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Don't let Assad sign the Chemical Weapons Convention on Syria's behalf

Allowing Bashar al-Assad to sign an international treaty on behalf of Syria further legitimises his brutal regime.

Last Modified: 29 Sep 2013 14:47
Joshua Meir Freedman

Joshua Meir Freedman is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University.
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Recognition by the international community allows Assad to seek military aid from other countries, contends Freedman [Getty Images]

On September 12, Syria's Foreign Minister sent a notice to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) of his government's decision to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The OPCW, and the UN Secretary-General as the depositary of this treaty, should have rejected this request. To allow President Bashar al-Assad to sign the convention on behalf of Syria endorses his position as the leader of the country, a move which is not only symbolically important for Assad himself, but also affirms the coveted legal status which separates his regime from those in the opposition.

The Assad government does not need to sign this treaty in order to give up the large chemical weapons arsenal he has now admitted to possessing. However, there are two reasons why he might like to do so anyway.

First, once you've been coerced into abandoning your chemical weapons through the threat of air strikes, as Assad appears to have been, signing a treaty prohibiting their use is a low-cost gesture towards internationalism. As important as the CWC is for the norm against chemical weapons, US coercion and Russian diplomacy are doing the majority of the legwork in this case.

Second, signing an international treaty - whatever its content - allows Assad to engage in the quintessential act of statecraft, reaffirming himself as Syria's only legally recognised government, in what a year ago appeared to be a crowded field of his competitors.

Denying Assad the opportunity to sign the Convention would not have in itself led to the collapse of his government, but it would have affirmed the principle that a regime cannot claim the right to rule based on its application of brute force against its own citizens.

Delegitimising Assad's regime

The international community has spent the last two years trying to delegitimise Assad's regime, in part by making rhetorical commitments to recognise Syria's opposition as the country's "legitimate representative". To date, over 30 countries have recognised the Syrian opposition in this capacity. This includes the six-member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, France, Turkey, Britain, and the United States. While symbolically important, such efforts fell considerably short of removing legal recognition from the Assad government.

This has created a disconnect between who the international community recognises as Syria's legitimate representative, and who they recognise as having the legal authority to act on behalf of the Syrian state. The recent move by Assad's government to join the CWC exacerbates this tension. While Syria's accession to the CWC may present itself as a political victory for the standard against chemical weapons, the OPCW should have more seriously reflected on whether it is indeed progress to allow Assad to act on behalf of a state he is widely considered of having lost the legitimacy to govern.

Assad remains the only legally recognised government in Syria, and in this capacity he has the legal standing to enter into and sign treaties on behalf of the Syrian state. This standing, however, is dependent not only on Assad's ability to effectively control the territory he purports to govern, it is also dependent on the willingness of external states and organisations to recognise his legal status. By denying Syria's accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention under Assad's tutelage, the OPCW would have been able to deny Assad's legal right to behave as the Government of Syria in the international arena. It should have embraced this possibility.

The alternative would be to respect the conventional notion that as long as Assad controls the capital of his state, regardless of how repudiated his rule is, both within Syria and beyond it, he is entitled to all the legal rights and duties of statehood. While exercising legal non-recognition through the denial of CWC accession may be unorthodox, the broader practice of government non-recognition is not without precedent or significance. It is precisely because the international community appears unwilling to have their political recognition of the Syrian rebels inform their judgment of Assad's legal status that has, to-date, allowed Assad's regime to operate with a considerable sense of impunity.

Coveted 'legal recognition'

With legal recognition, Assad's regime can continue to accept large shipments of conventional weapons from his Russian patrons. Similar attempts to arm the Syrian rebels by the United States or any other foreign entity would be categorically illegal under international law, a precedent set in the Nicaragua case three decades ago. Likewise, as Syria's sovereign representative, Assad has the power to provide legal cover for foreign agents and states wishing to militarily intervene in the country's civil war on his behalf. The Syrian opposition may have the coveted international title of Syria's "legitimate representative", but they have no parallel legal capacity to request US military support against what remains of Assad's legally-recognised government in Damascus.

Assad has lost enough domestic and international legitimacy to warrant calling his legal status into question. Denying Assad the opportunity to sign the Convention would not have in itself led to the collapse of his government, but it would have affirmed the principle that a regime cannot claim the right to rule based on its application of brute force against its own citizens.

Joshua Meir Freedman is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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