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Atrocity Alert No. 80 (15 November 2017): Syria and Burundi

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Syria and the Normalization of Chemical Warfare

This Friday, 17 November, the mandate of the Organization for the Prohibition of the use of Chemical Weapons Joint Investigative Mechanism (OPCW-JIM) is due to expire. The UN Security Council (UNSC) is currently negotiating a possible renewal resolution.

The UNSC created the OPCW-JIM in August 2015 to identify individuals, armed groups, or governments using chemical weapons in Syria. Last month Russia vetoed a draft resolution to extend the OPCW-JIM’s mandate. This was the ninth time Russia has vetoed a resolution on Syria since 2011, and the third veto this year on a resolution relating to chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

On 7 November the UNSC was briefed on the latest report by OPCW-JIM, which found that the Syrian government was responsible for the use of sarin during a 4 April attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun. More than 80 people, including children, were killed in that attack. The report also found the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) responsible for an attack on Umm Hawsh on 15 and 16 September 2016, where sulfur mustard gas was used. This was the fourth chemical weapons attack directly attributed to the Syrian government by the OPCW-JIM, and the second attributed to ISIL.

The prohibition of chemical weapons is one of the oldest norms of the international community, dating back to 1899. The use of indiscriminate and illegal chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun and Umm Hawsh clearly and unquestionably constitutes a war crime.

The UNSC must renew the OPCW-JIM mandate and help hold perpetrators accountable, or risk the gradual normalization of chemical warfare in Syria and elsewhere. If the UNSC fails to mandate the OPCW-JIM and enable it to continue its important investigative work, the UN Secretary-General should do so, in keeping with General Assembly Resolution A/RES/42/37C (1987).

ICC to Investigate Burundi

On Thursday, 9 November, the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) publicly announced that on 25 October it had authorized the Prosecutor to open an investigation into the situation in Burundi. Burundi formally withdrew as a State Party to the Rome Statute on 27 October. However, the Court may still exercise its jurisdiction as long as the investigation relates only to crimes committed during the time Burundi was a State Party.

The ICC argued that evidence suggests that since April 2015 civilians in Burundi have been subject to attacks by members of the security forces, as well as by members of the Imbonerakure – the youth wing of the ruling party. Incitement to violence, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and extrajudicial killings have contributed to a climate of fear and insecurity in Burundi. More than 1,200 people have been killed in politically-inspired violence, over 400,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries, and almost 200,000 people have been internally displaced.

On 10 November Burundi’s Justice Minister, Laurentine Kanyana, stated that the government will not cooperate with the ICC. President John Magufuli of Tanzania and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda also condemned the ICC’s decision, arguing that the investigation undermines ongoing peacebuilding efforts in Burundi.

Burundi is currently a member of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Earlier this year the Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry found that crimes against humanity have been committed in Burundi since April 2015 and called upon the ICC to investigate, arguing that the Burundian authorities lack the will “to fight against impunity and guarantee the independence of the judiciary.” Burundi, and all other UN member states, should fully cooperate with the ICC investigation.