Chemical weapons in Syria: statement by head of investigative team

On 6 July 2017, amid growing concern about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Edmond Mulet – head of an investigative team jointly established by the UN and OPCW – presented a report to the Security Council. Mulet gave a press conference after the meeting and this is a transcript of what he said. Click here for more background.

EDMOND MULET: I just briefed the Security Council along with the United Nations High Representative for Disarmament, Ms Izumi Nakamitsu. As the head of the independent three-member leadership panel of the OPCW/Unite Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism, I presented our sixth report to the Council a few moments ago. 

I am here with the other two members of the leadership panel, Miss Judy Cheng-Hopkins and Mr Stefan Mogl.

The Joint Investigative Mechanism has a unique mandate from the Security Council to identify, to the greatest extent feasible, perpetrators who use chemicals as weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic. 

The Joint Investigative Mechanism uses as its starting point the determination by the OPCW Fact Finding Mission that a specific incident in Syria has involved, or likely involved, the use of chemicals as weapons. 

Before I take your questions I'd like to highlight three points. 

First, it is indisputable fact that chemicals have been used as weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic. People have died because of such deadly and insidious weapons which the world found inhumane already more than 100 years ago. We, the members of the panel, the JIM, absolutely condemn such horrendous acts. Our mandate as instructed to us by the Security Council is to identify the perpetrators and we hope that our work will help stop this erosion of the international ban against chemical weapons.

Second, the Joint Investigative Mechanism is currently investigating two incidents where the OPCW FFM (Fact Finding Mission) determined chemical weapons have been used. They are Khan Skeikhoun incident of 4 April this year where you have all seen the horrifying images associated with that incident. The other incident occurred in Um Housh in September of last year. 

In line with our mandate from the Security Council we will conduct a through investigation, to identify to the greatest extent feasible, those responsible for these crimes.  

Given the immense challenges related to conducting investigations in the middle of an ongoing conflict we will need to receive all the information that is available about these incidents. 

Third, the Joint Investigative Mechanism is not working in a vacuum. We find ourselves in a highly politicised environment. I appeal to all, as I did right now in the Council, to let us peform our work in an impartial, independent and professional manner. 

We have gathered a group of experts with various specialities and backgrounds who will do exactly that – do their work in an impartial, independent and professional manner. 

Focusing on the very challenging tasks before us we'll carry out our work effectively and present all the findings we reach to the Security Council. I will now take your questions.

QUESTION: You mentioned the political situation that you are working with. How big is the pressure on the JIM now, given the division in the Security Council on this matter? And, two, how critical is it for you to visit Shayrat air base?

MULET: On the first issue, on the politicisation, we do receive – unfortunately – direct and indirect messages all the time from many sides telling us how to do our work. And some of those messages are very clear in saying that if we don't do our work according to them – these different visions – then they will not accept the conclusions of our work.

So my message again to the Council today was please let us do our work. We have a highly professional team. We are going to do this in a very independent manner, objectively, impartially, and we will present our results in October.

Politicisation also comes in the automatic reponse that we hear from the international community when there is an incident in Syria or an accusation or an alleged incident in Syria. Automatically, some member states say it is the Syrian regime who is responsible for this. And, automatically, some other ones say it is the opposition that is responsible for this. So, I am not going one way or the other. I mean, we will do our work, and our findings, in the end, based on facts and on science, will determine who is responsible for this.

On the al-Shayrat base, it is our intention to visit al-Shayrat base in order to go to the site, and we also would like to go to Khan Sheikhoun. But of course that is related to security concerns and security issues. But also, before we are going to these places I would need some feedback from the Syrian government. I need information about the flight logs in al-Shayrat, the movements around al-Shayrat. I need the names of the people we will be interviewing – military commanders and government officials – and also some information that the Syrian government could provide to us in order to conduct our work. So, we are working already with the Syrian government on this, and hopefully we will be given the necessary tools and instruments in order to our work.

QUESTION: Mr Mulet, two questions. First, when do you expect to be able to report on these findings? I know you have another report due in the fall. Can we expect some results then? And, secondly, Russia has said publicly and repeatedly that it does not believe that even the results of the Fact Finding Mission are accurate because that team never visited the sites. How do you address that allegation which obviously will be repeated in whatever the JIM does if you don't go there?

MULET: On your first question, the one we presented today was a progress report on what we are doing in the JIM right now. The substantive report will be issued more or less in mid-October and by then I hope that we will have conclusions and the results of our work regarding the cases in Um Housh and in Khan Sheikhoun. We are putting all our efforts and concentrating all our resources in working on those two alleged incidents.

Regarding the OPCW Fact Finding Mission conclusions and results, we the JIM have full trust and full confidence in the high professional work that the Fact Finding Mission has done – it has always done – especially now in the Khan Sheikhoun issue.

Yesterday, in the Hague, there was a meeting of the executive council of the OPCW and all member states – all member states – recognised and accepted that Sarin, or Sarin-like, was used in Khan Sheikhoun, was present in Khan Sheikhoun, was dispersed in Khan Sheikhoun. So that is a fact. Everybody, inlcuding the Russian Federation, including the Syrian government, have accepted that fact. 

So the way the OPCW Fact Finding Mission arrived to that conclusion at this point is moot because everybody agrees that that is the fact, that is the result. And we will be building our work on what the Fact Finding Mission has produced but also on additional information from many, many other sources, not only on this one. We are already looking into that and receiving all sorts of different information from different sources. 

QUESTION: These direct and indirect messages that you said you are receiving, are they coming from one country or several countries, and how many cases apart from Khan Sheikhoun are you working on at the moment? 

MULET: On your first question, the messages, direct or indirect messages we receive are coming from – everywhere. From everywhere, so it's [pause] more than one but less than 20, so it's still quite a lot of different sectors and interested parties, certainly.

We are investigating two cases right now – Um Housh that happened in September of 2016 in Idlib governorate and in Khan Sheikhoun, the one on 4 April of this year. These are the two cases we are working on right now. 

OPCW director-general has informed us they are working themselves on six or seven other cases that might come our way before the end of October when we present our substantive report.

Thank you very much.