Secretary-General's press encounter on the Report of the Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic: Report on the incident of 21 August 2013 in the Ghouta area of Damascus
New York, 16 September 2013
Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for your patience, for waiting.
Today marks a grim but necessary step in the world’s efforts to combat chemical weapons.
The report of the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the use of Chemical Weapons in Syria has concluded that chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale in the Ghouta area of Damascus on August 21st, causing numerous casualties, particularly among civilians.
This morning I submitted the Mission’s report to the Security Council and the Member States of the United Nations. We have also posted it on-line for all the world to see.
The team of experts led by Professor Åke Sellström deserves high praise. They faced dangerous circumstances, including a sniper attack. They did their job in record time while upholding the highest professional and scientific standards. Working with experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organization (WHO), they showed the United Nations at its best.
The report makes for chilling reading.
The team gathered testimony from survivors, medical personnel and first responders.
They collected biomedical evidence and dozens of soil and environmental samples.
The Mission has provided the world with an impartial and independent account.
The results are overwhelming and indisputable.
Eighty-five per cent of the blood samples tested positive for sarin. A majority of the environmental samples confirmed the use of sarin. A majority of the rockets or rocket fragments recovered were found to be carrying sarin.
The findings are beyond doubt and beyond the pale.
This is a war crime and a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other rules of customary international law. It is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988 – and the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century.
The international community has a responsibility to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare.
Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention and its belated acknowledgement that it possesses chemical weapons are welcome developments that come with strict obligations.
I also welcome the agreement reached over the weekend between the Russian Federation and the United States on a framework to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.
I urged, this morning, the Security Council to act urgently to ensure enforcement and compliance with this plan. After two and a half years of tragedy, now is the time for the Security Council to show leadership and exercise its moral and political responsibilities.
There must be accountability for the use of chemical weapons. Any use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, is a crime.
But our message today must be more than: Do not slaughter your people with gas.
There must also be no impunity for the crimes being committed with conventional weapons.
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry reported last week on a host of horrors being committed by both sides in the conflict, from murder, rape and torture to indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighbourhoods. Yet arms continue to flow to the country and the region.
The humanitarian situation is desperate. People are living under siege. Families face intolerable choices between the risk of remaining in place and the risk of taking flight. Communities that once lived in relative harmony are now torn with sectarian tension. One third of the country’s people have fled their homes -- the largest flows of refugees and internally displaced persons in many years, causing instability across the region.
All of the killing must end. The fighting must end.
We need to do everything we can to bring the parties to the negotiating table. I stand ready to convene the International Conference on Syria in Geneva as soon as possible. I look forward to meeting with Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov of Russia and Secretary [John] Kerry [of the United States] later this month and hope we will be able to set a date for the conference at that time.
The UN Mission will return to Syria as soon as it can to conduct the other investigations for which it was established. My hope is that this incident will serve as a wake-up call for more determined efforts to resolve the conflict and end the unbearable suffering of the Syrian people.
Q: Mr. Secretary-General, Based on the munitions and the delivery systems, some of which has signatures, have you made an assessment of who is to blame and, if so, how do you propose to hold them accountable? Thank you.
SG: The mission of Dr. Sellström’s team has been able to determine objectively that sarin was used on a relatively large scale, as I have said. It was the team’s job to determine whether and to what extent chemical weapons were used, not who used them. It is for others to decide whether to pursue this matter further to determine responsibility. We may all have our own thoughts on this, but I would simply say that this was a grave crime and those responsible must be brought to justice as soon as possible. Thank you.
Q: Mr. Secretary-General, the Russia-U.S. plan gave President [Bashar al-] Assad one week to declare all his sites, so will you be sending back inspectors very soon to Syria?
SG: Yes, as soon as we have an agreement with the Syrian Government, I have asked Dr. Sellström and his team to return to Syria to continue their investigation in Khan al-Assal and other areas for a final report. I have discussed this matter with the Director-General of OPCW and the Director-General of WHO. They have all confirmed their readiness to support this.
Q: What date did you say?
SG: As soon as possible.
Q: Thank you; Secretary-General, you have spoken repeatedly of the need for accountability and ending impunity. Now, how exactly are you proposing this is to be done for war crimes, as you mentioned? If not the Security Council, is it the ICC [International Criminal Court]? And are you personally ready to use tools available to you as Secretary-General for guaranteeing that there is such accountability?
SG: As I have repeatedly said, that those perpetrators who haves used chemical weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction in the future will have to be brought to justice. This is a firm principle of the United Nations and international law and international humanitarian law. How to do [this] and how to promote this and when to do this will the subject of ongoing discussions in the Security Council and I will be ready to discuss this matter. But at this time, I do not have a clear answer at this time. Thank you, thank you very much.