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Is there a hierarchy of human suffering that demands action in some places but not in others?

January 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

The last week has seen a major push for military action in Syria from the UK and US governments. The impetus for western involvement in the two-year civil war came from the alleged chemical attack on 21 August, for which the regime is presumed to be responsible. US secretary of state John Kerry described this use of chemical weapons as a “moral obscenity” that “defies any code of morality” and that has “shocked the conscience of the world.” David Cameron – whose bid for British involvement was defeated in a late night House of Commons vote this week – has also spoken of the “moral” dimension and the need to prevent president Bashar al-Assad from using these weapons again.

The UN inspectors have yet to announce their findings from Syria, but there is no doubt that what happened was vile. Medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres reported that the three hospitals it supports in Damascus treated about 3,600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” consistent with a chemical attack, with at least 355 of those patients dying. The news of further atrocities is coming thick and fast: a BBC programme broadcast on Thursday 29 August showed devastating images of the aftermath of an incendiary bomb attack on a school, which left children with napalm-like burns.

There are certainly grounds, then, for outrage at the actions of the Syrian regime. However, as the political rhetoric reached its peak this week, several individuals on social media began to ask the question: why is it sometimes acceptable to use chemical weapons? Many pointed out that the condemnation from western leaders on Syria is a striking contrast to their silence about Israel’s actions in Gaza in 2008.

Operation Cast Lead, as it was termed by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) was an assault on Gaza that began in December 2008. In 2009, Human Rights Watch alleged that Israel’s use of white phosphorous shells over densely populated areas of Gaza was evidence of war crimes. Like the napalm in those distressing images of Syria, white phosphorous causes severe chemical burns. They can extend down to the bone and can reignite when exposed to oxygen.

How valid is this comparison? Well, it is worth noting unlike the nerve agents which the Syrian government is accused of using last week, white phosphorous isn’t actually illegal under international law. Although it is a dangerous incendiary, it is permitted in specific circumstances, such as providing smoke cover for troops. However, there are strict limits on when it can be used, and HRW’s researchers found clear evidence that the Israeli military fired white phosphorous over dense urban areas where there were no troops (and therefore no need for smoke cover) and where it would have been possible to use alternative weapons. The UN’s Goldstone report, while stopping short of alleging war crimes, also highlighted Israel’s repeated use of white phosphorous as a serious cause for concern. Of course, there was no talk of intervention or even censure against Israel after these findings.

“Whataboutery” can be counter-productive when discussing the world’s injustices; it can be used as a way of deflecting legitimate discussion of important issues. Why talk about Syria when Israel has also committed atrocities? Why talk about Palestine when Darfur is in trouble? This can go on ad nauseum. As explained, this specific comparison is not exact, given the explicit illegality of the weapons Syria allegedly used, including sarin and mustard gas – but it is useful in terms of understanding the region’s response to western intervention. The international principle of a “responsibility to protect” is laudable in theory, but it is undermined by inconsistent application. Is there a hierarchy of human suffering that demands action in some places but not in others?

Inconsistency in western foreign policy towards the Middle East is not going to end any time soon. But noting the double standard – which most people in the region are acutely aware of and angry about – goes some way to explaining why many Arabs will be automatically suspicious of a US-led military strike on Syria, even though most do not particularly support Assad’s regime.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.