* This post was authored by Joseph Nunn, J.D. Candidate 2019.
At the end of June, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – the international community’s chemical weapons watchdog – confirmed that the nerve agent sarin was used against Syrian civilians earlier this year. According to the OPCW report, early in the morning on April 4, military jets dropped sarin on the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykuhn. The gas killed around 100 civilians, many of whom were children or first-responders. At the time of the attack, there were no rebel forces in the town.
This is the first confirmed use of sarin in the Syrian Civil War since the Syrian government agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile in the fall of 2013.
Use of any chemical weapon is of grave concern from a human rights perspective. From the gas-filled artillery shells of World War I, to the defoliants sprayed from aircraft during the Vietnam War, chemical weapons are by their nature indiscriminate. Once released, they go wherever the wind blows them. They are weapons of mass destruction, as likely to kill civilians and the attacker’s own troops as they are to kill the targeted enemy.
Sarin, a nerve agent, is particularly deadly. Colorless and odorless, it attacks the body’s nervous system and usually kills within minutes.
The OPCW, the organization behind the report on the Khan Shaykuhn attack, is the international watchdog group created to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms control treaty that entered into force in 1997. Countries that are party to the Convention “have condemned any use of toxic chemicals as a weapon by anyone anywhere in any circumstances as a violation of international law, and have expressed their conviction that those responsible should be held accountable.” Only Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan have neither signed nor acceded to the Convention; Israel has signed, but not ratified it.
All of the countries involved in the Syrian Civil War are legally obligated to uphold the Chemical Weapons Convention, no matter what side they are on. But the use of chemical weapons implicates more than arms control: it also violates core principles of international human rights law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person,” and that “No one shall be subjected to… cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” The whole framework of international human rights law is founded on these principles. The international community has a duty to uphold them, and a responsibility to protect all people from those who would violate them.
While the OPCW report states that the attack on Khan Shaykuhn was carried out by military jets, it does not address who is responsible. That determination is outside of the organization’s mandate. However, a joint investigation by the OPCW and the United Nations will seek to identify the perpetrator.
In the interim, the countries involved in the Syrian Civil War have responded by blaming each other. The United States and its allies have accused the Syrian government of carrying out the attack. Russia, Syria’s ally, has argued that the incident was caused by a conventional weapons strike accidentally hitting a stockpile of chemical weapons. This explanation is unlikely, because sarin has a short shelf life, and its components are normally stored separately. The Syrian government, for its part, has claimed that the United States fabricated the story of the attack in order to justify its April 7 missile strike on a Syrian air base.
While the attack on Khan Shaykuhn is the first confirmed use of sarin in Syria since 2013, chlorine and mustard gas attacks have been documented numerous times in the past four years. Many of these attacks have been linked to the Syrian government, but others have not, and it is possible that they were carried out by other actors.
Once the perpetrator of the Khan Shaykuhn attack has been identified, action by the international community will be essential. Tit-for-tat military retaliation is unlikely to be productive, but a combination of sanctions and robust diplomacy could provide a solution. Sanctions have a checkered history in the enforcement of international law, because a single powerful country offering a lifeline to the sanctioned country can render them ineffective. If the Chemical Weapons Convention and international human rights law are to have any meaning, then a country that uses chemical weapons must quickly find itself isolated and friendless.
If the Syrian government is responsible for the Khan Shaykuhn attack, then its Russian and Iranian allies must withdraw their support for the regime, or face sanctions themselves. Convincing Russia and Iran to abandon the Syrian government will require a degree of diplomatic finesse that is probably beyond the capabilities of the current administration in Washington. But another party, particularly one such as Germany whose stature on the world stage is growing and has a close economic relationship with Russia, could find success. Moreover, if Russia and Iran genuinely wish to stabilize Syria and the region, then they should see that weapons as indiscriminately destructive as sarin are themselves destabilizing. Far from hastening the war’s end, they will simply escalate its brutality.
If the international community fails to act, then sarin attacks may become the new normal, and more towns like Khan Shaykuhn will wake up to find themselves overrun by an indiscriminate killer they can neither see nor smell.