(New York) – The United Nations Security Council should urgently impose sanctions on the Syrian government for chemical weapon attacks in Syria and refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. In a report issued on August 24, 2016, a UN-appointed investigation attributed two chemical weapon attacks to the Syrian government and one to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which is already under UN sanctions.
The Security Council will consider the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) report on August 30.
The 95-page joint inquiry report addresses nine cases related to the use of chemical weapons in Syria between 2014 and 2015. The Security Council should renew and expand the inquiry’s mandate to ensure continued investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria with a view to identifying all those responsible and deterring any further use.
“Now that a UN investigation has officially identified responsibility for several chemical weapon attacks in Syria, the focus should turn to bringing those responsible to account,” said Balkees Jarrah, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The chemical weapons issue will only be closed when those who ordered and executed these atrocities are convicted and behind bars, and their victims compensated.”
The joint inquiry found that Syrian military helicopters dropped bombs containing chlorine in at least two attacks during the 2014-2015 period. Human Rights Watch investigations into both cases concluded that the evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government forces used toxic chemicals dropped in barrel bombs.
The inquiry also found that ISIS used sulfur mustard gas in an attack on areas held by armed opposition groups in August 2015. In a 2013 resolution approved after a Sarin chemical attack in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus killed hundreds of civilians, the Security Council agreed to impose measures under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter if chemical weapons were used in Syria.
No mechanism currently exists to ensure criminal justice for countless grave abuses in Syria, including the use of chemical weapons, Human Rights Watch said. Syrian authorities and non-state armed groups have not taken any meaningful steps to ensure credible justice for past and ongoing crimes in violation of international law. The failure to hold those responsible to account has fueled further atrocities by all sides. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Security Council to urgently give the ICC a mandate as a crucial first step toward accountability.
International efforts to ensure justice for serious crimes in Syria have proved elusive. In May 2014, Russia and China blocked a UN Security Council resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the ICC. More than 60 countries co-sponsored that resolution, and 13 of the council’s 15 members voted for it. The years since the failure of that resolution have been characterized by ongoing atrocities by all sides in Syria. The Russian and Chinese governments have no plausible basis to oppose Security Council actions to ensure impartial accountability in Syria, Human Rights Watch said.
On August 7, 2015, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2235, establishing the JIM to “identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organisers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons.” At the time, Russia said the establishment of the JIM would close the gap in identifying those responsible for the use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria. The United States emphasized that “[p]ointing the finger matters.”
The report marks the first time that a UN-backed investigation has blamed specific parties for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. However, the JIM is not a judicial body and lacks the authority to hold those responsible accountable. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had earlier undertaken a fact-finding mission in Syria, but it was not charged with attributing responsibility for any incidents involving the use of chemical weapons it documented.