discussions about Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons so puzzling. Much of the debate about U.S. military strikes stressed the importance of preserving the taboo on chemical weapons, which were banned in part because of their indiscriminate nature: They are difficult to control and can harm civilians who are not the intended targets.
But in Syria’s case, it appears that the Syrian regime aimed to kill civilians with its alleged chemical attack on the suburbs of Damascus last month. Hardly anyone concludes that the civilian deaths were simply collateral damage in an operation meant to take out the rebels. Therefore, examining the civilian deaths through the lens of the norm against the use of chemical weapons is wrongheaded. Civilians died because Syria violated the taboo against deliberate attacks on civilians.
Charli Carpenter offers her theory:
I wonder if the answer is that the taboo is so strong not primarily due to the specter of dead civilians, but rather the way that weapons of this particular type threaten international order and state sovereignty. If that were true, it would be less puzzling that it would provoke such a disproportionate reaction – although no less morally problematic. … [The ban is] perhaps stronger because it satisfies what Ward Thomas calls a “power-maintenance function” in international society:
Norms are not only socially constructed but also geo-politically constructed. Weapons or practices that have the potential to close the gap between the strong and weak states in international society are more likely to be restricted than those that reinforce the relative advantage of strong states; and the more directly a norm reflects the interests of strong states, the stronger the norm will be.”
By contrast, the civilian immunity norm – while admittedly foundational to the contemporary laws of war -is perhaps weaker in political practice because it is built primarily on moral principles – the responsibility of the strong to [make] sacrifices on behalf of the weak.