Chemical weapons: An absolute prohibition under international humanitarian law

18-07-2013 Interview

Chemical and biological weapons are absolutely prohibited under international humanitarian law. Debates and questions surrounding the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria are not fading away. Robert Mardini, the ICRC’s head of operations for the Near and Middle East, explains the organization's position.

What is the ICRC’s view on allegations that chemical weapons have been used in Syria?

We are very concerned about allegations that chemical weapons have been used in some areas in Syria. We call again on all parties to the conflict to comply with international law and refrain from using any prohibited weapons, including chemical weapons.

On the basis of the information available to us, we have so far not been able to make any determination concerning whether chemical weapons have been used and, if so, by whom. This is primarily because we have not seen the results of any investigation from which we could draw reliable conclusions.

Is the ICRC involved in investigating claims that chemical weapons have been used?

The ICRC is not now taking part, nor has it ever taken part, in any formal investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. Neither, for that matter, does it have the expertise or the resources to do so. However, we welcome any initiative or activity that helps shed light on events involving a possible violation of international humanitarian law, including systematic, objective investigations into the alleged use of chemical weapons.

Should the ICRC have any observations or concerns to share on these matters, it would convey them first, as appropriate, to the party concerned on a strictly bilateral and confidential basis. However, the ICRC's confidentiality is not unconditional and should not be mistaken for complacency. The fact that we don't speak out publicly on some issues doesn't mean that we condone them, or that we are doing nothing. We can be very persistent and thorough when it comes to checking on alleged violations of international law, and we're prepared to take our concerns all the way to heads of State or government if necessary. We reserve the right to speak out. In exceptional cases, we have even made the difficult decision to stop our work.

Why are chemical and biological weapons banned?

The use of weapons that poison, or that spread disease, has been considered unacceptable for centuries, as we know from ancient codes of warfare. But it was public abhorrence of chemical warfare in the First World War that led to a specific international ban on the use of chemical and biological weapons in 1925. States further strengthened this prohibition with agreement of the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993. We must work to ensure that chemical and biological weapons are completely eliminated, that they are not used again, and that they are never reacquired. The prohibitions on the use of these weapons are now part of customary international humanitarian law, which means they apply to all parties to all armed conflicts even if they have not joined the treaties.

What can be done if chemical weapons are used?

The ability to help victims of chemical weapons depends on the particular circumstances, including the scale of the attack and the types of weapons used. Because there does not currently appear to be an effective international humanitarian capacity available to respond to a large-scale use of chemical weapons, any assistance operation would involve major challenges. The ICRC has developed contingency plans that would enable it to continue certain limited activities in the event of small-scale use of chemical weapons without jeopardizing the health and safety of its staff.

Clearly, the most effective way of avoiding this situation would be for all parties to uphold international humanitarian law, which absolutely bans the use of chemical weapons. We continue to address issues such as the threat of chemical weapons in our regular dialogue with conflict parties with a view to preventing violations of the law.

It should not be overlooked, however, that the alleged use of chemical weapons – despite the obvious gravity of the issue – is not the major problem in Syria today. Many more civilians are still being killed or wounded every day by conventional weapons than are even being alleged to be victims of any use of chemical weapons. Violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict are continuing, and humanitarian needs are growing by the day. This is a very serious concern for us.


Robert Mardini, head of operations for the Near and Middle East.  

Robert Mardini, head of operations for the Near and Middle East.