What to make of Khartoum’s conspicuous use of chemical weapons, most recently against civilians in Jebel Marra Darfur? This is not a new question
Amnesty International has provided us with the use of chemical weapons by the Khartoum regime in its 2016 military offensive in Jebel Marra; those affected were overwhelmingly civilians, including children, who often died as a consequence of the chemical agents used.
“Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air: Sudanese Government Forces Ravage Jebel Marra, Darfur,” Amnesty International (109 pages; released September 29, 2016)
Amnesty caption from September 2016 report:
This victim has large areas of dark red skin and in some areas the outer layer of skin has sloughed off. These areas are adjacent to areas of unaffected skin. The pink mottling in some of the dark areas may be a current wound or may be scars. The victim’s wounds were described as itchy, so some of the pink mottling could also be due to scratching resulting in removal of dead skin. Additionally, many causes of extreme trauma to the skin, such as exposure to high concentrations of a chemical warfare blister agent like sulphur mustard, can lead to skin sloughing. Some subtle aspects of the sloughing seen here may be atypical of blister agent exposure and indicate that exposure to other chemicals or a combination of chemicals could be responsible.
But a report from 2000 by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (Switzerland) should long ago have prompted action by signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention. In its preface to a February 2000 study (“Living under aerial bombardments: Report of an investigation in the Province of Equatoria, Southern Sudan”), MSF-Switzerland reported that:
Since the beginning of the year 1999 until this very moment, we have been experiencing and witnessing direct aerial bombings of the hospital, while full of patients, and of the living compound of our medical team (10 bombings in 1999, a total of 66 bombs dropped, with 13 hitting the hospital premises). Facing the sharp increase of aerial bombardments in this region during 1999, frequently aimed at civilian structures such as hospitals, in November 1999, we requested an investigation of these events and their consequences for the civilian population in the area.
The elements of this investigation, included in the report herewith, tend to demonstrate that the strategy used by the Sudanese Air Force in this region, is deliberately aimed at targeting civilian structures, causing indiscriminate deaths and injuries, and contributes to a climate of terror among the civilian population. Furthermore, evidence has been found and serious allegations have been made that weapons of internationally prohibited nature are regularly employed against the civilian population such as cluster bombs and bombs with ‘chemical contents.’ (emphasis added)
The use of chemical weapons by Khartoum has never been properly investigated by the UN; nor has the international community pushed effectively for such investigation. Despite very strong prima facie evidence that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) had engaged in chemical warfare on a number of occasions, a decade after the end of the Iraqi Anfal the international community again showed no interest in investigating:
MSF is particularly worried about the use or alleged use of prohibited weapons (such as cluster bombs and chemical bombs) that have indiscriminate effect (emphasis added). The allegations regarding the use of chemical bombs started on 23 July 1999, when the villages of Lainya and Loka (Yei County) were bombed with chemical products. In a reaction to this event, a group of non-governmental organizations had taken samples on the 30th of July, and on the 7th of August; the United Nations did the same.
Although the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is competent and empowered to carry out such an ‘investigation of alleged use,’ it needs an official request made by another State Party. To date, we deplore that OPCW has not received any official request from any State Party to investigate, and that since the UN samples taking, no public statement has been made concerning these samples nor the results of the laboratory tests. (emphasis added)
MSF offers several eyewitness accounts of chemical weapons in bombs, including a grim narrative of events in Yei County (now Central Equatoria):
The increase of the bombings on the civilian population and civilian targets in 1999 was accompanied by the use of cluster bombs and weapons containing chemical products. On 23 July 1999, the towns of Lainya and Loka (Yei County) were bombed with chemical products. At the time of this bombing, the usual subsequent results (i.e. shrapnel, destruction to the immediate environment, impact, etc.) did not take place. [Rather], the aftermath of this bombing resulted in a nauseating, thick cloud of smoke, and later symptoms such as children and adults vomiting blood and pregnant women having miscarriages were reported…
These symptoms of the victims leave no doubt as to the nature of the weapons used. Two field staff of the World Food Program (WFP) who went back to Lainya, three days after the bombing, had to be evacuated on the 27th of July. They were suffering of nausea, vomiting, eye and skin burns, loss of balance and headaches.
After this incident, the WFP interrupted its operations in the area, and most of the humanitarian organizations that are members of the Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) had to suspend their activities after the UN had declared the area to be dangerous for its personnel. (emphasis added)
There have been repeated reports of chemical weapons use after 1999; not one has been investigated by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which requires a demand for investigation from a state signatory. OPCW notes
A unique feature of the CWC is its incorporation of the “challenge inspection,” whereby any State Party in doubt about another State Party’s compliance can request the Director-General to send an inspection team. Under the CWC’s “challenge inspection” procedure, States Parties have committed themselves to the principle of “any time, anywhere” inspections with no right of refusal. (emphasis added)
In the body of the report, MSF—which had been working in eastern Equatoria since 1997—finds that their teams have:
…several times been victims and witnesses of these bombings that are only aimed at the civilian population and civilian targets. Hospitals and schools in particular, are deliberately chosen as targets.
The hospital in Yei town—run by the nongovernmental Norwegian People’s Aid and marked with a large and conspicuous red cross on its roof—was also a particular target of Antonov bombing attacks in 1999. Yei was bombed on 15 different occasions during the year, and a total of 138 bombs were dropped. Ten people were known to have been killed, more were wounded, a number of civilian houses were destroyed, the hospital infrastructure was seriously damaged, and the facilities of two other humanitarian organizations were destroyed or damaged (the UN water facility was targeted in one of these attacks).
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the international community would simply rather not investigate allegations of chemical weapons attacks in Sudan, despite the intensity of focus on ascertaining the use of chemical weapons in the war in Syria and the overheated rhetoric indulged in by Secretary of State John Kerry. We may rightly wonder what Kerry’s response will be to the overwhelming evidence of chemical weapons use by Khartoum. For the present callous moves toward rapprochement with the Khartoum regime by Obama administration and Europe may be differently motivated, but in concert they have the inevitable effect of encouraging Khartoum to believe that it may use genocidal counter-insurgency tactics of any kind in completing the military subjection of Darfur.
The use of chemical weapons is the most extreme example of Khartoum’s sense of impunity—an impunity it has come to depend upon in conducting its barbaric domestic military campaigns, orchestrating vast human rights abuses and a wide range of repressive measures, and supporting radical Islamists (for example, Libya Dawn in Libya). In this context let’s recall here that in August 2013 the Obama administration’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, referred to the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a “moral obscenity.” Given his dismal record of expediency on Sudan and South Sudan, it seems unlikely that we will be hearing similar words from the chief U.S. diplomat on this occasion.
For so long as the Europeans are more interested in stanching the flow of refugees from Africa to continental Europe, and so long as the governing interest in the bilateral relationship between Washington and Khartoum hinges on the putative “counter-terrorism intelligence” the regime provides, we may expect to see more egregious violations of international law of the sort Amnesty International has chronicled so authoritatively.