The First World War demonstrated the cruelty of chemical weapons and led to a ban on their use in 1925. Yet a century later, the Syrian government and others in the Syrian conflict have repeatedly used them to kill and injure men, women, and children.
This month, a deadly chemical attack on the town of Douma killed at least 42 people. Doctors described victims collapsing, gasping for breath and foaming at the mouth. In videos shared by activists, bodies of children, their mouths still foaming, lie beside those of adults.
We don’t hear directly from those who perished, nor can we truly imagine how they must have felt as the very air they breathed destroyed their lungs.
Human Rights Watch has analyzed at least 85 chemical weapons attacks in Syria – most by the government – since August 2013. Some employed sarin—the colorless, odorless, nerve agent. Most involved a readily available pale green chemical: chlorine. And ISIS has deployed a blistering agent known as sulfur-mustard gas. They all cause unspeakable suffering and death.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, whose harrowing mustard-gas and chlorine-gas deaths in the trenches of Europe inspired the ban. A Chemical Weapons Convention strengthened the ban 21 years ago, requiring parties to eliminate stockpiles and production capacity. The world celebrated when Syria, already engulfed in war, signed on five years ago.
Yet the government in Damascus has repeatedly broken its promise by deploying chemical weapons, undermining the very treaty it agreed to uphold. The governments of the United States, United Kingdom, and France blame it for the Douma attack, and conducted retaliatory strikes over the weekend. We are still awaiting a full investigation.
No government or armed group that uses chemical weapons should get away with it. Accountability—proving who committed an atrocity and bringing those responsible to justice -- is essential to stopping the use of chemical weapons.
Brazil could be a strong voice for enforcing the ban. We hold a seat on the executive council of the agency tasked with implementing it—the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The agency’s experts have concluded that Syria has used chemical weapons. Yet Brazil’s representative cast doubt on those findings and seemed to suggest, absurdly, in November that the agency should not accept testimony from victims of attacks unless they testify in the presence of alleged perpetrators.
That same month, Russia’s veto at the UN Security Council once again halted an independent investigation.
Casting doubt on the results of credible international investigations merely emboldens the Syrian government and others who have no qualms about killing and injuring civilians with toxic chemicals.
Brazil should join the call for UN Secretary General António Guterres to bypass the Security Council and appoint independent investigators to identify those responsible for the Douma attack. And Brazil should condemn Syria’s repeated violations of the treaty and press for sanctions, as well as Syria’s suspension from the OPCW—until it complies with its obligations.
A hundred years after the end of World War I, the world needs to end impunity for chemical weapons attacks. Inaction should not be an option.