Thirty Years Later: How the Legacy of Halabja has Failed to Protect Syria

The Monument of Halabja Martyrs was built in 2003, in a city that was still largely destroyed. Photo from Wikipedia.

Thirty years ago this week, Saddam Hussein’s forces attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja in Northeastern Iraq. Iraqi forces first launched a conventional attack, forcing civilians into confined basements and shelters. The air force then dropped what is believed to have been a combination of the deadly nerve agent sarin and mustard gas, effectively converting civilian shelters into gas chambers and killing an estimated five thousand people, mainly women and children. The attack was the deadliest use of chemical weapons on a civilian population in history and has become a symbol of the horrors of chemical warfare.

In the three decades since the attack, the international community has made great strides in prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. The conflict in Syria, however, is a stain on that record. To commemorate the Halabja atrocity, SJAC is looking back at why the immense progress on prohibiting chemical weapons over the past 30 years has failed to protect Syrians.

While the use of chemical weapons was already banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention, the Halabja attack galvanized the international community and encouraged the UN Conference on Disarmament to pursue a more comprehensive weapons ban. This effort resulted in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997, which obligated signatory states to destroy their chemical weapons and allow the newly created Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to conduct verification.  Since its creation, the OPCW has overseen the elimination of approximately 96 percent of declared chemical weapons worldwide.

Before the conflict in Syria, no state had violated the CWC. Hence, Syria has been the first real test of the CWC’s enforceability. Starting in December 2012, Syrians have regularly reported chemical weapons attacks. In 2013, in response to the use of sarin in Ghouta, both the United Kingdom and the United States suggested the possibility of military retaliation, leading Russia to propose an agreement under which Syria would sign the CWC and hand its chemical weapons stockpiles to the OPCW for destruction. The UN Security Council (UNSC) endorsed the agreement in Resolution 2118, agreeing “in the event of non-compliance . . . to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.” The agreement initially succeeded, as the Syrian government provided the OPCW with information regarding its weapons stockpiles, leading to the destruction of 1200 tons of chemical weapons.

Since then, however, the Syrian government has been in non-compliance with Resolution 2118. In August 2015 , following reports of chlorine attacks against civilians, the UN Security Council created a new mechanism, the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (UN-OPCW JIM), mandated to investigate and identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks. In August 2016, the UN-OPCW JIM released its findings that the Syrian government was behind two chemical attacks, marking the first time that a state party to the CWC was deemed responsible for the use of chemical weapons.

This violation, which has since been repeated, raises two serious questions. First, how did the Syrian government maintain or produce chemical weapons in the wake of the OPCW’s work, and second, how can the international community effectively respond?

On the first question, the difficulty is primarily due to the classification of chlorine.  Despite being prohibited for use in warfare, chlorine is widely used for unprohibited, civilian purposes, and was not classified as a chemical weapon by the OPCW during the destruction of Syria’s weapon stockpiles. In addition to chlorine, however, the JIM also confirmed the government’s use of sarin in April 2017, a weapon that is illegal for Syria to both possess and use per its obligations under the CWC, suggesting the government either did not report all of its stores of sarin during the OPCW’s investigation or has manufactured more since that time. Recent reports have suggested that Syria might be rebuilding its chemical weapons facilities with supplies from North Korea.

The second question on the international community’s response is even more difficult to answer since Russia has effectively blocked multilateral action in the Security Council. Despite Russia’s obstinance, there are still concrete actions the rest of the international community can consider beyond condemnation. First, in light of Russia’s veto against its renewal, the OPCW-UN JIM’s mandate to investigate and name the perpetrators of attacks must continue through another mechanism. One possible solution may be an expansion of the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry under the UN Human Rights Council, which would need to include access to the OPCW’s scientific data on Syria’s pre-2013 stockpiles, which is key to investigating responsibility for attacks.

Second, current discussion about Syria’s violations must condemn chlorine attacks in the strongest of terms. While chlorine is more difficult to control than sarin, and less deadly, it is still indiscriminate and causes psychological terror among victims. Distinguishing chlorine from other chemical weapons gives the Syrian government a license to terrorize its population with this agent without fearing a response.

Third, any military response must be targeted and part of an overall strategy of furthering negotiations in Geneva. The most forceful response to chemical weapons violations to date was the United States missile strike last April after Syria’s reported use of sarin. After launching the missiles, the United States did not exert any diplomatic pressure on Syria nor did it explain how the strikes aligned with its strategy for Syria. Recently both the United States and France have suggested the possibility of additional attacks if recent accusations of sarin use are substantiated. If such strikes are undertaken, they must be focused on specific military installations connected to the production and use of chemical weapons, and they should be used to pressure Syria and Russia back to the negotiating table, to allow for renewed cooperation with the OPCW. Without such aims, strikes will be reckless and inconsistent rather than a means to protect civilians.

The OPCW’s previous destruction of so many, if not all, of the government’s chemical weapons should be seen as an achievement, and its fastidious investigations could become invaluable to future criminal prosecutions. However, these successes do not forgive the fact that thirty years after the international community failed to protect the people of Halabja, it is once again watching from the sidelines as a government gasses its own people.  The best way for the international community to honor the memories of those who died thirty years ago would be to enforce international law and end the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Those who want to learn more about the legacy of the attack on Halabja, and the fight against chemical warfare in Syria, can watch a live-stream of the KRG-USA’s anniversary event, ‘Halabja: Echoes of Genocide in Kurdistan,’ including a panel discussion on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq.

For more information or to provide feedback, please post a comment below or contact SJAC at info@syriaaccountability.org.

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