"I learned so much about arms control and disarmament at ACA! I learned more about arms control here in four months than I had in all three years at my college."

– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
Intern, Fall 2016
December 16, 2016
UN to Probe Syria Chemical Arms Claims

Daniel Horner

Responding to a request from the Syrian government, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is preparing to conduct an investigation into claims of chemical weapons use in Syria.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made the request after a March 19 incident in which about 25 people reportedly were killed and dozens more injured in the village of Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo. The Assad regime claims that Syrian opposition forces used chemical weapons in the fighting there.

In a March 21 press conference at the United Nations, Ban said that, in undertaking the investigation, he would insist on “unfettered access.” The two-year-old uprising in Syria has prompted widespread concern that Assad would use Syria’s reportedly large stockpile of chemical weapons against the rebels or transfer control of them to other states or to subnational groups. (See ACT, September 2012.)

Syrian opposition forces claim the Khan al-Assal attack was launched by the Assad regime. France and the United Kingdom have asked Ban to broaden his investigation to cover other sites where the rebels have said the Assad regime used chemical weapons. In announcing his acceptance of the Syrian request, Ban said, “I am, of course, aware that there are other allegations of similar cases involving the reported use of chemical weapons.”

Although Ban and his aides have indicated that the probe would not necessarily be restricted to responding to the Syrian government’s request, they have said it will be circumscribed. At a March 27 briefing, Ban spokesman Martin Nesirky said the goal is to determine “whether chemical weapons were used, and not by whom.” It is not “a criminal investigation” or an attempt “to apportion responsibility or blame,” he said.

In his March 21 remarks, Ban said he would carry out the probe in conjunction with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organization. He later named Swedish scientist Åke Sellström to head the team. Sellström was an adviser to two UN bodies that carried out inspections in Iraq.

In a March 26 interview with UN Radio, Sellström said the investigation staff would come from international organizations. In a March 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today, OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said that “[m]ost or all of the inspectors” will be from the OPCW. He declined to provide further details.

In the radio interview, Sellström indicated the probe would start in early April.

At the March 21 press conference, Ban cited a 1987 UN General Assembly resolution that gives the secretary-general the authority to carry out such investigations. In a March 28 interview, Ralf Trapp, a former senior OPCW official who now is a consultant on biological and chemical weapons issues, said the authority has been applied in the past but that Ban’s investigation would be the first since the 1997 entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which established the OPCW.

Language in the CWC and in a 2000 agreement between the UN and the OPCW establishes the terms for cooperation between the two organizations.

Syria is not a party to the CWC.

The UN probe has the “unequivocal support” of the OPCW Executive Council, the council chair, Bhaswati Mukherjee of India, said in a statement issued after a March 27 meeting in The Hague.

The announcement of plans for the Syria investigation comes just weeks before the CWC parties are scheduled to hold their review conference April 8-19 in The Hague. It is not clear what impact the investigation request or the larger question of chemical weapons use in Syria is going to have on the conference, for which the OPCW and the treaty parties have been preparing for months. The conference is held once every five years.

Trapp said the state of affairs in Syria can be expected to figure in discussions of the need to achieve universality for the treaty. In addition to Syria, seven countries—Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia, and South Sudan—are not parties to the CWC.

The conference participants also might discuss Syria in the context of determining the degree of readiness the OPCW should maintain for investigations into alleged chemical weapons use and the provision of assistance to the victims of chemical attacks, Trapp said.