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Chemical Weapons Investigations in Syria Must Continue

The U.N. Security Council’s failure to renew the inquiry into chemical weapons in Syria unjustly questions investigators’ important work, according to Rogelio Pfirter, former director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Written by Rogelio Pfirter Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
Members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council hold a vote on a resolution condemning April 4 chemical attack in Syria's Idlib on April 12, 2017 at UN Headquarters in New York City, United States. Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The images are heartbreaking and horrific. Children coughing uncontrollably, eyes reddened, tearful and desperate; fathers rushing to medical centers, crying with fear as they carry their suffering babies.

Last month, a report from a U.N.-appointed inquiry known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism found that militants from the so-called Islamic State used sulfur mustard in Umm Hawsh on September 15-16, 2016, and that the Syrian government used sarin in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017.

Despite these findings, the U.N. Security Council did not pass an earlier proposed resolution to renew that same investigative mechanism’s mandate. As former director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, I see no grounds to question the impartiality or quality of the investigations carried out by recognized OPCW and U.N. experts. My sincere hope is that the Security Council will reach an agreement this Tuesday to renew the inquiry before its mandate expires on November 17.

Russia and the United States were architects of the universal ban on chemical weapons in the late 1990s. In 2013, after rockets containing the chemical agent sarin killed hundreds of people – including women and children – in the suburbs of Damascus, Moscow and Washington engineered the crucial deal to rid Syria of all chemical weapons.

The OPCW, a highly regarded organization of dedicated professionals working toward a common good for humanity, a world free of chemical weapons, was given a frontline role. Alongside the U.N., the OPCW worked to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons in the midst of continued hostilities in the country. In 2013, the OPCW received the Nobel Peace Prize for its “extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons” in Syria and elsewhere. In August 2015, after a number fact-finding missions, the U.N. Security Council established the Joint Investigative Mechanism, which was tasked with identifying the individuals, groups or governments responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

The same cooperative approach is needed again today. Otherwise, efforts towards the complete elimination of chemical weapons in Syria will be undermined, and justice for the victims of chemical attacks will be denied. Concretely, the U.N. Security Council should promptly renew the mandate for investigators to continue their important work and act upon the latest report’s conclusions to ensure accountability for the perpetrators of both atrocities.

Chemical weapons are banned and justly stigmatized, and in Syria, the stakes concerning the use of this particularly cruel category of arms are too high. Invisible and odorless, they offer no warning for their unsuspecting victims. They do not discriminate between combatant and civilian. Their brutal effects include burning, blinding, suffocating and paralysis. Death is usually slow and never painless. As demonstrated in Syria, their victims are mostly innocent civilians.

For all the diplomatic failure on Syria, the U.N. Security Council’s agreement on chemical weapons has led to positive and tangible impacts on the ground. This is also true of a landmark resolution in 2015 allowing the U.N. and its partners to deliver humanitarian aid across Syria’s borders. These breakthroughs must be protected, not only because they help civilians trapped in the horrors of war, but also because they uphold some of the most fundamental norms underpinning the international order.

My experience leading the OPCW between 2002 and 2010 came with many challenges. But time and again I saw that it is possible, through multilateral action, to address effectively pressing issues related to peace and security. The prohibition on chemical weapons is a norm beyond reproach. I trust that members of the U.N. Security Council will continue to demonstrate their firm commitment to this idea in the coming weeks.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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