Press conference on UN mission to investigate alleged chemical weapons use in Syria*

27 Mar 2014

Press conference on UN mission to investigate alleged chemical weapons use in Syria*

13 December 2013 - On a scale of 1 to 10, the fact-finding mission in Syria had achieved 8.7, the chief of the mission charged with verifying the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria said at a Headquarters press conference today. [webcast]

Åke Sellström, Head of the United Nations Mission to Investigate Alleged Uses of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, responding to questions about the Mission’s success, said it had discharged its responsibilities as best it could within its mandate, using the mechanisms and instruments available.

Earlier, he said the Mission had concluded that chemical weapons had been used in the ongoing conflict in Syria after investigating 7 of the 16 allegations it had reviewed. It had used methods ranging from interviews through the study of epidemiological footprints to the analysis of blood samples. While some of the allegations concerned the use of chemical weapons against civilians, others related to their use against Syrian soldiers.

Accompanying Mr. Sellström were Angela Kane, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs; Scott Cairns of OPCW; and Maurizio Barbeschi of the World Health Organization (WHO). Asked repeatedly about who was responsible for the use of chemical weapons, all four emphasized that the question of attribution would require more efforts and resources. “We are not free as the police force would be,” Mr. Sellström emphasized.

The Mission’s task was to find out “whether, not who”, Ms. Kane pointed out. If necessary, Member States could mandate a future mission to investigate responsibility, as had been done in recent investigations conducted in Lebanon and Pakistan. She pointed out that the current Mission’s investigation had compelled Syria to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which was good news in itself.

Other questions related to the chain of custody under which the evidence had travelled to and been stored in the laboratory, with some correspondents noting that two officials from the Syrian Government had accompanied the samples to the laboratory in Europe. One reporter asked why opposition representatives had not been asked to accompany the samples since they also faced allegations of using chemical weapons.

Mr. Sellström responded by citing the Mission’s distinct guidelines, which stipulated that the samples must be split with the M ember State concerned. While it was easy to draw two samples of blood from the same patient, it was more difficult to split environmental samples such as pieces of metal or soil. Hence, Syrian Government representatives had accompanied the Mission’s samples.

As for where the samples had been stored and how a prosecuting authority could get hold of them, Ms. Kane said they were the property of the United Nations, under safeguard as “a living document”. Beyond the question of accountability, there was also considerable interest in their research potential.

Mr. Barbeschi added that the samples had enormous scientific value and could lead to lifesaving knowledge about managing chemical weapons.

*Source: Based on UN press release.

See UN webcast of the press conference here.