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Syrian Civil Society Chemical Weapons Conference - Report

By Dr. Yasmine Nahlawi, Legal consultant.

Drawing by Dima Nachawi, Syrian artist.

Throughout the fall of 2023, Syrian civil society members – including from the Syrian British Consortium, Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, and Women Now – submitted applications for attendance of the annual Conference of the States Parties to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons held between 27 November – 1 December in The Hague. All of their applications were denied despite Syria holding a prominent place on the agenda, and despite Syrian civil society constituting direct stakeholders to this context. In response to these blanket rejections, a group of Syrian organisations hosted a “Syrian Civil Society Chemical Weapons Conference” on 23 November down the street from OPCW headquarters in the Hague. The conference featured both Syrian and non-Syrian, male and female panelists and was dedicated to discussing the effects of chemical attacks as well as the international complicity in failing to invoke legal tools to bring them to an end.

The underlying theme throughout the conference was that the international system had failed Syrians. Chemical weapons attacks, which can constitute war crimes through their classification as “employing poison or poisoned weapons”, “employing asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials or devices”, or “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population”, have been committed repeatedly and continuously against civilian populations in Syria (primarily by the Assad regime) with impunity. Existing legal norms and mandates, including three UN Security Council resolutions specifically prohibiting chemical weapons use in Syria (Resolutions 2118 in September 2013, 2209 in March 2015, and 2235 in August 2015) have been entirely unenforced. In fact, Fadel Abdul Ghany, founder of the Syrian Network on Human Rights (SNHR), reported that through SNHR’s documentation and analysis of chemical attacks in Syria, there was a shocking increase in chemical attacks following the adoption of Resolution 2118, and that such attacks continued following the adoption of subsequent Resolutions 2209 and 2235.

The Syrian message within the conference was clear: Syrians and Syrian civil society have done everything within their power to combat the use of chemical weapons, alleviate their impacts upon civilians, gather evidence of chemical weapons use to legally accepted standards, and advocate for the use of existing laws and systems within European nations to push for accountability for their use. However, they stressed that combating chemical weapons use cannot be undertaken successfully by civil society alone, but rather, requires a response at state levels, whether this is through preventing chemical attacks, coordinating emergency responses to chemical weapons use, and advancing legal tools to pursue accountability for perpetrators.

Syrian speakers further noted the deep trauma imparted by chemical weapons use upon victim communities, explaining that chemical attacks were calculated by the Assad regime to inflict maximum damage and to remove every last hope for victims for survival. For example, chemical attacks required civilians to seek shelter at higher altitudes (e.g. roofs of buildings), while the more frequent barrel bombing required them to shelter below ground, leading to confusion in responding to the various attacks. Chemical attacks also tended to take place during the summer in which the warm temperatures increased the diffusion of the chemical agents. They also tended to be employed before sunrise wherein civilians were asleep. Front-line medical responders were also rendered helpless when they were unable to identify the chemical agent that was employed within a particular attack; for example, while chlorine had a distinct smell, sarin did not. All of these factors contributed to deep trauma among the victim communities ranging from survivor’s guilt to PTSD to immense and collective fear regarding repeated attacks. On top of this, victims and victim communities underwent compounded trauma in repeating their testimonies to convince political powers that they are in need of medical or first-response supplies, or subsequently to prove that they are worthy of justice and accountability.

The sentiment of betrayal was also felt tangibly within the conference. Dr Salim Namour, a former front-line medical responder to chemical attacks on Eastern Ghouta and head of the Association for Victims of Chemical Weapons, described that while he felt constantly challenged while treating victims of chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta, he never gave into helplessness. Now, however, this feeling of challenge has morphed into one of bitterness and betrayal at the lack of international response towards chemical weapons use in Syria.

A sliver of hope emerged on 16 November when France issued an arrest warrant for Syrian President Bashar Assad, his brother Maher Assad, and two other Syrian regime officials over the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. This marks the first time that a nation issues an arrest warrant against a sitting head of state. With that said, however, it was also acknowledged within the conference that this French case was only possible because one of the represented victims holds French nationality and not because of the more underlying notion that the victims are humans worthy of justice. Syrian panelists and attendees within the conference imparted a responsibility upon international actors to turn the wheels of justice to ensure that chemical attacks can no longer be repeated and to bring justice to all victims of chemical attacks, including through establishing a new mechanism to combat impunity for chemical weapons use in Syria.

Attendees emerged from the conference with a distinct perspective on the impact of chemical weapons use on Syrian communities as well as a renewed vigour to pursue accountability for perpetrators of these attacks. While acknowledging that the friends of Syria continue to decrease year by year, Syrian civil society members pledged to continue to fight for justice in Syria, and will continue to stand in solidarity with other oppressed peoples, including in Gaza and Ukraine.

By Dr. Yasmine Nahlawi.



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