Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 27 April 2018

Chemical Weapons Use and International Hypocrisy

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Eric Reeves

“The scale and brutality of these attacks are hard to put into words. The images and videos we have seen in the course of our research are truly shocking; in one a young child is screaming with pain before dying; many photos show young children covered in lesions and blisters. Some were unable to breathe and vomiting blood.”

The use of chemical weapons, as former Secretary of State John Kerry once declared, is a “moral obscenity, particularly when used indiscriminately against civilians. There are compelling reasons they have been banned and their use is a war crime, to be investigated by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

It appears very likely that the Assad regime in Syria has yet again used chemical weapons, and President Trump has vowed a tough response.

But Trump and Kerry had no words of condemnation or warning about another, sustained use of chemical weapons—this time in Darfur, the western region of Sudan that has been the site of sustained ethnically-targeted destruction for more than fifteen years now. The counter-insurgency mounted by the Khartoum regime has killed more than 500,000 non-Arab/African civilians and displaced three million people. It is the longest and most “successful” genocide in over a century, and in 2016—during the U.S presidential campaign—it was the scene of the attacks described in my opening quote.

That quote comes from Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Director of Crisis Research, speaking in the Forward to Amnesty’s report on Khartoum’s assault on the Jebel Marra region of Darfur 2016; that report provided overwhelming evidence of chemical weapons use: “satellite imagery, more than 200 in-depth interviews with survivors, and expert analysis of dozens of appalling images showing babies and young children with terrible injuries.”

Although Khartoum prevented tissue and soil samples from being collected—nor was their collection requested by the OPCW—the evidence left no room for scepticism about the use of chemical weapons: no known human pathogen or environmental hazard in this part of Darfur can possibly produce injuries of the sort visible in so many photos. More than 200 interviews also provide a congruent, consistent, and utterly compelling picture of chemical weapons use. In an article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, drawing on the expertise solicited by Amnesty International, Jonathan Loeb wrote that scientists concluded: “many victims suffered injuries that can only be explained by exposure to chemical agents delivered by weapons used in the attacks” (January 17, 2017).

This is not the first time we have had such compelling evidence of chemical weapons use by the Khartoum regime. Nobel Peace Prize-winning Doctors Without Borders (known internationally as Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) made public equally compelling evidence in February 2000. In a report by MSF/Switzerland several attacks are presented in excruciating detail:

On 23 July 1999, the towns of Lainya and Loka (Yei County) were bombed with chemical products. At the time of this bombing, the usual subsequent results (i.e. shrapnel, destruction to the immediate environment, impact, etc.) did not take place. [Rather], the aftermath of this bombing resulted in a nauseating, thick cloud of smoke, and later symptoms such as children and adults vomiting blood and pregnant women having miscarriages were reported…

These symptoms of the victims leave no doubt as to the nature of the weapons used. Two field staff of the World Food Program (who went back to Lainya, three days after the bombing, had to be evacuated on the 27th of July. They were suffering from nausea, vomiting, eye and skin burns, loss of balance and headaches.

Why the spectacular hypocrisy in responding to the Khartoum regime and the Assad regime? The OPCW specifically states that any State Party to the Chemical Weapons Convention may request that an inspection team be sent to the site in question by the OPCW Director-General. Perhaps part of the answer is this same Khartoum regime is now Vice Chair of the Executive Committee of the OPCW. But in fact, the OPCW has never in its history received such a request—astonishingly, not even in the case of Syria. And when it comes to Sudan, there appears to be no interest whatsoever.

So we are left with the unctuous words of John Kerry and Donald Trump—about Syria. About the equivalent evidence of chemical weapons in Darfur, there is not even outrage, merely silence. As Western nations pursue rapprochement with Khartoum’s génocidaires for variously self-interested reasons, chemical weapons use seems to be merely an inconvenience best ignored.

Eric Reeves has written extensively on Sudan for two decades; he is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights



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