Years after initial human rights violations in 2013 and 2017 respectively, lawyers from four non-governmental organizations are filing a criminal complaint to the Swedish police regarding the chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians. The Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), Civil Rights Defenders, Syrian Archive (SA), and the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) are specifically pointing towards the use of sarin gas in Ghouta in 2013 and Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib province in 2017. The accusation comes while similar complaints arise in both France and Germany.
“Swedish authorities can join their counterparts in France and Germany to…demonstrate that there will be no impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes,” said Steve Kostas, a lawyer for the Justice Initiative. The Syrian government, however, denies ever using chemical weapons against its own civilians. “Sweden can and should contribute to putting an end to the current state of impunity in Syria,” Hadi al-Khatib, founder and director of the Syrian Archive, said in a statement according to Al Jazeera. He continues, “by filing the complaint, we want to support the victims’ struggle for truth and justice.”
The complaint, especially in conjunction with similar suits occurring, does make meaningful progress. While the accusations cannot rectify the past, they do focus the world’s attention on Syria’s egregious acts against its own citizens. Although it may often be underestimated in comparison with guns, tanks, and nuclear bombs, the will and collective attitude of people matter. Especially in the modern age where international trade plays an increasingly influential role in a nation’s economic power, leveraging accusations on such a large scale can have extremely detrimental effects for the accused. The international community’s attitude towards a certain nation or nation’s actions is extremely important for these reasons. By generating such social pressure, and potentially economic pressure, on the Syrian government, their actions will be more scrutinized which will significantly disincentivize the government from committing similar acts in the future.
The Syrian government’s inhumane actions were caused during a long internal conflict beginning in 2011. In March of that year, pro-democracy protests erupted in the city of Deraa, the outrage of the arrest and torture of teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall sparking the protests. The government’s violent response to this protest caused nationwide protests calling for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. In 2013, the Syrian government used chemical weapons in attacks on the opposition-held town of Ghouta. In 2017 the same tactic was used in the city of Khan Sheikhoun. The U.N.-commissioned investigation concluded in 2017 that the Syrian government had used chlorine and sarin gas.
According to National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), acute exposure to chlorine gas causes dyspnea, corneal burns, and vomiting among many other severe effects. The nerve agent, sarin, when exposed to the skin, causes death in minutes with large doses. Convulsions, paralysis, and respiratory failure makes sarin particularly lethal, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Hundreds of civilians, including children, were killed in these attacks, according to Reuters. “In the ten years since the first assaults on pro-democracy protesters in Syria, the government has used chemical weapons more than 300 times to terrorize the civilian population,” Kostas says. The chemical weapons waged upon its own citizens warrants the scrutiny of the Swedish Police’s War Crimes Unit.
The unit’s investigation disincentivizes Syria’s commitment of future war crimes while avoiding the stoking of violence that an armed intervention could provoke. As the armed conflict has mostly subsided by now, it is imperative that violence remains unprovoked while still investigating the actions of the Syrian government. The first trial against the members of President Assad’s forces for committing crimes against humanity began in Germany in April 2020. The continuation of the trials and scrutiny casts a hopeful light on the future and success of this non-violent intervention.J
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