On 4 April a suspected chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government took place in the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province. The attack killed at least 60 people, including 11 children. Eyewitness reports, videos and photographic evidence appear to show victims suffering from symptoms consistent with severe exposure to a nerve agent, such as sarin gas. It was also reported that hours later an airstrike targeted a local medical facility treating victims of the attack.
If verified, Khan Shaykhun would be the deadliest chemical weapons attack to take place in Syria since August 2013, when more than 1,000 people were killed in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta during a sarin attack. Despite the Syrian government agreeing to surrender its chemical weapons in the aftermath of that attack, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Joint Investigative Mechanism (OPCW-JIM), mandated by the UN Security Council (UNSC), has determined that the Syrian government has used chlorine gas as a weapon on at least three occasions since then – in Talmenes on 21 April 2014, Qmenas on 16 March 2015, and Sarmin on 16 March 2015. The OPCW-JIM also determined that the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant used mustard gas in Marea on 21 August 2015. These attacks violate international law and directly contravene UNSC Resolution 2118 of September 2013.
The prohibition of chemical weapons is one of the oldest norms of the international community, dating back to 1899. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 reinforced the strict prohibition of chemical weapons under international law. Chemical weapons remain inherently immoral, indiscriminate and illegal. The use of chemical weapons and the deliberate targeting of medical facilities both amount to war crimes.
The failure of the Security Council to act in relation to the findings of the OPCW-JIM is leading to the normalization of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Less than two months ago, on 28 February, the United Kingdom, United States and France put forward a draft UNSC resolution that would have held accountable, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, Syrian government officials and entities linked to chemical weapons attacks that have taken place in Syria since 2013. The resolution was not adopted due to Russia and China’s sixth double-veto. As the attack in Idlib demonstrates, such vetoes shield perpetrators and perpetuate a climate of impunity.
The UNSC held an emergency meeting on 5 April during which many Council members condemned the Khan Shaykhun attack and the use of chemical weapons. A draft resolution is currently under negotiation.
We urge all Security Council members to come together to uphold their responsibility to protect civilians in Syria. The international community cannot allow the normalization of chemical warfare to continue. For the sake of the Syrian people the Security Council must speak with one voice and hold those responsible for the Khan Shaykhun attack accountable under international law.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA