Recent reports regarding the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria are very disturbing indeed. If it turns out that there is concrete evidence that chemical weapons have been used, many will hope this will (finally) provoke action by the Security Council. There will inevitably be calls for accountability of those responsible and hopes that the Syrian situation will be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). But even if the Syrian situation is referred to the ICC, can the Court prosecute for use of chemical weapons in Syria.
As Syria is not a party to the Statute of the International Criminal Court, the ICC will only have jurisdiction over events in Syria if there is a Security Council referral (Arts 12 & 13, ICC Statute). If the Council were to refer the situation in Syria, it is possible that attacks involving the use of chemical weapons may be prosecuted as part of a charge of crimes against humanity or as part of the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population. In such a case, the use of chemical weapons would not form part of the core of the charge but would simply be the means by which the attack has taken place. Proving use of chemical weapons would not be necessary to sustain either charge. However, it is interesting to consider whether the use of chemical weapons would itself be a crime under the ICC Statute in the Syrian situation. I think the answer is yes, but, perhaps surprisingly, the answer is not as straightforward as one might have thought or would have hoped.
Does the ICC Statute Specifically Prohibit the Use of Chemical Weapons?
Despite attempts to include a provision that would have specifically and expressly criminalised the use of chemical weapons, the ICC Statute adopted in Rome 1998 did not mention chemical weapons by name (see Bill Schabas’ post here). However, Article 8(2)(b) of the Statute dealing with war crimes includes 3 provisions that might be interpreted as applying to chemical weapons. Art. 8(2)(b)xvii makes it a war crime to employ “poison or poisoned weapons”. Para. xvii refers to “employing asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials or devices. Para. xx makes it a war crime to employ “weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering or which are inherently indiscriminate in violation of the international law of armed conflict. . . .” However, that last provision only prohibits those weapons if they are subject to a comprehensive prohibition and included in an annex to the Statute. Unfortunately, no annex to this provision has been agreed so no one can (yet) be prosecuted under para xx.
An argument has been made that the provisions of the ICC Statute listed above do not cover chemical and biological weapons Read the rest of this entry…