Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 2: When alternative facts become blatant untruths

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 18 April 2018 the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held its 59th meeting, which was wholly dedicated to the assassination attempt with a nerve agent of the Novichok family. The Technical Secretariat presented its classified full ‘Report on Activities Carried out in Support of a Request for Technical Assistance by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Technical Assistance Visit TAV/02/18)’. A summary released by the Technical Secretariat on 12 April, although lacking in detail, stated that:

  • Two OPCW designated laboratories confirmed that the three hospitalised individuals had been exposed to a toxic chemical;
  • Another two OPCW designated laboratories confirmed the presence of the toxic chemical in environmental samples;
  • The results confirmed the UK’s findings relating to the identity of the toxic chemical; and
  • The TAV noted the high purity of the agent because of the almost complete absence of impurities.

Russia’s unprecedented revelation of the identity of a designated laboratory in an investigation

Prior to the Executive Council meeting Russia caused an uproar when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly identified one of the designated laboratories involved in the analysis of samples (Spiez laboratory, Switzerland). In his address to the Assembly on Foreign and Defence Policy on 14 April, he also confirmed the identification of Substance A-234 (a Novichok agent) and furthermore claimed (from Russian via Google Translate):

Based on the results of the examination, the traces of the toxic chemical BZ and its precursors belonging to the chemical weapons of the second category in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are found in the samples. BZ is a nerve agent temporarily disabling a person, psycho-toxic effect is achieved in 30-60 minutes and lasts up to four days.

This recipe was in the arsenal of the US Army, Great Britain and other NATO countries, there were no developments or accumulations of these chemical compounds in the Soviet Union and Russia.

The statement as such contains two errors.

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What is a chemical weapon? When is chlorine a chemical weapon?

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

 

A recurring question in the context of the investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into the use of chlorine in the attack against Douma on 7 April is whether chlorine is actually a chemical weapon (CW).

The simple answer is ‘yes’ if the chemical element is released as method of warfare, an act of terrorism, or any other deliberate act intended to harm or kill a person or animal.

There are two elements in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to bear in mind, namely the definition of a CW and the three Schedules (or lists with chemicals), which are annexed to the convention.

Definition of a chemical weapon under the CWC

Most toxic chemical are potentially dual-use. Moreover, the CWC wishes to cover not only yesterday’s and today’s toxic chemicals but also the ones that may be developed in the future. To this end, the CWC uses the so-called General Purpose Criterion (GPC): not the toxic chemical as such is prohibited; however, the purposes to which it may be applied are.

In this context it is useful to know that the treaty’s default condition is prohibition. In other words, all usage of toxic chemicals is prohibited unless for purposes that are not-prohibited (note the negative formulation). The CWC considers only four non-prohibited purposes.

Thus Article II, 1 states:

1. “Chemical Weapons” means the following, together or separately:

(a) Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes; […]

Here one can see that any toxic chemical is defined as a CW, except where intended for purposes not prohibited …, in which case the toxic chemical is by definition not a CW and therefore does not fall under the CWC.

Article II, 2 defines ‘toxic chemical’ as

‘Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. This includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere’.

In other words, this definition clearly bears on chlorine.

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Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 1: Deconstruction of the Russian denial

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Since the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent now just over one month ago, so much has been written about ‘Novichok’; so much has been opined about what ‘Novichok’ is meant to be (if it exists at all); and so much smoke has been spewed about what the identification of ‘Novichok’ suggests about culprits. This blog posting is the first of several to look into a specific aspect of the discussions concerning Novichok in the hope of clarifying where certain positions come from and what factual knowledge exists about this group of nerve agents.

Facts have been scarce. In fact, as a member of the public with long-time interest in chemical and biological weapons, I know very little about what took place in Salisbury on 4 March. I still have to see the first statement from British authorities—government officials, police, scientists at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down—in what form the Novichok agent was delivered. Was it a liquid? A solid in powdered form? A binary concoction? Delivered in a gel or ointment? Anything else?

‘Novichok’ as we know the family of nerve agents today was researched, developed, produced and field-tested in sizeable quantities in the Soviet Union and at least during the early years of Russia as an independent state. Little else beyond this basic information given by some of the chemists involved in the armament programme is available. Those researchers are not always in agreement with each other, especially as regards the skill levels required to synthesise the agent.

Meanwhile, government officials from both the United Kingdom and the Russian federation have launched a war of hyperbole. London overstated the nature and quality of evidence from forensic chemistry; Moscow, amid a broad smoke-and-mirrors campaign, used the exaggerations to poke holes in the British narrative. Just like with allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria, Russia has released a barrage of denials concerning the assassination attempt in the UK through disaffirmation of any involvement, construction of spurious logic and citation of any ‘expert’ willing to entertain conspiracy theories. It furthermore rejects any outcome unfavourable to its world view and questions procedures and methodologies applied by investigative bodies. Moscow, however, never supplies any physical evidence in support of its claims.

Yet, over the din there are two steadfast Russian positions: (1) Russia is not responsible for the Soviet Union’s actions, and (2) CW declarations concern only ‘produced’ toxic chemicals for use in warfare. In the specific context of the CWC, it places the three Schedules central to the prohibitory regime.

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Geopolitical manoeuvring behind Skripal

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 4 April the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will meet in a special session. Russia called the extraordinary meeting. It has been a month now since former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been exposed to a nerve agent in Salisbury. The United Kingdom (UK) government identified it as a member of the ‘Novichok’ family, once researched and developed by the Soviet Union. Russia is believed to have continued the programme at least during the first years after the breakup of the USSR. It has never come clear on the nature of the programme or identified the agents’ characteristics. As no other country has ever been associated with the Novichok family of agents, London’s finger-pointing at Moscow was not difficult.

War of loud words

Since the assassination attempt a war of loud words has erupted. The UK has continued with its investigation and called in the OPCW’s expertise with a view of validating its analyses of the nerve agent. By the latest indications, the results from the OPCW-certified laboratories will not be available before the middle of this month.

Meanwhile, London also launched a diplomatic offensive to isolate Russia internationally (for an overview, see the dedicated UK government web page), which so far has ended with tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomatic staff. The rhetoric strayed off course. The assassination attempt got linked to similar incidents over the past years and decades, Russia’s actions in its near-abroad and Syria, its cyber campaigns against the institutions of Western democracy, and the country’s more assertive stance against Western interests, particularly those of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). And, of course, the post-penultimate British schoolboy’s meme had to be called forth for domestic consumption: a mention of Nazi Germany.

Battle royale for the internet’s heart and minds

The British government’s (quite necessary) quietness about the investigation, the dearth of factual information beyond some generalities, and the distraction-causing verbal digressions into unrelated issue areas presented Russia with an open playing field. It was an opportunity it could not, and did not ignore.

Beyond the stacks of concealing black smoke and initial ridicule spouted by the government-sponsored international media and its diplomatic representatives to the UK, OPCW and EU, Moscow stayed much more focussed on the Skripal case. It was testing messages fast, discarding the ones failing to gain immediate traction and pursuing those that got picked up. Together, they addressed several issues simultaneously to drown out or cast doubt over any possible counterargument. That Russian officials or media contradicted themselves or seemingly confessed to total ignorance about past chemical warfare programmes did not matter. Speed was of the essence to avoid a coherent ripostes.

So, they challenged the notion that Russia was the sole originator of Novichok agents; they denied that there had ever been a Novichok programme; they suggested that the agent came form the British chemical defence laboratories at Porton Down or from similar facilities in other European countries; they questioned the OPCW’s legitimacy in the investigation while embracing the procedures foreseen in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to discuss the matter; etc. They upbraided the UK government for not releasing details about the nerve agent while the investigation is going on. And then Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proffered motive for the British using a Novichok agent against the Skripal family: covering up difficulties over Brexit.

However ludicrous some of the arguments, Moscow ultimately turned the tables on London. Russia now portrays itself as the victim of the attack because the UK was unable to guarantee the safety and security of its citizens, in addition to which it now refuses Russian consular access to Yulia. And exploiting both British silence on the heart of the matter and the waiting period for the OPCW test results, it called for an special session of the OPCW EC after having publicly released two sets of questions (1st set; 2nd set), some of which it could use to initiate the clarification process under CWC Article IX, 2. Quite a few of these questions Moscow has field-tested via its global megaphone. (A subset of questions Russia addressed to the French government too.)

Will Britain’s hand be forced?

How will the EC meeting tomorrow pan out? Difficult to say, but if the debates over Syria’s chemical weapon (CW) use offer any guidance, then the following broad lines may re-establish themselves: the Western countries will decry the violation of the CWC and seek justice; Russia will play out a geopolitical strategy based on nominal pledges of cooperation to influence the votes of members of the Non-Aligned Movement who are wary of being caught up in a new hegemonic struggle between Moscow and Washington.

Russia has definitely laid the groundwork for triggering Article IX, 2. But will it trigger it tomorrow? This is far from certain. Moscow’s core aim may be to place some of the key questions it has already publicised into the formal record, thereby forcing the UK to respond. Any reluctance or avoidance by London would feed a certain narrative, at least until the OPCW submits its own laboratory findings to the UK. That narrative will anticipate those findings; at a minimum it will place the British government under great pressure to release the analyses to other OPCW members, including Russia. That pressure might also compel the British government to follow OPCW procedures rather than pursuing the case through other diplomatic means, in which case Moscow’s gambit may already be anticipating crucial votes further down that path. (For an overview of the Article IX process, see my earlier blog posting Novichok and the Chemical Weapons Convention.)

Remains one question in all this: Where is Washington? в кармане?


Novichok and the Chemical Weapons Convention

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Assassinations with nerve agents are rare. Very rare. The reason is simple: other means to eliminate a person are simpler and much more effective. The marginal benefit from using even some of the most toxic substances ever made by man is negligible. What is more, the attempt fails often, as Aum Shinrikyo experienced when trying to take out some of the cult’s enemies with VX before the 1995 sarin attack in the Tokyo underground. Last year’s murder of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North-Korean leader Kim Jong-un, also involved VX according to Malaysian authorities. However, the real perpetrator behind the two women who rubbed the substance in his face was quickly identified.

The surprise that the assassination attempt on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK on 4 March involved one of the Novichoks was not little. First, this family of nerve agents is relatively unknown. Outside specialised disarmament and HazMat communities few people would have been aware of its existence. Over 100 chemical structures are believed to belong to it, all related yet different. The group of chemical structures does not figure in the Annex on Chemicals of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  Second, the substance was produced in any sizeable quantities in only one single country, the Soviet Union. Third, the required precursor chemicals and the pathways to synthesise the final agents are completely obscure to most of the public.

The UK government has formally accused Russia of the assassination attempt and expelled 23 Russian diplomatic personnel. Moscow vehemently denies the accusal and has retaliated by demanding that a similar number of diplomats leave the country. It furthermore denies ever having developed and produced Novichoks. The incident follows an already bitter stand-off between the West and Russia over Syria’s proven chemical weapon (CW) use that blocks effective UN Security Council action and splits the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). As the government of Prime Minister Theresa May has formally declared its intention to have the OPCW independently verify its analyses and share it with its international partners, the question is whether and how the international organisation can contribute to resolving the matter.

Ensuring compliance under the CWC

Beyond the CWC’s routine verification process involving declarations, assessments and inspections, Article IX ‘Consultations, Cooperation and Fact-Finding’ foresees procedures to resolve uncertainties about compliance or breaches of the convention. These procedures are consultations, clarification, challenge inspection and investigation of alleged use.

Consultation concerning anomalies

The CWC does not detail what consultations should entail, but views and encourages them together with information exchanges as one of the early (or low-key) diplomatic exchanges among states parties to resolve doubts or ambiguities about compliance.

According to a statement issued by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on 12 March Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson summoned the Russian Ambassador to seek an explanation from the Russian Government. The statement strongly suggests that the step was undertaken under the consultative process foreseen under Article IX. It added that Russia provided no meaningful response.

Summary of the consultation procedure (Slide by JP Zanders)

Clarification of compliance concerns

If in doubt or concerned about compliance, a state party may seek clarification. A state party will address the initial request for clarification to another state party, who must reply within 10 days. Although not stipulated in the convention, a degree of expectation exists that the latter would supply supplementary information (i.e. beyond what is available from, for instance, annual declarations or routine inspections) to address the concern.

In case the reply does not resolve the concern, the requesting state party may call for assistance from the EC, which must use its authority to lend weight to the request, including through forwarding the request within 24 hours. The state party to whom the clarification request is addressed has once again a maximum of 10 days to respond. If the replies still do not satisfy, the requesting state party my next request the EC to obtain further information, in which case it may (not ‘must’) decide to set up a group of experts to examine all available information and reports and submit a factual report. Although the group of experts can draw on previous inspection reports, it is in no position to launch its own inspection procedure.

After either of the two previous steps, the requesting state party may call for a special session of the EC, which then has the decision authority to ‘recommend any measure it deems appropriate to resolve the situation’. Although not stated explicitly in Article IX, those measures would presumably include obtention of further information or persuasion of the targeted state party to resolve the presumed violation in accordance with the CWC. If the requesting state party remains unsatisfied with the response, it may call for a special session of the Conference of States Parties (CSP) 60 days after the submission of the request for clarification to the EC. The CSP is to consider and may take any measure, which, as in the case of the EC, remains unspecified in the convention.

It is important to note that the launch of a clarification procedure does not require the outcome of routine inspections, but inspection reports may trigger additional requests for information. It should also be noted that the procedures described above do not affect the requesting state party’s right to call for a challenge inspection, nor are they affected by the conduct of a challenge inspection.

Summary of the clarification process (Slide by JP Zanders)

Challenge of non-compliance

Challenge inspections are the third tool outlined in CWC Article IX. It consists of a short-notice inspection at any site (irrespective of whether it has been declared or not) in a state party. Once the OPCW has authorised the challenge inspection the targeted state party has no right of refusal, but it can invoke the technique of managed access through which OPCW inspectors may be denied access to certain parts of the site. Managed access cannot be implemented in such a way that inspector access to the site as such is denied. However, irrespective of the outcome of the managed access negotiations between representatives of the challenged stated party and the OPCW inspectors, the latter retain full right to interview any staff member of the site (and thus possibly obtain relevant information about the areas to which they have been denied access).

Although a challenge inspection can be requested at any stage of consultation of clarification processes, the CWC encourages states parties to view the tool as an instrument of last resort.

Summary of the challenge inspection process (Slide by JP Zanders)

Investigation of alleged use

Part XI of the Verification Annex details the process of investigating the alleged use of CW or the alleged use of riot control agents as a method of warfare. In case the alleged use involves a state not party to the CWC, then the Director-General of the OPCW will closely cooperate with the UN Secretary General.

The procedure is applied (and has been further developed) with respect to the many allegations of chemical warfare in Syria. It is less relevant to the Novichok case.

Pathways to resolving the Novichok matter

How the investigation of the Skripal assassination attempt plays out will largely depend on the next key decisions by the UK government. The OPCW experts travel to the UK under Article VIII, 38(e), which qualifies their activity as a ‘Technical Assistance Visit’ to help with the evaluation of an unscheduled chemical (the Novichock agent) is not listed in any of the three schedules in the Annex on Chemicals).  They will likely visit the sites of investigation and collect their own samples (if for no other reason than to validate any laboratory samples they may receive), take all materials and documents related to the forensic investigation back to the Netherlands where the sample will be divided up and sent to two or more designated OPCW laboratories. (The list for 2017 can be consulted here.)

After having received the report, the UK government may opt to pursue the case using its own diplomatic means, possibly together with its allies, or it may decide to invoke one of the procedures outlined above, the most likely one being the clarification process. Given the current level of political rhetoric and the earlier summons of the Russian Ambassador, consultations will have little utility left. To call for a challenge inspection the UK will need to have extraordinarily precise information about the production or storage location (which might be difficult if, for example, forensic analysis points to recent, small-scale synthesis of Novichok or to a chemical structure different from those associated with the Soviet programme).

At present the outcome of any one of the procedures is difficult to foresee. Neither the clarification process nor challenge inspection option have been invoked previously. Moreover, even though the CWC may at first sight seem to suggest a hierarchy among the different procedures in terms of increasing stringency or steps in an escalatory process, each one can be pursued independently. They may also be invoked in succession, or they can run in parallel. One procedure is not necessarily a prerequisite to another one.

Central to the understanding of the procedures is that the OPCW, as an independent international organisation dedicated to overseeing the implementation of the CWC, provides a forum for consultation and cooperation among states parties, also in matters concerning compliance or conflict resolution.


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.

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.

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