13 December 2013 – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called on the international community to hold accountable those responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, following the findings of a United Nations team that such weapons were used on several occasions at multiple sites against both civilians and military targets.
“The international community has a moral and political responsibility to hold accountable those responsible, to deter future incidents and to ensure that chemical weapons can never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare,” he told the General Assembly as he presented to it the final report of the team led by Swedish scientist Dr. Åke Sellström.
“We must also do our utmost to achieve universal adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention. I urge all States that have not yet done so to sign, ratify and accede to this vital instrument without delay.” The team did not specify which party might have used the weapons in the nearly three-year old civil war between the Government and opposition fighters, since that was not part of its mandate.
Since the allegations arose, the Government acknowledged that it possessed chemical weapons, joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, and pledged their elimination. A Joint UN Mission with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was established and is overseeing the destruction of Syria’s stockpiles and production facilities.
The team, which in September found “clear and convincing evidence” of Sarin gas attacks against civilians, including children, in the Damascus area, this time reported “credible information” that such weapons were used against soldiers and civilians in other parts of the country, including in Khan Al Asal on 19 March.
But in this latter case as with three other “relatively small” incidents – in Jobar on 24 August against soldiers and civilians, in Saraqueb on 24 August against civilians, and in Ashrafiah Sahnaya on 25 August against soldiers – the release of chemical weapons could not be independently verified.
Thus in contrast to the evidence of a relatively large scale Sarin attack on 21 August in the Ghouta area of Damascus, which it visited, the team could not establish a link between victims, alleged event and alleged site at the other sites, which it did not visit, due to lack of primary information on delivery systems and environmental samples collected and analyzed under the chain of custody.
It based its Ghouta findings on Sarin found in exploded surface-to-surface rockets, environmental contamination by Sarin in the area where patients were affected, epidemiology of over 50 interviews by survivors and health care workers, and blood and urine samples that were positive for Sarin.
“I deplore in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons in Syria as an offense against the universal values of humankind,” Mr. Ban said. “The international community continues to expect that the Syrian Arab Republic will implement faithfully its obligations related to the complete elimination of its chemical weapons programme by the first half of 2014, and that it will abide by global norms on disarmament and non-proliferation.”
With well over 100,000 people already killed in Syria, mostly with conventional weapons, Mr. Ban stressed his determination to seek an urgent end to the conflict.
“Nearly half the population of Syria is either displaced or in need of urgent humanitarian assistance,” he said. “The conflict is having profound impacts on the stability and economy of the entire Middle East.
“As Syrians prepare to work for a political solution at next month’s conference (in Geneva) on Syria, I appeal to all parties to demonstrate their leadership and vision by ceasing hostilities and instead working to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people as they seek freedom and dignity. I call on the international community to do everything in its power to achieve this outcome,” he concluded.
Briefing the press later in the day, Dr. Sellström said the Mission had discharged its responsibilities as best as it could within its mandate, and using the mechanism and instruments that were available for its use.
He said the Mission had arrived at its conclusion – that chemical weapons had been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties – after investigating seven of the 16 allegations it received and reviewed. The methods used by the team ranged from interviews to the study of the epidemiological footprints to analysis of blood samples.
He was accompanied at the briefing by Angela Kane, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs; Scott Cairns, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW); and Maurizio Barbeschi, World Health Organization (WHO).
Responding to repeated questions as to who was responsible for the use of chemical weapons, the speakers emphasized that the issue was not a part of the Mission’s mandate. “I do not have at my disposal the necessary information to identify those responsible for attacks with chemical weapons that have taken place in Syria …we are a fact-finding mission,” said Dr. Sellström, adding: “We work with the Secretary-General’s mechanism, given to [him] by the General Assembly.”