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Independent Investigation and Forensic Protocols Are Key to Assessing Chemical Weapons Use

For Immediate Release

Amid accumulating signs that chemical weapons may have been used recently in Syria, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) repeats its call for a thorough independent investigation of such allegations to be conducted immediately that follows forensic protocols for handling evidence.

“As the US and other countries debate possible courses of action, it is crucial that any decisions be based on solid scientific evidence, especially given the serious consequences at stake,” said Donna McKay, executive director of PHR. “Chemical weapons leave evidence that can be documented through scientific analysis. But such documentation should be provided by independent medical and scientific experts to examine and document deaths and injuries suspected to have a chemical cause. And it is essential that proper chain-of-custody protocols be observed in handling such evidence if it is to have any forensic value.”

Documenting chemical weapons use can take many forms, including analysis of blood, urine, hair, and clothing of victims and chemical traces that may still remain on buildings and even in the soil following a chemical attack. Reported symptoms can also be an important indicator of chemical weapons exposure. Such an investigation is time-sensitive, however, since residues from chemical agents degrade over time, and documenting injuries dating from mid-March becomes more difficult with each passing week.

Yet, as PHR Senior Advisor Susannah Sirkin points out, it is sometimes possible to document the use of chemical weapons use even years after their deployment, as PHR did when it provided evidence that the Iraqi regime had used mustard gas, and most likely a lethal nerve agent, against civilians in dozens of Kurdish villages in 1988.

“When we finally gained access to the villages four years later, we were surprised to still find traces of the chemicals in measurable quantities,” Sirkin said.

PHR has produced fact sheets on recognition and treatment of chemical weapons exposure that physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals can use to help them assess whether patients may have been exposed to chemical weapons.

“Very few physicians have any clinical experience with victims of chemical weapons, but regrettably it is now crucial that those working in or near Syria have access to reliable information,” McKay said. “We developed the fact sheet to help medical professionals diagnose and treat people exposed to such toxic weapons – and to help minimize panic in cases where symptoms do not match those caused by chemical weapons.”

Nearly all the world’s nations have condemned the use of chemical weapons, which have been banned for more than a century because of their capacity to kill and injure arbitrarily, indiscriminately, and on a massive scale. Their use is banned not only by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria has not signed, but by customary international law regarding warfare, which applies to all countries and combatants everywhere.

More than 70,000 people are estimated to have died during the Syrian conflict, and more than 1 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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