The faces of the victims of last week’s chemical weapons attack in Syria are haunting. We still do not know how many people died. Médecins Sans Frontières, an independent humanitarian organisation working with hospitals in Syria, estimates that there were 3,600 casualties, including 355 fatalities, among them many children.
According to the UN, the Syrian conflict is already the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide, creating nearly two million refugees and killing more than 100,000 people so far. But it is now infamous for another, equally chilling reason: this is the first time that chemical warfare has been used anywhere in the world in the 21st century.
For nearly 100 years, the international community has worked to build a system of defences to protect mankind against the use of weapons of mass destruction – including chemical weapons – to prevent the kind of attacks that are now taking place in Syria.
The First World War exposed the sheer horror that chemical agents inflict. Ninety thousand soldiers on all sides died agonising, choking deaths from the use of mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene on the battlefield, and up to 1.3 million people were blinded or burned by them. Wilfred Owen wrote in searing terms of the “froth-corrupted lungs” and “incurable sores” of his fallen comrades. Chemical weapons developed since that war, such as nerve gases, are even deadlier than those of a century ago.
The power of these weapons to inflict mass, indiscriminate death shocked the world into banning their use in international conflict through the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol. Customary international law now completely prohibits their use, including in internal conflicts like that taking place in Syria.
There have been decades of painstaking work to construct an international regime of rules and checks, overseen by the UN, to prevent the use of chemical weapons and to destroy stockpiles. This is codified in the 1993 UN Chemical Weapons Convention, which seeks the complete global elimination of chemical weapons – a treaty that Syria refused to sign.
With a few horrendous exceptions, including the Iran-Iraq War and Saddam Hussein’s campaign against Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s, the global consensus surrounding the use of chemical weapons in war has held firm. Countries like our own have been able to focus their efforts on trying to universalise the UN Convention, and keep chemical weapons out of the hands of terrorists.
We all live under the protection of this global system of arms control, just as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has spared us from the threat of nuclear holocaust, which blighted my parents’ generation. These rules and conventions are a largely invisible part of the global landscape and are undoubtedly in our national interest. The work of maintaining and upholding them is a constant struggle in international diplomacy, and the events in Syria have the power to undermine them fatally.
Over the past year we have seen evidence of the repeated small-scale use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. We know this from physiological samples that have been smuggled out of Syria and from other sources of information.
This amounts to extensive, continuous and escalating use of chemical weapons by a state against its own citizens. We have tried to deter the Syrian regime from continuing these attacks, by raising our concerns at the United Nations Security Council and passing direct messages through diplomatic channels, working with Russia. But last week’s large-scale attack shows the regime has simply ignored these warnings.
We strongly support the work of the UN team on the ground in Syria. We hope that the information they obtain will help build a fuller picture of the attack – adding to the evidence which already exists – and to help ensure that those responsible for this war crime are held accountable.
The team has a mandate to gather evidence about the attack, but they are not empowered to determine who was responsible for it. All the evidence and information available to us, including from eye-witnesses, leaves us in no doubt that the Assad regime was responsible. The attack took place in an area already controlled by the opposition; regime forces were carrying out a military operation to clear that area; and there is no evidence that the opposition possess any chemical weapons stocks, let alone the capability required to deliver them on the scale needed to cause mass casualties.
For five days after the attack the regime bombarded the area with conventional weapons, refusing to allow UN inspectors to visit, during which time crucial evidence would have been destroyed or degraded. To argue that the Syrian opposition carried out this attack is to suggest that they attacked their own supporters in an area they already controlled using weapons systems they do not possess. This opinion is shared by our allies and by countries in the region. Yesterday the Arab League passed a resolution stating that it holds Bashar al-Assad and the government in Damascus responsible.
We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons in the 21st century to go unchallenged. That would send a signal to the Syrian regime that they will never face any consequences for their actions, no matter how barbarous. It would make further chemical attacks in Syria much more likely, and also increase the risk that these weapons could fall into the wrong hands in the future.
But this is not just about one country or one conflict. We cannot afford the weakening of the global prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. We must proceed in a careful and thoughtful way, but we cannot permit our own security to be undermined by the creeping normalisation of the use of weapons that the world has spent decades trying to control and eradicate.
This actual, repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria is a moral outrage, a serious violation of international humanitarian law and a challenge to our common security. We are now weighing with the United States and our other allies how to respond in a way that is legal and proportionate. The goal of any response should be to prevent further similar humanitarian distress, to deter the further use of chemical weapons in Syria and to uphold the global ban against their use.
The United Nations Security Council should rise to its responsibilities by condemning these events and calling for a robust international response. But all previous attempts to get the Security Council to act on Syria have been blocked, and we cannot allow diplomatic paralysis to be a shield for the perpetrators of these crimes.
Tomorrow, Parliament will have the opportunity to debate these issues, and to make its views known. This is a moment of grave danger for the people of Syria, a moment of truth for democratic nations to live up to their values, and a weighty test of the international community. The way ahead will not be without risks, but the risks of doing nothing are greater.
William Hague is the Foreign Secretary and MP for Richmond in Yorkshire. He is a former leader of the Conservative Party.