The international arrest warrants issued by a French court for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his brother Maher al-Assad, and two generals for their role in devastating chemical attacks against civilians in 2013 are a crucial first step towards justice for the many victims of the Syrian government’s gross human rights violations, said Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today.
The 1925 Geneva Protocol and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1997 prohibit the use of chemical and biological weapons in warfare. However, as documented by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), the Syrian government repeatedly violated international law by launching at least 161 chemical attacks from the start of the conflict through 2015. The Assad government deployed the deadly nerve agent sarin in two 2013 rocket attacks in Ghouta, killing and injuring thousands of civilians.
“The prohibition of chemical weapons in armed conflict is absolute under international law, and PHR believes firmly that the Assad government’s violation must be punished,” said Sam Zarifi, JD, LLM, executive director at PHR.
PHR has conducted a number of investigations over decades to shed light on the horrifying effects of chemical weapons, which indiscriminately cause widespread death and injury.
“Even with minimal exposure, the chemical agent sarin can be lethal or cause irreversible health effects, devastating the nervous system and disrupting muscle control and organ functions, leading to immediate death, generalized paralysis, or causing the victims to drown in their respiratory secretions, let alone the horror and fear among affected communities,” said Houssam al-Nahhas, MD, MPH, a physician who has documented the use of chemical weapons on the ground in Syria and is PHR’s Middle East and North Africa researcher. “The officials responsible for carrying out these attacks knew full well the calamity they were unleashing on innocent people, and they must be held accountable.”
The Syrian government’s crimes against civilian populations are not limited to chemical attacks. PHR has independently corroborated attacks on health care facilities and personnel since the start of the Syrian civil war. Since March 2011, the Syrian government with the support of the Russian allies have carried out at least 542 attacks on health care facilities. Additionally, out of 940 killed health care providers, 831 of the killings are considered to have been committed by Syrian government and allied forces, with thousands others arrested and tortured.
“The Assad government has operated with impunity for far too long and waged a relentless campaign of deliberate cruelty against civilians and health care personnel,” said Christian De Vos, JD, PhD, director of research and investigations at PHR. “In order to secure a measure of justice and to prevent future atrocities, the international community must make every effort to pursue accountability for these crimes. The warrants issued by the French judiciary are a historic step towards that goal.”
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.