Human Rights First condemned the Syrian government’s use of chemical gas that killed over 70 civilians this week and urges the U.S. government to work with the international community to immediately address the gross violations of human rights and the commission of war crimes occurring in Syria. Following last night's U.S. missile strike against a Syrian airfield in response to the recent gas attack, the organization cautions that any use of force should comply with all applicable domestic and international law and must be situated within a broader strategy for resolving the conflict in Syria.
"While the United States has taken decisive action to uphold the prohibition against chemical weapons, we must remember that the Sarin gas attack on April 4 was but one egregious and unlawful attack in a conflict that has been ongoing for over six years and that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians," said Human Rights First's Rob Berschinski. "Any engagement in Syria should be founded in international and domestic law and must address the root of the conflict, as well as the human rights abuses that have been perpetrated against civilians. It must also provide for the protection of the refugees created by this violence."
The use of Sarin gas is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a direct violation of an agreement, brokered by Russia and the United States with the Syrian government in 2013, that Syria would destroy all its stocks of chemical weapons and refrain from their further use in the conflict. That agreement came after a chemical weapons attack against civilians in Ghouta in August 2013. U.S. military strikes at the time were averted by this diplomatic agreement. Since then, the Syrian government has persisted in its use of prohibited chemicals against civilians and, in doing so, contributed to the erosion of the international norm absolutely prohibiting the use of chemical weapons.
This week's Sarin gas attack is one of many incidents in which the Syrian government has exacted a devastating toll on civilians in the region. In addition to the chemical attacks, many thousands of Syrian civilians have been killed by airstrikes and other fighting. The conflict has created nearly five million refugees and over seven million internally displaced persons.
In light of this week's attack, the Trump Administration should take immediate steps to ensure that its response complies with domestic and international law, and should initiate robust efforts to bring an end to all mass killings of civilians in Syria, whether by chemical or conventional weapons.
Human Rights First urges the Trump Administration to:
In addition to renewing efforts to reach and enforce cessation of hostilities agreements, the United States and its allies should press for a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the U.N. Security Council. Investigations and eventual prosecutions by the ICC would put responsible officials and military personnel on notice that they will be held accountable for international crimes they commit.
Even if the Security Council does not agree to a referral of the situation in Syria to the ICC, the United States and its allies should continue and intensify efforts to identify individuals responsible for mass atrocities and crimes against humanity and explore ways to apply targeted sanctions on these individuals, such as through measures proposed in bills currently under consideration by Congress.
"The continuing humanitarian crisis in Syria should be sufficient reason for the administration to renew strong, sustained diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis," noted Berschinski.
Published on Human Rights First's website on April 7, 2017.
By Ole Solvang
Dozens of people showed symptoms consistent with exposure to chemicals after aircraft attacked Khan Sheikhoun, a town in northern Syria, witnesses told us. While we are continuing to investigate, early reports suggest dozens were killed. Khan Sheikhoun is controlled by armed groups fighting against Syrian government forces.
International law prohibits chemical attacks. With 192 member states, the Chemical Weapons Convention is one of the strongest weapon bans in international law. Syria joined the convention and gave up its chemical weapons program in 2013 after a chemical weapons attack, likely carried out by government forces, killed hundreds in a suburb of Damascus.
But that hasn’t meant that Syrian government forces have stopped carrying out chemical attacks. Instead, chemical attacks have become a regular occurrence in Syria. Human Rights Watch has documented Syrian government helicopters dropping canisters filled with chlorine in dozens of cases. We issued reports on these attacks in May 2014, April 2015, June 2015, and September 2016. In our latest report, we documented that Syrian government forces conducted coordinated chemical attacks in November and December 2016 during the final stages of the battle for Aleppo.
We have also documented that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has used chemical weapons both in Syria and in Iraq.
While the United Nations Security Council has condemned chemical attacks in Syria on several occasions, Russia and China have used their vetoes to block sanctions on the Syrian government. Those responsible for past chemical attacks might have taken the lack of consequences as a green light to conduct more attacks.
Syrian government forces conducted coordinated chemical attacks in opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo during the final month of the battle for the city.
The continued use of chemical attacks in Syria by government forces and armed groups threatens to undermine the very strong ban against chemical weapons in international law, which may encourage their use by others.
The Security Council, including Russia and China, should condemn this latest attack and support steps to hold those responsible to account.
Published on HRW's website on April 4, 2017.