The issue of Human Rights is both a timeless conundrum and a recent addition to the international discourse. Arguments over what can and cannot be done to any man, woman or child date back to ancient Greece, with Aristotle proposing there are varying classes of human, each with individual duties to the protection of body and property.
The modern concept of human rights however, with the notion that there are certain inalienable rights afforded to everyone, did not come into place until after the renaissance period. Note that up until 1400, there is no recorded use of the word ‘right’ in this context, and it simply did not exist in many languages.
The first documents that related to protecting civilians from oppressive government actions originated in Britain, with the English Bill of Rights and the Scottish Claim of Right in 1689. These were themselves the building blocks for the more famous pronouncements of the 18th century that outlined the rights of citizens. These were of course the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. The important qualifier in these declarations is that of ‘citizens’, meaning that if you were not considered a citizen of the country and say, a slave, there were little to no rights afforded to you.
Thus the next major addition to the idea of Human Rights (the term then coming more and more into use): the abolition of slavery. The famous example is of course the 13th Amendment to the US constitution in 1865, but the British Empire had already abolished the slave trade by 1807 and slavery altogether by 1833. The final addition before the world wars of the 20th century was the establishment of the Red Cross in Geneva, with the intention of outlining certain basic humanitarian rights for both soldiers and civilians.
Why is this significant to the current situation in Syria? It is because as these changes were implemented from the 17th century onwards, the attitude of warring factions began to shift concerning the role of civilians in war. With the professionalisation of armies it was no longer the ‘done’ thing to rape and pillage ‘hostile’ villages and towns over the course of a military campaign. The larger wars became, the more focus went into protecting civilians from the damage done by increasingly massive armies as killing became more efficient and widespread.
With the creation of the Red Cross, there was a renewed focus on protecting the lives of soldiers. A State could no longer use its citizens as masses of cannon fodder without feeling the impact of it back home.
Yet real steps to limit what weapons could justifiably be used in War were not taken until after the First World War. It was only after this massive loss of life that the international ban on poison gas was adopted.
The main issue behind the articles in the Geneva Convention is that they rely on every state following the same ideas of what a just war entails. For some, only the absolute minimum amount of military involvement is ideal, for others there are greater lengths that can be resorted to. It is also incredibly difficult to enforce an international code of human rights, which is what leads us to the case in Syria.
Up until the time of writing, the jury is out about the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, but in a conflict where a significant proportion of the casualties have been civilians it is not unlikely that one side or the other would consider using internationally banned weapons to aid their struggle.
Civil war inevitably complicates the idea of just war, and how far human rights can be preserved when citizen militias challenge state armies is a difficult question. Yet while it remains the case that chemical weapons cannot discriminate between those who wish to fight and those who don’t, they will remain unacceptable under so-called international ‘norms’.