Chemical weapons in Syria – German and Belgian companies complicit?

Published 16th July 2019

For decades, civil society actors from the Global South have been asking when weapons manufacturers (who are usually from Europe/ the US) will be held accountable in some way for the arms they supply that ultimately fuel conflict in the Global South. The June 2019 legal complaint involving Sasol Solvents Germany GmbH, BASF Antwerpen NV, Brenntag AG and its Swiss subsidiary could be an important step in the interrogation of the role played by western companies in conflict situations. This complaint is of particular interest because it intersects with crimes perpetrated in Syria-a nation that seems to have fallen through the cracks of the international justice system.  

In March 2018 the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 511,000 since the war in Syria began in 2011.According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 6,2 million people have been displaced internally. As the war goes on, crimes continue to be committed with unbridled impunity.

To date, Russia and China have prevented the situation in Syria from coming before the International Criminal Court by exercising their veto power. Domestic Syrian justice for the crimes against humanity and war crimes committed is at this time a pipe dream. Universal jurisdiction does provide some hope that perpetrators will be tried in other countries and so does the possibility of holding companies that supply chemical weapon components accountable for their deadly contribution to the conflict.

The Open Society Foundation, Syrian Archive and TRIAL International are the organisations behind the submission of the complaint requesting the German and Belgian prosecutors to conduct a criminal investigation into the export of the chemicals isopropanol and diethylamine to Syria, via Switzerland in 2014.

Both of these chemicals can be used to produce standard pharmaceutical products but they can also be used in the production of chemical weapons. Isopropanol is useful in the production of lethal sarin gas which causes death by suffocation. Sarin gas has already been used in attacks against civilians in Syria by the Syrian government. In fact, one such attack, the April 2017 attack in Khan Sheikhun, constituted the largest chemical weapons attack since Syria signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013. According to the UN, 87 people died in that attack and the sarin gas used there was found to have been made with isopropanol.

Diethylamine can be used to make “venomous agent X” commonly known as VX, which is a highly poisonous nerve agent. Though VX has already been found in stockpiles of chemical weapons in Syria there is no recent known use of it.

By May 2018, Human Rights Watch reported that 85 chemical weapons attacks had taken place since 2013, a majority of which were attributed to the Syrian government. The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (UN Commission)  reported in March 2019 that chemical attacks continue in Syria. In addition to sarin gas, other chemical weapons used indiscriminately in Syria include weaponised chlorine and sulphur mustard which is a dangerous blister agent.

The broader implications of the supply of isopropanol and diethylamine are yet to be explored but the first stop is this: at the time of the alleged exports, both those chemicals were on a list of restricted raw materials and in terms of an EU sanctions they required formal approval before they could be exported. Isopropanol has been on the list since 2013 and diethylamine has been there since 2012. The organisations’ complaint therefore pertains to possible criminal violation of EU Regulation 36/2012 concerning controls on the sale, supply, transfer, or export to Syria, either in a direct manner or in an indirect manner.

In the case of the German and Belgium respectively, approval should be obtained from the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control and the Flemish Department of Foreign Affairs’s Strategic Goods Unit prior to any direct or indirect export to Syria. Both departments  said that they did not issue any permits for the export of those chemicals at the time relevant to the complaint. 

According to the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) said that the shipment of isopropanol was legal and that there was “there was ‘no indication that it had links to the Syrian government at the time, nor today.’” 

SECO also stated that “the buyer was ‘a private Syrian pharmaceutical firm.’” Newspapers later uncovered that the buyer was a Syrian company called Mediterranean Pharmaceutical Industries (MPI), an outfit believed to have strong ties to the Syrian government. The three organisations that brought this matter to the authorities conducted their own investigations and found that MPI was led by the late Abdul Rahman Attar, who was a well-known Syrian businessman with strong and powerful connections in the Syrian government. 

MPI was authorised in 2014, by a subsidiary of Swiss company Novartis, to produce the widely used, over the counter, Voltaren pain-relief Gel that is produced using both chemicals. Novartis who claim to have done their due diligence with regard to MPI stated that, 

“Under this agreement, which pre-dates the Syrian Civil War, Novartis Consumer Health supplied only the active pharmaceutical ingredients in compliance with applicable sanction laws. It was the responsibility of MPI to obtain the necessary adjuvants required for production (like e.g. isopropanol or diethylamine) itself directly from a third party supplier. Novartis exported neither isopropanol nor diethylamine to Syria at that time nor does it do so currently.” 

The Belgian and German prosecutors are looking into the complaint filed and a detailed investigation will hopefully reveal whether the companies involved did indeed circumvent the sanctions, a small but vital step in closing the impunity gap. It could perhaps also serve as a warning to other companies contributing wittingly or unwittingly to armed conflicts across the globe.

**This article appeared first in Opinio Juris on 15 July 2019 http://opiniojuris.org/2019/07/15/chemical-weapons-in-syria-german-and-belgian-companies-complicit/

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