Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria

Foreign and Commonwealth Office written statement – made on 30th November 2017.

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Photo of Boris Johnson Boris Johnson Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I wish to make a statement about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) - UN Joint Investigative Mechanism.

We condemn the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere. It is of great concern that chemical weapons attacks against civilians in Syria have continued, four years after the Syrian regime used sarin in Ghouta to such horrific effect in 2013.

The UN Security Council has made clear repeatedly, in resolutions 2118 (2013), 2209 (2015), and 2235 (2015), that there would be consequences for those responsible for using chemical weapons in Syria. The Security Council thus sent a clear signal that all chemical weapons attacks in Syria must cease.

On 26 October the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) issued its report on its investigation into the incident in Khan Sheikhoun of 4 April 2017 (available at www.un.org as document reference S/2017/904). When I updated the House in April I said that the Assad regime almost certainly gassed its own people, in breach of international law and the rules of war. Nearly 100 people died and hundreds more were injured in that terrible attack. Six months later the JIM concluded that it was ‘confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin’ at Khan Sheikhoun. The JIM also concluded that it was ‘confident that ISIL is responsible for the use of sulfur mustard’ at Um Housh on 15 and 16 September 2016. The JIM’s report is the result of a painstaking, independent investigation by UN investigators.

These were not isolated incidents. The JIM had already found that the regime used chlorine as a chemical weapon on at least three separate occasions in 2014 and 2015 and that Daesh used sulphur mustard once in 2015. The OPCW reported on 2 November that sarin was more than likely used on 30 March in Ltamenah, only 15 miles from Khan Sheikhoun. The OPCW continues to investigate further reports of alleged chemical attacks by both Daesh and the Syrian regime. It also continues to investigate “gaps, inconsistencies and inaccuracies” in Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons programme.

I was appalled to see Russia veto three times the attempts by the UN Security Council to continue the JIM’s investigations. Those votes, bringing Russia’s vetoes on Syria to a total of eleven, demonstrated Russia’s overriding determination to protect their allies in the Syrian regime, whatever the crimes committed. Despite the fact that, in 2013, Russia said it had secured Syria’s agreement to destroy all its chemical weapons, Syria has continued to use them. Russia’s response to four confirmed chemical attacks by the Syrian regime and two by Daesh is to shut down further investigation.

The UK has been at the forefront of international efforts to ensure that reports of attacks are properly investigated and those responsible identified. The UK was proud to have supported both the JIM and the OPCW’s Fact Finding Mission, including contributing funding to the OPCW’s Syria Trust Funds, for destruction, verification and investigative activities. And we responded to the request for assistance from the investigators by sharing information which underpinned the conclusions the UK had reached nationally and which I set out to the House in April.

We will not let Russia’s actions to close down the JIM stop our efforts to uphold international law prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, and to identify and bring to justice those who violate that law. We fully support the OPCW’s ongoing investigations, and other investigations into crimes committed in Syria, such as the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry and the UN General Assembly’s International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM). Working with our partners on the UN Security Council and in other fora, we will actively seek to hold to account those responsible for using chemical weapons and prevent such attacks happening again.