Chemical Weapons and the Hierarchy of Victims

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In March 2018, Russian assassins tried to kill Sergei Skripal — a former Russian military officer turned British intelligence agent — with the Novichok chemical nerve agent at his home in Salisbury, England. Skripal and his daughter survived the attack, while a local woman died after coming into contact with the poison. The international reaction was swift and coordinated. After leading Western politicians condemned the attack, the United States, Canada, and European countries expelled dozens of Russian diplomats.

This robust international action presented a stark contrast to the absence of any reaction to the alleged employment of chemical weapons by the Sudanese government in Darfur in 2016. In fact, most people would not even have heard of these attacks until today. Amnesty International called on the international community to get involved. While some findings of the Amnesty International report needed more robust evidence, further investigations were not initiated. When the United Kingdom called upon the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to look into the poisoning of Skripal, an inspection was opened shortly after. When called upon in the case of the alleged use of chemical weapons by Sudan, the global chemical weapons watchdog remained passive (and even admitted Sudan to the executive council). How can we make sense of these dramatically different responses in the face of chemical attacks?



The norm against the use of chemical weapons has a long lineage going back to the late 19th century, and is enshrined in major international treaties, most notably the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which has 193 states parties. Yet the norm has often been broken over the last century — with few international repercussions. In recent years, the Assad regime in Syria regularly employed chemical warfare against its own citizens with minor punishment by the international community. If the institutionalized norm against the usage of these weapons has such a widespread acceptance over a long history, why do we continue to see chemical weapons attacks?

The norm against the use of chemical weapons has provided more protection for civilians in certain countries than others. Specifically, chemical weapons were employed more often against civilian populations in non-Western countries. In fact, the norm is based on a hierarchy of victims — the international community seems to be more exercised when the victims of chemical weapons attacks are from Western countries than from developing countries. This pattern undermines the universality of the norm and limits its effectiveness. Chemical weapons attacks against civilians in the non-Western world are characterized by impunity as they generate ineffective and inconsistent third-party reactions. The major powers need to hold all perpetrators that use chemical weapons accountable in order to make the norm a global one. One cannot praise the universality of a norm when, for example, it values British lives more than the Sudanese. 

A Conditional Norm 

Scholar Richard Price argues that the rise of the norm against chemical weapons emanated from the perception that they posed a special threat to civilian populations. The anti-gas norm did not find acceptance because of the inherently abhorrent nature of chemical attacks. Nor did it arise because chemical weapons lacked military utility. Ironically, the absence of any intentional gas attacks against civilians during World War I contributed to the widespread perception that civilians were defenseless vis-a-vis these weapons. Price also notes that from the beginning the norm was based on a division between “civilized” and “uncivilized” zones. In the latter, not only were inhibitions against the use of chemical weapons weaker, but third-party responses to such uses were also less robust.

As a result, throughout history, governments fighting in “uncivilized” zones had strategic motives to continue to use chemical weapons against civilian populations. In an article in War on the Rocks, Luke O’Brien argues that states facing popular insurgencies or hybrid threats — such as Spain during the Rif War in Morocco (1921 to 1927), Italy during its invasion of Ethiopia (1935 to 1936), and Iraq against the Kurdish rebellion during the Iran-Iraq War (1980 to 1988) — used chemical weapons to gain a strategic advance and undermine popular support for their adversaries. Our research also suggests that chemical weapons act as a “force multiplier” when employed against civilian populations supporting armed insurgencies. That pattern was evident in counter-insurgency campaigns conducted by colonizing European states in the early 20th century and Middle Eastern states in later decades. At the same time, O’Brien suggests that the force of the norm against chemical weapons was evident because these weapons were used so secretively and limited in their scope and intensity. However, this does not explain why the international community did not do more to respond to these attacks once it knew about them.

When one accounts for all instances of state use of chemical warfare since World War I — including lesser-known cases such as the Dersim rebellion in Turkey (1937 to 1938), the North Yemen Civil War (1962 to 1970), and the Portuguese colonial wars in Africa (1970s) — it’s clear that international responses to chemical weapons attacks have been inconsistent and likely shaped by the location of attacks and the identity of victims, reflecting the hierarchical order of world affairs. The absence of cases of chemical weapons use against citizens of Western countries suggests that states feared how the international community would react to breaking the norm against chemical warfare.

Certain groups that are considered outside the civilized order remain more vulnerable to these attacks than others. Some lives experience greater violence, leading to decisions and actions in protection of certain groups but not others. This bifurcated pattern was most pronounced during the colonial wars of the early 20th century, but it continues to shape international responses to chemical weapons attacks. While Price offers an optimistic view in a recent article on Syria, we argue that the norm remains conditional in contemporary times. The disheartening finding suggests that the international community often fails to take actionable measures. 

A History of Inaction

There is a disconnect between harsh verbal condemnations of chemical weapons attacks and the hollow responses that inevitably follow. European powers stayed silent when Spain used mustard gas during the Rif War in Morocco in the 1920s despite their knowledge of the chemical attacks. Not only that, but at times they even favored the use of chemical weapons. In the words of Winston Churchill: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. … I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.” When Italy employed chemical attacks against Ethiopians, leading members of the League of Nations made no effort to punish the colonizing government. The perceived inferiority of the Ethiopians in the eyes of Westerners made their lives dispensable. Throughout the conflict, Ethiopians were described as being vicious, uncivilized, multiracial barbarians. In fact, the Italians explicitly referred to allegations of Ethiopian atrocities to justify their gas warfare. Similarly, the Allied powers’ reaction to the Japanese employment of chemical weapons in China was muted, reflecting the notion that the norm was malleable in uncivilized realms of warfare. Japanese leaders’ view of the “inferior races” of the Asian mainland was not a secret. During the Tokyo trials following the end of World War II, no Japanese official was put on trial and punished for the employment of biological and chemical weapons in China. The United States prioritized the advancement of its own chemical program over moral inhibitions or concerns about holding Japan accountable.

Imperial powers were not the only ones that relied on chemical weapons against weaker but resilient opponents. Authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Iraq employed chemical weapons with near impunity in the late 20th century. Nevertheless, the international response tended to be muted. For example, the United States was aware of Egyptian use of phosgene and mustard agent bombs in Yemen in the late 1960s but preferred to issue a low-key formal critique by the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Even though the agency was the official department responsible for arms control matters, Washington’s condemnation would have been more forceful had it been issued directly by the secretary of state or State Department. The United States was careful not to raise the issue forcefully because it had used herbicides in Vietnam itself. As for Iraq’s chemical warfare against Iran and its own Kurdish citizens in the 1980s, the United States continued to prioritize its relations with the country and consistently espoused a position that both Iran and Iraq were responsible for chemical weapons attacks. This was despite the fact that there was no conclusive evidence that Iran actually used such weapons in a systematic manner. Yet the U.N. Security Council resolutions (582, 612, and 620) asked both sides to observe the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and refrained from accusing Iraq directly. By including Iran, the Security Council generated a false moral equivalence and failed to hold the Iraqi regime accountable for its chemical warfare.

The New U.S. Administration and the Norm Against Chemical Weapons Use

The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 codified the norm against the production and use of chemical weapons. With the demise of the Soviet Union, which promised the dawn of a liberal world order, the United States was a driving force behind the convention. It is then natural to ask whether the United States remains committed to the convention and is willing to mobilize the international community to take action against chemical warfare. This question becomes particularly salient with the election of President Joe Biden, who has promised to stand “up for democracy and human rights around the world” and to renew U.S. global leadership.

Biden has argued that the United States and international community have a moral duty to respond to the use of chemical weapons. He is a strong advocate of the chemical weapons norm, arguing that “those who use chemical weapons against defenseless men, women, and children should and must be held accountable.” In 1998, he condemned Saddam Hussein’s possession of chemical agents and advocated military action against him. As the ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee in the late 1990s, he was instrumental in the release of the Chemical Weapons Convention for a vote on the Senate floor, leading to its eventual ratification by the United States. More recently, he took a hawkish approach in response to Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons by encouraging President Barack Obama to strike Syria.

Biden also committed to hold the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable in response to the poisoning of Navalny by a chemical agent in August 2020. The international response thus far, however, has been limited to verbal condemnation — or, in some cases, silence. Prominent members of the international community have called the attack “shocking” (NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg) and “completely reprehensible” (U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot), and spoke of the need “to ensure justice” (U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson). To be fair, Germany, Poland, and Sweden did announce the expulsion of Russian diplomats in response to the jailing of the opposition leader. The Biden administration called for Navalny’s release. However, these reactions are not in direct response to the use of a Novichok agent (which was officially banned in 2019) against Navalny but tit-for-tat expulsions after Russia kicked out three European diplomats. Sanctions imposed by the European Union earlier this week were in response to Navalny’s imprisonment, not the use of a chemical weapon. At the time of the poisoning in August 2020, plans for the completion of the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project continued apace and President Donald Trump did not comment at all.

The slow response to the Navalny case was in stark contrast to the instant diplomatic measures to isolate Russia after the Salisbury attack. The expulsion of diplomats then was in direct response to the use of a chemical weapon. Since the latter poisoning took place in the United Kingdom and Skripal worked for British intelligence, the international response was swift, confirming a hierarchy of victims. Since the norm can be viable only if it does not differentiate on the basis of victims’ identity, the usual favoritism that Western countries show for their nationals should not play a role. There is an evident gap between the aspiration to have a global chemical weapons norm and the enforcement of such.


There is a general deep revulsion to the use of chemical warfare. Yet, the use of chemical weapons has often caused little to no punitive measures with a long-term effect. While the Chemical Weapons Convention does continue to have a restraining effect, the norm itself has never been universal. Civilian populations at the margin of the international order remain vulnerable to attacks with little recourse by the global community. Biden promises to take action and renew U.S. leadership on the norm against chemical weapons use. Given the history of limited punitive action in the age of chemical weapons — usually marked by strong words of condemnation followed by inaction — the Biden administration’s preparations to sanction Russia in response to Navalny’s poisoning are welcome.

To maintain the credibility of the norm against chemical weapons, their every use should be met with punitive action, not mere verbal condemnation. That can take the shape of implementing economic sanctions, ensuring diplomatic isolation, or supporting investigations by the International Criminal Court. Cooperation among Western powers is crucial to signal international resolve regardless of the victims’ identity. We urge the new Biden administration, which is promising a more internationalist foreign policy, to lead the international community and enforce the norm globally.



Doreen Horschig is a Ph.D. candidate in security studies at the University of Central Florida, a 2021 Center for Strategic and International Studies Project on Nuclear Issues Nuclear Scholar, and the incoming Roger Hale fellow with the Ploughshares Fund. She studies nuclear policy, specifically public opinion and counter-proliferation, as well as norms of nuclear and chemical weapons. She has work published as scholarly articles in Defense and Security Analysis and Third World Quarterly and political commentaries in The Conversation, Inkstick Media, and Duck of Minerva.

Güneş Murat Tezcür (Ph.D., University of Michigan) is a professor who holds the Jalal Talabani Chair of Kurdish Political Studies at the University of Central Florida. He is a social scientist studying political violence, identity, and movements. His articles have appeared in many scholarly journals such as American Political Science Review, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy Analysis, International Studies Perspectives, Journal of Peace Research, Perspectives on Politics, Law and Society Review, Nationalities Papers, Party Politics, Politics & Gender, and Political Research Quarterly. He is also the author of Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey (2010) and the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Turkish Politics (2021).

This article builds on the academic publication “A Conditional Norm: Chemical Warfare from Colonialism to Contemporary Civil Wars.” The full article can be found in Third World Quarterly.

Image: Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

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