Last Saturday, 7 April, a suspected chemical weapons attack took place in the besieged town of Douma. The attack killed over 70 people and injured 500 others in one of the few areas of eastern Ghouta that still remained under the control of armed opposition groups. Although the attack has not been independently verified, numerous eyewitness reports, videos and photographic evidence appear to show victims suffering from exposure to a chemical agent – including extreme respiratory distress, foaming at the mouth and burning eyes.
Since January chlorine gas has been used as a chemical weapon against civilians in eastern Ghouta at least seven times. On 10 April the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) requested the Syrian government allow its Fact Finding Mission to immediately deploy and investigate the Douma attack.
The use of chemical weapons, including asphyxiating chlorine gas, is strictly prohibited under international law and constitutes a war crime. Despite being banned for over a century and further outlawed via the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, Russia has blocked the UN Security Council (UNSC) from holding perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks accountable. On 10 April the UNSC held an emergency meeting during which Russia vetoed a draft resolution that would have established an independent mechanism to investigate chemical weapons attacks in Syria and attribute responsibility. This marked Russia’s twelfth veto of a draft resolution on Syria since 2011.
The growing normalization of chemical warfare not only poses a growing threat to all Syrians, but to all members of the international community. The OPCW Fact Finding Mission should be allowed to immediately deploy to Douma. In light of the inability of the Security Council to bridge their partisan divisions, all member states should formally request that the UN investigate chemical weapons attacks in Syria and determine who is responsible, utilizing the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and the existing “Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons.”
Following Saturday’s attack the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, declared that “the abject failure to even properly investigate each and every allegation of chemical attacks by all sides further encourages the use of such despicable weapons and undermines the legitimacy of the international legal order.” Any response to the attack in Douma should be undertaken in accordance with the UN Charter and international law.
During a second week of mass demonstrations along the border between Gaza and Israel, nine Palestinians were killed and over 1,300 wounded by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). This brings the total number of Palestinian demonstrators killed to at least 25 since the weekly protests began on 30 March. The IDF again used live ammunition on 6 April to target largely peaceful protestors. One of those shot dead was a respected journalist, Yaser Murtaja, who was wearing a clearly marked “Press” vest when targeted.
On 8 April Israel’s Minister of Defense, Avigdor Lieberman, claimed there were “no innocent people” in Gaza, which is governed by the Hamas de-facto administration. In response to ongoing concerns regarding the deliberate and excessive use of deadly force against civilians, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, issued a statement noting that the recent violence on the Gaza border could constitute crimes under the Rome Statute. The ICC opened a preliminary investigation into the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories during 2015.
The recent Palestinian protests are the deadliest confrontations in Gaza since the 50-day war between Hamas and Israel in 2014, which led to the death of over 1,500 civilians. The dire humanitarian situation in Gaza has been exacerbated by the ongoing air, sea and land blockade by Israel – a form of collective punishment for Gaza’s approximately 2 million residents. The risk of further violence only increases as protests continue and the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel and the Palestinian “Nakba” approach on 14 and 15 May, respectively.
The Israeli government must respect the right of Palestinians to peaceful assembly, and the IDF must cease using deadly and disproportionate force against unarmed civilians. In order to end the prevailing culture of impunity, all civilian deaths should be independently and transparently investigated. All parties to the conflict should work to de-escalate tensions and cooperate with the ICC.
Since Sunday, 8 April, troops from the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) have been engaged in clashes with armed militias and criminal gangs in the PK5 area of Bangui. After coming under attack on Tuesday, fighting between MINUSCA troops and local armed men resulted in the death of at least one UN peacekeeper and more than twenty PK5 residents. Earlier today, 11 April, the dead bodies of a number of PK5 residents were left outside MINUSCA headquarters in Bangui following a protest.
This violence comes as the Head of UN peacekeeping operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, is visiting CAR. It is also less than a week after the 3 April attack by anti-balaka fighters on a MINUSCA base in the town of Tagbara, in which one peacekeeper was killed and eleven wounded. Twenty-two of the anti-balaka attackers were also killed. Later that day UN peacekeepers discovered the bodies of 21 civilians, including women and children, who had been attacked and killed near a church in the town.
The latest violence demonstrates the increasingly precarious security situation in CAR where the anti-balaka, ex-Séléka militias and at least a dozen other armed groups compete for territory, power and resources. Despite the authorized deployment of more than 11,000 UN peacekeepers, an estimated 70 percent of the country is still controlled by predatory armed groups. Endemic insecurity and illegal trafficking allows for arms proliferation as armed groups benefit from revenues generated through criminality and the control of roads and mines.
Four years after its deployment, MINUSCA remains the only force capable of maintaining security in many parts of the country and civilians continue to face deadly attacks on the basis of their religious and ethnic identity.
Despite the establishment of the Special Criminal Court for CAR – a hybrid judicial mechanism that was created in 2015 to prosecute those responsible for mass atrocities – the Court is not yet fully operational and perpetrators have not been held accountable. The CAR government and MINUSCA must work together to investigate the killing of civilians and UN peacekeepers in Tagbara and Bangui and ensure the criminal prosecution of all those responsible for mass atrocity crimes and any other grave violations and abuses of human rights.