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Use of chemical weapons in Syria underscores importance of international law and norms against WMD and irresponsible arms transfers

Today the UN Secretary-General released a report on the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August. The report concludes that chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale, resulting in numerous casualties, particularly among civilians. The report notes that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah, and Zamalka.

The use of chemical weapons is a serious violation of international law, regardless of which party to the conflict perpetrated the attack. But the use of chemical weapons, however abhorrent and illegal, should not be used as a pretext for military intervention. As the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) argued in our statement on 30 August, other options are available and must be pursued.

In our statement, we urged for the UN inspectors to be given a chance to complete their work; for the chemical weapons to be secured and eliminated; for accountability to come through the courts, not bombs; and for a political solution to be sought through inclusive peace talks. WILPF is relieved that the push for war by some Western governments has been tempered with the succession of the Syrian government to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the agreement reached between Russia and the United States on a framework for the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria. Now that the inspection team has completed its work on the Damascus allegations, any response to its report must be in accordance with international law.

We continue to urge the referral of this matter to the International Criminal Court. There needs to be an investigation into the identification of the perpetrators and the nature of the command responsibility.

In addition, the political process developed to provide a political solution to the Syrian crisis must resume its work. Pressure also needs to be strengthened for an inclusive process involving women on all sides as well as nonviolent humanitarian and women’s groups to ensure a strong peace process and outcome.

In the meantime, arms transfers to the Syrian government and rebel forces must stop. These arms flows have achieved only more bloodshed, and both pro- and anti-government forces have been found to have committed war crimes. Over 100,000 people have been killed in Syria during the past two and a half years; over seven million Syrians are internally displaced or are refugees abroad. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said, while action on chemical weapons moves ahead, the international community “must not be blind to the war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed with conventional weapons.”

This situation also brings attention to the dangers inherent in the existence and possession of any weapon of mass destruction. Nine states possess over 17,000 nuclear weapons. Many of them are kept on high alert, ready for use. The allegations of use of chemical weapons in Syria have been met with abhorrence and condemnation, as well as demands that the Syrian government make every effort to secure and destroy them. These same reactions and demands should be leveled upon those states possessing nuclear weapons. All states free of nuclear weapons have a role in building and strengthening the norms and laws that outlaw nuclear weapons. All nuclear-armed states must come into compliance with their international obligations to disarm.