Chemical Weapons in Syria and the Moral Obligation to Act


by Ghassan Karamsyria chemical attack 21

Is there a moral obligation to do what is right? I imagine that most of us, one hopes all of us, would concur with the fact that if a wrong is done and if it is within ones power to right it then one must do so. This, very simply, is what Peter Singer, one of the world’s most influential philosophers has always argued for. He actually says that an application of the above principle would be sufficient to eliminate world poverty since the well off would give as much as it takes in order to bring up the level of welfare of the less advantaged to a level that is common to all. This very same principle can be applied, must be applied whenever the world is faced with a political situation where those that are in power maintain their hold on their populace only through fear, tyranny and intimidation. Yes, we do have a moral obligation to help alleviate the miserable living conditions whenever we can. It is not a choice but an obligation.

At times one has no choice but to sound redundant and even banal in an effort to make sure that one’s message is clear. With that in mind allow me to remind the readers of two popular sayings: (1) There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch and (2) deontological ethics. Based on the above what is implied is that if a loved one      commits a crime then that person should be responsible for the consequences of his/her act and that we should not hesitate in turning over that loved one, as much as it might hurt, to the authorities.

So what does any of the above has to do with the current Syrian situation? Allow me to submit that if one agrees with the above then the implications for those that have committed the violations in the case of unleashing chemical weapons in Syria are clear and severe. The first thing that this makes clear is that the personal association with the accused is not a valid excuse to shrink from ones moral obligation. In the same way that I would gladly hand over my brother to the authorities if he committed a crime then I should not let the issue of nationality or race cloud my judgment. If my government is found responsible for a set of crimes then as much as it might pain me I should actually encourage the international community when it decides to hold my government accountable. Obviously the above also rests on the idea that is justice is to be done then the guilty party will have to pay a price. The idea that “my country right or wrong” is dangerous, irrational and out of date. No one should ever want to protect a state when it violates international norms and agreements that it has signed only on the basis of patriotism. That would be tantamount to saying that my father is always right even when he commits egregious crimes.

The issue that we are facing in Syria is very simple. Chemical weapons have been used against innocent civilians and in violation of the Geneva Convention and the Treaty banning the use of such weapons. The first order of business under these circumstances is to agree that we all have a moral obligation to do whatever is in our power to hold the violators responsible for their crimes. Once that is done and it should be an easy and non contestable proposition then we have to agree on who is responsible for these illegal acts. Let me stress again, that no one wants to “punish” the innocent but once the preponderance of evidence, custody over the chemicals, means of delivery, finger prints of the delivery devices, report from the UN inspectors, intel intercepts…points rather conclusively to one party or the other then we must take action irrespective of the pain to our loved ones, our sense of patriotism, our racial identity, our religious affiliation or anything else that we can thing off. Nothing, absolutely nothing should protect the guilty.