Building A WMD-Free Zone on Existing Treaties and Conventions Syrian CWC-Adherence and Reactions, Especially in Israel

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

Speaking notes for the side event to the 2017 Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), organised by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East (APOME), Vienna, 8 May 2017.

It builds on and updates an earlier posting of 13 March 2015.

Operation of the CWC in the Middle East

  • As of 1 May 2017, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) comprises 192 states parties. The CWC entered into force 20 years ago, on 29 April 1997. It has the largest number of parties of any weapon control treaty.
  • Four states, including two from the Middle East, are still outside the convention: Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan. (Israel did sign but not ratify the convention.)
  • Given the armed conflicts in different parts of the Middle East, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has intervened in Syria and Libya to secure declared chemical weapons (CW) and have them destroyed in other parties to the CWC so as to prevent their use by any one of the belligerents in either country. The Libyan operation took place in August 2016. It drew on the precedent set by and experience gained from the evacuation of chemicals from Syria.

Situation in Syria

  • Syria acceded to the CWC on 14 September 2013 and formally became a state party on 14 October. This was the outcome of a framework agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capacities between Russia and the United States reached in Geneva on 14 September.
  • Since Syria’s accession to the CWC the OPCW has:
    • verified the destruction of 24 of the 27 CW production and storage facilities. Lack of safe access has prevented inspectors from destroying one final aircraft hangar and confirming the condition of two stationary above-ground facilities.
    • overseen the evacuation and complete destruction of all declared chemical chemicals (precursors to nerve agents and mustard agent) for a total of about 1,300 metric tonnes. It also verified the destruction of declared delivery systems.
  • However, there remain several outstanding issues, including the OPCW’s inability to confirm the destruction of 200 metric tonnes of mustard agent in March 2013 (i.e. about 6 months before Syria’s accession to the CWC), the discovery of nerve agent traces in locations not declared by the Syrian government, and the later discovery of an undeclared ricin production facility.
  • Furthermore, since Syria’s accession there have been multiple incidents involving the use of toxic chemicals as weapons, mostly chlorine. On 4 April an attack with the nerve agent sarin took place against the city of Khan Sheikhoun, the first such use since the sarin strike against Ghouta in August 2013. At the time of writing it is unclear whether the sarin was prepared from undeclared volumes of precursor chemicals or whether Syrian scientists and engineers produced a batch from scratch.
  • The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been responsible for some isolated attacks with chlorine and mustard agent in Syria and Iraq. This has created new challenges for the OPCW in terms of investigating and responding to the alleged events. Indeed, these incidents mostly involved the use by a non-state actor against another non-state actor on the territory of a state party to the CWC that is not under the control of that state party.
  • The Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the OPCW has confirmed repeated CW use in Syria. The UN Security Council established the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) to attribute responsibility for the chemical attacks. JIM has thus far held the Syrian government responsible for three attacks and ISIL for one. Its investigation is ongoing.

Responses from within the Middle East

  • Iran is a strong backer of the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Having been a victim of chemical warfare during the 1980–88 Iran-Iran war, it strongly condemns chemical warfare. However, it denies the Syrian government’s responsibility for the CW attacks since August 2013 and instead blames insurgent factions. It follows the arguments laid out by Russia (and to a lesser extent by China) and plays an active role in the decision-making processes relating to the technical assessments prepared by the FFM in the Executive Council of the OPCW.
  • Some government officials, politicians or commentators both inside and outside the Middle East have made rather wild allegations (without any factual substantiation of these political statements) that other external parties to the civil war supply belligerents with the materials for chemical warfare. Iran has been named as a supplier of the Syrian government; uncontrolled stockpiles in Libya might be transferred to various belligerents in Syria.
  • Attribution of responsibility for the CW attacks has been accompanied by claims that neighbouring states are responsible for supplying or facilitating the transfer of chemicals and equipment to belligerent factions they support. Since with the exception of Israel all neighbouring states are parties to the CWC, the claims are tantamount to an accusation against such states of a material breach of the convention.
  • The current Israeli government has long maintained that Syria has never given up its entire CW capacity since joining the CWC. The difficulties for the OPCW to close the Syrian disarmament dossier tend to reinforce Israel’s deep-rooted pessimism about the ability of international weapon control treaties to guarantee its national security. Israeli attitudes towards Iran, which include conviction of Tehran’s non-compliance with the CWC, appear to be bolstered by Iran’s on-the-ground military support for Syria and Hezbollah in both Lebanon and Syria and its interventions in the OPCW Executive Council.

Concluding thoughts

  • Over the past two decades the CWC has contributed much to the removal of the spectre of chemical warfare, particularly in the Middle East. Addressing specific challenges in Syria and Libya, the states parties to the convention have demonstrated adaptability, flexibility and willingness to support financially or materially the extraordinary disarmament efforts in the field. As a result, the treaty regime has evolved considerably with respect to meeting challenges unforeseen by the CWC negotiators.
  • However, the unrelenting use of toxic chemicals as a weapon of warfare in Syria fundamentally challenges the CWC’s most basic premise to never under any circumstance use CW. Furthermore, backing of belligerents by outside parties (all of whom have joined the CWC) is increasingly tending towards a violation of the prohibition to never under any circumstances to induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any prohibited activity (Article I ‘General Obligations’).
  • Syria’s inability or unwillingness to resolve all outstanding issues with regard to its CW programmes also challenges the integrity of the CWC and the OPCW’s operational procedures. Factual findings are becoming more and more politicised (often driven by ulterior geopolitical motivations), making consensus-based decision-making increasingly difficult.
  • Since the 2nd World War all major occurrences of chemical warfare (with the exception of US use of herbicides and riot control agents in Indochina in the 1960s and early 1970s) have taken and are taking place in the Middle East. All these instances of CW use in the Middle East involved Arab regimes and have targeted fellow Arabs, Muslims or their own population. None were ever launched against Israel.
  • Compared with the question of regional nuclear disarmament, which directly involves Israel, Arab countries have despite the history of chemical warfare in the region remained remarkable indifferent to the many uses of chemical weapons. For instance, not a single member of the Arab League contributed financially or materially to the disarmament operations in Syria or Libya.

CWC 20th anniversary: Speeches and impressions

Commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Entry into Force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (The Hague, 26 April 2017)

Invitation to the Commemoration

The Programme

Collection of speeches

  • Welcome address by Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the OPCW
  • Video message by Mr António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
  • Address by Mr Bert Koenders, Minister of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands
  • Address by Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden
  • Address by Mrs Pauline Krikke, Mayor of The Hague
  • Address by Ambassador Dr Christoph Israng, Chairperson of the Conference of the States Parties

Some photographic impressions

The guests gather in the Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights)

OPCW Director-General Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü welcomes delegates and guests

Video message by UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Netherlands Foreign Minister Bert Koenders

Mrs Pauline Krikke, Mayor of The Hague

Unveiling of the Commemorative Plaque by King Willem-Alexander of The Netherlands and OPCW Director-General Üzümcü

Ambassador Christoph Israng, Chairperson of the Conference of the States Parties


Hate mail for standing up for CW disarmament – A first?

The news just broke that the Trump administration launched cruise missiles against al Shayrat airfield in Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib Province on 4 April.

I then got the following message:

As usual with such religion-infused hate messages, the basic facts are all wrong and ignorance reigns supreme.

It is really sad that with so much intolerance concerning social relations, ethnicity and personal identity, the efforts at disarmament – a core tool in creating international stability, preventing the outbreak of war, or should that fail, escalation of the conflict – now too become the object of highly individualised hatred.

But Kathryn, to reply to your question: Yes, I am proud to stand up for disarmament and peaceful conflict resolution, and will always do so in spite of your hateful intercessional prayers for a person unknown to you.

In the meantime, please reflect on the fact that your president has never allowed or gave those (beautiful) innocent children a chance to seek refuge in the United States from the war calamaties in Syria.

Otherwise, I hope you have a nice and peaceful day in California.


CW attack in Khan Sheikhoun: Documents from the UNSC debate on responsibility

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

{Update 4 – 12 April 2017}

This posting brings together the most important documents circulating at this stage.

First, the minutes with the statements by UN Security Council (UNSC) members and debate on 28 February, during which a resolution to sanction certain Syrian individuals deemed responsible for the earlier CW attacks was vetoed, can be downloaded here.

On 5 April, the UNSC held an emergency debate after the chemical weapon attack against Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib Province, Syria that killed scores of civilians – the death toll is now approaching 100 – and hundreds of other casualties.

In a statement also issued on 5 April, the WHO gave credence to the hypothesis that the agent or one of the agents used might have been sarin:

The likelihood of exposure to a chemical attack is amplified by an apparent lack of external injuries reported in cases showing a rapid onset of similar symptoms, including acute respiratory distress as the main cause of death. Some cases appear to show additional signs consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents.

The full document is available from the WHO website.

The UNSC emergency session began with a report by Mr Kim Won-soo, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) has published his statement.

A detailed summary of the session presentations and discussion is available here.

At present, Russia, on the one hand, and France, United Kingdom and the United States, on the other hand, have started circulating draft texts for resolutions.

And he made the early French, UK and US draft available via the web.

A debate and vote on these draft resolutions was expected in the evening of 6 April (EST), but has been cancelled.

Also on 6 April the European Union released a statement denouncing the chemical attack, but supporting ‘the efforts of the OPCW in Syria with regard to the investigation of the use of chemical weapons and [considering] that such efforts have to be continued in the future by the international community‘.

The UN Security Council is meeting on 7 April to discuss the US airstrike against Syria. A briefing ahead of the meeting updates the status of the negotiations on a resolution condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

{Update}revised French, UK and US draft resolution on his blog.

{Update} Meanwhile the 4-page White House report on the chemical weapon attack against Khan Sheikhoun is also available.

More to follow as they become available.


VX assassination and ALT+Reality

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

The assassination of Kim Jong-nam with—according to Malaysian authorities—the nerve agent VX unsurprisingly yielded many press articles, expert commentaries and other opinion pieces. Equally unsurprising is how uninformed several commentators are about the basics of all things chemical warfare. And I am not even referring to the ignorati who characterise VX (or mustard agent, for that matter—courtesy Dan’s unrelenting aspiration to educate the Twitterati) as a gas (it is a liquid with the viscosity of motor oil). It is about not checking basic facts or the accuracy of sources (which may quickly become outdated), as well as copy-and-paste work—particularly from peers or Wikipedia.

VX categorised as a weapon of mass destruction, according to the UN

In popular speech chemical weapons (CW) are easily called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD). However, if one thinks of CS tear gas (yes, it should be ‘lachrymatory agent’, because it is a solid) or pepper sprays, then one immediately realises how misleading the term is. The same goes for the use of a poisonous substance, be it VX, ricin, or something less glamorous like rat poison, to assassinate a single individual. Even if the victim has a high body mass, it still does not make the murder weapon a WMD. Anyway, this is an unresolvable, and therefore never-ending discussion about a term certain Western political elites politicised and popularised to justify their invasion of Iraq in 2003. (Yes, WMD later came to stand for ‘weapons of mass delusion’, a proto-reference to ALT+Reality.)

Even so, I became intrigued by the recurring phrase ‘listed / classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations’ in many of the press accounts after Malaysian authorities publicly identified VX as the murder weapon on 24 February. Some articles had an additional, but very specific reference: such characterisation was contained in UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). See for example:

It is true that the first resolution ever adopted by the UN General Assembly, namely ‘Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problem Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy(UNGA Resolution 1(I), 24 January 1946) contained the following provision in the terms of reference of the proposed commission (para. 5 (c)):

For the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.

On 12 August 1948, the UN Commission on Conventional Armaments adopted a resolution for consideration by the UN Security Council in which it proposed that its jurisdiction include ‘all armaments and armed forces’ with the exception of atomic weapons and weapons of mass destruction. It further proposed to define WMD

to include atomic explosive weapons, radio active material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above.

This, however, was a negative way of defining ‘conventional weapons’ as a residual weapon category so as to serve the commission’s interests. It is by no means a legal definition. No such definition exists, despite the many references to WMD in UN documents and working papers. Consequently, there is no UN classification of WMD, including for lethal chemical agents like VX.

It is worth noting that the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) does not use ‘lethality’ as a criterion for defining a chemical weapon. The United States adopted such a specification in the 1920s in an effort to exempt riot control agents from the prohibition on CW use in the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which other states did not accept at the time. It revived the concept in the 1960s and 1970s to avoid characterisation of its widespread use of lachrymatory and anti-plant agents during the Viêt-Nam war as chemical warfare and to retain such military options while Congress was debating ratification of the Geneva Protocol. A final hiccup occurred during the Senate’s ratification of the CWC in 1997. In short, the so-called ‘non-lethal’ lachrymatory and incapacitating agents are part and parcel of the legal definition of a chemical weapon. (Too bad for the WMD aficionados.)

This leaves us with the reference to UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). This document essentially comprises the cease-fire agreement after the eviction of Iraq from Kuwait and the Iraq’s disarmament requirements with regard to biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles. However, it contains no reference whatsoever to VX.

So, where does the quote come from? Given the as good as identical phrasing in different articles (with or without the specific reference to Resolution 687), I would say that writers copied from each other without checking the statement’s foundation in reality. However, somebody did research and then copied and pasted word for word the erroneous sentence from the entry ‘VX (Nerve Agent)’ in Wikipedia (1st paragraph):

As a chemical weapon, it is classified as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) by the United Nations Resolution 687.

Students get busted for such sloppy investigative work.

Saddam Hussein used VX in Halabja in 1988

Another theme recurring in several reports is:

VX, which Malaysian police said was detected on Kim Jong Nam’s eyes and face, was used by Saddam Hussein’s forces in a 1988 poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in northern Iraq that killed thousands.

This version is taken from: Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung, AP Explains: What chemical weapons N. Korea possesses (24 February). As an Associated Press feed, it got into several major news outlets and papers.

A variant of the assertion appeared in the US magazine Rolling Stone, which almost certainly did not draw on the AP report.

Now, anybody vaguely familiar with the history of chemical warfare knows that nerve agents were used for the first time during the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war (sarin and tabun), but also that VX has never been used in combat. In fact, the only time VX was deployed to kill people was when in the mid-1990s the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo attempted to eliminate several of its opponents. One person died; some victims of the attacks survived.

So, where did that come from? As it turns out, the same Wikipedia article (Section ‘Instances of VX use’). Only this time around, the writers misquote the entry, which reads [emphasis added]:

There was evidence of a combination of chemical agents having been used by Iraq against the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 under Saddam Hussein. Hussein later testified to UNSCOM that Iraq had researched VX, but had failed to weaponize the agent due to production failure.

The first sentence is referenced with a BBC press report dated 16 March 1988, which was when the first accounts about the chemical bombardment of the Kurdish town came out. The article stated (in a speculative way):

According to experts, the chemicals dropped by the planes may have included mustard gas, the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX and possibly cyanide.

As the BBC explains in a separate comment on the same web page that places the original press item in context: ‘Most of the details about the Halabja killings only emerged a few days later.’ In this instance, the error is not with Wikipedia: despite the entry’s title, it did not assert that the combination of chemicals used in Halabja (which is a correct statement) included VX and it immediately followed up with Iraq’s failure to weaponise VX.

The Rolling Stones writer (whose article includes several errors – check out my comment) tried to avoid the stigma about Wikipedia as a source among academics by directly quoting the BBC piece. Alas …

Again, students get busted for such sloppy investigative work.

North Korea has the world’s third largest CW stockpile

Kim Jong-nam’s murder also led some writers to speculate about the chemical warfare threat posed by North Korea. Based on a South Korean Defence White Paper published in 2014, the general assumption is that the country holds between 3 and 5,000 tonnes of warfare agent. These figures have been around for ages.

However, more surprising is the recurring assertion in national media and by international press agencies that the stockpile is the world’s third largest. In this case, there is somewhat more transparency, as several authors point to a fact sheet on North Korea’s CW capacities prepared by the National Threat Initiative (NTI). However, that fact sheet has not been updated since December 2015. It includes the following judgement in the opening summary:

While assessing CW stockpiles and capabilities are difficult, the DPRK is thought to be among the world’s largest possessors of chemical weapons, ranking third after the United States and Russia.

In support of this assertion it cited: North Korean Security Challenges: A Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), p. 161.

So here, the press takes over an easy, catchy quote but fails to understand that the original source is six years old. As if there is no CWC; as if the United States and Russia made no progress in eliminating their respective cold war arsenals.

I can assure you, a student in my course on ‘Armament and Disarmament Dynamics’ who submitted such sloppy investigative work would not have survived (and indeed, some did not).

Moral of the story

Alternative facts are not the privilege of an occupant of one presidential seat. It is a reality we need to address every day, and it is up to each one of use to test for the factual truth time and time again, even (or especially) if it goes against received wisdom or the trending opinion of the day .

(Gosh, did I really have to write that?)


VX murder in Kuala Lumpur?

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

According to an overnight statement by the Malaysian police, Kim Jong Nam—half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—was assassinated with the nerve agent VX at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

VX is one of the high-end chemical warfare agents developed and produced in large quantities by the USA, USSR and some secondary powers during the cold war. Former military chemical weapon arsenals are being eliminated under the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), of course, is together with Egypt, Israel and South Sudan one of the four hold-out states. It is widely believed to have a significant chemical warfare capacity, but how militarily effective it might be is anyone’s guess.

Commentators will happily inform you that it possesses the world’s largest stockpile, which is as good as meaningless given that all other arsenals have been almost entirely eliminated under international supervision. BBC World already broadcast a report in which an unidentified ‘expert’ said it had to be a nation-state because its synthesis is far too complex for your backroom.

Statement by the Malaysian Police on the identification of the VX nerve agent (24 February 2017)

However, the substance is not unknown in terrorism: Aum Shinrikyo synthesised somewhere between 100 and 200 grammes of the substance between 1993 and 1995. It tried to assassinate several opponents by spraying it in the face of the victim with a syringe. Only one person died; the others survived. It always appeared technological overkill: had the cult used more ‘traditional’ assassination weapons, such as knives or guns, their attacks would have been far more lethal.

Many questions; few answers so far

As the information stands right now, the Malaysian police’s claim is remarkable for what it does not say. The preliminary toxicology report reportedly states that traces of VX were detected on swabs of the dead man’s face and eyes. If this is the case, then the following questions require an answer:

  • Why were there no previous descriptions in press reports of symptoms typically associated with nerve agent exposure (spasms, foaming, discolouration, etc.)?
  • Why did it take 9 days since the assassination on 13 February before the poison was confirmed?
  • Why did the preliminary toxicology report (or at least the police officer) not mention physiological consequences of nerve agent exposure, such as increased acetylcholine levels (which is responsible for the spasms)?
  • What is meant by ‘traces’? Residue? Or small amounts? VX is a pretty persistent agent that can last for days. Rubbing the agent in the face suggests an area with a rather high concentration of the agent, even if the amount was limited.
  • Why did the assassin not display any of those symptoms? Was she wearing gloves or was the agent contained in a capsule? (And if she was wearing gloves, were they then not found? Or frangments of a capsule?) Did she receive a nerve agent pretreatment antidote? There were some reports of vomiting, but was this reaction related to nerve agent exposure? Any splash of a tiny droplet anywhere on her body would have resulted in some symptoms of varying degree. She was jailed, but nothing to such effect was reported.
  • There was apparently no decontamination effort at the airport. So, were first responders or medical staff at the airport clinic, police officers and other persons who came to the victim’s assistance or were in his vicinity affected through secondary contamination? No reports, thus far.
  • Have samples been sent to one of the top-level OPCW certified laboratories, such as the Verification Laboratory, Defence Medical and Environmental Research Institute, DSO National Laboratories in neighbouring Singapore (with or without involvement of the OPCW)?
  • Why did the Malaysian authorities say earlier today that they would sweep the airport and other locations for radioactive material? And apparently not for VX traces?

These, and I am sure, many more questions require clear answers before we can arrive at reasonable conclusions. More to come over the next days and weeks …

 


Allegation of chemical warfare in Darfur

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Warning: contains extreme graphic images of injuries and infection

Last September Amnesty International (AI) issued a 105-page report entitled Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air alleging the use of chemical weapons (CW) among other atrocities committed by Sudanese forces in the Darfur region. The chemical warfare section contains numerous images of civilian victims with horrifying skin lesions. It suggests that these are the consequence of exposure to a vesicant, possibly a mustard agent. The report is accompanied by a 4-minute video on YouTube. Several press articles and contributions to on-line media after the report’s publication have reinforced the allegation of mustard agent use.

To AI’s great frustration some countries have expressed reservations about the allegations, and so has the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The non-governmental expert community on CW matters has remained silent. After the initial buzz of interest in the press, the ripples caused by the investigation have all but faded. No fresh chemical warfare allegations seem to have surfaced since the report’s publication.

Were the reservations warranted? This posting reviews the report.

The allegation

The AI report documents several atrocities allegedly committed by Sudanese government forces against civilians in Jebel Marra, an area east of the town of Zalingei in south-west Sudan. Zalingei is the state capital of Central Darfur State. For decades famine and war have ravaged Darfur, causing immense human suffering and displacing millions. Humanitarian concerns about people living in camps set up by the United Nations or in the most squalid conditions in remote villages are immense. Access to Jebel Marra is as good as impossible, meaning that the plight of the local population and war crimes remain under-reported. According to AI, even the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) cannot access the region.

It is in this context that AI alleges CW attacks against civilians. According to the report summary (p. 5):

Amnesty International interviewed 56 residents of Jebel Marra, 46 civilians and ten members of SLA/AW, who alleged that Sudanese government forces utilized “poisonous smoke” during attacks in Jebel Marra between January and September 2016. These individuals, all of whom are either survivors of the alleged attacks or cared for survivors and victims, provided Amnesty International with substantial testimonial and photographic evidence in support of the allegations. The evidence strongly suggests that Sudanese government forces repeatedly used chemical weapons during attacks in Jebel Marra.

Survivors and caregivers described a wide variety of ailments that victims of alleged chemical weapons attacks experienced during the hours and days after exposure to the alleged chemical weapons agents.

Based on testimony from caregivers and survivors, Amnesty International estimates that between 200 and 250 people may have died as a result of exposure to the chemical weapons agents, with many – or most – being children. The vast majority of survivors of the suspected chemical weapons attacks have had no access to adequate medical care.

Amnesty International documented alleged chemical weapons attacks in and around at least 32 villages in Jebel Marra between January and September 2016. Several of the villages were attacked multiple times. The earliest attacks occurred during the start of the government’s offensive in mid-January. The attacks are ongoing. The most recent attack recorded by Amnesty occurred on 9 September 2016.

Exact identification of the specific chemical agents allegedly used in the attacks documented in this report would require the collection of environmental samples and physiological samples from those directly or indirectly exposed to the alleged chemical agents. An identification would also require an analysis of weapon remnants used during the attacks. Given that access to Jebel Mara is severely restricted, it was not possible for Amnesty International to obtain such samples.

Amnesty International asked two chemical weapons experts to independently review the clinical signs and symptoms revealed by the photographic and video evidence and interview notes. They are both respected experts with experience in unconventional munitions, including biological and chemical warfare agents, and are experienced in the diagnosis of exposure to chemical weapons agents.

Both experts found that there was credible evidence to strongly suggest that chemical weapons agents were used in the attacks documented in this report.

Both experts concluded the clinical signs and symptoms were most consistent with exposure to a class of chemical warfare agents called vesicants or blister agents, which include lewisite, sulphur mustard and nitrogen mustard. However, they also asserted that it was possible that survivors were exposed to a combination of chemicals in addition to blister agents.

These claims the report elaborates in chapter 6 (pp. 69–94), which includes numerous pictures of the effects of the alleged warfare agents on the victims and transcriptions of interview notes. Supporting evidence comes essentially in three forms: witness narratives, pictures, and expert assessment.

Witness narratives

AI collected statements from three categories of witnesses: caregivers, civilian victims and members of Sudan Liberation Army/Abdul Wahid (SLA/AW). It conducted most of its interviews pertaining to the chemical warfare allegations between June and September 2016. Five statements were recorded earlier: one in April and four in May. The earlier assertions thus appear to have been registered while investigating other atrocities such as the deliberate targeting of refugees and local civilians. They likely prompted AI to expand its probe so as to include possible chemical warfare.

Unsurprisingly, many witness accounts are confusing and descriptions of experiences do not easily match academic and medical treatises on CW exposure. They often reveal an interviewee’s subjective linkage between cause and effect, something not uncommon in crisis situations. Equally striking is the rapid sequence of symptoms suffered by victims in various witness accounts. Unfortunately, at no point did the interviewers attempt to establish as precise as possible intervals between the noted incident and the onset of particular symptoms, or the sequence of manifestation of symptoms (e.g., in the eyes, miscarriages, etc.). Consequently, the AI report can but enumerate indicators (p. 70):

Survivors and caregivers reported a variety of changes to skin [Sic]. The changes included severe blisters, rashes, and itchiness. The victims’ skin reportedly hardened, changed colour to white, black, or green, and subsequently fell off. Changes to the skin often occurred very soon after exposure, normally within an hour; however, many caregivers reported that changes to the skin occurred the following day.

If the agent were to have been a vesicant, as is often suggested in the AI report, then some time frames are short.

Certain witness statements appear consistent with mustard agent exposure. However, the random listing symptoms, lack of time frames for their appearance, or the generalisation of observed symptoms from multiple casualties all make it difficult to attribute causality (p. 86):

“These are the most common symptoms from the bombardment and the rocket fire, which diffused poison, which changed the colour of eyes and induced vomiting and diarrhoea, which was sometimes bloody and caused many miscarriages… Sometimes people with diarrhoea get a high fever and then their diarrhoea becomes bloody… Sometimes you can see the colour of the body change and the colour of the eyes and then, all of a sudden, they die… their skin becomes dark black and there are rashes and blisters and they turn into wounds… Some people’s eyes become yellow/green, some become yellow/orange, and some become maroon… and if you open the eyelid, the inside changes to red with black spots… In two cases it looked like [the eyes] were going to pop out of the head… Some children suffered hair loss… The patients’ urine changes to different colours. To orange and then red. Sometimes [the urine] is mix of black and dark blue…. Some people have trouble breathing… and they have a very fast heartbeat… Sometimes the blood pressure is low and sometimes it is very high… Many children have swollen bodies… [In three cases] adults had seizures. Two died… Once we noticed the sick person shaking uncontrollably… we needed three or four people to keep him on the bed until one part of the body became paralyzed. Fifteen minutes later, he passed away.”

While passages such as this one each represent a single interviewee, the AI report does not lay out any individual case studies detailing the evolution of symptoms. Even when allowing for the difficulties in collecting testimonials, two other methodological issues also affect the quality of the claims.

First, as the quote above illustrates, many sentences are not written out in full. Combined they do not leave the impression of having been transcribed from a recorded interview; they rather seem handwritten notes transposed into sentences. As a consequence the reader has no inkling how the interviewer pursued his questions, whether and when he followed up replies with additional questions to collect more detail, or if he attempted to corroborate, correlate or disambiguate individual witness accounts. This inevitably opens AI’s estimates of the number of CW incidents and fatalities to critical questioning.

Second, which communication framework was established to ensure that interviewer and interviewee share a common interpretation of signifier and signified? More specifically, how were concepts transposed from a local language whose speakers are unlikely to have assimilated vocabulary of chemical warfare during the interviews?  Chapter 2 on methodology (p. 7) describes the difficulties AI encountered trying to acquire information and evidence from the Jebel Marra region. It also outlines the general methodology:

Amnesty International’s investigation was carried out by two researchers with extensive contact networks inside Jebel Marra, one of whom is from the area and fluent in Fur, the main local language’.

[…]

Amnesty International interviewed the survivors and witnesses individually. Interviews generally lasted between 30 and 120 minutes. The majority of the interviews were conducted in Fur, a minority were conducted in Arabic, and a few were conducted in English.

Fur is unlikely to contain specific chemical warfare vocabulary. The report does not reveal who translated the interview notes: the interviewer himself or a specialised translator? Since the report does not list the questions put to witnesses, it is not possible to assess how the interviewer communicated his questions on chemical warfare. Similarly, the reader has no sense whether and how he assisted witnesses when they did not fully comprehend a question. Finally, the reader also lacks insight into possible interpretation bias by the questioner and what steps were undertaken to avoid it from occurring as much as possible.

I noted earlier that the bulk of interviews concerning CW use took place in the later stages of the investigation. So, at what point in the project and how did AI become convinced that Sudanese government forces had resorted to mustard agent or another vesicant? Were chemical warfare experts already at this stage involved in this assessment? At what point in the investigation did AI begin to receive pictures suggesting possible exposure to chemical warfare gents? The latter question is of particular importance to know how the pictures in the report correlate in time and place with the narrative or individual testimonials.

Read the rest of this entry »