The United States and the world have a long history of rebounding from disaster to bring about change and reform.
Perhaps the horrific slaughter of an estimated 1,400 men, women and children by the Syrian government’s use of lethal chemical weapons will bring about an opportunity for positive change after all.
The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, during which 146 garment workers, mostly young women who could not exit through locked safety doors, produced nationwide reforms that improved factory safety standards.
The following year, the sinking of the Titanic resulted in a number of maritime safety improvements, including a requirement for sufficient lifeboats for all passengers and a 24 hour radio watch.
Internationally, after the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004 and the subsequent tsunamis that killed almost 230,000 victims who were caught totally unaware, an international tsunami warning system was put into place.
Syria’s admission that it maintains a huge stockpile of these weapons, heretofore denied, was a first step towards a similarly positive outcome. Syria’s statement to the United Nations that it will sign the Chemical Weapons Convention is another plus.
The international norm against the use of chemical weapons, rather than being undermined by Syria’s actions, may in fact be strengthened. The negotiations underway in Geneva, Switzerland, to have Syria’s chemical weapons placed under international control, moved out of the country and eventually destroyed may well fail. But it still may be less likely that chemical weapons will be used again – at least while the international community is watching.
Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post, suggests:
Obama’s aim is solely to affirm an international norm. To this end, he already has achieved something important. He has mobilized world attention, and there is now a chance, albeit small, that he might get a process in place that monitors and even destroys Syrian chemical weapons. Almost certainly he has ensured that such weapons won’t be used again by the Assad regime.
The struggle to eliminate weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical and biological – has been difficult and long. But the Chemical Weapons Convention, despite recent events in Syria, has already produced remarkable success. The Convention has been ratified by 189 nations. Only five countries have not signed the treaty:Syria, Egypt, Angola, South Sudan and North Korea. Israel and Myanmar have signed the Convention but not ratified.
The countries agreeing to the Convention have declared 71,196 tons of chemical agents. Almost 80 percent of that total has been destroyed thanks to the treaty. The United States has destroyed about 90 percent of its stockpile of chemical munitions.
The treaty has been enforced by a strong verification system under the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. There have been over 2,600 inspections of chemical weapons sites and another 1,800 inspections of industrial sites in 86 countries.
An international campaign should be launched to prod the seven outlier states – yes, including Israel — to follow Syria’s lead and agree to the terms.
Overall, the use of chemical weapons may make it less likely that there will be another chemical weapons attack. And even if there is another attack, the world is more likely to react with more than words.