At the centenary of chemical warfare, a visit to Flanders’ World War I battlefields

YPRES, Belgium – Beautiful vistas and bright sunlight cannot blind the visitor to the pain of this place.

This place is Flanders Fields, the name given to the part of west Belgium, close to the French border, that saw intense battles and horrendous casualties during World War I. This town – Ypres in French and Ieper in Flemish, but called “Wipers” by British WWI soldiers – played a central role. So too nearby Passchendaele/Passendale. Both towns were leveled, and like many in the region, were rebuilt in the old manner after the war ended.

During the war, upwards of half a million persons died in this area alone.

Our visit to Flanders Fields occurred on the 4th of July. Memories linger, and were sparked again by today’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1st large-scale use, in Ypres, of chemical weapons; mustard gas, to be precise. It was the 3d compound to be attempted, after chlorine and phosgene proved less reliable as lethal weapons, according to our tour guide, Raoul Saracen, a retired history teacher. Initial efforts to fight back against chemicals also were crude: before the development and widespread distribution of gas masks, Canadian troops resorted to breathing through kerchiefs soaked in ammonia-rich urine.

The cruelty of chemical warfare did not stop its use. Recording other places where chemicals have been used was a signpost in Langemark, the cemetery where German soldiers (including several with whom I share a surname) are buried. Tokyo, Japan, Halabja, Iraq, and Ghouta, Syria, receive mention, though more recent gassing sites in that last country have yet to be added.

The thousands of headstones in the many Flanders Fields cemeteries of course give pause. So too the cramped trenches, still on display at Sanctuary Wood Museum.

Yet it was a different site that stole my breath – the “dressing station,” a kind of field hospital, at Essex Farm Cemetery. The station’s cement-bunker cells were small, dark, and saddening, a truly concrete reminder of the scourge of war.

 

Arms Trade Treaty reaches 4/5 mark

Following a raft of ratifications this week, the Arms Trade Treaty is 4/5 of the way toward entry into force.

Paying-the-priceDepositing their instruments of ratification on Tuesday were Australia, Austria, Belgium, Burkina Faso, Jamaica, Luxembourg, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Samoa. They join 30 other countries that’ve become full members of the treaty since its adoption by the U.N. General Assembly on April 2, 2013. Ten more joinders are needed for the treaty to take effect.

In its 28 articles, the Arms Trade Treaty provides for states parties’ regulation of traffic in a range of arms, from battle tanks to light weapons. (Prior posts available here.) As indicated by the Control Arms poster above, regulating the latter is a principal aim of treaty proponents. (image credit)

Among the 5 permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (among them major arms-exporting states), Britain and France have ratified. The United States signed last September, but the treaty has not been presented to the Senate for consideration. China has not signed; Deutsche Welle reported this week:

‘China has indicated that it would consider signing if the US ratified, which is unlikely to happen.’

And in late May, the Voice of Russia reported that the Russian Federation would not sign, for the following reasons:

‘Russia considers this document to be not completely thought through. It also discriminates against the Russian military-industrial complex.’

Despite US caution, another ratification for ICC crime-of-aggression amendments

Animated-Flag-BelgiumThe global push to make the aggressive use of armed force a crime punishable by the International Criminal Court picked up another supporter this week.

Belgium deposited its ratification of the Kampala amendments to the ICC Statute on Tuesday, thus becoming the 12th ICC state party to support the amendments, which, as previously posted here, here, and here, define the crime and set out the paths by which persons suspected of responsibility for aggression may be called to account before the ICC.

Pursuant to the compromise reached at the 2010 ICC Review Conference in Kampala, Uganda, the amendments may not take effect before 2017, and then only after a further vote and the ratification by at least 30 states. Belgium’s joinder this week means the ratifications halfway point is near. Indeed, a tally of pledges made by other states both before and during this month’s annual meeting of the ICC Assembly of States Parties reveals that it is quite likely that the 30-ratification threshold will be reached well before 2017. (See my October post and the recent statements in the Crime of Aggression Twitter feed.)

usflagBut that was not the only crime-of-aggression news this month. Also at the Assembly meeting, just five days before Belgium deposited its joinder, the most vocal of ICC nonparty states weighed in: the United States’ top international criminal justice diplomat urged states not to make the crime of aggression punishable. That diplomat – Ambassador Stephen J. Rapp, head of the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice – concluded his November 21 address to the Assembly by stating:

‘Another challenge with which the international community needs to grapple involves the crime of aggression.’

He made clear that U.S. statements against the amendments, made just after the end of the Kampala conference, still held:

‘The United States continues to have many concerns about the amendments adopted in Kampala, including the risk of these amendments working at cross-purposes with efforts to prevent or punish genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes—which provide the very raison d’être for the Court.’

And he urged a rethinking of the endeavor:

‘The States Parties were wise to create breathing space by subjecting the Court’s jurisdiction to a decision to be taken after January 1, 2017. The international community should use that breathing space to ensure that efforts to ensure accountability for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes can be consolidated and that measures regarding the amendments requiring attention can be properly considered; …’

With that, Rapp concluded:

‘… and it is our view that States should not move forward with ratifications pending the resolution of such issues.’

His exhortation appears not to have moved some states, including some of the United States’ NATO partners – among them, Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Luxembourg, and Slovenia, which already have ratified, as well as Croatia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain, which reportedly are working toward ratification.

Rather quiet in this debate are 2 states parties that belong to NATO and also hold permanent seats at the U.N. Security Council. How Britain and France proceed remains to be seen.