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(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.

A man breathes through an oxygen mask in the Damascus suburbs of Jesreen after an alleged chemical attack on August 21, 2013. © 2013 Reuters

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.
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. 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.
Balkees Jarrah

Senior International Justice Counsel at Human Rights Watch

Under its mandate, the JIM was limited to examining cases in Syria in which the OPCW fact-finding mission had determined that an incident likely involved the use of chemicals as weapons. Because the mission had only made such determinations for incidents between 2014 and 2015, the inquiry did not include the chemical weapon attack on Ghouta on August 21, 2013.

The Ghouta attack killed hundreds of civilians, including many children, making it the most significant use of chemical agents since the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in attacks on Iraqi Kurds in 1987-1988. UN experts who visited Ghouta concluded that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were used. Human Rights Watch findings strongly suggested that Syrian government forces were responsible for the attack.

The JIM was unable to determine responsibility in six cases it examined, and noted that further investigation was needed in three of those. Human Rights Watch has investigated many of these incidents and determined that available evidence pointed to Syrian government responsibility. The JIM continues to receive allegations and information about recent attacks with chemical weapons in Syria.

The Security Council should renew the joint inquiry’s mandate to allow it to continue its investigation into these and other allegations of chemical weapon attacks in Syria. Extending the JIM’s mandate would put all parties on notice that their leaders could be held liable as a matter of command responsibility for chemical weapon crimes their forces take part in, Human Rights Watch said.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria ratified on October 14, 2013, prohibits attacks that use industrial chemicals such as chlorine as a weapon. Among other obligations, each member country agrees never to “assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.” The laws of war applicable in Syria prohibit the use of chemical weapons. The use of prohibited weapons with criminal intent, that is deliberately or recklessly, is a war crime.

“Russia and China don’t have a leg to stand on by continuing to obstruct the Security Council on Syria sanctions and an ICC referral,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “The Security Council diminishes its importance if it doesn’t take strong action against demonstrated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.”

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