No, “The UN” Didn’t Blame Chemical Attacks On Syria’s Rebels

So for the past couple of days, there’s been a bit of a hullaballoo over just what on earth the United States is finally going to do in Syria. All signs — despite Obama insisting that he hasn’t made a decision yet — point towards a set of missile strike against what I can only assume is the Pentagon’s idea of Syria’s soft underbelly with no real follow through.

At what is in my opinion to tangential a point in this discussion is the role that the United Nations is playing in the matter, given its position as arbiter of international peace and security. At least, that it’s role under international law, a fact that the U.S. is not too pleased with given Russia’s continuing efforts to stymy any Security Council-blessed use of force in Syria.

There’s also the matter of the team of U.N. weapons inspectors currently on the ground. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said that it will take another four days for them to finish their work, with the British now urging the U.S. to not take action until their findings are presented. Syria appears to have had a change of heart now as wants them to stay for a longer period, with U.N. Ambassador Ja’afari claiming that they have handed over evidence that the rebels are at fault for a series of chemical attacks. Ja’afari’s pleas aren’t entirely convincing, though, given the months of negotiations over access Damascus strung out with Turtle Bay, and the extremely limited scope that resulted, but I digress.

In the midst of all of this, there’s been a resurgence of articles — both at various smaller outlets and some as large as Russia Today — making the claim that the United Nations has blamed the rebels for the chemical weapons attacks. This assignment of fault, the argument goes, is being covered up to allow the warmongering Obama administration launch as many missiles as it wants at Damascus because…reasons.

The evidence presented for this belief that the U.N. has ruled against the Syrian rebels? A statement from Carla De Ponte, a member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic since September of last year. Launched by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011, the Commission has proved an invaluable tool in gathering the stories of refugees and defetctors of the horrors witnessed within Syria’s borders over the course of the conflict.

When conducting an interview with Swiss television in May, however, Del Ponte made a surprising announcement about the work she and her colleagues were performing:

“Our investigators have been interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals. According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated. I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got … they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition.”

It’s those comments that had many on the blogosphere declaring that the U.N. official had accidentally told the truth and today claims that the world body has found the government non-culpable for the attack last week. Or if they did carry it out, that means that the international community should also be planning to attack the rebels for carrying out the March attack.

Unfortunately for them, the definitive nature of their story falls apart at several points. First and foremost, at no time does Del Ponte say with absolute certainty that it was the opposition who used chemical weapons against Syrian government forces. In fact, she doesn’t even say for sure that sarin gas or any other weapons were used, only that there were at the time “strong, concrete suspicions.”

Next is the fact that Del Ponte is but one member of a Commission that the U.N. has sponsored. She was not speaking for the Commission during the interview, a role that usually falls solely to the Chair. In this case, that would be Paulo Pinherio — who did not at any time confirm Del Ponte’s statement. And she certainly wasn’t speaking for the United Nations system as a whole.

In fact, in the days after her interview, the commission put out a press release walking back the majority of her points:

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict. As a result, the Commission is not in a position to comment on teh allegations at this time.

The Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Sergio Pinherio, reminds all parties to the conflict that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited in all circumstances under customary international humanitarian law.

In line with its mandate, the Commission is currently investigating all allegations of violations of international law in the Syrian Arab Republic and will issue its findings to teh Human Rights Council on 3 June, 2013, as mandated by resolution 22.24.

When the third of June rolled around, Pinherio reported to the Human Rights Council as promised, but did not lay the blame on the shoulders of the rebels, or Assad, or conclude for sure that chemical weapons were used in the first place:

137. The Government has in its possession a number of chemical weapons. THe dangers extend beyond the use of the weapons by the Government itself to the control of such weapons in the event of either fractured command or any of the affiliated forces gaining access.

138. Anti-government armed groups could gain access to and use chemical weapons. This includes nerve agents, though there is no compelling evidence that these groups possess such weapons or their requisite delivery systems.

139. Allegations were received concerning the use of chemical weapons by both parties. The majority concern their use by government forces. […] It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents, their delivery systems, or the perpetrator.

In truth, the U.N. has been exceptionally determined to avoid assigning blame for the use of chemical weapons, going so far as to either agree or offer to not include having its team of weapons inspectors even able to make such a determination. Instead, as I explained at ThinkProgress, they are only present within Syria to determine whether chemical agents were unleashed against the population at all.

So far, the Obama administration has played its information close to the chest, stating that they would be issuing declassified versions of the intelligence it’s gathered in the near future. Congress has yet to even be fully briefed, so I certainly don’t know the contents of it. And for all I know, Del Ponte may have been right in saying that there was evidence at the time that it was rebels who used sarin gas.

That, however, still doesn’t mean that there’s any real accuracy in making the claim that the United Nations itself has assigned blame in the matter. So to say that “the U.N.” has said the rebels cast the first stone regarding chemical weapons is simply false.

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