New York

17 September 2013

Secretary-General's briefing to the General Assembly on the Report of the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic : Report on the Indicent of 21 August 2013 in the Ghouta Area of Damascu

I welcome this opportunity to brief the Member States of the General Assembly on the report of the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons on the incident that occurred on 21 August 2013 in the Ghouta area of Damascus.

The report was made available to you yesterday, at the same moment as I began my briefing to the Security Council.  I trust you have familiarized yourselves with its contents and conclusion.

I would like to express my immense gratitude to the Head of the Mission, Professor Åke Sellström, and other members of the Mission, for their remarkable bravery and professionalism.

I am also grateful to the Directors-General and staff of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Health Organization for their indispensable support.

Allow me to begin by recalling that the authority under which I established the investigation mission comes from General Assembly resolution 42/37 C of 1987. In that resolution, the General Assembly extended to the Secretary-General the authority to carry out investigations in response to reports brought to his attention by Member States concerning the possible use of chemical and biological weapons.

The Assembly’s revulsion at the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War led it to express its concern not only about that particular use, but about the emergence of chemical weapons “in an increasing number of national arsenals”.

That resolution was reaffirmed the following year by Security Council resolution 620, which condemned the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war and encouraged the Secretary-General to carry out such investigations.
This mechanism was used several times in 1988 in the context of the Iran-Iraq conflict and in 1992 in connection with allegations by Azerbaijan and Mozambique.

And in March of this year, I launched the current investigation, in response to an initial request by the Government of Syria, subsequently followed by requests from other Member States.

We see again the unique universality of the General Assembly, and the lasting value of being able to turn to the United Nations for an impartial and objective determination whether, and to what extent, such allegations can be substantiated.

We are now in a new era in which we have the Chemical Weapons Convention and the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons].  I believe we should continue to strengthen this mechanism, which can serve as an important deterrent against the use of these heinous weapons.

The Investigation Mission concluded that chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale in the Ghouta area of Damascus in the context of the ongoing conflict in Syria. The attack resulted in numerous casualties, particularly among civilians.

Despite a volatile security environment, complicated logistics and limited time, the Mission was able to carry out an extensive range of fact-finding activities.

The Mission collected biomedical and environmental samples, and examined impact sites and munitions. It interviewed more than 50 survivors, medical personnel and first responders.  The samples collected by the Mission were sent to four laboratories designated by the OPCW.  A detailed analysis was carried out in record time, adhering to stringent protocols.

Blood tests and other biomedical samples tested positive for exposure to sarin. A majority of the environmental samples, taken from impact sites and locations where survivors were found to have been affected by sarin, also confirmed the use of sarin.  And a majority of the exploded surface-to-surface rockets or rocket fragments that were examined were found to be carrying sarin.

On the basis of its analysis, the Mission concluded that – and I quote – “the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Zalmalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus.”  End of quote.

As we consider the response to these findings, let me also emphasize that the Mission will return to Syria as soon as practical to complete its investigation of Khan Al Assal and all other pending credible allegations before completing its final report. I will count on the continued resolve of the Mission, as well as the support of Member States, to make this possible. 

The United Nations Mission has now confirmed, unequivocally and objectively, that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. The facts speak for themselves.

This is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988. 

This is a war crime and a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other rules of customary international law.  I trust all can join me in condemning this despicable crime.

The international community has a responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable and to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare.  Any use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere is a crime.

The accession of Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention and Syria’s belated acknowledgement that it possesses chemical weapons are welcome developments that come with strict obligations.

I welcome the understanding reached last week in Geneva by the Russian Federation and the United States regarding the international control and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.  I hope the Security Council and the Executive Council of the OPCW can move quickly to consider and implement this plan.

While the Security Council is expected to adopt a resolution early next week, the OPCW Executive Council will meet this Friday.  I urge them to embrace the extraordinary Agreement that was adopted in the bilateral negotiations in Geneva.  While the timelines are ambitious, they can be achieved with the cooperation and support of Syria and other critical actors.

The proposed time framework also envisages a clear role for the United Nations in eliminating the Syrian chemical weapons programme.  I stand ready to provide all possible support.

This will be a huge and complex undertaking, not least because it will take place in the midst of a civil war.   We will need to call on the expertise of a wide range of Member States, and I look forward to the General Assembly’s engagement and support.

In addition, given the gravity of the situation, I have urged the members of the Security Council to consider ways to ensure enforcement of, and compliance with, the plan through a clear and legally binding resolution.  The agreement itself stipulates, and I quote:

“The United States and the Russian Federation concur that this UN Security Council resolution should provide for review on a regular basis the implementation in Syria of the decision of the Executive Council of the OPCW, and in the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.”

End of quote.  I agree there should be consequences for non-compliance. 

As we focus on stopping the threat of further use of chemical weapons, we should not lose sight of the broader situation – and in particular the victims of this atrocious and ongoing conflict. 

The terrible attack on 21 August was one of many that have collectively killed well over 100,000 people in Syria during the past two and a half years.  Most of those deaths can be attributed to conventional weapons such as guns and mortars, with children making up a large proportion of the casualties. While the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, the mass loss of civilian life – whether due to conventional or non-conventional weapons -- is also intolerable.

The UN Commission of Inquiry established by the Human Rights Council reported last week that all parties to this conflict have committed murder, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, rape, hostage taking and torture against civilians. There has been indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighbourhoods by all sides.

As the Commission recalled recently, the deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel and transports, the denial of access to medical care, and ill-treatment of the sick and wounded, has been one of the most alarming features of the Syrian conflict.

I call for an end to arms flows to the country, which only sustain the bloodshed.

I urge Member States to consider what more we can do to prevent human rights violations, including through the possible use of UN monitors.

There must be a robust effort to bring perpetrators to justice for the serious international crimes that have been committed since the beginning by all parties to the conflict. The High Commissioner for Human Rights has repeatedly called for a Security Council referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

And as has been done in other societies that have experienced civil war or political upheaval, truth commissions and other processes aimed at promoting reconciliation and post-crisis reckoning will have an important role to play at an appropriate moment.

Today, however, the situation is desperate. People are living under siege, unable to leave sealed-off Government or opposition-held areas, sometimes for months on end.  Many have run short of water, food, power and medicines.  Civilians continue to be targeted and denied access to food and emergency medical treatment in many places.

Healthcare is in crisis as medical staff have fled and there are shortages of basic drugs and supplies. Millions of children have had their education suspended for up to two years. The economy has collapsed; prices have skyrocketed and people can no longer afford to feed their families.

Communities that had 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.

I join the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator in calling on all parties to agree to a pause in hostilities to allow humanitarian agencies immediate and unhindered access to evacuate the wounded and provide life-saving treatment and supplies in areas where fighting is ongoing. Civilians must be allowed to move to safer areas.

UN humanitarian agencies and our partners are delivering where we can. More than 10 million people in Syria continue to have safe drinking water. We are reaching 2.4 million people per month with food in both Government- and opposition-controlled areas. And more than 2 million children have been vaccinated.

But even this is not enough. Requirements have increased as the crisis has intensified.  And there is a severe funding shortfall.  We have raised just 40 per cent of the $4.4 billion needed for Syria and neighbouring countries for this year.  I call on Governments to help us meet this unprecedented crisis while still meeting their commitments to other emergencies.

As the international community unites against the threat of chemical warfare, it must also come together to stop the wider war that is destroying Syria. I hope we can build on the diplomatic momentum and move quickly to a peace conference and a political solution.

We need to do everything we can to convene the International Conference on Syria in Geneva as soon as possible.  I look forward to meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Kerry on 28 September. I hope we will be able to set a date for the conference at that time. Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi continues to prepare the ground for its launch.

Now is the moment for the international community, and in particular the Security Council, to uphold its political and moral responsibilities.

As I said to the Security Council and repeat now to the General Assembly, this incident must serve as a wake-up call for more determined efforts to resolve the conflict and end the unbearable suffering of the Syrian people.  This is our shared responsibility.

Thank you.