Casting Doubt: Trusting Whistleblowers More Than International Institutions–Syrian Alleged Chemical Weapons Attack on Douma
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 4 Nov 2019
Courage Foundation Panel Challenges International Finding of Syrian Responsibility for the 2018 Attack on Douma
27 Oct 2019 – An independent British civil society organization, Courage Foundation, convened a panel of persons with diverse professional backgrounds relevant to the assessment of a challenge directed at the reliability of a respected international institution—the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The statement below, carefully drafted by the collective efforts of the panel reflects an acceptance of the lengthy presentation of the case against the reliability of allegations that the Syrian Government was guilty of a lethal chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb town of Douma (East Ghouta) on April 7, 2018 that was relied upon by the U.S. Government to justify a retaliatory strike against Syrian targets.
The panel, of which I was a member, met in Brussels on October 14, 2019, examined documents, reports, and listened to testimony. It drafted the statement printed below after discussion, which was subsequently modified and edited by email exchanges among the panelists. The Courage Foundation has its offices in Great Britain and is an organization dedicated to support for whistleblowing activities. It did not interfere with or exert influence upon the deliberations of the panel, which occurred in closed executive sessions with no Foundation personnel present. The statement issued by the panel is printed below. It can also be found at the link provided by the Courage Foundation: https://www.couragefound.org/2019/10/opcw-panel-statement
In my view this inquiry into the authenticity of the allegations against the Syrian Government is important for its own sake, and beyond this, for the serious implications of the conclusion that despite its reputation, OPCW, is not a trustworthy organization in carrying out its assigned role of impartially investigating and validating or invalidating charges of violations of the International Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Not only did the panel find that OPCW tampered with the evidence to produce an outcome desired by the geopolitical actors involved in this instance, it tried to silence its own senior civil servants to such an extent as to produce what I would call ‘a reluctant but extremely credible whistleblower,’ a senior inspector with 17 years of experience with OPCW, and a member of the team that carried out the on-site investigations of the Douma allegations. The credibility of this statement issued by the panel is strengthened, in my view, by having among its participants a former Director General of the OPCW.
Once again, as with Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning, as well as those still anonymous individuals exposing the wrongdoings of the Trump presidency, whistleblowing, and its protection and insulation from punitive actions has become an indispensable dimension of sustainable democracies. Not only is there a lack of transparency and accountability with respect to the undertakings of major national governments, but there is a deliberate manipulation of evidence and obstruction of procedures designed to protect the citizenry against abuses of state, and in the case of major states, especially the United States, to protect the public interest. If you believe in substantive democracy, you will hail whistleblowers as heroes of our time, and exert a maximum effort to oppose the efforts of governments to punish, prohibit, and demonize this crucial means of bearing witness and truth-telling.
Finally, it should be observed that the retaliatory strike following the allegations preceded the OPCW investigation, and involved an extremely legally doubtful use of international force in any event. Of course, such issues are outside the mandate of the OPCW, whose functions are limited to monitoring compliance with the provisions of the international treaty. According to the UN Charter, such an international use of force is only legally justified as an act of self-defense against a prior armed attack or as a result of formal authorization by the Security Council. There is nothing in the CWC itself that allows parties to act as international vigilantes entitled to take unilateral punitive steps against violators. In the course of Syrian civil strife since 2011, it has been treated as an issue of international vigilantism to regard ‘the red line’ related to the use of chemical weapons was crossed, to identify the perpetrator, and to justify a retaliatory use of force. The United States has claimed the authority to act in this manner, including determining on its own the scope, targeting, and scale of any retaliatory undertaking.
Panel Criticizes ‘Unacceptable Practices’ in the OPCW’s investigation of the Alleged Chemical Attack in Douma, Syria on April 7th 2018
Posted on October 23, 2019
The Courage Foundation convened a panel of concerned individuals from the fields of disarmament, international law, journalism, military operations, medicine and intelligence in Brussels on October 15th. The panel met with a member of the investigation team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international chemical watchdog. On this basis the panel issued the following statement:
Based on the whistleblower’s extensive presentation, including internal emails, text exchanges and suppressed draft reports, we are unanimous in expressing our alarm over unacceptable practices in the investigation of the alleged chemical attack in Douma, near the Syrian capital of Damascus on 7 April 2018. We became convinced by the testimony that key information about chemical analyses, toxicology consultations, ballistics studies, and witness testimonies was suppressed, ostensibly to favor a preordained conclusion.
We have learned of disquieting efforts to exclude some inspectors from the investigation whilst thwarting their attempts to raise legitimate concerns, highlight irregular practices or even to express their differing observations and assessments —a right explicitly conferred on inspectors in the Chemical Weapons Convention, evidently with the intention of ensuring the independence and authoritativeness of inspection reports.
However belatedly, we therefore call on the OPCW to permit all inspectors who took part in the Douma investigation to come forward and report their differing observations in an appropriate forum of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, in fulfillment of the spirit of the Convention. They should be allowed to do this without fear of reprisal or even censure.
The panel advances these criticisms with the expectation that the OPCW will revisit its investigation of the Douma incident, with the purpose of clarifying what actually happened. This would help to restore the credibility of the OPCW and work towards demonstrating its legally mandated commitment to transparency, impartiality and independence. It is of utmost importance to restore trust in the verification procedures relied upon to implement the prohibitions of the CWC.
José Bustani, Ambassador of Brazil, first Director General of the OPCW and former Ambassador to the United Kingdom and France,
Richard Falk, Professor of International Law, Emeritus, Princeton University; Visiting Professor, Istinye University, Istanbul
Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor-in-chief, Wikileaks
John Holmes, Maj Gen (retd), DSO OBE MC
Dr. Helmut Lohrer, MD, Board member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and International Councilor of its German Affiliate
Prof. Dr. Guenter Meyer, Centre for Research on the Arab World (CERAW) at the University of Mainz
Elizabeth Murray, former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, National Intelligence (retd); member, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (www.samadamsaward.ch)
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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