UN report affirms nerve gas used in Syria, fueling demands for accountability

UN weapons inspectors reported finding 'clear and convincing evidence' that the nerve gas sarin was used in Syria. UN chief Ban Ki-moon and rights groups say those responsible must be punished.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks to the media after briefing the Security Council on the UN chemical weapons report on the use of chemical weapons by Syria at the United Nations in New York Sept. 16, 2013. UN chemical investigators on Monday confirmed the use of the nerve gas sarin in Syria.

Demands that the perpetrators of Syria’s chemical weapons attacks be determined and held accountable are multiplying after a report by United Nations weapons inspectors released Monday found “clear and convincing evidence” that the nerve gas sarin was used in the attacks on Damascus suburbs last month.

In presenting the weapons inspectors’ report to the Security Council, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the Aug. 21 attack a “war crime” and demanded that those responsible for the attack be punished.

“The international community has a responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable,” Mr. Ban told the Council, “and to ensure that chemical weapons never reemerge as an instrument of warfare.”

A number of international human rights organizations seized on Monday’s report to demand that Western leaders stick to their insistence that a Security Council resolution expected as early as this week on Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile include measures for holding the perpetrators of the attacks accountable.

But with Russia – one of five veto-wielding members of the Security Council and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s principal supporter – rejecting the inclusion of enforcement measures in any forthcoming Council resolution, it remains unclear how and when accountability might be accomplished.

In comments to the press following his Council presentation, Ban noted that the inspectors’ mandate did not include fixing responsibility for the attacks. But he said the world would expect the Security Council to face up to its “responsibilities” to ensure that there is no impunity for what he said was the “most significant case of chemical weapons use” since Saddam Hussein gassed the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988.

“There must be accountability for the use of chemical weapons,” Ban said.

The United States and its allies, including France and Britain, had already concluded that chemical weapons were used on a large scale in the Aug. 21 attacks on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. But Monday’s report was the first confirmation by scientific experts dispatched to the site by an international body.

The US says the attack, carried out by surface-to-surface rockets, was the work of the Assad regime. Russia, on the other hand, claims the attack was carried out by Mr. Assad’s opposition.

The Assad regime, which only last week confirmed possessing large quantities of chemical weapons, is known to possess sarin in its stockpile. Under a chemical weapons deal worked out by the US and Russia over the weekend, Syria is to deliver an inventory of its chemical weapons holdings within a week.

The US and other Western powers want a Security Council resolution designed to back up the Syria chemical weapons deal to include enforcement measures, including a threat of the use of force, in the event that Syria fails to follow through on its commitment. It remains unclear, however, how far Russia will allow a resolution to go.

In Paris Monday to review the details of the chemical weapons deal with his British and French counterparts, Secretary of State John Kerry said the deal would be worthless without the teeth to convince Assad that the international community is serious. 

The chemical weapons deal “has to be enforced,” Mr. Kerry said. “If the Assad regime believes that this is not enforceable and that we are not serious, they will play games.”

Kerry also insisted that Russia is on board to impose “consequences” on Syria if it does not adhere to the deal’s strict timetable, but he did not specify what types of consequences are envisioned. “If Assad fails in time to abide by the terms of this framework, make no mistake, we all are agreed – and that includes Russia – that there will be consequences,” he said.

But that does not address the issue of accountability for the Aug. 21 attacks.

A draft resolution that France submitted to the council last week fixes the blame for the Aug. 21 attacks on the Assad regime and refers Syria to the International Criminal Court – a move that would open the way for Assad and others in his regime to be tried for the “war crimes” that Ban declared Monday have been committed in Syria.

Whether or not the prospect of ICC referral survives the Security Council’s political wrangling over a resolution will tell the world just how serious the Council is about ending impunity for gross human rights violations in Syria’s civil war, Human Rights Watch said Monday.

“Whether [Security] Council members maintain the ICC referral in the current Syria draft resolution will signal how serious they are about ending the current state of impunity not only for the Ghouta attacks victims but also for the tens of thousands of Syrians who have died at the hands of conventional weapons,” says Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch United Nations director in New York.

The UN’s Ban says the “chilling” use of chemical weapons in Syria should be “a wake-up call for more determined efforts to end the Syrian conflict.”

Ban, who will meet with Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York later this month, says he is hopeful that the meeting will produce a date for a Syria peace conference in Geneva later this year.

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