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A civil defense member breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017.
© 2017 Reuters
Governments should reinforce the global ban on chemical weapons by suspending the rights and privileges of Syria, a party to the treaty that has violated it with impunity for years.
This week, states that are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) will consider a proposal for Syria’s suspension due to its non-compliance with treaty at a conference in The Hague. If adopted, the decision would bar Syria from voting at CWC conferences or serving on policy-deciding bodies at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Syria’s use of chemical weapons is the biggest implementation and compliance crisis parties have faced since its entry into force in 1997.
While this move would be largely symbolic, it is essential to remind the world of the extent and severity of war crimes by Syrian government forces. Syria should not be allowed to pretend it’s a responsible government complying with one of the most adhered-to weapons bans in history. Instead of eradicating its chemical weapons program as required back in 2013, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has maintained a secret stockpile and used chlorine or the nerve agent sarin against men, women and children on dozens, if not hundreds, of occasions while denying doing so.
Last week, the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) released a new report identifying the Syrian air force as the likely culprit behind a 2018 chlorine attack, adding to three 2017 chemical attacks it attributed to government forces in its first report.
Human Rights Watch found that the Syrian government was responsible for the majority of 85 confirmed chemical attacks. A joint UN and OPCW investigation had previously accused government forces and Islamic State militants of chemical warfare but Russia used its UN Security Council veto to end that probe.
The next step should be concrete accountability. Prosecutors in France and Germany are reviewing criminal complaints over Syrian chemical attacks for possible prosecutions under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, Moscow continues to defend its Syrian ally. Russia organized an informal Security Council meeting last week to argue against suspending Syria’s CWC rights, calling allegations that it ever used chemical weapons “groundless accusations.” French Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere aptly described the Russian event as “a new disinformation exercise,” a view U.S., British, European Union and other delegates echoed.
Governments should show respect for the treaty by taking the important step of suspending Syria’s rights and privileges. It’s the least they can do.