OPCW-UN Investigation on Chemical Weapons in Syria Issues Second Report

On 10 June 2016, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon transmitted the second report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) on chemical weapons use in Syria to the UN Security Council. The JIM was established by the United Nations in August 2015, under the auspices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations. Its mandate was “…to identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors, or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons, including chlorine or any other toxic chemical, in the Syrian Arab Republic…”

The JIM is not the only international body dealing with the issue of chemical weapons use in Syria. The country is a former chemical weapons possessor state, which acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in September 2013 and whose declared chemical weapons arsenal was successfully eliminated in 2015 as a result of unprecedented international cooperative programme. That programme, under the monitoring of the OPCW-UN Joint Mission in Syria, achieved great successes despite the fact that Syria was in the midst of a bloody war (and still is). See more in the article “Syria’s Chemical Weapons Destruction: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead,” Arms Control Today, December 2014 (http://www.armscontrol.org/ACT/2014_12/Features/Syrian-Chemical-Weapons-Destruction-Taking-Stock-And-Looking-Ahead).

Even before Syria became a state party to the OPCW, the UN was compelled to get involved in investigations about reports on possible uses of chemical weapons in that country. In 2013, the Syrian government and armed rebel groups traded accusations of CW use. At that time Syria was off limits to the OPCW, leaving only one instrument available to the international community to apply: the Secretary General’s Mechanism to investigate alleged uses of chemical and biological weapons. After several months of preparations, and endless discussions in New York about which alleged sites to investigate, a group of experts representing the UNSG Mechanism finally arrived in Syria in August 2013 – only to be shocked by the most dramatic and wide scale chemical attack yet, in Damascus’ suburbs, which took the lives of more than one thousand people. The experts quickly confirmed that this 21 August attack involved the use of sarin – one of the most lethal chemical warfare agents, though they were not in a position to say whether the perpetrators were government forces or the armed opposition groups.

But the tragic days of August 2013 triggered a chain of top-level diplomatic moves, which resulted in Syria’s accession to the CWC and a ground-breaking US-Russian agreement on chemical disarmament in Syria – both took place on 14 September and formed the basis for subsequent decisions of the OPCW and the UN Security Council on this issue.

Yet, reports from Syria on the use of toxic chemicals as weapons did not stop, and the OPCW established the Fact Finding Mission (FFM) to look into the matter. The Mission confirmed several cases of such use, including the use of chlorine (a dual use chemical with extensive uses for industrial and other peaceful purposes, which is produced all around the world). But, again, FFM was not mandated to assign responsibility for the use of chemicals as weapons. That gradually led to an agreement on the need for a parallel mechanism aimed at establishing responsibility for the use.

The OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism was established almost a year ago (see UNSC Resolution 2235 of August 2015) and to date has produced two reports – on 10 February and 10 June 2016. The reports show that the JIM is not substituting or replacing the OPCW’s FFM – its work is based on the latter’s findings and aims at producing a follow-up to them. JIM is selecting specific cases of use identified by the FFM, and conducts a different kind of research in order to establish the guilty party. So far the JIM has been focusing on documented cases of chemical weapon use in seven Syrian cities (Kafr-Zita, Al-Tamanah, Talmenes, Qmenas, Sarmin, Binnish, and Marea). They were selected on the basis of specially developed criteria, such as “severity (deaths, casualties, etc.), the delivery method and munition, and the quality and quantity of data and information about the incidents.”

At this time, the JIM team is operating out of the United Nations in New York City, the OPCW in The Hague, and in Damascus. It has collected over 6,000 pages of material from the OPCW FFM and elsewhere, over 850 photographs and 350 videos, many witness accounts, forensic materials, and continues to conduct additional interviews. Its one-year mandate runs through September, 2016, but most observers assume it will need additional time and funding to reach conclusions on which individuals, groups, and/or governments are responsible for these attacks in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and international law.

Dr. Paul Walker, director of the Green Cross Environmental Security and Sustainability (ESS) Programme, commented that: “the work of the OPCW-UN JIM will be very important for holding accountable those individuals and/or governments who have used chemicals as weapons, in direct violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Such egregious violations of international law cannot be allowed to go unpunished today.”

The February and June 2016 reports of the JIM are available by clicking on the links below.

OPCW JIM Report February 2016

OPCW JIM Report June 2016