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Syrian Government’s Chemical Weapon Attacks Demand Justice and Accountability: PHR

New Watchdog Findings Underscore Need for Targeted Sanctions against Assad Regime Officials

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded in a report released today that it has “reasonable grounds to believe” the Syrian Arab Air Force committed three chemical weapons attacks in Latamneh, Syria in March 2017. The new report from OPCW, an intergovernmental organization that oversees the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, affirms the longstanding and extensive documentation of the Syrian government’s repeated, abhorrent, and illegal use of chemical weapons.

The OPCW investigators determined that “military operations of such a strategic nature as these three attacks only occur pursuant to orders from the highest levels of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces,” thereby implicating the top ranks of the Bashar al-Assad government.

One chemical attack that the OPCW investigated on al Latamneh Surgical Hospital was previously documented by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Based on an analysis of open source data, PHR researchers concluded that on March 25, 2017: “a barrel bomb containing a toxic substance believed to be chlorine was dropped on al Latamneh Surgical Hospital. A doctor was killed and the hospital temporarily suspended its operations. Due to the weapon used in the attack, PHR believes that Syrian government forces were responsible for the incident.” The OPCW has reached the same conclusion following its highly detailed analysis in the new report.

“The OPCW report confirms what Syrians on the ground and researchers around the world have long known: Bashar al-Assad will spare no method, however deadly, however unlawful, to achieve his objectives. The Syrian government’s tactical and unconscionable use of chemical weapons has killed scores of civilians and sown widespread terror among communities in opposition-held areas,” said Rayan Koteiche, PHR Middle East and North Africa researcher.

The three chemical attacks investigated by the OPCW are not isolated events. The Syrian government has committed an estimated 336 chemical weapons attacks since the start of the conflict, according to the Global Public Policy Institute.  

PHR has also extensively documented how the  Syrian government and its  Russian allies have deliberately bombed hospitals, killed health workers, and decimated the health system in opposition-held areas of the country to force their surrender. From the start of the conflict in March 2011 through February 2020, PHR has corroborated 595 attacks on at least 350 separate health facilities and documented the killing of 923 medical personnel. PHR research attributes 90 percent of these attacks to the Syrian government and its allies, including the Russian government.

The Syrian government and its supporters, including Russia, have long pushed baseless allegations that chemical weapons attacks have been “staged.” The OPCW report concluded that those assertations were “implausible” and “not substantiated by the information obtained.”

“With this damning new evidence in hand, we must pursue all available avenues for justice for victims and hold the perpetrators to account,” said Koteiche. “Over the nine years of the Syrian conflict, the world has allowed the normalization of these reviled and inherently indiscriminate weapons. It’s time to wake up and end impunity.”

“Sadly, the UN Secretary-General’s response has been muted, only ‘taking note’ of the report, according to his spokesperson.  The Secretary-General must call out by name the parties flouting international law in Syria and emphasize the UN Security Council’s responsibility to act to protect victims and ensure criminal accountability. Further targeted sanctions against Syrian officials connected with the government’s chemical weapons attacks must be immediately considered by relevant bodies and states.”

“European courts that are increasingly pursuing universal jurisdiction cases against Syrian officials implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity should seize on the OPCW’s findings as an opportunity to widen the net for indicting culpable members of the Assad regime.”

“The appalling crimes against humanity that the Syrian government has inflicted on the Syrian people demand a shift from documentation and condemnation of atrocities to meaningful steps to bring to account those responsible for this slaughter,” said Koteiche.

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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