The Non-Proliferation Monthly’s Editorial, June 2013
In March both the Syrian government and insurgents accused each other of releasing toxicants as a method of combat. Stakes in the claims rose when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accepted Syria’s request to formally investigate rebel CW use near Aleppo and the UK’s and France’s call to expand the investigation to other cases of alleged use. He called on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) for technical assistance. His decision has created new political and diplomatic realities. President Barack Obama had described CW use as a game changer that might lead to direct military intervention. On 13 June the White House formally confirmed use of CW in Syria. Some Western governments invoke the allegations to press for indirect military assistance to the insurgents. Incontrast, states backing the Syrian regime, notably Russia and Iran, strongly challenge that same evidence.
From press reports and official statements, CW use appears beyond any doubt. Infact, only 7 or 8 incidents specifying a location and time frame can be identified. Most allegations are local witness reports, but lack density and consistency. Symptoms of exposure to warfare agents depicted in films and pictures do not correspond with the narrative. And stories change: today almost every single incident is attributed to the nerve agent sarin. How must one assess the quality of ‘evidence’ ? In the context of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), evidence is provided by an investigation of alleged use. The document lays out the procedures in detail. One key element is the integrity of the chain of custody, which means that the OPCW inspectors and officials must be able to account for their samples at every moment from their collection to the transport to one of the OPCW certified laboratories. This reduces the possibility of anybody refuting the factual report’s integrity to an absolute minimum. The UN Secretary-General’s investigative mechanism draws on this OPCW resource and its strict procedural guidelines.
A second level of ‘evidence’ may come from governments, who have obtained physical or physiological samples via their intelligence assets or from third parties. Syria’s supporting. When is Evidence Proof ? By Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, Director, The Trench evidence for its initial claim remains unknown. London offered Ministry of Defence laboratory results of soil samples retrieved by one of its intelligence services near Homs. In June France gave the UN its own analyses by a national OPCW-certified laboratory of physiological samples brought back by journalists. Because the chain of custody’s integrity is guaranteed nationally under the best of circumstances, such evidence does not meet the standards required by the UN Secretary-General’s investigative mechanism. Consequently, the UK, French and US evidence can be and has been challenged. Nevertheless, national analytical data can be sufficient to demonstrate the seriousness of a formal request to initiate an investigation of alleged use. Finally, various types of media may broadcast ‘evidence’ of an alleged CW incident. Prepared by non-specialists, most of these reports lack specificity and typically do not allow off-site confirmation. If multiple, but separate reports all point to similar types of phenomena, then they may be considered as an early indicator of chemical warfare. The many press reports on chemical attacks emerging towards the end of 1983 gave credence to Iran’s earlier accusations against Iraq and contributed to the first UN investigative report of April 1984. The UN team never entered Syrian territory and has now all but been withdrawn from its staging area in Cyprus. However, even if Ban Ki-moon’s investigators had provided the most secure and reliable evidence of chemical warfare, determination of responsibility and international punitive action would still have remained political acts par excellence.