Russia's deputy UN envoy, Vladimir Safronkov delivers remarks during the Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria at the United Nations Headquarters, in New York, US. April 7, 2017.

© Reuters/Stephanie Keith

(New York) – Russia should not block the extension of the inquiry into who is responsible for chemical weapons use in Syria, Human Rights Watch said today.

The mandate for the inquiry, called the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), will expire on November 17, 2017, even though it has yet to investigate several alleged chemical attacks in Syria. The United States has circulated a draft resolution at the UN Security Council to extend the mandate of the joint UN and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inquiry for another year. But Russia has threatened to block the renewal, citing concerns over the inquiry’s upcoming report on one attack.

“Russia is basically holding the inquiry’s continued work hostage to its findings on a specific attack,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “There’s a word for that – blackmail.”

Thoroughly investigating these reports is crucial because they suggest a clear pattern of nerve agent use. A Russian veto would effectively prevent a credible investigation into who was responsible for this and other similar attacks.

The Joint Investigative Mechanism is expected to release on October 26 its report on an April 4 chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, a town in northern Syria, which killed about 90 civilians. While investigations by the UN-mandated Syria Commission of Inquiry and Human Rights Watch have concluded that the evidence strongly indicate government responsibility for the attack, Russian officials have claimed that armed anti-government groups were most likely behind the attack.

In a briefing on October 13, the Russian ambassador to the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, Mikhail Ulyanov, said, based on a transcript posted on the website of Russia’s mission to the UN: “We are going to review [the Khan Sheikhoun report] in most carefully to determine the quality of its work moreover since in November the UNSC will have to determine whether it is appropriate to further extend the JIM mandate. [sic]”

A Russian veto of the mandate extension would be inconsistent with Russian officials’ past statements about the importance of investigating chemical weapons use, Human Rights Watch said. Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have on multiple occasions condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria and have insisted on a full and impartial investigation of the Khan Sheikhoun attack to find and punish those responsible.

 “The JIM’s October report is the result of the impartial investigation that Russia has called for,” Solvang said. “There is no point calling for an independent investigation if you are going to kill it for reaching conclusions you do not like.”

Russia supported the creation of the JIM and the extension of its mandate in the past, but has become increasingly critical of its work after the investigation attributed responsibility for three chemical attacks in 2014 and 2015 to the Syrian government.

Russia has twice used its veto to block Security Council resolutions related to chemical weapons use in Syria. In February 2017, Russia, together with China, vetoed a resolution imposing sanctions on Syria after the JIM found the Syrian government responsible for chemical attacks in 2014 and 2015. In April, Russia vetoed a resolution condemning the attack in Khan Sheikhoun and expressing the Security Council’s determination to hold those responsible for the attack accountable.

The Syrian government’s repeated and systematic use of chemical weapons poses an unprecedented threat to the global ban on chemical weapons, which, with 192 member states for the Chemical Weapons Convention, is the strongest ban on a weapon in international law. An official investigation to identify those responsible for such attacks serves as a crucial deterrent and a basis for Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and UN Security Council action to hold those responsible for attacks accountable and prevent future attacks, Human Rights Watch said.

Other countries should uphold the norm against the use of chemical weapons by urging Russia not to block the extension of this crucial investigation. As a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Russia should ensure that it is not facilitating violations by another party to the convention, namely Syria.

As of September 15, 2017, 114 countries have endorsed the Accountability Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Code of Conduct, pledging not to vote against a credible draft resolution aimed at preventing or ending serious crimes under international law, as well as supporting timely Security Council action to address such grave abuses. Further highlighting global momentum in favor of restraint in using a Security Council veto, 96 countries support a French and Mexican initiative calling for permanent Security Council members to voluntarily pledge not to use the veto in situations of mass atrocities.

The UN Security Council created the Joint Investigative Mechanism in August 2015 “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…in the Syrian Arab Republic.” 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. An OPCW Fact-Finding Mission has the mandate to determine whether chemical weapons are used in Syria, but does not have the mandate to determine who used them.

In reports in August and October 2016, the JIM found the Syrian government responsible for the use of chemical weapons in three attacks and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) for one. The UN Security Council extended the mandate twice, in October 2016 and November 2016.

There is plenty more work for the JIM, Human Rights Watch said. In a July report, the OPCW said that the fact-finding mission was investigating the most credible allegations among 60 incidents of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria. In one of those cases, an attack near the town of al-Lataminah on March 30, five days before the Khan Sheikhoun attack, it has already confirmed the use of sarin, a deadly nerve agent. When its report is finalized, it will send the case to the JIM so it can seek to identify who is responsible for the attack.

Human Rights Watch concluded in a report in May that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons had become widespread and systematic and could amount to crimes against humanity.

Russia has been much less critical of the JIM’s finding that ISIS used chemical weapons. For example, commenting on the August 2016 JIM report that found that both the Syrian government and ISIS had used chemical weapons, the Russian ambassador to the UN told reporters that he had “very serious questions” about the two cases the investigation attributed to the Syrian government, but he was pleased the report had confirmed that ISIS had used chemical weapons. The investigation appears to have applied the same methodology to investigate all of these incidents.

“If Russia blocks the renewal of this mandate, it is hard to see how those responsible for chemical attacks in Syria would not take that as a green light to continue using chemical weapons,” Solvang said. “Blocking the renewal mandate would send a message to other members of the Chemical Weapons Convention that ignoring the ban on these weapons is perfectly fine.”