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The current state of chaos in the Middle East, including the conflict in Syria, had become a threat to international peace and security, Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council this morning, appealing to the 15‑member body to overcome divisions and prevent dangerous situations from spinning out of control.
He spoke before Council members as they met for the third time in five days to discuss the reported use of chemical weapons – prohibited under the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and of Their Destruction, known as the Chemical Weapons Convention — in the town of Douma, outside the Syrian capital Damascus, on 7 April and the Council’s failure to agree to establish a mechanism to determine responsibility.
“Increasing tensions and the inability to reach a compromise in the establishment of an accountability mechanism threaten to lead to a full-blown military escalation,” he said. “This is exactly the risk we face today, that things spiral out of control. It is our common duty to stop it.”
Underscoring his outrage about reports of chemical attacks in Syria, he said the seriousness of recent allegations required a thorough investigation with impartial, independent and professional expertise. In that regard, he reaffirmed his full support for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and its fact-finding mission. He went on to recall his letter to the Council on 11 April in which he urged all Member States to act responsibly and appealed to the Council to fulfil its duties and not give up on efforts to agree upon an investigative mechanism.
In the ensuing debate, Bolivia’s representative said some Council members had avoided addressing the main reason for today’s meeting — the threat by some States to launch a unilateral military strike on Syria. The use of chemical weapons was a terrible and criminal act, but the Council must ensure that an investigation into recent allegation was depoliticized. It was clear, however, that the main topic at hand was the threat by some Council members of violating an international legal framework designed to support the weakest States against the most powerful. Calling on all Council members to uphold multilateralism and the rules-based international order, he reminded States that the Council was “not just its five permanent members”, and nor was the United Nations “just the Council”.
The representative of the Russian Federation recalled that the United States had, on 11 April, threatened to strike Syria, where his country had troops deployed for counter-terrorism efforts. Such an attack against a sovereign State could not be allowed to happen, he said, stressing that Syrian armed forces had received instructions on how to respond to an attack. Warning that responsibility for the effects of recent dangerous developments would fall at the feet of the United States and its allies, he called on those countries to reconsider their plan to bring the world to a perilous threshold and to instead support negotiations to end the Syrian conflict.
The representative of the United States said the Council should not condemn those States that were standing up for the principles of the Chemical Weapons Convention. While the President of the United States had not yet made up his mind on whether or not to act in Syria, if he and his allies chose to do so, it would be in defence of international norms, she said, adding that the Russian Federation “can complain all it wants about fake news, but no one is buying its lies or its cover-up.”
In that vein, the United Kingdom’s delegate said the Assad regime, with a track record for using chemical weapons, was highly likely responsible for the Douma attack. The use of chemical weapons must be challenged and the United Kingdom would work with its allies to coordinate an international response. Her Government and the British people were not “Russophobes”, she said, but the Russian Federation’s actions had led to the current situation. She added that the international order must not be sacrificed for the Russian Federation’s desire to protect its ally at all costs.
China’s representative said the international community currently was “at the crossroads of war and peace”. Any unilateral actions ran counter to the principles enshrined in the Charter, which protected Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. Urging all parties to remain calm and avoid any actions that would escalate the situation, he called on the international community to never waver in supporting peaceful efforts to settle the conflict promptly, justly and peacefully.
The representative of Kazakhstan said it was time to tap into all the tools of preventive diplomacy to escape the consequences of military action. Like several other speakers, he agreed with the Secretary-General that the situation must not be allowed to spiral out of control, and appealed to Council colleagues to “go the extra mile” towards restoring unity and to “turn our words into real deeds”.
Syria’s representative, speaking at the end of the debate, said his Government recognized the use of chemical weapons was a war crime. However, war in itself was a crime and should be prevented. The truth was that three permanent Council members were again dragging the world into conflict and oppression. Noting that the OPCW fact-finding mission, at the invitation of the Syrian Government, was slated to begin its work in the coming hours, he called on the Council to stand against attempts to impose the “rule of the jungle”. If the United States, United Kingdom and France believed they could violate the law by striking Syria, his Government would be forced to invoke Article 51 of the Charter which provided it with a legitimate right to self-defence. “This is not a threat,” he said, “it is a promise.”
Also speaking today were representatives of France, Sweden, Equatorial Guinea, Kuwait, Ethiopia, Netherlands, Poland, Côte d’Ivoire and Peru.
The meeting began at 10:07 a.m. and ended it 12:24 p.m.
ANTÓNINO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said the situation in the Middle East was in chaos to such an extent that it had become a threat to international peace and security. The region was facing a true Gordian knot, with a multiplicity of divides. “The cold war is back with a vengeance, but with a difference,” he said, with the absence of past mechanisms and safeguards to manage the risks of escalation. In addition to the Palestinian-Israeli and Sunni‑Shia divides, there were opposing attitudes regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and the status of the Kurdish people, as well as dramatic threats to communities that had been living in the Middle East for millennia. Such a multiplicity of divides was reflected in a web of conflicts with different degrees of interconnection, with several of them linked to the threat of global terrorism.
Elaborating on several pressing situations, he said the wounds of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were deepening once again. Reiterating his call for an independent and transparent investigation into the recent violence in Gaza and appealing to those concerned to refrain from action that could lead to more casualties, he reaffirmed the Organization’s readiness to support a revitalization of the peace process leading to a two-State solution. In Yemen, his Special Envoy was doing everything possible towards a political settlement, as that country was experiencing the worst humanitarian disaster in the world today. It was high time to end the conflict in Libya, he said, encouraging all parties there to keep working with his Special Representative. In Iraq, with the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), the Government was in a stage of reconstruction, reform and reconciliation. Turning to Lebanon, he said it was absolutely essential to avoid a new Israel-Hizbullah conflict.
Syria represented the most serious threat to international peace and security, he said, emphasizing that there was no military solution. The solution must be political, through the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, as stipulated in resolution 2254 (2015). Syrians had lived through a litany of horrors. From the start of the conflict, there had been systematic violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law and international law tout court, in disregard of the United Nations Charter. In a moment of hope, the Security Council had adopted resolution 2401 (2018) demanding a halt to hostilities for a humanitarian pause, but no such ceasefire had materialized. Underscoring his outrage about reports on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, he said the seriousness of the recent allegations required a thorough investigation with impartial, independent and professional expertise. In that regard, he reaffirmed his full support for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and its fact-finding mission, which should be granted full access with no restrictions and impediments.
He said that, in a 11 April letter to the Council, he had expressed his deep disappointment it was unable to agree upon a dedicated mechanism to attribute responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria following the end of the mandate of the United Nations-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism. Norms against chemical weapons must be upheld, as a lack of accountability would embolden those using such arsenals by reassuring them of impunity, weakening current norms and the international disarmament and non-proliferation regime. In the same letter, he added, he had urged all Member States to act responsibly and appealed to the Council to fulfil its duties and not give up on efforts to agree upon an investigative mechanism. “Increasing tensions and the inability to reach a compromise in the establishment of an accountability mechanism threaten to lead to a full-blown military escalation,” he said. “This is exactly the risk we face today, that things spiral out of control. It is our common duty to stop it.”
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), agreeing with the Secretary‑General that the Middle East was currently a wounded region, said its largest injury was in Syria where the situation was fraught with global implications. The United States had, on 11 April, threatened to strike Syria, where the Russian Federation’s troops were also deployed for counter-terrorism efforts. Such an attack against a sovereign State would constitute a violation of international law and run counter to the Charter and could “not be allowed to happen. There must be accountability for such a planned intervention, he said, noting that recent experiences in Iraq and Syria were still fresh in the minds of those across the region. Any State daring to encroach on the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity was unworthy of the status of a permanent member of the Council, however, one such member continued to insist on plunging the Middle East into one conflict after another.
Syrian armed forces had already received instructions on how to respond to such an attack, he said, adding that there was no evidence backing up the justification being invoked by Western States — namely, the allegation of chemical weapons use in the town of Douma. The Syrian Government had strongly rejected those allegations, calling on OPCW to promptly investigate. The Russian Federation’s proposed resolution through which the Council would support that fact-finding mission had been irresponsibly blocked by the United States, United Kingdom and France, who only sought to oust the Syrian Government and contain the Russian Federation. While those States had long supported terrorists in the region to further their goals, the Russian Federation was the sole party adhering to resolution 2401 (2018) calling for a ceasefire. Indeed, hundreds of residential areas had established normal relationships with the Syrian Government as a result of its implementation of that text. Warning that responsibility for the effects of recent dangerous developments would fall at the feet of the United States and its allies, he called on them to immediately reconsider their plan to bring the world to such a dangerous threshold and instead to support peaceful political negotiations towards ending the Syrian conflict.
NIKKI R. HALEY (United States) said today’s emergency meeting had been convened under strange circumstances, whereby the Russian Federation had asked members to address “unilateral threats” while ignoring its own unilateral actions in the region. What should really be considered today was the blatant violation of international law of the use of chlorine, mustard gas and other chemical weapons. Following the use of chemical weapons during the First and Second World Wars, the Geneva Protocols had been adopted and then States had signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, known as the Chemical Weapons Convention, binding signatories to never develop or use them or assist others in doing so. All Council members had signed that Convention, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had also agreed to abide by its terms.
In that context, she said, the Council should not condemn the countries or group of countries that had the courage to stand up for the Convention’s principles. Instead, it should focus on those who exhibited unilateralism in defence of chemical weapon use. Indeed, it was the Russian Federation alone that had consistently defended the Assad regime, having used its veto six times to do so, despite agreeing to act as the guarantor for the removal of all Syria’s chemical weapons. If the Russian Federation had lived up to its commitment, there would be no chemical weapons in Syria, and “we would not be here today”, she said. While the President of the United States had not yet made up his mind on whether to act in Syria, if he and his allies chose to do so, it would be in defence of international norms. “The [Russian Federation] can complain all it wants about fake news, but no one is buying its lies or its cover-up,” she said.
MA ZHAOXU (China), noting that the international community currently stood “at the crossroads of war and peace”, said his delegation had consistently supported the peaceful settlement of disputes and opposed the use or threat of use of force in international relations. Any unilateral actions ran counter to the principles enshrined in the Charter, which protected Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. Urging all parties to remain calm and avoid any actions that would escalate the situation, he called on the international community to never waver in supporting peaceful efforts to settle the conflict promptly, justly and peacefully. “The people of the world yearn for peace and they oppose war,” he said.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) said the threat to international peace and security was related to the systematic use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. There was no doubt as to the responsibility of Damascus, he said, citing facts that had been collected in Douma, the victims’ symptoms, complexity of the substances involved and the regime’s determination to overcome the last pockets of resistance. Emphasizing that the Council must urgently restore a mechanism to identify those using chemical weapons, he said successive Russian vetoes had paralysed and sacrificed the Council’s ability to act. By deciding to use chemical weapons on 7 April, the Syrian regime had reached a point of no return. France would shoulder its responsibilities and ensure respect for international law and Council resolutions. A chemical weapon attack in Douma called for a robust and united response. Emphasizing France’s commitment to ending impunity, he said the prohibition of chemical weapons must be restored and Damascus must not be allowed to transgress the norms of international law.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) said the Assad regime, with a track record for using chemical weapons, was highly likely responsible for the Douma attack. The use of chemical weapons must be challenged and the United Kingdom would work with its allies to coordinate an international response. Her Government and the British people were not “Russophobes”, she said, but the Russian Federation’s actions had led to the current situation. What had occurred in Syria was a violation of the Charter and to stand by and ignore the need for justice and accountability was to place the security of all at the mercy of a Russian veto. The international order must not be sacrificed for the Russian Federation’s desire to protect its ally at all costs. Noting the United Kingdom’s contribution to the Syrian humanitarian appeal and its support for the Geneva process, she said the Russian Federation’s actions were both dangerous and prejudicial to international peace and security.
OLOF SKOOG (Sweden) said his delegation deeply regretted that the Russian Federation had once again used its veto and blocked the Council from taking action. Sweden was working tirelessly to find a way forward. Condemning any use of chemical weapons in Syria, he demanded full access and cooperation for the OPCW fact-finding mission and underlined Sweden’s determination to establish a new impartial and independent mechanism. He requested the Secretary-General to immediately dispatch a high-level disarmament mission to Syria that would add political and diplomatic leverage to OPCW and its work with a view to ridding that country of any chemical weapons that might still exist there. There was still a way for the Council to shoulder its responsibilities and come together, as it owed as much to the people of Syria and the world.
ANATOLIO NDONG MBA (Equatorial Guinea) expressed continued support for dialogue and efforts towards the peaceful settlement of disputes. A unilateral military response in Syria could easily backfire, leading to greater chaos and more human suffering, he said, pointing at the example of Libya — and its effects across the Sahel and the African continent — as an important recent lesson. The use of force must be undertaken only as a last resort, he said, expressing grave concern over the escalation of rhetoric. Appealing to the Council’s five permanent members, he wondered: “Are we contributing to delegitimizing the Council?” There was no military solution to the Syrian conflict, and all Council members must act together to establish a mechanism to investigate the Douma incident, identify perpetrators and ensure an end to impunity. Also agreeing with the Secretary-General’s expression of disappointment with the Council’s inability to agree on the terms of such a mechanism, he reiterated his delegation’s frustration with the body’s decision not to adopt any of three draft resolutions tabled for that purpose.
SACHA SERGIO LLORENTTY SOLÍZ (Bolivia) said some Council members had avoided addressing the main reason for today’s meeting, which was the threat by some States to launch a unilateral military strike on Syria. The use of chemical weapons was a terrible and criminal act that flouted international law, he said, calling for a transparent and impartial investigation into all related allegations. The Council must ensure that such an investigation was totally depoliticized, he said, expressing regret over its failure to do so. Nevertheless, it was clear that the main topic at hand today was the threat by some Council members of violating the international legal framework designed to support the weakest States against the most powerful. Calling on all Council members to uphold multilateralism and the rules-based international order, he reminded States that the Council was “not just its five permanent members”, and nor was the United Nations “just the Council”.
Indeed, he said, the 15-member body represented all 193 Member States and it must avoid being used as a pawn sacrificed on the global chessboard for the petty narrow interests of some nations. It would be dangerous to combat one alleged violation of international law with another. Bolivia had voted in favour of two of the draft resolutions tabled in the Council since 9 April, but against a third text that had been produced as a “piece of theatre” without consulting any delegations holding different viewpoints. Latin America had suffered from the lip‑service and coup d’états sponsored by certain global Powers that only supported human rights when it served their interests. Meanwhile, the wounds resulting from attempts to overthrow regimes in Libya and Iraq were still raw and States across Africa were suffering from the direct consequences of those invasions.
MANSOUR AYYAD SH. A. ALOTAIBI (Kuwait), condemning the illegal Israeli occupation and its long-standing acts of oppression, said its occupying forces must not be exempt from international law. Calling for intensified efforts to push forward the political process aimed at peacefully resolving the conflict in Syria, he echoed the Secretary-General’s disappointment over the Council’s inaction and his calls for the establishment of a new mechanism to investigate allegations of chemical weapon use and ensure accountability for perpetrators. Calling on the Council to continue to work to establish such a body, he underlined the need for it to be totally independent, impartial and transparent. Recent events had proven, ever more starkly, that the use of the veto by permanent Council members should be prohibited in cases of mass atrocities committed against civilians. Kuwait supported the League of Arab States’ position in backing Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, he said, calling on all parties to redouble efforts to reach a peaceful negotiated settlement to the conflict.
KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan) said it was time, especially in the Middle East, to exercise special caution and vigilance and to tap into all the tools of preventive diplomacy to escape the consequences of military action. Given the escalation of rhetoric and threats of military action, Kazakhstan was deeply alarmed by the unfolding situation. No country had a right to violate the Charter, he said, emphasizing that diplomacy and mediation was the most effective way forward. Turning to the Douma incident, he said the Council must act on the basis of proven facts and await the results of the OPCW fact-finding mission. Any military action taken without Council approval was undesirable, with potential long-term implications. The situation must not, at any cost, be allowed to spiral out of control. Council unity must be restored and trust rebuilt to preserve international peace and security, including the establishment of an effective mechanism to identify those responsible. “Let’s make it happen and turn our words into real deeds,” he said, calling on Council colleagues to “go the extra mile”.
TEKEDA ALEMU (Ethiopia) said it was hard to quarrel with the Secretary‑General when he said that the cold war was back with a vengeance. Recalling the alleged chemical attack in Douma, he said the situation was a sad reflection of the lack of Council unity on even matters of common interest. Welcoming the deployment of the OPCW fact-finding mission, he said an attribution mechanism should be put in place swiftly. It was important to get priorities right. Concurring with the Secretary-General that it was vital to keep the situation from spinning out of control, he said that, if the United Nations was to move from a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention, now was time to speak in one voice and to take proactive and collective action that would be respected by all major stakeholders, with the Council united for global peace and security. In particular, it was time for the Council, as the custodian of the United Nations Charter, to stand up and be counted.
KAREL JAN GUSTAAF VAN OOSTEROM (Netherlands) said that while the Russian Federation was busy covering up the crimes of its ally, people around the world were appalled by the types of violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime. The Council must not get distracted from its collective conscience — the same one that had created the Charter and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Accountability for chemical weapon use in Syria was neither optional nor negotiable, he said, adding that the Syrian regime was likely responsible for the recent attack in Douma. It was unacceptable that, four years after Syria had joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, its declaration could still not be verified as accurate and complete. Regrettably, all attempts to fight impunity at the Council had failed. As evidenced by the Russian veto that once again had blocked action in the Council, some States were more interested in abusing the means of settling conflicts. Referring to the United States’ draft resolution on a new investigation mechanism as the “bare minimum” of what was acceptable to her delegation, he said the Netherlands would not settle for anything less than an independent, impartial investigation.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) said that, despite Council unanimously adopted resolutions, there was still no substantial change on the ground in Syria. The utmost must be done to ensure that humanitarian convoys reached those in need in eastern Ghouta and other areas. Emphasizing that international public opinion was witnessing its lack of agreement, she called on the Council to take steps to ensure that all parties in Syria, including the regime and its allies, implemented a humanitarian ceasefire and fully engage in the Geneva talks. Recalling that chemical weapons a century ago were a normal way to conduct war, she said all Council members agreed that their use was deplorable and unacceptable. Regretting to note that an investigative mechanism had not already been established, she said accountability for the chemical weapon use was essential for a durable peace in Syria. The Council must find a way to agree on how to responds to chemical attacks in Syria properly.
BERNARD TANOH-BOUTCHOUE (Côte d’Ivoire) said the Council had continued to fail to ensure the implementation of resolution 2401 (2018). Given persistent reports about the use of chemical weapons in Douma, the Council had also been unable to agree on, at the very least, a statement conveying its solidarity with the Syrian people. His delegation was troubled by the state of deadlock in the Council, preventing it from agreeing on a mechanism to combat impunity for chemical attacks. Reiterating support for the work of the OPCW fact-finding mission, he asked Council members to cast aside differences and set up an accountability mechanism. Alarmed by tensions stemming from the current impasse, he encouraged the Secretary-General to pursue efforts to prevent an escalation and urged all parties to show maximum restraint.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUARDA (Peru), Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, expressing deep concern “over the fault lines that have emerged in this Council”, especially between permanent members, and the use of the veto that was hobbling the body’s ability to effectively address the items on its agenda. He expressed support for the need to guarantee full and unrestricted access to the OPCW fact-finding mission, as well as to create an objective, impartial mechanism. There could be no military solution and all activities of the parties must not deviate from the principles of international law. Calling for an acceleration of diplomatic efforts in line with resolution 2254 (2015) and the Geneva communiqué, he underscored the need to avoid letting the spiral out of control. Peru would continue to work towards a peaceful solution in full support of the Syrian people.
BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria), noting that the Secretary-General’s statement had reflected an understanding that threats against his country and its allies were the reason for today’s meeting, said his Government recognized the use of chemical weapons was a war crime. However, war in itself was a crime and should be prevented. Indeed, the representative of the United States had overlooked the fact that her own country had destroyed Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, as confirmed by Swedish Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag. Citing the “Western affection for vile terrorists in Douma”, he said those terrorists had been chased out of that city to the north, towards Saudi Arabia, where they would no doubt be recycled into other conflicts, including the one in Yemen. In addition, the United States’ delegate had failed to be horrified by her own country’s use of 20 million gallons of agent orange in Viet Nam, claiming the lives of 3 million Vietnamese and resulting in generations of children born with deformities, nor by its killing of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians using white phosphorous — a chemical weapon — which were also war crimes.
The truth, he said, was that three permanent Council members were again dragging the world into conflict and oppression. The entire world had witnessed the invasion and destruction of Iraq, as well as France’s decision to destroy the Government of Libya in an effort to cover up French corruption. Lamenting the loss of the days when France had opposed the United States’ aggression, he said that, following the failure by those States and the United Kingdom to achieve their objective in Syria by supporting terrorists, they had now resorted to tweeting threats about missile strikes. While the Syrian Government had liberated thousands of civilians in eastern Ghouta from terrorist forces that had held them hostage for years, some reckless parties were pushing international relations into an abyss based on fake videos created by the “white helmets”. Noting that OPCW, invited by the Syrian Government, was slated to begin its work in the coming hours, he called on the Council to stand against attempts to impose the “rule of the jungle”. If the United States, United Kingdom and France believed they could violate the law by striking Syria, he said his Government would be forced to invoke Article 51 of the Charter — which provided it with a legitimate right to self-defence. “This is not a threat,” he said, “it is a promise.”