The role of OPCW’s reports in holding Syrian regime accountable for chemical weapons attacks

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) elements in Eastern Ghouta - 2013 (AFP)

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) elements in Eastern Ghouta - 2013 (AFP)


Enab Baladi – Amal Rantisi

The findings of the second report by the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)—which identified the Syrian regime as the perpetrator of the use of chemical weapons in the city of Saraqib, Idlib countryside— stimulated a discussion about the feasibility of such conviction and the legal steps that can be taken accordingly.

In its 12 April report, the IIT concluded that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that at about 21:22 on 4 February 2018, a military helicopter of the Syrian regime air force operated by the affiliated Tiger Forces hit eastern Saraqib in the opposition-controlled Idlib with at least one cylinder, containing chlorine gas.

The IIT report draws an overall review of all the information obtained. The ITT interviewed people who were present in relevant places at the attacks’ time, analyzed samples and remnants collected from the attacks’ sites, reviewed symptoms reported by affected persons and medical staff, studied satellite imagery, and held extensive consultations with experts.

 The IIT also acquired topographic analysis of the area in question and gas dispersion modeling to corroborate accounts from witnesses and victims.

In its first report on 8 April 2020, the IIT concluded that the Syrian regime air force units used chemical weapons in the town of Ltamenah in the northern countryside of Hama, in March 2017.

The IIT stated that an SU-22 military aircraft flown by the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian regime forces dropped an M4000 aerial bomb containing sarin gas, south of Ltamenah, affecting at least 16 persons. 

Steps to hold Syrian regime accountable 

Civil rights organizations and survivors of chemical weapons attacks sought a formal criminal investigation in order to combat impunity and hold the Syrian regime accountable for the chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

On 2 March, a group of survivors of chemical weapons attacks, and NGOs including the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), with the support of the Open Society Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive, filed a criminal complaint before investigative judges in France against the members of the Syrian regime including Bashar al-Assad over chemical weapons attacks on the city of Douma and on Eastern Ghouta in August 2013, according to a statement issued by the SCM.

 The statement added that the three NGOs hope that a French investigation into these crimes will eventually result in trials and convictions of those who ordered and carried out these attacks, which claimed the lives of over a thousand people, including many children.

The three NGOs previously submitted, within the Mnemonic project to document human rights violations, a criminal complaint to the German Federal Prosecutor against Syrian officials regarding the use of sarin gas in several Syrian cities on 7 October 2020. This complaint is considered the first legal measure to hold the Syrian regime accountable for its use of chemical weapons.

 The director of strategic litigation at the SCM, Mutassim al-Kilani, told Enab Baladi that the results of the OPCW’s second report are complementary to the legal actions against the Syrian regime, which commenced in Germany, but will not end in France.

 By filing the complaint, the three NGOs aim to support the victims’ fight against impunity, prosecute war crimes, and use one pressure tool to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable. The NGO’s efforts could be a subsequent step to open up a joint structural investigation of the judicial bodies that receive several complaints, thus forming a cornerstone of the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows the formation of one court from several judicial bodies (with which the complaint was filed) to pursue suspects.

Al-Kilani pointed out that there may be a European project to present a file before the Security Council to hold the Syrian government responsible for gross human rights violation, “even though we already know that this project would not be formally approved because of the threat of vetoes by Russia and China.”

On 21 April, OPCW Member States voted to suspend the rights and privileges of Bashar al-Assad regime, including the right to vote at the organization. 

The decision came after a probe blamed Bashar al-Assad regime for chemical weapons attacks on al-Lataminah in March 2017 and on Saraqib in February 2018, according to the French AFP agency.

International reports in the context of accountability 

Human rights activist Muhammad Kuttoub explained to Enab Baladi the feasibility of international reports in the context of accountability efforts pursued against the regime by individuals or human rights organizations concerned with the use of chemicals.

Kuttoub said the viability of these reports varies according to the methodology used in structuring these reports and drawing conclusions, as well as the authorities issuing the reports and their mission.

He said that the reports issued by the OPCW’s IIT are of great importance for several reasons. First, these reports are issued by the authority competent to monitor the use of chemical weapons around the world. Second, the methodology used in investigations and building reports is rigorous and follows the highest standards. All national and international human rights entities can incorporate these reports in their accountability mechanisms.

 These reports are essential because they contain a vast amount of information and details. They clearly set out the responsibility of the Syrian regime forces as a whole, including higher ranks of command, as well as the military group that perpetrated the chemical attack, Kuttoub told Enab Baladi.

 Reports can be built upon by plaintiffs

Practically speaking, reports can be used in all existing international and national human rights accountability mechanisms, whether in Europe or elsewhere, according to Muhammad Kuttoub.

In addition, the plaintiffs can rely upon reports when lodging a criminal complaint to the European courts over sarin gas attacks in Syria, as the three prominent NGOs (the SCM, the Justice Initiative, and the Syrian Archive) that submitted complaints to the German and French courts were previously informed by the reports of international investigation authorities in preparing the complaint.

 Civil society groups, witnesses, and victims’ families contribute significantly to holding Bashar al-Assad’s regime accountable for its use of chemical weapons while the concerned countries in the Syrian issue must play this role and assume their responsibility to establish an accountability mechanism after providing them with all these reports and evidence collected over the years.

There are five international investigation bodies aimed at investigating the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. These bodies have proven the use of chemical weapons in Syria, using strict methodologies dozens of times, and all the necessary information placed before all relevant UN bodies and the OPCW. “However, we are still waiting for an actual move to hold the al-Assad regime accountable after more than eight years of repeated use of chemical weapons,” according to Kuttoub.

 Reports countering propaganda of Syrian regime and Russia

Kuttoub explained that the reports of the war-related criminal convictions by the OPCW-led international investigation bodies constitute a legal milestone in the struggle of the families of victims, witnesses, and civil society groups against chemical crimes in Syria.

This is because these reports prove the responsibility of the Syrian regime for the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity and prevent the propaganda of the regime and its Russian ally from manipulating historical facts. Thus, these reports constitute a core element in narrating the facts in the face of propaganda.

These reports also represent the one ray of hope left to the witnesses and the families of the victims who risk their lives, especially with the escalating intimidation by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally, and also with the international inability to establish an international accountability mechanism.

Do not suffocate truth

A group of Syrian activists launched the “Do not Suffocate Truth” campaign on the anniversary of the deadly chemical attack on Ghouta on 21 August 2020. From then on, the campaign’s demands that oppose the denial of the chemical massacres in Syria have continued.

The campaign’s spokesperson Thaer Hijazi said that the campaign includes activities that raise people’s awareness about the massacres committed by the Syrian regime using chemical weapons. The campaign also points to the serious risk faced by victims and justice in the wake of the Syrian regime and Russia’s ongoing denial of any chemical use in Syria, as well as its consequences. The campaign also clarifies the Syrian regime’s forms of denial and attempts to conceal the truth, such as tampering with evidence and exhuming graves.

 Hijazi explained that, the Syrian regime and its ally Russia denied   any use of chemical weapons through speeches by regime representatives at the UN Security Council, as well as through the official Syrian regime media outlets, which reported that the attacks are “fabricated accusations.”

 He explained that the primary goal of the campaign is to “expose the fake narrative of the Syrian regime and Russia, as they have always denied the war crimes they committed , alleging that such attacks were staged by the Syrian opposition. They accused international organizations that condemned the massacres of being” biased towards the West.”


 Syrian regime’s ongoing denial 

 The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates in the Syrian government commented on the recent report of the OPCW, saying in a statement, “This report has included false and fabricated conclusion which represents another scandal for the OPCW and the inquiry teams that will be added to the scandal of the reports of Douma incident in 2018 and Ltamenah in 2017.”

 The statement added that the Foreign Ministry refuses what is stated in the OPCW’s report and “vehemently rejects” that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in Saraqib or any other Syrian city.

 For his part, the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, Faisal al-Miqdad, accused the OPCW of being impartial and unprofessional because the organization has issued its second report days before its next session as a tool of pressure on member states to support the French project that will be presented at the session.

In an interview with Syrian News Channel on 14 April, al-Miqdad said, “The big lie is that this incident happened a long time ago, so why did  the OPCW released its report only five days before its next conference?”

 Al-Miqdad believes that “France is now leading the camp of hostility against Syria, insanely based on lies and deception,” and that “the OPCW deliberately issued its report at this time in order to proceed with what is called [Syria Accountability].”

 Chemical attacks since 2012

A report released by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) in November 2020 documented a total of 222 chemical weapons attacks in Syria since the first documented use of chemical weapons was recorded in the SNHR’s database between 23 December 2012 and 30 November 2020. The report confirmed that 217 of these chemical attacks were carried out by the Syrian regime forces, while the other five were perpetrated by the  Islamic State (IS).

 As the report further reveals, the Syrian regime’s attacks caused the deaths of 1,510 individuals, categorized as 1,409 civilians, including 205 children and 260 women (adult female), 94 armed opposition fighters, and seven Syrian regime prisoners of war who were being held in armed opposition prisons.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which the Human Rights Council established on 22 August 2011, stated in Item No. 128 of its seventh report issued in 2014 that “The Commission had access to the stockpile of chemical weapons of the Syrian army,” in reference to the chemical attack that took place in some cities and towns in Damascus Countryside on 21 August 2013.

 On 27 September 2013, the UN Security Council issued Resolution No. 2118 in support of the OPCW Executive Council Resolution, which included special measures to accelerate the dismantling of the Syrian chemical weapons program and subject it to a rigorous investigation.

 Resolution No. 2118 stated in its Article 21 that measures would be imposed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in case of the Syrian regime’s non-compliance with this resolution. The council also prohibited in Article 4 the Syrian regime from using, developing, producing, or otherwise acquiring, stockpiling, or retaining chemical weapons.

In Article 5 of the resolution, the parties to the conflict in Syria are obligated not to use chemical weapons. Article 15 of the resolution included the necessity of holding the individuals responsible for using chemical weapons in Syria accountable.

Under Resolution No. 2209, the Security Council strongly condemned the use of any toxic chemicals, such as chlorine, as a weapon in 2015. The council also stressed the need to hold the perpetrators of the toxic chemical attacks accountable and threatened again to impose measures under Chapter VII in the event of an increase in the use of chemicals as weapons. Fourteen council members voted in favor of the resolution, including Russia, an ally of the Syrian regime, while Venezuela abstained at the time from voting.

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