Thank you so much, Mr. President. I would like to start by thanking Council members for the extension that allowed us to work intensively over these last couple weeks with the Russian Federation to secure the text that we have just voted on unanimously today. And I offer my sincere thanks for the spirit in which Russia carried out these negotiations. The stakes here could not be higher.
The eyewitness accounts often start the same way. Helicopters buzzing overhead. Barrel bombs shoved out, only to land without an explosion. Leith Fares, a first responder in Idlib, Syria, recalled at first feeling relieved when one of these bombs did not detonate on March 16, 2015. “It is usually good news when there is no explosion,” he said in an interview. But when Leith went into the basement of a nearby home to search for survivors, he said, “I felt short of breath, coughed, and became dizzy. I couldn’t even take two breaths.” In the basement, six members of the Talib family sheltered, with three children ages one, two, and three. None had visible wounds. But when the children arrived at the local hospital, the doctor in charge recalled that “they were foaming at the mouth, they were suffocating, then their hearts stopped.” Their parents struggled to breathe too before dying from the attack, along with their 65-year-old grandmother.
Think about how it must feel to be suddenly overwhelmed by the sharp smell of chlorine. To think you have escaped death by bombing, only to realize you might die by asphyxiation. To wonder how to run from a weapon that you cannot see, that is enveloping you on all sides. It is a suffering so gruesome that the international community has resoundingly condemned the use of chemical weapons, and established a norm against their use under any circumstances, as enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention.
So the United States welcomes this Council’s unanimous decision to extend the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism for another year. The JIM is a vital tool for fighting impunity – an independent group of experts with the tools to tell us who is using chemical weapons in Syria, after the OPCW Fact Finding Mission has determined that chemical weapons were used or were likely used.
The JIM’s findings are clear. Investigators have concluded that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. Not just in one attack, but in three confirmed attacks so far. That’s three confirmed attacks carried out by a Member State of the United Nations. Three attacks using weapons that the world concluded decades ago should never be used. Three attacks that have caused Syrian men, women, and children to suffocate to death. And these are just the attacks for which the JIM has to date reached this conclusion. There is credible evidence of many more chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Assad regime. The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime is a clear violation of Syria’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and under Security Council Resolution 2118.
The JIM has also confirmed ISIL’s use of chemical weapons in Marea. The United States condemns this attack in the strongest terms, as well as all of the horrific atrocities that ISIL has carried out and continues to carry out against innocent civilians. This is yet another reason this terrorist organization must be defeated. And it is one more reason why the United States will continue to lead the efforts of a 67-member coalition against this colossal threat to our collective security. And it underscores the need for this Council to address the threat posed by non-state actors like ISIL who have the capacity and the depravity to use chemical weapons again.
Today’s resolution allows the JIM to continue its work – work that, unfortunately, sadly, is far from finished. The members of this Security Council need the JIM to continue its investigation for three main reasons. First, the JIM is the only institution with a mandate to identify those involved in the use of chemicals as weapons. Until the JIM was created, the Security Council received briefings in the passive voice – hearing that chemical weapons “were being used” in Syria, but never hearing which parties were using them. It was, honestly, bizarre. If this Council had failed to extend the JIM today, we would have been willfully blinding ourselves to learning the truth about who is responsible for some of the most deplorable crimes imaginable. We would not have been able to uphold a norm against chemical weapons use if as a Council we had decided we didn’t want to know who was using chemical weapons in the first place.
Second, evidence suggests that the JIM is in fact helping to dissuade actors from using chemical weapons. And this is really important – in the 19 months before the JIM was established, there were more than 120 allegations of chemical weapons attacks. But in the 15 months after the JIM began its work, that number has dropped to approximately 35 alleged attacks. Let’s be clear – one chemical weapons attack is one too many, and is completely unacceptable and worthy of our collective condemnation. We also know that there are other likely causes, as the Syrian regime has established a pattern of using chemical weapons when it is struggling using conventional means; Russia’s entry into the war in September 2015 has given Damascus a significant battlefield edge. Perhaps that explains some of the drop in use. But there is no question that perpetrators who know – as they did before August 7, 2015, when the JIM was authorized – that they would never be identified – those perpetrators felt a greater sense of impunity than they must feel now. Even if the JIM makes only a small difference in keeping the parties from using chemical weapons, it would save lives, and help safeguard a crucial global norm, and that is well worth this Council’s full and sustained support.
Third and finally, there is so much investigative work left for the JIM to complete. The JIM has so far only been able to make attribution in four of the nine cases that were initially selected for investigation. And new potential cases continue to emerge. For example, there were numerous reports on August 10 and September 6 of this year that Assad regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs with toxic chemicals on neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo, sickening dozens of Syrians and killing at least five people. As long as the parties to the conflict in Syria use chemical weapons, and as long as previous cases can still be investigated, this Council needs to determine who is involved – and we need the JIM to do it.
But this Council’s responsibilities don’t end once we know the facts. We already know that the Assad regime and ISIL were involved in chemical attacks. The members of this Council now need to work together to make sure that those who use such gruesome weapons face consequences.
We, of course, have sharp differences in this Council when it comes to the conflict in Syria. That is clear. But the unanimous renewal of this mandate reflects one important principle that we share in common – our unequivocal, collective opposition to the use of chemical weapons. This principle led us to adopt resolution 2118 three years ago requiring Syria, whose regime had just carried out a horrific attack killing at least 1,400 people, to dismantle and destroy its chemical weapons program under international supervision. This principle led us to create the JIM, and it led us now to extend the JIM. And it is on the basis of this principle that we should continue to act to hold parties accountable for using chemical weapons against the Syrian people.
There is very little in the history of the Syrian conflict that the Security Council has been able to agree upon; chemical weapons are one such exception to the general rule of Council division. The fact that we can achieve agreement in this narrow but important domain should motivate us. It should motivate us to work harder to stop the slaughter of civilians by other means, and it should motivate us to achieve the political solution that has long eluded the people of Syria, who continue to be attacked in a savage manner to this very day. I thank you.