Friday, September 27, 2013

Syrian Crisis: The Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter

Note: I am not a lawyer or an expert in international law. My only prerogative is that I received basic Red Cross training as an International Humanitarian Law Instructor, and from 2005 to 2012 taught courses for Red Cross staff and volunteers and for the public. My Instructor's certificate is now expired, and I write as a concerned citizen.

The use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria gives us a strong incentive to understand more about the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter. The relation between the two is close, yet the Conventions and the Charter apply in quite different situations.

I think we can see this by focusing on two specific questions: (1) If the Syrian government did in fact kill its own civilians with chemical weapons, has it violated international law? (2) If the U.S. government were to launch a unilateral military attack across Syrian borders, would it violate international law?

Syria and International Law

At the time of this posting Syria has not signed either the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 or the Rome Statute of 2002 that established the International Criminal Court. Syria has signed the Geneva Conventions of 1949  (though not its three Protocols added later) and also the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925.

The language of the Geneva Gas Protocol would seem definitive. It prohibits the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all all analogous liquids, materials or devices." But strictly this treaty applies to wars between states, not to armed conflicts within a state—that is, not to a civil war like that in Syria. The same is true of the Geneva Conventions, which in any case do not directly address the issue of chemical weapons.

Over the years since these treaties of 1925 and 1949, however, laws of armed conflict have evolved. Calls for intervention in situations of humanitarian atrocity are increasingly based upon what is called "customary international law": rules that are practiced as law across an extensive and representative range of nations. Customary law now exists alongside treaty law, and together they constitute international law.

In 2005 the International Committee of the Red Cross published Customary International Humanitarian Law, Vol. 1 (a second volume interpreting the first is in preparation). It is a sweeping review of national laws and practices, national military manuals, international treaties, UN resolutions, pronouncements by national and international courts, and more. The result is the ICRC's distillation of 161 rules of customary law, accompanied by elaborations and profuse documentation.

Here is the volume's rule of customary law concerning chemical weapons, together with a summary sentence:
Rule 74. The use of chemical weapons is prohibited.
State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts.
Though monumental, the ICRC study is not authoritative. It has been widely welcomed, but amidst vigorous discussions, reservations, and objections. (See Perspectives on the ICRC Study on Customary International Humanitarian Law, Cambridge, 2007.) In any case, the Geneva Gas Protocol itself has come to be regarded as customary international law, and therefore it applies to armed conflicts of all kinds, including civil war in Syria.

It seems to me that neither the Syrian government nor Syrian insurgent forces, if accused of using chemical weapons, could be convincingly charged with violating international law as established in formal treaties and conventions alone. But I believe that they could be charged with violating customary international law.

Then a court would have to decide. It could be a Syrian court, a court of another nation, or an international court, such as the International Criminal Court. First, of course, someone would have to file charges.

The U.S. and International Law

If the U.S. government were to launch a unilateral missile attack across Syrian borders, would it violate international law?

This question takes us beyond the Geneva Conventions and the ICRC. These seek to limit the ways armed conflicts can be conducted; they do not address the question of whether or not an armed conflict is justified under international law.

For the question of whether an armed conflict is legally justified, the fundamental document is the UN Charter and the principal administrative body is the UN Security Council.

President Barack Obama chairing the UN Security Council discussion of nuclear nonproliferation
September 24, 2009

The UN Charter (1945) functions as an international treaty, and all UN member states are legally bound by its articles. The thirteen Articles of Chapter VII establish rules that govern the use of armed force in response to "any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression." Specifically, the rules prohibit one country from attacking another unless (1) acting in self-defence if "an armed attack occurs," or (2) acting with approval from the UN Security Council.

In his remarks to the nation on September 10, President Obama called Syrian use of chemical weapons "a danger to our society." He spoke of the threat that Syria's chemical weapons would "over time" proliferate and threaten U.S. troops and civilians. He concluded his argument with these words:
This is not a world we should accept. This is what's at stake. And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime's ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.
In his next paragraph the President acknowledges that Syria's threat to the U.S. is not direct or imminent:
So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress [emphasis added].
I find President Obama's argument problematic. The UN Charter specifies that military self-defense is legal if "an armed attack occurs." The legal precedent behind that phrase includes also a threat of armed attack, but the threat must be "instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation." (The Caroline Case, 1842)

Thank goodness we currently have a "moment of deliberation" in which diplomacy offers the possibility of an alternative to military action. I applaud President Obama for choosing to explore this diplomatic possibility, for it seems to me that a U.S. military strike across Syria's borders without Security Council approval would violate international law.

The only justification of a unilateral armed strike might be what some experts are calling an action that is "illegal but legitimate"—that is, illegal under international law, but legitimate for compelling humanitarian reasons. (See Legality and Legitimacy in Global Affairs, Oxford, 2012.) The ICRC study of customary law addresses the possibility of such "belligerent reprisals":
Rule 145. Where not prohibited by international law, belligerent reprisals are subject to stringent conditions.
But if a military strike across Syria's boundaries in the absence of a direct or imminent threat is "prohibited by international law," as I believe it is, then illegal but legitimate reprisal would seem to become a moot issue. Again, a charge would have to be filed, and a court would have to decide.

President Obama concluded his remarks of September 10 with a claim that the U.S. is exceptional:
I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.
I believe that the best grounds for calling the U.S. exceptional is not military action. Rather, if diplomacy should fail, my government ought to acknowledge, openly and honestly, the questionable legality of a belligerent reprisal, and make its case for military action, "subject to stringent conditions," on the basis of compelling, international humanitarian imperative.

Such openness, honesty, and restraint might indeed set an exceptional example among the nations of the world.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Geneva Conventions: What Are They? What Are They Worth?

Half a million detainees and prisoners of war visited! Year after year I am astounded by the immense scope of International Committee of the Red Cross services in behalf of victims of war. These services—along with many more not mentioned in my summary above—are mandated by the Geneva Conventions, and the Conventions designate the ICRC as the chief agency to provide them. More broadly, the ICRC is the official promulgator and administrator of the Geneva Conventions worldwide.

For several years the Conventions have not received much public attention. Now the crisis in Syria has put them back in the news. But what exactly are the Geneva Conventions, and what are they worth?

What are the Geneva Conventions?

The Geneva Conventions establish rules to mitigate suffering and safeguard human life and dignity in the midst of armed conflict. They were drawn up in 1949 under Red Cross auspices. Since then the Conventions have been ratified by virtually every nation in the world—the only international treaty ever to receive such universal acceptance.

In international armed conflicts, whatever their cause or legitimacy, the Geneva Conventions give rules for protecting armed forces on land and sea who are wounded, shipwrecked, captured, detained, or for any other reason no longer taking part in hostilities. Convention rules specify protection for the personnel and facilities of medical and relief agencies; for cultural and religious institutions and the natural environment; for journalists and official peacekeepers; and for civilians swept up in war.

The Conventions declare that persons under their protection are "in all circumstances" entitled to humane treatment. All wounded and sick are to be evacuated, sheltered, and cared for. Certain acts are "prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever": the taking of hostages; violence, cruelty, and torture; "humiliating or degrading treatment and other outrages upon personal dignity." Terrorism is condemned. Punishment of protected persons is allowable only within a framework of internationally-recognized conditions guaranteeing a fair trial.

How well are the Geneva Conventions observed?

Tragically, the Conventions are often violated, both by nations who have signed them and by insurgent and terrorist groups who do not represent nation-states. We hear much more about violations than about successes. Yet day after day, year after year, the Conventions are quietly at work, restraining and protecting soldiers from extremes of violence, ensuring visits to detainees and prisoners of war, reuniting families, shielding humanitarian workers, and caring for innocent civilians.

How are violations punished?

The Geneva Conventions have no mechanism for coercive enforcement or punishment of violators. Responsibility for enforcement and punishment rests upon the international community of signatory nations.

Armed-forces personnel who are accused of violating the Geneva Conventions are prosecuted in military courts. Accused civilians, including government officials at all levels, can be tried in the domestic courts of any nation, in the International Criminal Court, or in special war-crimes tribunals—of which the best known is the Nuremberg Trials and the most recent is the UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Governments can also be charged with war crimes. Enforcement and punishment take the form of trade sanctions, demands for financial compensation, economic boycotts, seizing of financial assets, and international scorn toward a rogue or pariah nation.

What motivates nations to sign the Conventions?

Few if any nations want to be marked as rogue or pariah because they have not joined the international community of Geneva Convention signatories. Nations are also motivated by considerations of national security and self-interest. Here I summarize some of those considerations as listed in a handbook used by military judges in the United States 
(Operational Law Handbook, 2007, p.39), considerations that are shared by other nations as well:

Reasons to Comply with the Laws of War
Even if the Enemy Does Not
  • Violations of the Geneva Conventions may encourage enemy forces to fight harder and resist surrender.
  • Mistreatment of prisoners may encourage the enemy to mistreat our captured soldiers.
  • Compliance with the Conventions maintains discipline in combat and reduces the costs of reconstruction afterwards.
  • The Geneva Conventions are written into the statutes of every signatory nation, and therefore violations are criminal acts under domestic law, in some cases punishable by death.
  • Violations seriously reduce public support for military missions, both at home and abroad.

What Are the Geneva Conventions Worth?

Clearly the Conventions are worth a great deal to the half million detainees and their families mentioned in the box at the head of this posting, and to millions of military personnel, displaced persons, refugees, and relief workers who for well over half a century have experienced Convention protection and services.

The final point from the handbook for military judges, tabulated just above, suggests that worldwide public awareness enhances the value of the Geneva Conventions. Numerous commentators have concluded that public opinion is significantly influencing international policymaking in relation to Syria. (More about the Syria crisis in my next blog.)

I believe that as citizens we should be actively involved in policymaking. We can keep alert to events and weigh policy options; share concerns and opinions through our social networks; write to our newspapers and congressional delegates; sign petitions and display bumper stickers. We can vote and help others to vote. We can donate to humanitarian agencies that work alongside the ICRC in the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. I think of Amnesty International and Doctors without Borders.

The more public knowledge and support, the more the Geneva Conventions are worth. Together we can make it ever more clear to governments at home and everywhere: The whole world is watching.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Program Notes for Bach's Mass in B Minor

I prepared these program notes for a performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor by the Combined Choruses and Orchestra of Furman University under the direction of Professor Bingham Vick, April 23, 2010. My sincere thanks to Dr. Vick for entrusting me with this privilege.

Program Notes for Bach's Mass in B Minor 

Bach's massive achievement in sacred music culminates in his Mass in B Minor, completed in 1749, the year before his death. A correspondingly massive body of literature discusses every facet of the Mass: its composition and compilation, its resulting coherence or incoherence, its Catholic or Protestant character, its wealth of symmetries and symbols secreted in the score. Tonight, however, the rare gift of a live performance of the complete Mass—for which Bach’s original had to wait a century—affords us direct, sensory experience of Bach's crowning expression of faith through music.

KYRIE (3 movements)

Kyrie eleison. Bach opens his Mass by invoking the Trinity with three imposing choral statements of Kyrie, “Lord.” The orchestra then introduces the theme of a monumental five-part choral fugue emphasizing eleison, “have mercy.” The music's chromaticism, minor tonality, concentrated texture, and sheer duration (this is by far the Mass’s longest movement) express the urgency of human need.

Christe eleison. In contrast to the Kyrie eleison, Bach’s appeal to the mercy of Christ is warmly welcoming in a major key, though, following a violin interlude, a second section returns to minor and conveys its own urgency. The two sopranos suggest Christ’s uniting of divinity and humanity as Bach alternates parallel and interweaving melodic lines.

Kyrie eleison. In Bach's theology God’s provision for mercy through Christ is by way of suffering and sacrifice, and the four opening notes of this choral fugue, first heard from the basses, seem to sketch the Cross: a beginning note, up to a half step above, down to a half step below, and back again to the original note. The four-part fugue on this cruciform theme accumulates power and ends in a major chord.

GLORIA (9 movements)

Gloria in excelsis. Trumpets, tympani, and virtuosic orchestral writing express the shift from human need to divine glory. Triple meter praises the triune God. On the repeated in excelsis, “in the highest,” the sopranos eventually climb to a high B.

Et in terra pax. Without a musical break, a sudden modification of mood and meter introduces “and on earth peace.” Bach expresses this prayer for humanity in music both imploring and hopeful. Fugal lines gather spirit and, upon the words hominibus bonae voluntatis, "all of good will," end in triumph.

Laudamus te. Solo violin and mezzo soprano declare “we praise thee” with ornamented, interlacing melody. Above the soprano’s final glorificamus te, “we glorify thee,” the violin climbs up and up to a stratospheric A, three octaves above middle C.

Gratias agimus tibi. An expansive and lyrical double fugue expresses “we give thanks to thee.” Gradually trumpets and tympani add their voices in proclaiming propter magnam gloriam tuam, “for thy great glory.”

Domine Deus. In the company of a winsome flute, soprano and tenor echo one another, singing complementary texts in a duet that express the duality of “Father almighty” and “only begotten Son.” Yet this duality is also unity, and following an extended central interlude for flute, the two voices sing together on Domine Deus, agnus Dei, “Lord God, lamb of God.”

Qui tollis peccata mundi. Without pause we hear the somber words “who takes away the sins of the world” in descending triads, minor tonality, solemn tempo, and a darkening of the chorus’s range, as Bach leaves the highest sopranos silent. Above the chorus two flutes wing their hovering flight.

Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris. Bach first assigns the theme of miserere nobis, “have mercy upon us,” to a plaintive oboe d'amore, evoking occasional soft sighs from the strings. The solo voice then pours forth supplication for the mercy of Christ, “seated at the right hand of the Father.”

Quoniam tu solus sanctus. What a surprise! Bach sets “thou alone art most holy...most high” to music quite low: hunting horn, bassoons and solo bass voice. The hunting horn is traditionally associated with royalty. Might the low register of this musical ensemble, unique in Bach’s music, suggest the paradoxical humility of Christ’s royal holiness?

Cum Sancto Spiritu. To celebrate the Holy Spirit—God's divine energy, the third person of the Trinity—Bach charges his music with energetic triple meter in a surging dance of praise. An exuberant five-part fugue leads to brilliant repetitions of in gloria Dei Patris, Amen, "in the glory of God the Father, Amen," a glorious climax to the entire GLORIA.

CREDO (9 movements)

Credo in unum Deum. The tenors begin Bach’s multi-movement proclamation of the church’s Nicene Creed with a Gregorian melody long used for that purpose. Out of this theme Bach constructs a five-voice fugue of imposing clarity and confidence, a fitting introduction to Christianity’s central definition of faith: “I believe in one God....”

Patrem omnipotentem. Bach praises “the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth” in fugal writing of irresistible intentionality. In the final seven measures, the orchestra runs its full range from the lowest notes of the strings to the highest notes of the trumpet, sweeping upward through omnium visibilium et invisibilium, “all things visible and invisible.”

Et in unum Dominum. For the third time Bach chooses a duet to portray Christ's dual nature, Deum verum de Deo...descendit de coelis, “true God from true God...who came down from heaven.” This time the duet is double, with intricate interplay among oboes and violins, repeated and elaborated by soprano and alto.

Et incarnatus est. A reverential, descending motif in the violins introduces and accompanies the pervasive choral theme: a descending arpeggio, expressive of divine descent to humankind in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation ex Maria virgine, “from the virgin Mary.”

Crucifixus. The fifth movement of nine, Crucifixus is at the center of Bach’s CREDO, as Christ’s crucifixion is at the center of Bach’s faith. Over a descending, chromatic bass pattern in the orchestra, reiterated twelve times, Bach writes choral music intensely charged with chromatic tension. Then, at the very last, a miraculous modulation carries et sepultus est, “and was buried,” to a hushed ending as tender as a Pietà.

Et resurrexit. Resurrected life surges in a rousing dance. For the first time since the GLORIA Bach employs full orchestra. Amid the exultation, in an extraordinary innovation, Bach sets et iterum venturus est cum gloria, “and he shall come again in glory,” in what might be called a coloratura solo for the entire bass section.

Et in Spiritum Sanctum. Bach lightens texture to confess faith in the Holy Spirit, vivificantem, “life-giver.” This tribute to the third person of the Trinity is a trio for two oboes and bass solo, in triple meter. The setting is uncomplicated and the mood pastoral.

Confiteor. A confident choral fugue strides through the confession of faith in unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum, “one baptism for the remission of sins.” At the final occurrence of peccatorum the music slows dramatically and turns somber, leading without pause to the next movement.

Et expecto resurrectionem. “We look for the resurrection of the dead” is hushed and apprehensive. Then resurrection bursts forth in a dance of ecstatic celebration, and Bach concludes the entire CREDO with a series of florid, ascending Amens.

SANCTUS (2 movements).

Sanctus. In the biblical Sanctus of Isaiah, chapter 6, six-winged seraphs sing a threefold “holy, holy, holy.” Bach’s musical setting is a nesting of threes within sixes. A massive six-part chorus calls out in triadic groupings, proclaiming sanctus in whirling triplet rhythm.

Pleni sunt coeli et terra. With no musical break, the chorus enters upon a fugue. The full orchestra soon joins, and a lively swirl resounds until “heaven and earth” are indeed “full of God’s glory.”

OSANNA and BENEDICTUS (3 movements)

Osanna. After the Sanctus, with its full orchestra and six-part chorus, we might ask what resources remain for Bach to use in this subsequent outburst of salutation and praise: “Hosanna in the highest”? Bach’s answer: a full orchestra with eight-part chorus. The lucid architecture of Bach’s fugal writing leads to a gladsome instrumental conclusion.

Benedictus. In striking contrast to what has preceded, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” engages only three musical lines—wistful violin, tenor voice, and continuo—as if in sudden recollection that Christ’s blessedness takes the humble form of suffering servant. The final vocal phrase is abandoned by the violin, which then resumes to conclude the movement.

Osanna. In accordance with liturgical practice, Bach repeats the “Hosanna.” After the sobering Benedictus this startling recurrence of tumult seems oblivious to Christ’s impending suffering—as indeed the crowds seemed to be who cheered Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the foal of an ass.

AGNUS DEI (2 movements)

Agnus Dei. This aria for unison violins and alto, with its inconsolable chromaticism and minor mode, gives occasion for intent meditation on the sufferings of Christ as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” At one occurrence of peccata, "sins," Bach brings the music to a complete standstill.

Dona nobis pacem. For his closing movement, “ Grant us peace,” Bach returns to music he has earlier used for Gratias agimus tibi, “We give thanks to thee.” Thus Bach’s conclusion seems less an urgent petition, such as we heard in the opening Kyrie eleison, than a grateful acknowledgement of the peace presented by, and provided through, the Mass.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Chartres Cathedral and the Seven Liberal Arts

The West or Royal Portal of Chartres, sculpted around 1150 AD, brings worshippers into the Cathedral's vast and sacred space.

The left or north arch of the Portal portrays the ascension of Christ, drawn upward on a cloud by two angels while the apostles look on from below. The central arch portrays Christ seated in heavenly majesty.

The right or south arch celebrates the incarnation of God's Wisdom in Christ. The infant Jesus sits in the lap of Mary, who in turn is enthroned upon what Christian tradition has called the Sedes sapientiae or Throne of Wisdom. This tradition is rooted in the dozen or so passages in the New Testament that refer to Jesus as God's Wisdom incarnate.

The astonishing multiplicity of the Royal Portal's images is overwhelming, and many images are inscrutable even to art historians. Here let's concentrate on only one group of images from this south arch, where the traditional representation of the Throne of Wisdom takes on new and specific meaning. Uniquely at Chartres, the Throne is framed by the seven liberal arts, carved into two bandlike arches or archivolts.

Each of the liberal arts is represented by a carved Personification of the art, with a historical practitioner of the art carved immediately below. One of the practitioners (Boethius) is Christian, and possibly a second (Donatus); the others are pagan. The Personifications are all female, in keeping with the feminine gender of the Latin ars, "art."

To begin at the lower left of the outer archivolt, the practitioner Aristotle bends over his writing while personified Logic stands above him with a staff in hand. Above them sits Cicero with Rhetoric above, then Euclid with Geometry above.

Progressing through the peak of the archivolt and down the other side we find Arithmetic above Boethius, Astronomy above Ptolemy, and Grammar above Priscian (6th-century author of an eighteen-volume treatise on grammar), or perhaps it is Donatus (4th-century tutor of St. Jerome).

Grammar has her work cut out for her. Switch at the ready, she is attempting to teach two boys.
 One of them, his book akimbo, is enjoying a good pull on the curly hair of his more studious classmate.
 Some things never change.

Since the figures of Grammar and her practitioner fill the final spaces available on the outer archivolt, Music has been carved on the inner archivolt, alongside Grammar. She is occupied with her instruments of research: bells and strings. Below Music, Pythagorus her practitioner sits at his work. 

Why are the seven liberal arts arrayed on this south portal? Philip Ball suggests an answer:
It was not until the start of the second millennium after the crucifixion of Christ that the western world dared to revive the ancient idea that the universe was imbued with a comprehensible order. That notion flourished in the twelfth century, fed by an influx of texts from the classical world, preserved by the Islamic scholars and now becoming available in Latin translation. (Universe of Stone, pp.5–6)
The 12th-century masters of the Chartres School were devoted to the liberal arts as God-given resources for exploring and expressing the comprehensible order of creation. Their devotion was grounded in the affirmation of Genesis 1:
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
Other biblical books also testify to creation's order and regularity, this one with charming imagery:

       When the Lord created his works from the beginning,
          and, in making them, determined their boundaries,
       he arranged his works in an eternal order,
          and their elements for all generations.
       They neither hunger nor grow weary,
          and they do not abandon their tasks.
       They do not crowd one another,
          and they never disobey his word. (Sirach 16)

Another passage issues an enticing challenge for inquisitive students of arithmetic, geometry, and music:
You [God] have arranged all things by measure and number and weight. (Wisdom of Solomon 11)
The masters at Chartres treasured these scriptural passages. The measures, numbers, and weights they famously employed in the immense Cathedral's design and construction express their profound trust in universal and comprehensible order.

For the Chartres masters the liberal arts are manifestations of God's Wisdom and portals into God's presence. The liberal arts are not alone, however. Christ is central in the south portal, as in the other two portals as well. The Royal Portal unites sacred and secular, faith and reason, liberal arts and divine wisdom. All truth is of God.

One of the Chartres masters, William of Conches, was particularly devoted to uniting reason and faith. He anticipates the objection of any who would quote the Apostle Paul's assertion (First Corinthians, chapter 1) that "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom":
The wisdom of the world is foolishness with God, not because God thinks the wisdom of this world foolish, but because it is foolish in comparison with God's wisdom. It does not follow on that account that the wisdom of this world is foolishness. (Philosophia, I, 19).
Christians today, I believe, should be inspired by the Chartres masters to place our trust in a universe imbued with comprehensible order, and to pursue truth through the liberal arts and beyond, wherever truths may be found. We should ever be asking ourselves, Is my faith reasoning faith? Is my reasoning faithful reasoning?