Explainer: how to investigate alleged chemical attacks

The Hague, Netherlands (AP) — Ukraine said on Tuesday it was investigating claims that a toxic substance was dropped in the city of Mariupol. Deputy Defense Minister Hannah Mallier said it was possible that phosphorus warheads – which cause horrific burns but are not classified as chemical weapons – were used.

Now the question is how to establish the truth amidst the fog of war that has descended upon a city still under attack by the Russian army. A clear answer is unlikely to emerge any time soon.

Who can check?

The country has its own law enforcement agencies first to investigate in Ukraine. Teams from other countries are also investigating allegations – particularly around Buka – of war crimes and the International Criminal Court has launched an investigation in Ukraine. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has so far not announced any investigation into Ukraine, although it states on its website that its Secretariat will monitor the status of relevant chemical industrial facilities and any threats from the use of toxic chemicals. doing. Weapons in the country ,

Mark-Michael Blum, former head of OPCW’s laboratory and now an independent consultant, said the organization would not be sending a team to Mariupol to investigate.

“We have an active war zone where the OPCW will not send a team because the team’s safety cannot be guaranteed,” Blum told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

How are suspected chemical attacks investigated?

If a team of experts was able to investigate what was used and by whom, it would try to build a dossier of evidence based on laboratory tests of samples collected at the scene and from victims. This means taking soil samples and testing them for traces of potential chemical weapons or other weapons. Blood and urine samples of victims exposed to war material will also be tested. And then investigators will try to interview witnesses and survivors about what they experienced and how the physicians treated them. In previous investigations, experts studied gas dispersion models and topographic charts and looked at digital images. OPCW has experience in conducting such investigations in Syria, where its experts have confirmed the use of chemical weapons on several occasions. Damascus denies the use of chemical weapons.

What happened elsewhere in the past cases of chemical weapons?

Hundreds of people were killed in gas poisoning attacks in Syria during the country’s civil war. The OPCW faced several hurdles and the Russian veto complicating the establishment of the investigative mechanism. Till date no one has been held accountable.

Two recent cases outside Syria show how an investigation into the use of a suspected chemical weapon by local authorities could lead to the death of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2020 in the English city of Poisoning in Salisbury.

In those cases, authorities in Germany, where Navalny went for treatment, and in the case of Skripal in the United Kingdom, took and tested biological samples and concluded that they had been targeted with a Soviet-era nerve agent called It is called Novichok. In those cases, the OPCW tested the samples and the findings were confirmed by national authorities. Russia denied involvement in both attacks.

If phosphorus was used in Mariupol, is it illegal?

Phosphorus weapons are not considered chemical weapons. Most armies have phosphorus munitions to use to illuminate battlefields or targets, or to create smoke screens. However, if a military intentionally fired a phosphorus warhead into an enclosed space to expose people to toxic fumes, it could be a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, Blum said.

“Once you start using white phosphorus’s properties, the toxic properties exclusively and intentionally, it becomes restricted,” he said.

What are the chances of a successful investigation into the besieged Mariupol?

Blum is not optimistic. “Given the current situation we have at Mariupol, it’s almost impossible to pin down really, and so I don’t have any high hopes for any kind of investigation,” he said.


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