U.S. Action to Uphold Chemical Weapon Prohibition Must Be Founded in Broader Strategy to End Conflict in Syria

Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First condemned the Syrian government’s use of chemical gas that killed over 70 civilians this week and urges the U.S. government to work with the international community to immediately address the gross violations of human rights and the commission of war crimes occurring in Syria. Following last night’s U.S. missile strike against a Syrian airfield in response to the recent gas attack, the organization cautions that any use of force should comply with all applicable domestic and international law and must be situated within a broader strategy for resolving the conflict in Syria.

“While the United States has taken decisive action to uphold the prohibition against chemical weapons, we must remember that the Sarin gas attack on April 4 was but one egregious and unlawful attack in a conflict that has been ongoing for over six years and that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians,” said Human Rights First’s Rob Berschinski. “Any engagement in Syria should be founded in international and domestic law and must address the root of the conflict, as well as the human rights abuses that have been perpetrated against civilians. It must also provide for the protection of the refugees created by this violence.”

The use of Sarin gas is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a direct violation of an agreement, brokered by Russia and the United States with the Syrian government in 2013, that Syria would destroy all its stocks of chemical weapons and refrain from their further use in the conflict. That agreement came after a chemical weapons attack against civilians in Ghouta in August 2013. U.S. military strikes at the time were averted by this diplomatic agreement. Since then, the Syrian government has persisted in its use of prohibited chemicals against civilians and, in doing so, contributed to the erosion of the international norm absolutely prohibiting the use of chemical weapons.

This week’s Sarin gas attack is one of many incidents in which the Syrian government has exacted a devastating toll on civilians in the region. In addition to the chemical attacks, many thousands of Syrian civilians have been killed by airstrikes and other fighting. The conflict has created nearly five million refugees and over seven million internally displaced persons.

In light of this week’s attack, the Trump Administration should take immediate steps to ensure that its response complies with domestic and international law, and should initiate robust efforts to bring an end to all mass killings of civilians in Syria, whether by chemical or conventional weapons.

Human Rights First urges the Trump Administration to:

  • Develop and implement a multi-pronged comprehensive strategy to: protect the civilian population and end mass killings; guarantee humanitarian access to all parts of Syria; and renew efforts to negotiate cessation of hostilities agreements, in partnership with Russia, which will help create conditions conducive to advancing a diplomatic end to the conflict. Previous efforts to negotiate such agreements foundered because of the absence of effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. Having demonstrated its willingness to enforce agreements in Syria, the United States now enters this process with enhanced credibility.
  • Return to the U.N. Security Council to seek to pass an updated version of the resolution submitted this week condemning the Syrian attack, supporting the work of the Fact Finding Mission established to investigate reported use of prohibited chemical weapons, and making clear that future violations of the absolute prohibition of the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.
  • Present to Congress its strategy in Syria and seek clear domestic and international authorization for using military force, which would strengthen the administration’s position and global credibility by providing clear legal authorization for future military action in defense of this international norm and protection of human rights.
  • Lead on resettlement of Syrian refugees. The latest gas attack will likely increase the number of refugees seeking protection, yet the United States has failed to accept refugees at a rate commensurate with the crisis. In addition, President Trump’s executive order banning Syrian refugees is not only an abdication of the United States’ historic legacy of refugee protection, but a weakening of the U.S. government’s ability to demonstrate to other countries the need for increasing refugee resettlement. Instead, the administration should increase the number of refugees resettled into the United States. The administration should also press Syria’s neighbors to allow refugees to cross borders to escape the conflict, and should commit to supporting refugees and refugee-hosting countries in the region.

In addition to renewing efforts to reach and enforce cessation of hostilities agreements, the United States and its allies should press for a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the U.N. Security Council. Investigations and eventual prosecutions by the ICC would put responsible officials and military personnel on notice that they will be held accountable for international crimes they commit.

Even if the Security Council does not agree to a referral of the situation in Syria to the ICC, the United States and its allies should continue and intensify efforts to identify individuals responsible for mass atrocities and crimes against humanity and explore ways to apply targeted sanctions on these individuals, such as through measures proposed in bills currently under consideration by Congress.

“The continuing humanitarian crisis in Syria should be sufficient reason for the administration to renew strong, sustained diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis,” noted Berschinski.


Published on April 7, 2017


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