UN investigation launched into possible chemical weapons use in Syria

Mar 28 2013
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring
David Cliff, London
As remembered recently here on the VERTIC website, 25 years ago—on 16 March 1988—Iraqi planes attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq with poison gas and nerve agents. The assault, which took place alongside the so-called Anfal campaign of genocide then being waged by Saddam Hussein against Iraq’s Kurdish minority, left some 5,000 people dead. Thousands more were injured. Today, 25 years on from Halabja, the use (or alleged use) of chemical weapons is making headlines once again. This time the focus is on Syria, where last week both the Assad government and the rebel opposition accused each other of using chemical weapons in an incident in the north of country, near to the now mostly ruined city of Aleppo.
By the time of the attack on Halabja, the use of chemical weapons by Saddam’s regime had become more or less routine, both against the Kurds and on the frontier battlefields of its ongoing eight-year war with Iran. In Syria, this at least has not been the case, at least not yet. Even so, the introduction of chemical weapons to a conflict that is now entering its third year has long been a fear among those paying close attention to the vicious civil war for control of the country that rages on, and on.
It is a fear that is well-grounded. The Assad regime is known to have sizeable stockpiles of chemical weapons. That, coupled with the brutality shown by the regime toward rebel-held areas and those who reside in them, has centred concerns on the possibility of their use by his forces—a ‘red line’ in the view of the United States.
Their use would cross a number of legal lines as well. Syria remains a non-party to the Chemical Weapons Convention—which expressly prohibits the development, production and stockpiling and use of chemical weapons—but it nevertheless remains banned from using any such weapons by both the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which it joined in 1968, and by the prohibition of their use under customary international law.
Less attention has been paid to the possibility of chemical weapons being used by Syrian rebels, who have not widely been presumed to have access to such weaponry. And who may not—though the Syrian regime is at present claiming very publicly that they do.
The forum is the UN. On 21 March the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, announced that in response to a request from Syria he was launching an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in the country, focusing in particular on Syrian claims that rebels used chemical weapons on 19 March in the Khan al-Asal region of Aleppo province. Rebel commanders, for their part, claim that chemicals were used there on that day, but accuse the regime of doing it—not the first time that Syrian rebels have accused Assad’s forces of crossing America’s red line.
Speaking to reporters in New York, Mr Ban noted that the UN would be operating pursuant to General Assembly resolution 42/37 C of 1987—which provides for UN member states to report possible uses of chemical or biological weapons to the secretary-general for investigation—and Security Council resolution 620, of August 1988, which encourages the secretary-general to carry out prompt investigations in response to such allegations by member states. In this case, the investigation has been set in motion at the request of Syria itself, but this so-called Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use could have be triggered by a request from any UN member state.
In announcing the investigation Mr Ban noted that UN officials were working with both the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—which is mandated to cooperate with the secretary-general in cases of alleged use involving non-parties to the CWC, as set out in part XI, paragraph 27 of the convention’s annex on verification—and the World Health Organization (cooperation with which in cases of alleged use is provided for under a 2011 memorandum of understanding).

According to Mr Ban, ‘modalities’ being discussed included the mandate of the investigation and the composition of the mission, as well as ‘operational conditions including safety and security.’ These latter two will be major concerns: the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria was withdrawn last August (after just six months) due to deteriorating security conditions, a number of United Nations personnel monitoring the Syrian-Israeli ceasefire in the Golan Heights were recently captured (and later released) by a Syrian rebel group, and violence from north to south across Syria continues unabated.
If the use of chemical weapons is confirmed in Syria, then individuals could in time end up before the International Criminal Court (ICC) as suspected war criminals. According to the Rome Statute—by which the ICC was established—the use of poison or poisoned weapons, as well as ‘asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all other analogous liquids, materials or devices’ all constitute war crimes if used in international armed conflicts (see Article 8, part 2). Syria’s war is a civil conflict, of course, not an international one, but in 2010 the Rome Statute was amended so that these same provisions now constitute war crimes in the case of ‘non-international armed conflicts’ as well.
Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, however, meaning that the ICC has no jurisdiction there unless the Syria case is first referred to it by the UN Security Council. Should that happen, then any use of chemical weapons in Syria could potentially lead to individuals from all sides—government and rebel alike—being brought to the court in The Hague to stand trial for their actions.
For past VERTIC coverage of the war in Syria, see the following articles:
'Halabja 25 years on: could it happen again?', David Cliff, 7 March 2013
'Wider conflict feared as Syria's war spills into UN-monitored ceasefire zone', David Cliff, 31 January 2013
'Drawing the red line—the case of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile', Russell Moul, 10 January 2013
'Syria revisited—international law and the use of biological weapons', Scott Spence, 5 October 2012
'UN observer mission in Syria ended amidst ongoing violence', David Cliff, 30 August 2012
'Syria: international law and the use of chemical weapons', Scott Spence and Meghan Brown, 8 August 2012 

Last changed: Mar 28 2013 at 6:13 PM