War Games


Although you may currently consider it not an unattractive prospect, unless you live on another planet, you cannot have failed to hear about the Idlib attack in Syria on 4 April.  Similarly, you also cannot have escaped the finger-pointing that has, and continues, to go on in the aftermath.  It’s like eavesdropping on a school playground; he said, they said, I didn’t, he did.  On this occasion, those participating in the hair pulling and shin-kicking have forgotten that children went to bed that night, and they didn’t wake up again to go to their school or its playground.   As none of these people seem particularly interested in finding out what really happened, in this post-truth era where shouting your mouth off the loudest seems to count as reality, I have decided to be avant-garde and look for some facts.

Before I get to the facts, I would like to cover a few basics.  Sean Spicer, if you’re reading this, perhaps you would like to pull up a chair.  Here are a few pertinent definitions from the OED, which I think in the nicest possible way can be considered the horse’s mouth as far as the English language is concerned:

True  :  in accordance with fact or reality; genuine; real or actual; accurate and exact.

Truth  :  quality or state of being true.

War Crime  :  an action carried out during the conduct of a war that violates accepted international rules of war.

If you can just put aside the strange notion of war as having rules, here is a very basic precis of international law on war crimes as I understand it to be.  Bio-chemical warfare is dealt with in the Geneva Protocol signed on 17 June 1925 and which came into force on 8 February 1928.    The 1969 United Nations Resolution 2603 (XXIV) was the Resolution which prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflicts, but only in so far as it applies to the countries who signed up to it, and to them only in so far as any qualifications they put on their signing up to it.  As it is pertinent to this piece, the UK, the US and Russia all ratified this Resolution.  Originally, all three countries had reservations to their ratification.  Russia withdrew all of theirs in 2001, the UK followed in 2002 and the US have retained one reservation.  That reservation is that if chemical or biological weapons are used on the US or one of their allies, in not respecting the Protocol, the US could be free to retaliate in kind on the aggressor.  In short, if someone uses a chemical or biological weapon on the US, all bets are off.

By the way, you haven’t mis-read it; the 1969 Resolution originally applied to international armed conflicts i.e between countries.  If you have a look at Article 8(2)(b of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court  dated 17 July 1998 (‘the Rome Statute), it goes a little further – the intentional direction of attacks on the civilian population are also cited as a war crime.  From what I have read, the use of biological or chemical weapons in non-international armed conflicts is now also considered to be a war crime in customary international law, twisted comfort as it is.

In order for a war crime to be proven as such, there is a burden of proof, which is on the prosecution.  The prosecution have to prove the guilt of the person or persons beyond all reasonable doubt.  In order to do so both the mens rea (it was in the mind of person or persons committing the offence) and the actus reus (the act itself) must be proved.  Without mens rea there cannot be criminal responsbility.  As far as the mens rea is concerned in relation to a war crime, under Article 8(2)(b)(iv) of the Rome Statute, there has to be both intent and knowledge with intent being an “awareness that a circumstance exists or consequence will occur in the ordinary course of events.”  Being negligent to that consequence also counts as having sufficient mens rea for a war crime.  The actus reus, the act itself, one would hope, is self explanatory.  Everything that I have read suggests that it isn’t so straightforward in practice.  There is a lot of commentary on both of these points which is impossible to cover in this piece but suffice it to say that one can only hope that common sense would prevail were it not to be clear. Or the ICC would take what lawyers call a policy decision.

So facts.  This is what I have been able to find as true, that is factual Sean, with regard to the attack on Idlib:

1. At around 6.30am on Tuesday 4 April, four bombs were dropped on Idlib.

2. More than seventy people were killed, of which twenty seven children and five hundred and forty six people were injured.

3. The WHO reports that the symptoms exhibited by the victims were consistent with “exposure to organophosphorous chemicals, a catergory of chemicals that includes nerve agents” that are banned under customary international law.

4. Medecins Sans Frontieres concurred with the WHO’s assessment.

5. Postmortem results carried out by WHO officials in Turkey confirm that chemical weapons were used.

Other interesting pieces of information that merit further investigation and corroboration:

1. Soil samples are being gathered by rescue workers to determine which nerve agent was used.

2. A witness, Hussain Salloumi, a volunteer with the air-raid warning service in rebel-held areas said he saw a Syrian army jet approach at low altitude and four bombs were dropped all together.  Mr Salloumi was around one and a half kilometres from the site.

3. Kareem Shaheen, a reporter with The Guardian, one of the first western journalists at the scene said he saw a hole in the road but surrounding homes and buildings remained untouched.

4. The US have said that a review of radar and “other assessments” showed Assad regime aircraft flying over the area at the time of the attack.

So we know that someone deployed a chemical weapon(s) four times on that date and time, which led to the deaths of scores of people and many more injured.  We also know that a war crime has been committed.  The person or persons committing the offence either knew or was negligent to the consequences of dropping those four bombs, and they dropped them, either at their own behest or someone else’s.  We do not yet know what the chemical was and we do not know who the perpetrator was.

Russia has asked for rebel forces to “offer full access to study the area and collect necessary information.”  I realise that it’s not as headline-grabbing as dropping bombs back to show that yours are just as big too, but this does not seem like an unreasonable suggestion to me.  Surely an independent team may be agreed on by the Assad regime and the rebels (and Russia and the US as they treat everyone like pawns in wizard chess) to find out the truth?    To quote from the CPS and their recommended approach to international criminal matters: “If a safe and effective investigation in that country cannot at this stage be carried out then it will not be possible to identify the suspect.”

Doesn’t anyone want to identify the suspect? Has anyone stopped amidst the frenzied eye-poking to consider that a few facts might not go amiss?  I realise that the answer may not be found, and it may not be politically convenient if it is, but surely it is our obligation to try.  We know about this atrocity.  We all know.  President Trump said that “no child of God should ever suffer such horror.”  I don’t think anyone can disagree with the sentiment of that statement.  If he and all of the other Heads of State involved in this mess truly believe that, then they should grit their teeth, co-operate and put their money where their very large and very loud mouths are.

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