As members of the U.N. Security Council debate this week about whether to renew their Syria chemical weapons investigation, they might want to read Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” It describes an attack in which a man dies from exposure to a chemical agent on the battlefield, “stumbling and flound’ring like a man in fire”:
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.”
Owen’s gut-wrenching scene from a century ago is worth revisiting, because the scene he so vividly depicted has been repeated over and over again in Syria for at least four years. Many of the victims have been civilians, including children. They have died from exposure to sarin, sulfur mustard and chlorine.
The horrors of chemical attacks in WWI and the 1980s Iran-Iraq war are among the reasons countries have, since the 1920s, sought to end them. This culminated when the vast majority of countries came together and agreed to create the Chemical Weapons Convention, the global ban on these hideous weapons that came into force in 1997.
In the wake of the August 2013 sarin attack on two Damascus suburbs that left hundreds of civilians dead, Russia and the United States set aside their differences and required Syria to dismantle its chemical stockpile and join the treaty. The Security Council unanimously endorsed the U.S.-Russian plan, which brought Syria into the world’s most adhered-to weapons ban.
While the Syrian government handed over much of its chemical weapons stock for destruction, it did not stop using these weapons, as documented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is in charge of ensuring that the treaty is observed.
Security Council members need to restore the lost consensus that followed the terrible August 2013 attacks and renew the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, a team of investigators staffed by the U.N. and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Its job is to identify those responsible for chemical attacks in Syria that have continued since Syria joined the chemical weapons treaty so they can be held to account for their crimes.
Last month, Russia vetoed a proposed renewal of the Joint Investigative Mechanism due to a dispute over whether the renewal vote would be held before its report was released on whether the Syrian government was responsible for an attack earlier this year. The JIM has confirmed that the Syrian government was responsible for that attack, a sarin attack at Khan Sheikhoun in April. But in the same report, it also confirmed that ISIS was responsible for a sulfur mustard attack in 2016. The group is investigating other attacks where the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed the presence of chemical agents.
It’s not too late to renew the Joint Investigative Mechanism before its mandate expires this month. Disliking its conclusions is no reason to shut it down. The security council and its members have an obligation to let it continue with its work and then to impose sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for the chemical attacks.
The United Nations Security Council should make clear to those contemplating the use of chemical weapons that the international community can track them down and prosecute them. Shuttering the JIM would send a message to combatants in Syria and elsewhere that getting away with chemical murder is easy. It would also send a terrible message that the security council is unwilling to enforce one of the world’s clearest norms prohibiting a method of warfare. Does the security council really want that on its conscience?