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(New York) – Russia and other United Nations Security Council members should support a proposed resolution that would impose sanctions on Syrian government officials responsible for chemical attacks, Human Rights Watch said today. The Security Council is expected to vote on the resolution as early as February 28, 2017.

The proposed resolution is in response to an October 2016 report of a joint investigation by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which concluded that Syrian government forces and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) have used chemicals as weapons, even though Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in October 2013. Russia has supported past Security Council resolutions on chemical attacks in Syria, including to demand the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program and to establish the joint investigation. Both resolutions threatened measures under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter if Syria used chemical weapons in the future. Russia has said that it will veto the resolution.

“The investigation’s clear findings that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons demand a response from the Security Council,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Vetoing the proposed resolution would undermine the most widely accepted weapons ban in all of international law.”

The resolution would impose a travel ban and asset freeze on several senior Syrian Air Force commanders and Air Force Intelligence officers linked to chemical attacks in Syria, as well as freeze the assets of several Syrian entities linked to chemical attacks. It would establish a sanctions committee and expert panel to monitor compliance with the measures outlined in the resolution. It also calls for the Security Council’s ISIS/Al-Qaeda sanctions committee to review evidence of chemical attacks by ISIS, with a view toward additional designations on that blacklist.
Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention on October 14, 2013, after chemical attacks near Damascus, most likely carried out by government forces, killed hundreds of civilians on August 21, 2013. The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of chemical weapons as well as the use of the toxic properties of common chemicals such as chlorine to kill or injure.
In April 2014, OPCW established a fact-finding mission to investigate reports that Syrian government helicopters had dropped improvised munitions containing chlorine on opposition-controlled territory. The fact-finding mission, which did not have a mandate to identify those responsible, concluded that chlorine had most likely been used as a weapon in Syria.
Following those findings, the Security Council in March 2015 condemned the use of any toxic chemical, such as chlorine, stressed that individuals responsible must be held accountable, and again threatened to impose measures under Chapter 7 in case of further use of chemicals as weapons. Fourteen members of the Security Council, including Russia, voted for the resolution. Venezuela abstained.
In August 2015, following further reports of chlorine use in Syria, the Security Council established the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism “to identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons, including chlorine or any other toxic chemical, in the Syrian Arab Republic.” All Security Council members, including Russia, voted for the resolution.
Speaking about the August 2015 resolution and referring to the chlorine attacks, the then-Russian ambassador to the UN said: “The Russian Federation decisively condemns such acts. We believe that they are unacceptable and run counter to the Chemical Weapons Convention.” The ambassador also said that the joint investigation would close the gap in identifying those responsible for the use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria.
Russia also voted to extend the mandate of the joint investigation until November 2017.
Screenshot from a video posted to YouTube on April 11, 2014 shows substantial yellow coloration at base of the cloud over Keferzita, Syria, drifting with main cloud, and color intensity appears to quickly dissipate over next 20 seconds.
In a report delivered to the Security Council in October 2016, the joint investigation concluded that Syrian government helicopters had dropped munitions containing chlorine on at least three occasions after it joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. It established that the helicopters dropping the chlorine-filled munitions had originated from two government-controlled air bases and identified the helicopter units operating from those bases. The joint investigation also found that ISIS had used a chemical warfare blister agent called sulfur mustard on at least one occasion.
Human Rights Watch published reports on the Syrian government’s use of chlorine in May 2014, April 2015, June 2015, September 2016, and February 2017. In the most recent report, Human Rights Watch found that the Syrian government forces’ use of chlorine in late 2016 appeared to be coordinated with the overall military strategy to retake Aleppo.
With 192 members, the Chemical Weapons Convention is one of the most universal international treaties on weapons. Only four UN member states are not party to the convention: Egypt and Israel, which have signed but not ratified the convention; North Korea; and South Sudan.
“The use of chemicals as weapons in Syria undermines one of the strongest weapons bans in international law as well as the Security Council’s efforts to protect civilian in the Syrian war,” Solvang said. “Russia has supported past Security Council resolutions about Syria’s use of chemical weapons and would be doing itself and the world a great disservice if it allows its political support for Syria’s government to blind it to the global danger that Syrian use of chemical weapons represent.”

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