Chemical Weapons And Civilians: The Invisible Threat

Aug 31, 2013
Originally published on September 1, 2013 9:06 am
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If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The chemical weapons attack in Syria on August the 21st was the first time in a quarter century that such weapons had been used against civilians during a conflict. In 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi city of Halabja was subjected to a gas attack by Saddam Hussein. At least 5,000 people died.

And a year before that in 1987, the small Kurdish villages of Balisan and Sheikh Wassan were also gassed, probably as a testing ground for the new chemical weapons.

I went to northern Iraq in 2005 where people like Goli Omar Aziz(ph) told us through an interpreter about the horrors of that evening.


LYDEN: The widowed Aziz recalled how villagers tried to flee the invisible threat.


LYDEN: Even when alerted to it, the attack went unheeded by the international community until an independent investigation years later.

Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group helped investigate that attach in northern Iraq in Kurdistan and says the recent use of chemicals in Syria bring to mind those events of 25 years ago.

JOOST HILTERMANN: When I saw the images of the dead civilians, I was horrified because it immediately brought to mind images that I remember very well from Halabja in 1988 and from other sites in Kurdistan from the 1980s. I had hoped that after those horrible events that these would never be repeated. And now, it looks like this is not true.

LYDEN: You have done so much research on these weapons. Take us back in history a little bit. What is the precedent for these going all the way back to World War I?

HILTERMANN: Well, in the First World War, chemical weapons were used extensively leading to maybe an estimated 100,000 deaths over a number of years. And these were fairly crude chemical agents such as chlorine and phosgene, but also mustard gas. The - when the Iran-Iraq War started, first, the Iranians had the advantage. But when the tide turned, Saddam Hussein found himself in a situation where he couldn't hold the front line essentially and started using chemical weapons in order to terrify the Iranian enemy.

And he began using also some crude chemical agents and then mustard gas. But eventually, he graduated to chemical agents that had never been used on the battlefield before, including nerve agents such as tabun and sarin. And he had also developed VX, a highly lethal and stable chemical agent. We don't have evidence, though, that he ever used it before the conflict ended.

LYDEN: There are a number of international bans in place. The U.S. didn't act in 1988 and is certainly warning that it will do so now.

HILTERMANN: Well, there are two instruments that established a norm against the use of chemical weapons. One is the 1925 Geneva protocol against the use of chemical weapons in international armed conflict. And then in 1993, we have the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production trade, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, and has a long roster of chemical agents that are banned under the treaty. And the United States is a signatory.

So the ban is there, but it's been very difficult to enforce this. And we clearly now see a gradual erosion of that ban. The question is really is how to reassert it, how to reaffirm it. Is the best way done by sending a military signal to a regime that violates the norm? Is the best way to indict commanders and leaders who order the use of chemical weapons before the International Criminal Court or a combination thereof?

This is what - something that world leaders have to determine. And clearly, there is no easy solution to this because any military intervention done to reestablish the norm against chemical weapons also would have ulterior motives and certainly would have other consequences that are unrelated to the specific use of chemical weapons.

LYDEN: Why are we seeing such a mixed picture in terms of international reaction to what has happened in Syria?

HILTERMANN: The problem is not that government are not concerned about the erosion of the norm against use of chemical weapons. But we don't know what chemical agents were used, and we are certainly in no position based on available evidence so far to determine who used chemical weapons. And since there has been such great political manipulation of chemical weapons claims during the previous chemical warfare episode in the Iran-Iraq War, many are skeptical about what the interests of the various accusers is.

LYDEN: How are chemical weapons different from deadly conventional weapons? Why do we treat them differently?

HILTERMANN: From my experience, speaking to survivors of a chemical attack, there's nothing quite like chemical weapons in terms of instilling a very deep instinctive fear in people. And so when I hear military analysts or other commentators speak about, you know, why is it so bad, these chemical weapons, people have been killed in Syria in great numbers, it reflects a lack of understanding of what the victims themselves experience. You're breathing the air and dying, and you're not able to determine that it's poisoned air.

LYDEN: What kind of signal - whether the U.S. and some of the European allies do or do not launch a strike against the regime in Syria, what kind of signal do you think this attack, after a quarter century of not using these chemical weapons, to others who might be tempted to use them?

HILTERMANN: You know, I think it's very important that there be some kind of response to the use of chemical weapons if this is what happened in Syria. If there is no response, other violent actors - be they governments or rebel movements - will be encouraged to produce these weapons and to deploy them. So there has to be some kind of response.

LYDEN: Joost Hiltermann is with the International Crisis Group in Brussels, Belgium. Joost Hiltermann, thank you so much for joining us.

HILTERMANN: Thanks for the occasion, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.