August 8, 2023

Chemical weapons attacks in Syria: Dr Mohamad Katoub's speech to the UN Security Council

Madam President, distinguished members of the UN Security Council, your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen:

I would like to thank the Presidency of the Council for giving the floor to civil society organizations and witnesses of atrocities. In 12 days from today, the world will mark the 10th anniversary of the largest chemical massacre that the 21st century witnessed, which took place in eastern Ghouta on August 21st 2013 and killed over 1,200 people and injured over 10 thousand.

I witnessed the Ghouta massacre and through my work as a member of the medical team of Ghouta, and after I fled out of Syria with other civil society organizations, I have been engaged in supporting the medical response to chemical attacks, and the documentation of uses of chemical weapons in Syria. An unfortunate experience that I as a dentist shouldn’t have learnt if there were any measures of accountability.

In the morning of that day, I walked out of my office to a nearby school that we had transformed into a decontamination centre. I can’t forget the scene of the school halls, bodies were scattered around turning the child’s sacred space into a vast funeral home.

The towns of Ghouta were then under siege by the Assad regime and engulfed in a war where chemical weapons was one among many other war crimes occurring simultaneously.

We didn’t have protection gear, we didn’t enough space for each patient that needed care after they had been suffocating from chemical weapons. But we had hopes at that time that if we exposed those crimes we would prevent future attacks in Syria and globally.

After the chemical attack, a few days later, the investigators of the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons entered Ghouta and arrived at the locations. They were already in Syria investigating other attacks. They collected samples and interviewed witnesses and soon this very council adopted Resolution 2118 on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Since Resolution 2118, and since Syria became bound by the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty signed by almost all states of the world, we should have absolute compliance. Instead, more than 170 chemical attacks have been reported in Syria. In 10 years more than 1,500 were killed, and over 15,000 were injured by the chemical weapons of the Assad regime.

This is not a message to us, to the victims, to the witnesses, to the civil society organizations. It is not a message to us, the people of Ghouta and other towns in the area which were attacked by chemical weapons.

We were gassed and killed, but we did not write the Chemical Weapons Convention nor the UN Charter. You did. This was a clear message from the Syrian regime that they disregard international institutions and treaties, and the response from the international community including this council was limited to further investigations, but doing nothing serious toward accountability.

Doing nothing is very hard when you see the rescue and medical teams risking their lives to save one more life, or when you see them enter the contaminated area without protection gear to bring one more piece of evidence.

On April 4 2017, one of the civil defence volunteers was pregnant and she lost her baby while rescuing other people after the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun. Ten days before, Dr. Ali Darwish who used to work in Al-Latamneh hospital died when his hospital was attacked by a chemical bomb dropped by the Assad air forces on his hospital.

Knowing all of that, and doing nothing is a very hard job. Hiding behind a Russian veto that might block an attempt toward a court doesn’t make it easier, and NO, sanctions are not enough and are not the accountability that victims want.

Members of the council, you have received heaps of reports from the JIM and the IIT. The Joint Investigation Mechanism that you established and the IIT of OPCW, confirming the responsibility of the Syrian regime of chemical attacks. Because of impunity, the Syrian regime has ended an international norm that was agreed for so long.

The risk of using chemical weapons is still there, the same regime that used it with impunity is still in power, the same Russian allies are still supporting Syria’s war criminals. Other dictators worldwide might get the wrong message if they see that routes toward accountability are blocked.

In response to the heaps of evidence and investigations, denial has been the Syrian regime’s strategy employing several tactics such as manipulating evidence, presenting false witnesses, intimidating survivors, witnesses and their families, pressuring investigators whether individuals or institutions, and investing resources in running media disinformation campaigns.

These tactics are being used in other countries as well. Research has found that the same social media accounts were used in denying war crimes in Syria and Ukraine as well. Not a surprise. Among the survivors of the Douma attack on April 7, 2018 I know a family of four. They were displaced to the north of Syria after the attack, as many people from Douma were, and they also witnessed the February earthquake that hit the south of Turkey and north of Syria.

The father told me once that more than chemical attacks, more than the suffering of forced displacement from his hometown, and more than the earthquake, and seeing his two children and remembering all the memories of the chemical attack when they were in a shelter with their neighbours facing the unknown and death, the most painful for him is when people ask him if it is true that Assad used chemical weapons.

Denial made us more determined to make our voices heard. It made witnesses sharpen their memories to bring every detail when they testify, it made investigators stricter in their methodologies so their reports will be more solid in front of any court.

Madam president, your excellencies, in Syria we are lucky, or maybe unlucky, by having all those investigation bodies with all those acronyms. It is even hard to remember all of them: COI, JIM, IIT, FFM, DAT, etc. The Syrian civil society, families of victims, rescue and medical teams cooperated with all of them. Those investigation bodies did their jobs, and you did…

When Russia vetoed the renewal of the mandate of the JIM, there was a way to keep those investigations ongoing and the IIT was established in an unprecedented vote at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

And you still can…. Similar to that, there are ways to bypass a potential veto against establishing a court or against referring all perpetrators to the International Criminal Court.

There are ways to stop doing nothing. Doing nothing is undermining the brave work of those investigators. It is undermining the international institutions and treaties that YOU created. It is undermining the work of the OPCW that you built and protected around a norm that you said was universal. It is undermining you, this council, which is supposed to be responsible for peace globally.

10 years after the Ghouta massacre, 10 years after Resolution 2118, should make everyone think, what is the message from this council to the Syrian regime? What is the message from the OPCW state members, not only to the Syrian regime, but also to other perpetrators, and also to their own investigation teams who worked tirelessly?

We will keep the fight to explore concrete options to reinstate the norm of prohibition of chemical weapons by finding ways to hold all perpetrators to account alonside finding states who believe that this exceptional use of chemical weapons, requires exceptional measures to say no. No to impunity.

Thank you very much.