Explanation of Vote at a UN Security Council Vote on Resolution 2235 on a Syria Chemical Weapons Joint Investigative Mechanism

Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 

New York, NY

August 7, 2015

Thank you, Madame President. Today, the UN Security Council has taken another step aimed at stopping the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The step is necessary because – despite our previous efforts to stop the use of chemical weapons – the attacks have continued. Those efforts included the Council’s adoption in September 2013 of Resolution 2118, which required the Syrian regime to dismantle and destroy its chemical weapons program under international supervision. But while the resolution made significant progress toward that end, the attacks continued. Our efforts also included the adoption of Resolution 2209, which condemned the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon and made clear that such attacks were a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Resolution 2118. Yet still, the attacks continued.

We know that these chemical attacks continued not only because of the testimonies of survivors and medical professionals – like the harrowing account members of this Council heard in April from Dr. Tennari, a physician from Sarmin, who described his inability to resuscitate three siblings, ages one to three, following one such attack in March. And we know not only because of the gruesome footage of those suffering from the effects of such attacks – the seizures, the asphyxiation, the foaming at the mouth – footage that we have all seen.

We know for a fact because the OPCW has carried out thorough and impartial investigations into alleged attacks – and ultimately concluded that chemical weapons were used.

Let me read briefly from a report from one of those investigations, lest we forget just how grotesque the effects of chemical weapons are. According to the OPCW’s third fact-finding report, when the village of Talmenes was attacked on April 21st, 2014, residents described seeing what they called a “honey wax-to-yellow colored gas” rise from the point of impact, reaching above the minaret of the town’s mosque, up to 75 meters in the sky. Survivors next described a pungent, irritating smell – like chlorine. A seven-year-old boy who lived approximately 15 meters from the place the bombs hit died almost immediately; residents told investigators his body showed no signs of physical trauma but “turned blue in color.” A teenage girl from the same house died days later, as did an elderly woman from a neighboring home; their bodies, like the boy’s, showed no physical trauma. Olive, pomegranate, and fig trees shed their fruit, and their leaves “dried and shriveled, and turned yellow shortly after exposure.” Younger animals died immediately; fully grown animals a few hours later. Some 200 people rushed to Talmenes field hospital with near-identical symptoms – symptoms, I would note, that were just like the ones that Dr. Tennari described treating following the attack in Sarmin: a burning sensation in the eyes, face, throat, and on their exposed skin; tearing; blurred vision; shortness of breath; a feeling of suffocation; nausea; vomiting; abdominal pain; diarrhea; headache; generalized weakness; drowsiness; disorientation; a loss of consciousness. This is what a chemical attack looks, smells, and feels like.

Witness accounts, photographs, and videos of the attacks and their victims, and other forms of evidence led the OPCW to determine that there was “compelling confirmation” that a toxic chemical was used “systematically and repeatedly” as a weapon in the villages of Talmenes, Tamanah, and Kafr Zita, between April and August of 2014. The OPCW reported that 32 witnesses saw or heard the sound of helicopters over the three opposition-held towns right before the attacks occurred.

Until we adopted today’s resolution, there was no mechanism to take the obvious next step – determining who is involved in such attacks. Even when there were obvious signs pointing to the parties responsible, investigators were not empowered to point the finger. This has compounded an already-rampant sense of impunity in Syria.

Pointing the finger matters. Imagine for a moment if we asked an investigative team to determine whether certain atrocities occurred – such as rapes, tortures, or executions – but did not ask that team to determine who was involved in such brutal acts. As we all know, that determination ties the perpetrator to the action. And that link is essential to eventual accountability and helping prevent future abuses from occurring.

That is what the new UN OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism will do in response to incidents in Syria that involved or likely involved the use of chemicals as weapons. The mechanism will gather evidence aimed at identifying the individuals and entities that have a hand in such attacks – and it will do all it can to name those individuals or entities.

Now, we all know that we currently lack an effective mechanism for holding criminally accountable those responsible. But when the day comes that we have one – and that day will come – the evidence gathered by the Joint Investigative Mechanism will stand as a record not just of what has been done, but of who has done it.

To those who think that impunity will last forever for the perpetrators and all others involved in chemical weapons attacks – those who order chemical attacks, those who fill munitions with chemicals, those who drop chemical weapons – look at all of the perpetrators today who find themselves being forced to answer for acts committed years or even decades ago. Look at those who have been convicted for carrying out the genocide and war crimes in the Balkans, or those now being prosecuted in The Hague. Look at Hissene Habre, currently standing trial for atrocities he carried out in Chad three decades ago.

Let me conclude. Today’s resolution has been adopted with the Council’s unanimous support. This sends a clear and powerful message to all those involved in chemical weapons attacks in Syria: the Joint Investigative Mechanism will identify you if you gas people. It bears repeating, as well, that we need to bring the same unity that we have shown today to urgently find a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

Thank you.