UNSC Approves Panel to Investigate and Assign Blame for Syria Chemical Weapons Attacks

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Sept. 10, 2015 – A new UN panel will be established to investigate chemical weapons attacks in Syria and to determine who is behind such attacks.

The three-person panel was proposed by Ban Ki-moon late last month and approved by the Security Council on Thursday.

Its mandate is “to identify to the greatest extent feasible, individuals, entities, groups or Governments who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons, including chlorine or any other toxic chemical.”

The panel which will coordinate with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is a result of Resolution 2235 - adopted early last month – that called on Ban to submit to the Council a proposal for a Joint Investigative Mechanism involving the United Nations and the OPCW.

In February this year the OPCW fact-finding mission, established in 2013 after the use of Sarin gas in Syria, said that it had found  “with a high degree of confidence” that chlorine had been used as a weapon in Syria in the villages of Talmenes, Al Tamanah, and Kafr Zita from April to August 2014.

The OPCW fact-finding mission does not have a mandate to determine responsibility for chemical weapons attacks.

The new panel will consist of an assistant secretary-general and two deputies with a political office in New York, an investigative office in the Hague, and a planning office also in New York.

There have been almost 60 reported incidents of the use of chemical weapons in Syria since 2012, according to information compiled from UN reports. A majority of attacks involve the use of chlorine gas and have been directed at areas not under the control of the Assad regime. There have been other allegations that ISIS have used mustard gas in attacks against Kurdish areas of Syria and that other forces have also used chemical weapons.

Besides chlorine, mustard and sarin, there have also been reports that the chemical Agent 15 was used in attacks.

The letter from Ban Ki-moon on forming the panel to investigate and assign blame for chemical weapons attacks is published in full below.

Res 2235 Mechanism

UN Inspectors Confirm Chemical Weapons Use in Syria

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Dec 12, 2013 – UN inspectors investigating allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria issued their final report on Thursday confirming use of chemical weapons in Syria in one “clear and convincing” case and reported on four more cases where there is credible evidence that chemical attacks took place.

The team investigated seven sites and concluded that sarin gas was used in the Aug. 21 incident in Ghouta, ”against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale.” The inspectors had previously confirmed this on Sept. 16. In four more incidents, including an attack in Khan Al Asal in March, the investigators collected evidence that ‘suggests” is “credible” or is “consistent with” the use of chemical weapons.

The full report is below.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

(photo/OPCW)

Final Report of UN Inspectors Investigating Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria.

Half of Syria’s Chemical Warfare Agents to be destroyed in Norway – Report

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update: Oct 25 – In a statement on its website, Norway’s ministry of foreign affairs says it won’t destroy Syria’s chemical warfare agents: “due to time constraints and external factors, such as capacities, regulatory requirements, Norway is not the most suitable location for the destruction of Syrian chemical warfare agents.”

Oct. 20, 2013 – Up to 500 tons of Syria’s stockpile of sarin gas is set to be destroyed in Norway pending agreement by Oslo.

Norwegian state broadcaster NRK reported on Sunday that an internal UN memo it obtained shows that the five permanent members of the Security Council along with Albania and Belgium have been asked to destroy Syria’s chemical warfare agents.

But Norway, home of the Nobel Foundation that last week bestowed its annual peace prize to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has been asked to destroy up to half of the estimated 1,000 tons of chemical agents thought to be in Syria’s possession. 

A UN Security Council resolution passed on Sept. 27 set mid-2014 as deadline for destruction of Syria’s entire chemical arsenal.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

photo/opcw

Libya Case Provides Lessons for OPCW Inspectors in Syria

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OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü speaks to reporters after announcement that the organisation had won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize (photo/opcw)

Oct 11, 2013 – When Libya joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in January 2004, Muammar Gaddafi declared to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that the country possessed some 1,400 tonnes of chemical agents and precursor chemicals, more than 3,500 chemical weapons munitions, as well as three production facilities.

Almost ten years later, two of the production facilities have been demolished, the third one converted to produce pharmaceuticals, while the declared munitions have been flattened by bulldozers – but only about half the stockpile of chemical agents and precursor chemicals have been destroyed, according to the OPCW.  

That makes the proposed mid-2014 deadline for the newly minted Nobel Peace Prize winners to verify the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal seem ambitious at the very least – the Assad regime is reported to possess about 1,000 tonnes of agents and precursor chemicals.

And something else that the Hague-based organization is sure to keep in mind as it tackles the Syria operation is that Gaddafi lied to the OPCW in 2004 and it was only after his downfall that the new government in Tripoli in November 2011 discovered previously undeclared stockpiles. 

There’s little reason to trust Assad’s declarations at this stage – just days before admitting his regime possessed chemical weapons, he denied that it possessed those same weapons.

But the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) includes a mechanism whereby any state party can initiate a challenge inspection if it suspects non-compliance by another member. This is where the UN Security Council comes into play. Resolution 2118, adopted on Sept. 27, states that OPCW inspectors must have “unfettered access to and the right to inspect, in discharging their functions, any and all sites, and by allowing immediate and unfettered access to individuals that the OPCW has grounds to believe to be of importance for the purpose of its mandate.

Failure to do so calls for a Chapter VII resolution. It would be beyond credibility for Russia or China to veto a resolution that would call on a state party to honor its treaty commitments.

The OPCW has now given Libya until the end of 2016 to complete destruction of its chemical weapons program, after it missed the original April 29, 2012 deadline. CWC members Iraq, Russia and the US have also not yet completed destruction of their chemical arsenal while Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan have not joined the treaty.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

UN Chemical Weapons Report Will Confirm Sarin Gas Used in Aug. 21 Attack

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EXCLUSIVE: Sept. 16, 2013 – The report of the UN chemical weapons investigators due to be released Monday morning in New York will confirm that sarin gas was used in the August 21st attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

The report will say that that there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the nerve agent sarin was fired from rockets into the area.


On Sunday evening in New York, the UN photo Twitter feed released an
image that showed the first page of the report that was handed to Ban Ki-moon by the head of the UN investigation team, Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom.

A close-up of the photo reveals that the inspectors’ report that “the environmental and medical samples we have collected, provide clear and convincing evidence that…rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used.”

The report will be presented to the UN Security Council as well as the UN General Assembly on Monday. While the US and Russia has agreed on a deal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, the admission by Syria that it possesses these weapons and the report of their use is bound to further calls for the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. 

A 1988 resolution following confirmation that chemical weapons were used by Iraq in its war against Iran compels the Security Council to act if there was any future confirmation of the use of these weapons ‘wherever and by whomever committed.’

Denis Fitzgerald

Photo: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Will Ban Ki-moon’s words be used to bolster US case for strike against Assad?

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For many months, it has been evident that President Assad and his Government have lost all legitimacy.” – Ban Ki-moon, June 7, 2012

Sept. 5, 2013 – These words from the UN secretary-general could be used in arguments to justify a US strike against targets inside Syria by the United States in the coming weeks.

The UN charter prohibits military action against another member state unless authorized by the Security Council or in self-defense. 

But the US has argued that the Assad government has lost legitimacy, and they have the words of Ban Ki-moon to back them up.

The secretary-general is appointed by the General Assembly at the recommendation of the Security Council and the question of whether he is a secretary or a general is open to interpretation, that’s to say how much weight do his words carry. Here is the UN charter’s vague description of the role of the secretary-general.

As this ASIL article by Kenneth Anderson points out, saying a government has lost legitimacy is a political statement not a legal statement but the US “might go a step further and say that the Assad government is no longer the legitimate, lawful government of Syria, and argue that it uses force not against UN member state ‘Syria,’ but rather against the illegitimate Assad regime and in collective self-defense of the Syrian people.”

While such a claim will be contested, not least by Russia, who could argue that “the Assad government meets essentially all the formal requirements of international law to be the legal government,” a number of countries including the six countries comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council have recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and the 22-nation Arab League has given Syria’s seat to the SOC, against the objections of Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon. Britain, France, Italy and Spain have also recognized the group as a legitimate representative.

One way around the legitimacy question would be a General Assembly vote on who should represent Syria at the UN, though the US is thought to be unwilling to establish such a precedent should countries unfriendly to Israel consider a similar move in the future with regard to Palestinian representation.

Ban said today in Russia that he has taken “note of the ongoing debate over what course of action should be taken by the international community” regarding the allegations of chemical weapons use and that “all those actions should be taken within the framework of the UN Charter, as a matter of principle.”

- Denis Fitzgerald

photo: UN photo/Eskinder Debebe

UN Security Council in Emergency Meeting over Alleged Chemical Weapon Attack Near Damascus

August 21, 2013 – The UN Security Council are meeting in an emergency session 3pm ET Wednesday over allegations that chemical weapons have been used in an attack near Damascus early this morning local time. 

The reports of a chemical weapons attack come as UN inspectors probing the use of such weapons begin their first week of work in Syria. 

The inspectors are mandated to investigate whether chemical weapons have been used, not who may have used them. But if they confirm that proscribed chemical weapons have been used in a targeted and large-scale attack, as the opposition are reporting, suspicion will immediately fall on Assad forces who are known to have these weapons and the means to deliver them.

- Denis Fitzgerald