[Cross-posted from The Trench]
On 11 January Digital Journal, an online publication touching upon current events and with a penchant for science and technology affairs, published an Op-Ed by Megan Hamilton, an animal and nature-loving journalist based in Costa Rica, on Technology and the art of modern warfare. The piece is worrying enough for all the new technologies under consideration: fast-firing guns that could be deployed on satellites, direction-changing bullets, laser guns to knock out enemy drones, and so on.
The item that caught my attention was a discussion about a project once run by US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that turned insects into surveillance cyborgs (See also the Gizmodo blog). As Hamilton described it:
How? Through the HI-MEMS, or Hybrid Insect Micro-Electrical-Mechanical System concept. Electrical circuits are implanted in bugs while they are in the pupa stage. Once they become adults, signals sent through radio waves trigger the circuits, meaning that the insect is now remote-controlled. Surveillance equipment is attached, meaning these bugs are now invaluable and undetectable tools for battlefield exploration.
DARPA cancelled the project. Hamilton, however, explored the topic of entomological warfare further with Jeffrey Lockwood, author of Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War (Oxford University Press, 2010). It reveals interesting insights. For instance, technology has not yet been able to develop a drone the size of an insect—an entomopter—because of the size needed for an on-board energy source.
Once past the technological fascination of this type of weapon design for warfare or intelligence gathering, Hamilton pressed Lockwood on the morality of such projects and human and animal rights. Here things do get hairy.
Morality of entomological warfare
Lockwood took a kind of long-winded approach to answering the question. First, he mentioned the standards set by ‘just war theory’. Under jus in bello one imagines that formally prohibited weapons would be banned in warfare. He is generally correct when positing:
And then, deploying a weapon system of creatures to inflict harm on other humans surely constitutes a form of biological warfare (although international law is surprisingly vague on insects—microbes are quite another matter).
But then he wondered if biological warfare is necessarily wrong. He referred to the scenario of a debilitating but not deadly disease being transmitted by mosquitoes to enemy combatants such that it weakens the opposing forces and the goal of the attack can be achieved with considerably less loss of human life than would be the case with conventional weapons. He continued:
Of course, this supposes that one has adopted a consequentialist (probably utilitarian) ethics in which all that matters is the outcome. Such an ethical system might well conflict with the decisions made using a deontological approach in which duties/rights provide the moral constraints (rather than outcomes). So to return to your question, we might violate the rights of humans or other creatures (most often thought to be sentient which then raises the questions of whether insects can suffer—I think so, but many would disagree) by using the entomological weapons even if these arms reduced human deaths relative to other tactics.
[I assume that the passages between parentheses in the above quotes are Hamilton’s asides.]
The interview passage mixes up a few aspects of constraining biological warfare, namely the use of pathogens as a method of warfare, the deployment of insect vectors to propagate the disease agent, and the resort to insects in combat.
Yes, biological warfare is necessarily wrong
On the first issue whether all biological warfare is necessarily wrong, the answer is an unambiguous ‘yes’. The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) contains no criteria of lethality or incapacitation to prohibit the development, production, stockpiling or any other form of acquiring microbial or other biological agents. This ban is absolute and therefore accepts no exceptions. Indeed, according to Article I, para. 1 of the BTWC the retention of disease agents is only justified for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes. And then only if the nature or volume of the agent in possession conforms to those purposes.
This principle is known as the General Purpose Criterion. It emerged during technical discussions in the late 1920s and early 1930s in preparation of the disarmament conference due to start in 1933 as a way to address the dual-use problem, capture future scientific discoveries and technological developments, and frame a definition of chemical and biological weapons that does not allow for any exception. A criterion such as lethality was explicitly rejected, because the then proposed definition for chemical weapons had to capture irritants and incapacitants, such as riot control agents. Both the BTWC and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention have the General Purpose Criterion at the heart of their respective prohibitions.
While it is true that the BTWC does not explicitly refer to the use of biological weapons, it makes explicit reference to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of both chemical and biological modes of warfare. Moreover, at the Fourth Review Conference in 1996, the states parties to the BTWC explicitly recorded their understanding that the comprehensive prohibition on biological weapons in Article I covers their use too.
So, yes, all biological warfare is necessarily wrong, even if certain modes of pathogen use may appear more humane on the surface.
Yes, the BTWC bans the use of insects to spread disease
The second issue raised in the interview concerns the use of insects. In the past, insects have been both considered and used as vectors to spread disease. For instance, during the Second World War Japan notoriously deployed infected fleas to provoke plague epidemics in China. Allied Powers too investigated the option.
Again the BTWC’s prohibition is explicit. Article I, para. 2 proscribes the development, acquisition by any means and possession of weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.
So, yes, developing, cultivating or possessing insect vectors with the intent of having them deliver a pathogen is proscribed. No exceptions allowed.
In my opinion, although I am not aware of any legal expert ever having made that point explicitly, the use of insects with the intent to have them sting or bite humans or animals would also be prohibited under the BTWC as the insects would almost invariable inject some kind of poison—a toxin—into the victim.
But does the BTWC ban the use of insects?
The third question whether the use of insects in more generic ways is a proscribed mode of warfare is more ambiguous. The BTWC does not mention insects per se. Biological agents cover human, animal and plant diseases. Certain insects attack plants and may destroy agricultural crops. Again, in the past belligerents have not shied away from deploying them to harm the enemy in both open and covert warfare operations. Psychologically, agricultural warfare lies close to biological warfare. Thus, for example, Protocol III (and Annexes) on the Control of Armaments of 23 October 1954 to the Treaty of Economic, Social, and Cultural Collaboration and Collective Self-defence (also known as the Brussels Treaty) of 17 March 1948 defined biological weapons as follows [emphases added]:
(a) A biological weapon is defined as any equipment or apparatus expressly designed to use, for military purposes, harmful insects or other living or dead organisms, or their toxic products.
(b) […], insects, organisms and their toxic products of such nature and in such amounts as to make them capable of being used in the equipment or apparatus referred to in (a) shall be deemed to be included in this definition.
(c) Such equipment or apparatus and such quantities of the insects, organisms and their toxic products as are referred to in paragraphs (a) and (b) which do not exceed peaceful civilian requirements shall be deemed to be excluded from the definition of biological weapons.
The protocols to the Brussels Treaty allowed Germany and Italy to join the Western European Union, which in turn paved the way to their NATO membership.
Would the states parties to the BTWC consider an allegation of insect use as a possible violation of the convention? Actually, yes. They did so in 1997.
As I summarised developments in the 1998 and 1999 editions of the Yearbook published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), on 30 June 1997 Cuba submitted a request to Russia, one of the three co-depositories of the BTWC, to convene a formal consultative meeting to investigate an alleged US attack with BW agents in October 1996.
That was the first time since the entry into force of the BTWC in 1975 that a state party formally requested the international community to investigate a breach of the convention. Cuba did not lodge a complaint with the UN Security Council under Article VI of the BTWC but invoked a procedure to strengthen the implementation of Article V adopted by the Third Review Conference of the BTWC in 1991. According to this procedure, the formal consultative meeting must be preceded by bilateral or other consultations among the states involved in the dispute. Following the submission of the request, the depositories of the BTWC must convene the formal consultative meeting within 60 days of the receipt of the request.
According to the allegation, a US anti-narcotics fumigation plane flying from Florida to Grand Cayman crossed Cuba with Cuban authorization on 21 October 1996 and was observed by a Cuban civilian aircraft to spray unknown substances intermittently. On 18 December the first signs of a plague with Thrips palmi karay, a minute insect belonging to the order of Thysanoptera which are plant eaters and may transmit virus diseases of plants, appeared. While Thysanoptera live wherever plants are, Cuba stated that this particular insect was indigenous to Asia and exotic to Cuban territory, although since 1985 its presence has been noted on several Caribbean islands. By January 1997 other parts of Cuba had also been affected and the insects continued to spread throughout the island in the spring and affected many crops. In October, the Cuban government reported that 20,000 tonnes of produce, including 18,000 tonnes of potatoes, had been lost to Thrips.
Following a request in December 1996 to clarify the incident, the US stated on 12 February 1997 that the pilot had noted the Cuban civilian aircraft but was unsure whether he had been seen and therefore used the smoke generator of his aircraft to secure a positive visual contact ‘following prudent and safe aviation procedures’. The US further added that the tanks for the aerosol sprinkling system had actually been used to carry fuel in view of the long-distance flight. On 28 April, in a note to the UN Secretary-General, Cuba formally accused the United States of biological warfare. The US State Department rejected the Cuban accusations and made its own version of events public on 6 May. Cuban officials discarded the statement for its ‘lack of seriousness’. In a second letter dated 27 June to the UN Secretary-General Cuba formally rejected the US explanations: (a) the regulations of the International Civil Aviation Organization do not mention the use of smoke generators to signal the position of aircraft in flight and such use is not a known practice except for aerobatics; (b) crop duster planes manufactured and operated all over the world are not equipped with smoke generators; and (c) the plane had no requirement to carry extra fuel in the herbicide tank since its normal fuel load sufficed amply for the flight. Even if some extra fuel had been carried in the tank, then it was technically feasible to fill it with another substance too, allowing for initial consumption of fuel and then for spraying.
The formal consultative meeting began in Geneva on 25 August in closed session, but failed to resolve Cuba’s claim after three days of talks, because, according to the chair, British Ambassador Ian Soutar, ‘it was not possible to draw a direct causal link’ between the overflight and the outbreak. As the Thrips palmi occurs in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and in Florida, the main unresolved question is whether the insect could have been introduced to the Cuba in another way. The meeting mandated Ambassador Soutar to further investigate the allegation and prepare a report by 31 December 1997.
His report, delivered on 15 December 1997, concluded that ‘due inter alia to the technical complexity of the subject and to passage of time, it has not proved possible to reach a definitive conclusion with regard to the concerns raised by the Government of Cuba’. Twelve states parties to the BTWC had submitted comments, which were annexed to the report. All agreed that insufficient evidence was available to establish a causal link between the outbreak of Thrips palmi in Cuba in December 1996 and the overflight of the US plane two months earlier. The report noted that throughout the process general agreement existed that the requirements of Article V of the BTWC and the consultative process established by the 3rd Review Conference had ‘been fulfilled in an impartial and transparent manner’.
The interesting thing is that while the BTWC states parties decided to take up the Cuban allegation of entomological warfare, in their conclusions they carefully avoided naming the incident a case of biological warfare. As Nicholas Sims of the London School of Economics and Political Science noted in his SIPRI book The Evolution of Biological Disarmament (Oxford University Press, 2001),
Denmark and the Netherlands expressed doubt, which other parties are known to have shared, over the question of whether insects or other pests such as Thrips palmi fall within the scope of the BTWC. Both states included statements that their participation in the consultative process was without prejudice to their national positions on this question.
Cuba, having raised the matter under the BTWC, made it politically difficult for the United States to invoke a legalistic argument to avoid addressing the concern. The documents of the consultative meetings have not been published—Sims does quote some extracts from them—and there is no indication that the incident was precedent-setting in the minds of the states that participated in the exercise.
So to answer the question whether the BTWC bans the use of insects other than for the delivery of a pathogen or toxin, one can only note equivocalness: not prima facie, but in practice some scope may exist to lodge a complaint about malicious use of insect vectors against agriculture with one of the three BTWC depositary states.
To come back to the Jeffrey Lockwood’s suggestion that not all biological warfare may necessarily be wrong, my answer is unequivocally: WRONG!
International law, in the form of the BTWC, allows no exceptions on the use of pathogens or toxins as weapons of war. There have been and still are important reasons why lethality or other humanitarian considerations were discarded as criteria for defining biological and toxin weapons. Any suggestion to the contrary might open up a loopholes that proponents of so-called non-lethal warfare would be all to happy to exploit today and tomorrow.
[Cross-posted from The Trench]
Investigations under the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism
- Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013 (16 September 2013)
- United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic: Final report (12 December 2013)
Investigations by the OPCW Fact-Finding MIssion
- Summary report of the work of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria covering the period from 3 to 31 May 2014 (16 June 2014)
- Second report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria: Key findings (10 September 2014)
- Third report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria (18 December 2014)
- Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding the incidents described in communications from the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates and Head of the National Authority of the Syrian Arab Republic from 15 December 2014 to 15 June 2015
- Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding alleged incidents in the Idlib Governorate of the Syrian Arab Republic between 16 March and 20 May 2015 (29 October 2015)
- Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding alleged incidents in Marea, Syrian Arab Republic August 2015 (29 October 2015)
The Trench blog comments
- 16 November: Investigation of alleged chlorine attacks in the Idlib Governorate (Syria) in March – May 2015
- 23 November: CW incidents alleged by the Syrian government: an industrial chemical as likely cause?
- 3 January: Syrian soldiers exposed to ‘sarin or a sarin-like substance’
[Cross-posted from The Trench]
In November I presented the main findings of the preliminary Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) report of 29 October. This particular investigation of alleged use by the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had been requested by Syria. Government officials had transmitted four Notes Verbales alleging 26 chemical weapon (CW) events resulting in 432 casualties. The preliminary report focussed primarily on incidents at Jobar (northeast of Damascus) on 29 August 2014. While the investigators believed that government soldiers had been exposed to an irritant, they could not confirm that the chemical had been used as a weapon. They as good as ruled out chlorine or a neurotoxicant, such as sarin, as the causative agent.
However, the investigative team also looked into five other events reported by the Syrian government: Al-Maliha on 16 April and 11 July 2014, al-Kabbas on 10 September 2014, Nubel and al-Zahraa on 8 January 2015, and Darayya on 15 February 2015.
On 17 December the Technical Secretariat circulated the final report on those allegations by the Syrian government. Whereas the interim report of 29 October comprised 59 pages, the final report almost doubled in size to 106 pages.
The final report repeats the findings about Jobar. With respect to the five other incidents, it reaches similar conclusions. However, as regards Darayya it summarised:
From the results of blood sample analyses, the FFM is of the opinion that there is a high degree of probability that some of those identified as being involved in the alleged incident in Darayya on 15 February 2015 were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance. In order to determine how, when, or under what circumstances the exposure occurred, further investigation would be required to complement the interviews carried out and the documents reviewed.
It does not say that those individuals were exposed to the neurotoxicant at Darayya, nor does it confirm that such exposure was the consequence of combat operations.
Investigating possible use of irritant chemicals as a weapon
With regard to the alleged incidents in Jobar on 29 August 2014 (for details, see my earlier posting), al-Maliha on 16 April 2014 and 11 July 2014, al Kabbas, Damascus on 10 September 2014 and Nubel and al-Zahraa on 8 January 2015, the report offers parallel conclusions. These are:
- The affected soldiers ‘may have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating airborne substance, secondary to the surface impact of the launched objects’.
- The investigators could not determine with any degree of confidence as to whether exposure was the consequence of the irritant being delivered as the payload of a projectile, or whether the irritant had another source of origin (combustion product of a propellant, detonation of a conventional or improvised explosive device on a stored chemical already in-situ, some combination of substances mixed with surface soil and dust, or a combination of all mentioned factors).
- The affected soldiers in question present clinical symptoms that are ‘consistent with a brief exposure to any number of chemicals or environmental insults’. Furthermore, ‘the visual and olfactory description of the potential irritating substance does not clearly indicate any specific chemical’.
In each of the five cases, the investigators pointed out that the lack of hard evidence precluded them from gathering facts in a definitive way. Little ‘objective evidence’ was made available to the team to complement the materials given by the Syrian authorities, ‘either because it was unavailable or because it was not generated in the first place’. The report lists the types of evidence that would have been crucial to establishing facts with a higher degree of confidence:
- Photographic or video recordings of the incident;
- A visit to the site where the incident took place;
- Detailed medical records including, inter alia, X-rays, pulmonary function tests, and timely blood laboratory values;
- Timely biomedical samples from the patients;
- Remnants of any ordnance, launching system, or other forensic evidence retrieved from the location of the incident;
- Unfired ordnance similar to that used in the incident;
- Environmental samples from the surroundings of the location of the incident, including background samples;
- Comprehensive contemporaneous incident reports generated by the chain of military command and the medical system; and
- Comprehensive witness testimonies generated at the time of the incident.
Concerning some alleged incidents, the investigators would have also welcomed:
- A greater sample of witness testimonies (al Maliha, 11 July 2014; Nubel and al-Zahraa, 8 January 2015); and
- Samples from remnants of cylinders or other containers alleged to have been used in the incident and retrieved from the incident location (al Kabbas, 10 September 2014; Nubel and al-Zahraa, 8 January 2015).
Exposure to a nerve agent-related substance
According to Note Verbale 41 (29 May 2015), a follow-up to the initial document submitted by the Syrian government on 15 December 2014 that led to the FFM investigation, eight military personnel became casualties in an alleged CW incident on 15 February 2015. It provided a brief description of the incident, signs and symptoms, a more precise location, the hospital where casualties received treatment, and the names of the victims. The incident appeared sufficiently grave for the FFM to investigate it.
The FFM conducted interviews with medical staff and casualties relevant to the allegation and visited hospitals and research laboratories where tests on victim blood samples had been conducted. It also visited the Centre for Studies and Scientific Research Institute in Barzi, Damascus, on 12 and 14 August 2015. On the first day, team members had a discussion with the head of the research institute on the storage and research methods for blood collected for acetyl-cholinesterase (AChE) analysis and were made aware of the existence of several blood samples stored onsite related to the Darayya incident. Two days later the FFM revisited the institute to seal the selected blood samples.
In the course of the investigation the FFM received a variety of documents, including battlefield and medical reports, video footage and images from GoogleEarth indicating exact locations. These documents included the medical records of the eight reported casualties and the AChE analyses of six alleged victims. In several cases the investigators were granted access to requested documents, albeit without being provided with photocopies. Four of the reported casualties were given HI-6 (asoxime chloride) and dematropine, both nerve agent antidotes.
The retrieved blood samples were forwarded to OPCW-certified laboratories for analysis and a certified laboratory conducted DNA analysis to link the samples to the casualties.
In its medical review the FFM report draws a sharp distinction with the other investigated Syrian allegations:
The Darayya incident was the only reviewed incident wherein the alleged victims had a prolonged recovery phase of 10-12 days. This departed from all other alleged incidents wherein recovery was rapid and rarely resulted in hospital observation for more than two nights. Darayya is also the only alleged incident wherein antidotes and specific treatments such as oximes and atropine were employed, or were even mentioned. Finally, and perhaps most notably, this was the only incident wherein blood analysis was performed with quantitative results noted in the medical records. Though such results are precisely the type of objective evidence the medical team would have preferred to have had in the aforementioned incidents, in the case of Darayya the presented test results proved more confounding than helpful, as they were significantly outside of the expected range for such a scenario.
As a consequence, the report notes, the recovered blood samples had to be forwarded to an independent laboratory for further assessment. The final results were still pending when the report was issued. In its absence the medical evaluation necessarily rests on the interviews and provided documents, but given the shortcomings of the methodology and gaps, these merely contribute to the uncertainties that permeate the entire report on the allegations by the Syrian authorities. (It should be noted that Appendixes 8 and 9 provide detailed results of the analyses of the blood samples suggesting exposure to neurotoxicants in all tested samples collected from casualties, so that paragraph 90 of the report may either indicate failure to delete language from an earlier draft or point to additional laboratory testing.)
As with the investigation of the other incidents, the FFM noted that the Syrians could have supplied more documentary evidence or undertaken certain actions to corroborate the testimonies of the casualties and witnesses it interviewed and establish the value of the evidence supplied:
- Immediate notification to the OPCW that a suspected chemical attack had occurred would have allowed the prompt deployment of the FFM to gather primary evidence and establish the facts surrounding this incident;
- Photographic or video recordings of the incident;
- Visit to the site where the incident took place;
- Detailed medical records including, inter alia, X-rays, pulmonary function tests, as well as timely and complete blood laboratory values;
- Remnants of any ordnance, launching system, or forensic evidence retrieved from the incident location;
- Unfired ordnance similar to that used in the incident;
- Environmental samples, including animal tissue, from the surroundings of the incident location as well as background control samples;
- Comprehensive contemporaneous incident reports generated by the chain of military command and the medical system;
- Comprehensive witness testimonies generated at the time of the incident; and
- A greater sample of witness testimonies.
On the basis of the evidence collected, the FFM concludes that:
there is a high degree of probability that some of those involved in the alleged incident in Darayya on 15 February 2015 were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance. However, the FFM could not confidently link the blood sample analyses to this particular incident nor determine how, when, or under what circumstances the exposure occurred.
The one sarin-like substance the report mentions is chlorosarin (O-isopropyl methylphosphonochloridate), a final precursor to the manufacture of sarin. However, the analysis did not indicate a specific date of exposure, nor a specific time that the blood was drawn. The FFM was also unable to verify the chain of custody between the time the blood was drawn from the casualties and the time it sealed the samples. In addition, blood sample analyses indicated that four of the eight individuals were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance, but the investigators were unable to link these results to the Darayya incident of 15 February 2015 as reported by the Syrian government. It is in this context that the report observes that the immediate notification to the OPCW of the suspected chemical attack would have allowed the prompt deployment of the FFM to gather primary evidence and establish the facts surrounding this incident.
A striking feature of the general debate at the 20th Session of the Conference of States Parties (30 November–4 December 2015) was that not a single country referred to the preliminary FFM report on the allegations put forward by the Syrian government. As one participating diplomat put it to me, conclusions were not yet definite. He added that ‘the Executive Council had kicked the can down the road’ and that the findings would make for a difficult meeting early in 2016. Indeed, a week earlier, on 23 November, the Executive Council had noted the FFM’s inability to confidently determine whether or not a chemical was used as a weapon. It further noted that the FFM report was an interim report and that other incidents under investigation are pending final analysis and will be included in the final report.
The paragraph stands in stark contrast to the previous one addressing the FFM reports on alleged CW use in Marea and Idlib province, where the Executive Council
Expresses grave concern regarding the findings of the Fact-Finding Mission that chemical weapons have once again been used in the Syrian Arab Republic, and in this regard:
(a) underscores that, with respect to the incident in Marea, Syrian Arab Republic, on 21 August 2015, the report of the Fact-Finding Mission confirmed “with the utmost confidence that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard” and that it is “very likely that the effects of sulfur mustard resulted in the death of a baby” (S/1320/2015); and
(b) further underscores that, with respect to several incidents in the Idlib Governorate of the Syrian Arab Republic between 16 March 2015 and 20 May 2015, the report of the Fact-Finding Mission concluded that they “likely involved the use of one or more toxic chemicals—probably containing the element chlorine—as a weapon” with an “outcome of exposure [that] was fatal in six cases in Sarmin,” including those of three children in the same family (S/1319/2015).
Reading the latter two documents, I was struck by the fact that despite the difficult circumstances in which the investigations had to be conducted, the reports were still able to advance conclusions with fair to very high degrees of confidence that toxic chemicals had been used as a weapon. The investigators also indicated which chemicals may have been involved and proffered details about the munitions that delivered the agents. Indeed, the Idlib report contained a detailed graphical reconstruction of the barrel bombs dropped from helicopters to deliver the chlorine (see my earlier posting). All the evidence collected from Idlib province leaves little doubt that government units were responsible for those attacks. Concerning the mustard agent attack at Marea, the report does not implicate the Syrian government despite the certainty of its conclusions. Press and NGO reports have pointed the finger to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The OPCW and Iraq are collaborating on the investigation into a similar incident implicating ISIL near Mosul last summer.
During the Conference of States Parties the Syrian delegate vehemently denied that his country had ever launched a CW attack. In 2013 Damascus requested the UN Secretary General to investigate certain allegations of chemical warfare; the UN investigative team was in the Syrian capital when sarin-filled rockets hit the Ghouta suburb. The offer to accede to the CWC and have its chemical warfare capacity eliminated under international supervision averted international military strikes and ensured regime survival, at least in the short term.
The request for an investigation submitted in December 2014 was the first since Syria had joined the OPCW. One imagines that the Syrian government would have mobilised all possible resources to substantiate its allegements to the greatest possible extent. Trivial or plainly false allegations would inevitably undermine the country’s standing and the international community will tend to brush off any future accusations as a figment of a desperate government’s imagination.
Investigating false accusations also drains the OPCW’s limited budget resources. Unfortunately, no arms control or disarmament treaty currently in force envisages specific penalties for false allegations. Before entry into force of the CWC the Preparatory Commission (PrepCom) of the OPCW held consultations on the ‘costs of abuse’ detailing what direct and indirect costs should be covered by the State Party requesting a challenge inspection should the Executive Council rule that the requesting state party abused its right to request such an inspection. However, the PrepCom transferred the question as one of the outstanding issues to the OPCW and 18 years after the entry into force of the CWC this particular question remains unresolved. [Per Runn, Verification Annex, Part X, in W. Krutzsch, E. Myjer, and R. Trapp (eds.), The Chemical Weapons Convention: A Commentary (2014), p. 618.] Whichever way, since Syria claims that it cannot pay for verification and other operations for which a state party should cover the costs, the international community must cough up the money.
What Syrian objectives may lie behind the accusations? First, the government may genuinely believe that it has been the victim of chemical attacks. In that case, one would expect government officials forthcoming with evidence. Even lacking experience in dealing with such a situation, the questions and requests for further evidence they could address in such a way that either it complements initial information with supplementary evidence or demonstrates that the desired data are genuinely not available, for instance, as a consequence of war circumstances.
Second, the accusations could be part of a broader scheme to deflect responsibility for the Syrian regime’s own chemical attacks or to deny the international community evidence that later might inculpate Syrian officials for war crimes. If the allegations are indeed part of a plan to deflect responsibility for CW use, an outside observer’s impressions can only vacillate between sloppiness and sheer incompetence, on the one hand, and unwillingness to provide relevant documentation (which many or may not have been deliberately destroyed or hidden), on the other hand. Alas, the latter concern is one I have also often heard mentioned in connection with Syria’s declarations as part of its disarmament obligations.
There is a third possibility, but here one can only hope that the request for an investigation was not part of an exercise to learn how to better disguise chemical warfare attacks or to manufacture evidence in support of alleged insurgent use of toxicants.