Breakthrough against chemical weapons

For the first time, an agency enforcing an international treaty directly blames a government for a gas attack on civilians. Now the world must act on Syria’s violation of global norms.

White Helmets/Reuters TV
A girl looks on as people in Douma, Syria, are inspected and cleaned after an alleged chemical weapons attack on April 8, 2018.

One of the world’s most popular treaties is the Chemical Weapons Convention, supported by 193 states. Last week, the agency charged with enforcing the treaty achieved a historic first. It directly attributed a series of poisonous gas attacks on civilians to a particular government – Syria’s – holding it accountable for violating a global norm against such an indiscriminate tool of war.

The 82-page report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did not receive much attention. The world is currently focused on a biological threat, COVID-19. Yet the detailed investigation of the Syrian military’s use of sarin and chlorine gas in 2017 is a breakthrough in how the world deals with the most dangerous substances. If leaders are now being held responsible for stopping the spread of the coronavirus, surely the Syrian regime can be held to account for inflicting deadly gases on innocent people during the country’s long civil war.

Both Europe and the United States are eyeing new sanctions on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to stop further attacks in opposition strongholds. Past efforts by the West have been stymied at the United Nations by Russia, a close ally of Syria. With this new report, however, Russia’s obstruction tactics may be weakened.

Enforcement of the chemical weapons treaty has been uneven but generally successful. The OPCW has verified the elimination of 97% of the world’s declared chemical weapons. Now those types of weapons remaining in Syria need special attention by the international community.

Over the past century, as humans have tried to understand, use, and control the physical world, the more they have also expanded their understanding of their moral responsibilities. A key one is the universal right to life for innocent people during a conflict, enshrined in international agreements. Weapons of mass killing have no place in such a world. Pinpointing blame for their use is a giant step in that direction

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