Tuesday, 17 April 2018

In the face of barbarism (1)

Recent events in Syria have acutely raised the question of how the world is to deal with the barbarism of chemical weapons.  Gas as a weapon came to the forefront at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 - (Youtube - video).  Today, its use is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention which most nations (including Russia and Syria) have accepted as binding.

Syria and Chemical Weapons:

Since 2012, there is a complex history relating to Syria and chemical weapons and this is set out by the Arms Control Association - HERE.

In 2017, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed the use of sarin at Khan Shaykoun on 4th April 2017.  Subsequently, the United Nations issued the investigation report resulting from the work of OPCW and the UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (UN-JIM) This investigation was "confident" that the Syrian regime was responsible.

The OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism was established unanimously by the UN Security Council (Resolution 2235, 7 August 2015) with the mandate to identify “to the greatest extent feasible” individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organisers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons in Syria, where the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) determines or has determined that a specific incident involved or likely involved the use of chemicals as weapons."  In November 2017, Russia used its veto to block extending the remit of the Joint Investigative Mechanism and so its remit expired. 

On 7th April, an attack against civilians involving the use of chlorine gas took place in Douma, Syria - see BBC News 16th April and Middle East Eye 12th April.  Investigators from OPCW have gone to there to try to establish the detailed facts - see OPCW.  As at 18th April, the Fact Finding Mission from OPCW was unable to access Douma.

On 21st April, OPCW reported that it had been able to visit one site in Douma.   On 25th April, OPCW reported that it had been able to access a second site at Douma.

On 13th June 2018. the OPCW announced that sarin was very likely used as a chemical weapon in the south of Ltamenah, Syrian Arab Republic, on 24 March 2017.  The FFM also concluded that chlorine was very likely used as a chemical weapon at Ltamenah Hospital and the surrounding area on 25 March 2017 - see chemical weapons at Ltamenah, Syria on 24 and 25 March 2017

On 16th May, OPCW announced that chlorine was "likely used" at Saraqib, Syria on 4th Febriary 2018 - HERE.

On 4th May 2018, OPCW announced  that the initial deployment of the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) to gather facts in Douma, Syrian Arab Republic was complete.   At that time, it was not possible to give a timeframe for when the Douma report will be issued to States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention - HERE.


The UN Security Council (UNSC) met to consider the chemical attack in Douma.  On 10th April the UNSC failed to adopt two competing resolutions that would have established a new mechanism to investigate use of chemical weapons in Syria, as well as another concerning a fact-finding mission in the war-torn country - UN News 10th April.  It is instructive to note the voting.  A negative vote by a Permanent Member of the UNSC results in a resolution failing - commonly referred to as "veto."  Russia voted against a draft put forward by the USA which would otherwise have secured a majority.

Despite the failure of those resolutions, the UNSC subsequently refused to condemn the air strikes - UN News 14th April.

The Douma atrocity led to the USA, UK and France conducting air strikes against selected targets in Syria - ITV Report 14th April.

UK Parliament:

At the time of the air strikes, the UK Parliament was in its Easter recess and was not recalled to debate the matter.  The decision to commit UK Forces was taken by the government using Royal Prerogative powers.  This brought to the fore the somewhat ill-defined convention relating to Parliament and the use of Military action. The convention appears in the Cabinet Manual at para 5.38 - "In 2011, the Government acknowledged that a convention had developed in Parliament that before troops were committed the House of Commons should have an opportunity to debate the matter and said that it proposed to observe that convention except when there was an emergency and such action would not be appropriate."  A fuller explanation of the government's view of the convention is in a Written Statement dated 18th April 2016

Parliament returned from the Easter recess and, on 16th April, debated the use of air power in Syria on the night of 13th/14th April.  See the Prime Minister's Statement to the House of Commons and the Debate on Syria at Hansard Online.  In the evening of 16th April there was an Emergency Debate granted by the Speaker at the instigation of Alison McGovern MP (Wirral South).

A further Emergency Debate was granted.  This was at the instigation of the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Jeremy Corbyn MP) who proposed that the House debate Parliament’s rights in relation to the approval of military action by British forces overseas.  The debate was fixed for 17th April 2017.

Difficult questions:

This situation raises some difficult questions of - (a) international law relating to the use of force and (b) the relationship within the UK of the executive and Parliament.  I will come to those questions in my next post.  However, at the very heart of the situation is the crucial question of how the right-thinking world is to address the problem of chemical weapon use.  How is the world to act in the face of this form of barbarism which was so graphically highlighted a century ago by the poet Wilfred Owen in his poem describing the awful death of a soldier.  His poem is a counter to those who sought at the time to glorify war.

In Dulce et Decorum Est - (trans. "It is sweet and honourable")

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Owen fought with distinction in World I and was killed in action on 4th November 1918 aged 25.  He was awarded the Military Cross but this was not gazetted until 15th February 1919.  The citation stated:
2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.

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