The United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) announced that he is to initiate an investigation into the allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria. The specific details of the investigation are yet to be confirmed, but it is interesting to note that it is at the request of the Government of Syria. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague will assist the investigation.
On Tuesday, March 19, reports emerged of chemical weapons use around Aleppo. As the New York Times reported, ‘Syrian government and Syrian rebels traded accusations about a lethal attack in the northern province of Aleppo on Tuesday, in which each side in the country’s two-year-old conflict said the other had used chemical weapons.’ United States officials indicated at the time that the claims should be treated with caution, if not outright skepticism. Previous allegations of chemical weapons use in the Syrian conflict were made in 2012.
The investigation, assuming it proceeds, will be the 13th UNSG investigation of alleged use of chemical and biological weapons since the mechanism was established in 1980 under a United Nations General Assembly Resolution. Investigations in Laos and Cambodia (then called Kampuchea) revolved around the “yellow rain” allegations the US made in the late 1970s and continued until the mid-1980s. Controversy still surrounds that issue, but the yellow rain in question appears not to be a chemical weapon. The mechanism was used extensively in the period between 1984 and 1988 to investigate chemical weapons use in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Two investigations in 1992, one in Mozambique and one in Armenia also occurred. A history of the mechanism and review of the efforts to update the procedure up to 2006 is freely available: Compliance Chronicles #3
As the report notes, ‘of the 12 investigations, nine were able to reach a definitive conclusion that either chemical weapons were used, or that there was no evidence of their employment. Of those that were unable to reach a definitive conclusion—Kampuchea and Vietnam in 1981 and 1982, Afghanistan in 1982 and Mozambique in 1992—the inability to conduct on-site activities in the alleged attack area and the delays between the purported attack and the launching of an investigation and/or the arrival of the investigation team were crucial factors. Of those three investigations, the ‘yellow rain’ incidents in Indochina are the best documented’
The UNSG mechanism was updated after 2006. The involvement of the OPCW will represent a first for the mechanism and a potential test for the OPCW itself. The Secretary General is within his recognized authority to initiate an investigation. Security Council approval is not required, though it is almost certain the UNSG consulted with Security Council members in advance.
Getting an investigation team on the ground quickly is a key factor: some chemical weapons are persistent and others are non-persistent. (The World Health Organization publication Public Health Response to Chemical and Biological Weapons WHO Guidance provides a good overview (pages 25-51). It is freely available.) It is important, at this stage, for the US, UK, France, Canada, and other democratic states to support the UNSG and his call for an investigation to ensure it is conducted with absolute integrity and in a timely manner.
Director, Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies (CCISS), Assistant Professor