Myths vs. Facts: The OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM)
1. Myth: Even now, some of those pushing to sanction the Asad regime for confirmed chemical weapons use turn a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons by ISIL.
- The JIM found ISIL responsible for one of the nine incidents where the OPCW Fact Finding Mission confirmed that chemical weapons were used in Syria. Specifically, the third report of the JIM found that ISIL had been involved in the use of sulfur mustard in Marea on August 21, 2015.
- The United States condemns the use of chemicals as weapons by any party, and has consistently called for accountability for all actors – whether state or non-state – who use chemical weapons.
2. Myth: The JIM has not produced sufficient evidence to make attribution findings that meet the requisite standards of law, including the presumption of innocence.
- The sufficiency of the evidence standard used by the JIM is fully consistent with past fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry established by the United Nations.
- The only standard relevant for purposes of making attribution findings to the UN Security Council is that a sufficient degree of supporting evidence exists to make attribution determinations; specifically, evidence of a credible and reliable nature to determine that a party was involved in the use of chemicals as weapons.
- The JIM is a non-judicial investigative mechanism functioning within its mandate to identify “to the greatest extent feasible” individuals and other actors involved in the use of chemicals as weapons and the roles they played. The JIM is not tasked with determining legal liability.
3. Myth: The JIM failed to credit alternative theories of responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. For example, the JIM did not consider the possibility that terrorists or other non-state actors controlled helicopters in the areas of chemical weapons use.
- The JIM clearly stated that there was no evidence that an opposition group used aviation assets in any of the cases under JIM investigation – a view the United States shares. As a result, the JIM rejected the theory that terrorists or other non-state actors operated a helicopter in the three incidents of chemical weapon use that the JIM attributed to the Syrian Arab Armed Forces.
- The fourth JIM report determined that a “Syrian Arab Armed Forces helicopter dropped a toxic substance” on March 16, 2015, in the town of Qmenas, which led to patients suffering symptoms consistent with chlorine exposure. The JIM Leadership Panel added that “it found no evidence that armed opposition groups in Qmenas had been operating a helicopter at the time and location of the incident.”
- In the other two confirmed incidents of CW use attributed to the Syrian Arab Armed Forces – in Talmenes (April 21, 2014) and Sarmin (March 16, 2015) – the third JIM report similarly found no evidence to suggest that any armed opposition group was operating helicopters in the area.
4. Myth: The JIM’s working methods were unsound or weak.
- The JIM made clear in its first report that it would be bound by principles of impartiality, objectivity and independence, and that all information and evidence considered would be subject to assessment through verification and substantiation.
- As the JIM executed its investigation, it took significant steps to ensure the integrity and confidentiality of its work, including by utilizing secure office space, communications, and information management, and having its staff sign confidentiality agreements.
- None of the JIM’s working methods were called into question prior to the release of the JIM’s third report in August 2016, and no UN Security Council Member State voiced any criticism of the JIM’s methods in the past. Instead, the JIM has been consistently praised by the international community as a neutral, professional panel of experts and their effort fully supported. In fact, upon unanimous adoption by the UN Security Council of UNSCR 2235 (2015), Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said:
“The Council could not overlook the OPCW findings on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Russian Federation condemned such acts and found that they ran counter to the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, the question of who had used chemical weapons still remained unanswered, he said, noting that the Joint Investigative Mechanism, called for today, would help to bridge those gaps. It would work impartially, professionally and objectively.”
5. Myth: The JIM did not sufficiently consult with the Government of Syria.
- The Leadership Panel consistently conveyed to the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic the need to respond promptly to the JIM’s requests for information. The JIM maintained constant interaction with the Government of Syria throughout its investigation, including with two visits to Damascus in December 2015 and August 2016 by its Leadership Panel, and four additional visits by technical experts. The JIM also had over 20 bilateral meetings with the Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations, and through the JIM’s Liaison Office in Damascus.
6. Myth: The information provided in the third and fourth JIM reports is not credible because it is derived from second- or third-hand sources.
- The JIM Leadership Panel relied on eyewitness accounts and other sources of corroborating information to attribute CW use to the Syrian Arab Armed Forces on three occasions. First, witnesses to the April 21, 2014 attack in Talmenes stated that they saw the release of toxic chemicals following the explosion of a barrel bomb dropped from an aircraft. Second, witnesses to the March 16, 2015 attack in Qmenas reported seeing a device dropped from a helicopter – testimony that was subsequently confirmed by forensic analysis and satellite images. Finally, witnesses to the March 16, 2015 attack in Sarmin provided testimony that a barrel bomb dropped from a helicopter – a finding corroborated by forensic evidence.
- In each of these cases, the JIM subsequently confirmed witness testimony with forensic analysis and satellite images.
7. Myth: There is no role for the OPCW to play related to the OPCW-UN JIM findings.
- The OPCW and UN Security Council are the competent bodies to address these issues, and they should be allowed to pursue appropriate courses of action based on their prerogatives under international law.
- The OPCW-UN JIM is fundamentally linked to the OPCW. The OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission is mandated to determine whether use or likely use of CW occurred, and, once confirmed, the JIM is mandated to attribute involvement in that use. This two-step process is intentional to ensure an impartial investigation.
- Syria is a State Party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the confirmed use by a State Party is the most serious challenge to the Convention and the global norm against chemical weapons since the creation of the OPCW.
- As such, the OPCW must take on this pivotal challenge using its various tools to address concerns about compliance with the fundamental prohibitions of the Convention and to verify that CWC-based obligations are met.