THE BLOG

Chemical Weapons: Why Isn't Anyone Being Held Accountable?

02/06/2014 13:38 BST | Updated 30/07/2014 10:59 BST

In a recent press release, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) referred to Tuesday's attack upon its experts and UN inspectors in Syria as a "blatant attempt to prevent the facts being brought to light."

The reason for the presence of OPCW experts in Syria is of course the recent report that chemical weapons had been used on civilian populations for a second time in 8 months. It was alleged that the Assad government had infused bombs with chlorine before dropping them on the village of Kafr Zaita. The chlorine renders ordinary munitions deadlier, particularly through its propensity to act as a choking agent. The attack itself has not been as widely reported in Western media as UN attempts at having

Syria hand over its chemical weapons or criticisms of the impeding presidential elections.

It is accepted that such use of chlorine, an otherwise 'ordinary' chemical with perfectly legitimate, peaceful industrial uses, would amount to a violation of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. In an article published in the Washington Post on 30 April, an unnamed senior US official was quoted as saying that there was a reluctance to call attention to these latest chemical attacks because there's not much that can be done about them - Syria cannot be asked to relinquish all of its chlorine, which can, of course, be used legitimately for such ends as water treatment.

This statement underscores a much greater problem. For far too long, the world has focused solely upon preventing, through attempts at enforcing non-proliferation, the use of chemical weapons, without also turning its collective mind to the principle of deterrence. One way of achieving deterrence is through the establishment of a specific United Nations body charged not only with investigating incidences of use of chemical weapons, but also with holding both users and suppliers of chemical precursors and technology to account morally, by prosecuting them, and financially, by compelling them to compensate civilian victims. In short, very little thought has been given to the establishment of a dedicated United Nations International Chemical Weapons Tribunal.

At a time in history when the United Nations has established at least three country-specific international criminal tribunals (for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Lebanon) and numerous other sub-bodies, it is unclear why the matter of accountability for supply and use of chemical weapons continues to be left off the UN's list of priorities, save for a brief mention in Article 8 of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. Opinion remains divided as to whether this Article in fact allows for the prosecution of users of chemical weapons. Even if it did, it certainly would not allow for the prosecution of suppliers.

Perhaps the answer lies in what has already been uncovered about the West's involvement in the use and supply of chemical weapons which it is reluctant to have exposed and even more reluctant to be held accountable for.

In the early 20th century, after the West had divided up the Ottoman Empire, despite having promised the Kurds an autonomous Kurdistan in the Treaty of Sevres, not only did it not deliver, but when the Kurds protested, they were met with chemical weapons unleashed upon them by the British. In 1920, then Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, was recorded to have argued: "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes."

In more recent times, Saddam Hussein was condemned for using chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, on both his Iranian opponents, and the Kurdish citizens of his own country in the largest chemical weapons attack on a civilian population in history. Literally adding insult to injury, the attack on the Kurdish population of the town of Halabja was timed for March 1988, that is, Newroz or New Year. Blair relied upon Halabja as one of the reasons for going to war against Iraq. But he failed to mention facts that were later to be set out in a report of the United Nations Monitoring, Verifications and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) that "during the period from the mid-1970s to 1990, over 200 foreign suppliers had provided major critical technology, equipment, items and materials that were directly used by Iraq for its chemical weapons (CW), biological weapons (BW) and missile programmes. The suppliers included government agencies and organizations, private companies, together with individuals who acted as brokers and middlemen...there were cases when suppliers were aware of the final use of the equipment and materials delivered to Iraq."

In a footnote, UNMOVIC indicates that it has deliberately excluded the names of the supplier countries, companies and individuals, presumably in order to honour a promise of anonymity offered in exchange for enhanced cooperation by culprits. But as the chemical weapons attacks in Syria in August 2013 and last month have proven, cooperation with investigators has failed dismally to stop the ongoing supply and use of these abhorrent weapons.

It has also caused a significant injustice to victims - are those who lost loved ones and suffered irreversible damage to their health not entitled to know who did this to them? And who their accomplices were? Are they not entitled to compensation for their pain and suffering just as a Briton or an American who is run over by a mail truck is entitled to this? It appears that to date, the international community has felt that gathering information about culprits and simply storing it in UN archives is the greater priority.

In 2005, one individual, Dutch businessman, Frans van Anraat was held accountable by a Dutch Court for his role in the supply of chemical precursors to Iraq. While a positive step, van Anraat is something of a scapegoat whose case serves to divert attention away from the role of Western governments and otherwise 'trusted' multinational corporations in the supply of chemical precursors and plant to Iraq. And perhaps more crucially, the Court dealing with his prosecution disallowed the claims of victims for compensation.

Following the chemical weapons attacks in Syria in August last year, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, established a Mission to investigate allegations of the use of chemical weapons. This concluded that chemical weapons had been used against civilians, including children on a large scale. At the same time as the report was published, evidence came to light indicating that Britain had granted export licenses to private companies for the export to Syria of dual use chemicals which are key precursors to chemical weapons. While the crucial questions about the Business Secretary's knowledge of the proposed end use of these chemicals are being asked by the House of Commons Committees on Arms Export Control, the answers have been less than forthcoming, with the Committee's Chair, Sir John Stanley noting in a letter to Vince Cable of 23 October 2013: "The effect of your decision to refuse to provide the Committee with the names of the companies concerned is to deny the Committees the ability to take evidence from those companies. Your reply of 11 October...provides no substantive justification for refusing to provide the Committees with the names of the companies. With regard to 'possible reputational damage', the prime object of the Committees' scrutiny...is not the companies but the Government-your own Department in particular."

And so there emerges a pattern: precursors and technology are supplied by the West, chemical weapons are used on civilian populations, their use is publicly condemned by the West, the West investigates. Western governments are less than cooperative, ostensibly in order to protect business interests, though we suspect it is also to cover up their own shameful hypocritical involvement. Where investigations are able to be completed, vital information like the identity of suppliers is withheld from the public and crucially, from victims. No one is ultimately held accountable so no one is deterred from playing their part in the supply chain in the future. Against this background, we might be forgiven for wondering whether it is only Syria that is attempting to prevent the facts from coming to light.