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Chemical Weapons Atrocities: Then & Now

2:26 PM, Aug 22, 2013 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, has expressed herself on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime in Syria. Her venue was Twitter: 

Reports devastating: 100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons. UN must get there fast & if true, perps must face justice.

Eloquent and forceful, given the limitations of the form, Ms. Power’s words recall those from another time when the aggressors were gassing innocents and appeals were made to the world’s assembled nations to … do something.

In June of 1936, the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selaisse, made a speech to the League of Nations, imploring it to take action to rescue his nation and its people who had been invaded, overrun, and occupied by Italy under the rule of Benito Mussolini whose troops had made liberal use of mustard gas against soldiers and civilians.   In the speech he told his audience that the Italians’

 … object was to scatter fear and death over a great part of the Ethiopian territory. These fearful tactics succeeded. Men and animals succumbed. The deadly rain that fell from the aircraft made all those whom it touched fly shrieking with pain. All those who drank the poisoned water or ate the infected food also succumbed in dreadful suffering. In tens of thousands, the victims of the Italian mustard gas fell. It is in order to denounce to the civilized world the tortures inflicted upon the Ethiopian people that I resolved to come to Geneva. None other than myself and my brave companions in arms could bring the League of Nations the undeniable proof. The appeals of my delegates addressed to the League of Nations had remained without any answer; my delegates had not been witnesses. That is why I decided to come myself to bear witness against the crime perpetrated against my people and give Europe a warning of the doom that awaits it, if it should bow before the accomplished fact.

The League, of course, did nothing.  This, despite the fact that Mussolini was a tinpot tyrant at the head of a pushover army.  Why else would he even need to use mustard gas against the Ethiopians?  But the great European powers – France and Great Britain – declined to act and the United States did not belong to the League and was not, in any case, inclined to get involved in far off struggles.  So, a few years later the whole world was at war. 

Mussolini’s use of gas was in clear violation of international treaties which means, presumably, that he crossed some kind of “red line.”  But he got away with it and outlived the impotent League of Nations.

Now, we have the United Nations and the United States is among its members.  

That much has changed.  

To what effect remains to be seen.

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