Human Rights Watch ‘Death by Chemicals’ Report: Smoke, Mirrors and Very Much Less Than Meets the Eye.

Aug 8, 2017 · 11 min read

Missing symptoms, hidden evidence, contradictory witnesses, no expert input, ‘independent’ Federal Government employees, teaspoon sized craters and a load of old Bellingcat — it’s hard to fathom how anyone could take HRW’s ‘Death By Chemicals’ report seriously. It’s lucky for them that few people bothered to read it.

HRW tell us that this crater is less than an inch wide — the rest of the report is just as shoddy.


In May, in the aftermath of the alleged Khan Sheikhoun (KS) chemical weapons ‘attack’ (and to some fanfare), Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report claiming evidence for “widespread and systematic” use of chemical weapons by the Assad government in the ongoing Syrian conflict. Given that in the report HRW made a series of potentially very significant recommendations that could alter the course of the war if enacted (including travel bans, asset seizures, weapons embargos and prosecutions at the International Criminal Court), I thought it worth hacving a read of the full report to see how strong this evidence was.

What I found was a report that was not just evidentially very weak, but also one that had been prepared in a very cynical way to obscure just how flimsy the evidence was. I found that in almost every paragraph questions could be asked of HRW’s conclusions — questions that should have been obvious to even the ‘casual reader’, one with no prior knowledge of the context of the report (in either Syria or HRW’s history).

I find it hard to believe that anyone who has cited it as conclusive evidence against the Assad government has actually bothered to read the full report and, as we’ll see, that almost certainly includes Human Rights Watch themselves.

Why this (still) matters.

That a ‘respected’ (supposedly) Non-Governmental Organisation like HRW can produce and gain great traction from a hugely and conspicuously flawed report is troubling enough, that it remains, four months after the alleged chemical attack, unchallenged by the mainstream media and unmodified by HRW themselves is nothing short of disgraceful.

How the report fits within the particular context of the UK media is worth a short explanation here as it goes some way to explaining why I decided to write (and eventually publish) a blog dealing with it. Feel free to skip this next section if you’re not interested in these ‘local matters’.

Closing Down the Discussion.

Even three months after the publication of the HRW report (and in the light of the recent OPCW report on the matter) there is still considerable debate as to what happened in and above Khan Sheikhoun on the morning of April 4th. However, if you restricted yourself to the narrative of the western mainstream media you might be forgiven for assuming that the case was proven — Assad did it and that was that. The situation, as we shall see, is just a little more contentious.

I shall not spend any time (at the moment) considering how the MSM have come to this conclusion (it’s a book in itself) — but we have now reached the stage where there is almost complete unanimity across all ‘sides’ of our corporate media that the KS incident was indeed a chemical weapons attack, perpetrated by the Assad government, on Syrian civilians, performed with a chemical bomb dropped by a Syrian warplane.

This view is so entrenched that we’re now at the stage where people who continue to question the narrative are routinely dismissed as ‘Assad apologists’ or Putinbots. This reaction is all par for the course for the neocon bellendery of columnists (Oliver Kamm, Nick Cohen, David Aaronovict, Mathew D’Ancona etc.), but into the fray this time has stepped the very highly esteemed George Monbiot. In a blog post and numerous twitter exchanges, he has dismissed people who question the narrative as akin to ‘9/11 truthers’ and climate change denialists. Given his well-deserved reputation for rigour and integrity on this latter issue — for him to suggest that the evidential basis for AGW and the KS attack are in any way comparable suggests that the case must be overwhelming.

See here for Monbiot’s position:

Thus are the ‘leftwards’ reaches of the debate patrolled and closed down — it’s meagre access points barred and those politely knocking at the gates smeared and dismissed.

However, when challenged to provide this evidence, which Monbiot has repeatedly called ‘a mountain’ he points to government reports (US, UK and French), Bellingcat (an ‘Open Source’ investigation website) and, and here are his slam-dunkers it seems, accounts from Amnesty International (AI), Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Neither Amnesty or MSF has produced anything like the ‘definitive’ report of HRW on the KS incident. In any case, their reporting of the Syrian conflict has been shown (conclusively to my mind) to be significantly flawed and demonstrably to have fallen well short of their professed high procedural standards.

See Professor Tim Hayward’s excellent blogs on this matter:


On Amnesty:

Which leaves us just with HRW — and specifically their ‘Death By Chemicals’ report.

‘Death By Chemicals’ Report.

Before I get started, I have to mention that HRW have, to put it very mildly, something of a chequered record when it comes to their reporting of the Syrian conflict. Sceptical followers of the MSM Syrian coverage will already be aware of many of these (which I will link to in a subsequent post), but it may come as a surprise to many readers that their record is blemished (it certainly hadn’t occurred to George Monbiot).

This is worth bearing in mind, but isn’t necessary for the following discussions — I will only deal with the evidence that HRW have presented in the report and how they have chosen to interpret it. I will only refer to other sources if HRW have themselves referred to them in either the report itself or during the press conference for the launch of their report.

In using this approach, I wanted to find out whether or not the report stands or falls on its own terms (spoiler alert, it falls) and in doing so to demonstrate the ‘quality’ of evidence that even respected journalists (and some academics) consider to be persuasive — at least when it fits with their preconceptions.

You can watch the press conference here:

In writing these blogs I also wanted to provide a link that people could present to anyone who trots out the ‘Death By Chemicals’ report in support of their arguments — and for the future when HRW next produce another report of similar ‘authority’. Someone had to do it.

The bulk of my discussion, to follow in the next few days, will take the form of an paragraph-by-paragraph walkthrough of the sections of the HRW report that deal directly with the Khan Sheikhoun (KS) incident (HRW pages 21 to 32). It will therefore be quite lengthy — although not as long as it would have been had HRW included anything like the amount of evidence they claim to have collected.

The ‘Death By Chemicals’ Report.

The report can be downloaded here:

The work of one named author, supported by three researchers, numerous internes, four technical reviewers and three other production and editorial assistants, and running to some 63 pages and 18,000 words, the HRW ‘Death By Chemicals’ (DbC) report is an impressive looking document.

It provides a series of recommendations for the member states of the UN and the Syrian, Russian and Iranian governments individually — and provides the legal background and basis for these (potentially war-changing) recommendations (see pages 6 to 11 of the report).

I will not dwell on these here as I want to focus on the level of actual evidence that they provide and on the KS incident specifically as it is front and centre in the report and contains by some distance the most accompanying evidence.

You can, however, assume that issues raised for KS coverage hold for their other 18 incidents (better still, read a few of them yourself and see what you think).

The walkthrough will be split into five sections, following the order in which HRW ‘discuss’ them while presenting us with their version of events:

· Nature of the Attack — that it was an air-dropped chemical-bomb released by a Syrian jet.

· Medical Symptoms — that they were consistent with a nerve agent.

· Specific Munitions — that it was a chemical bomb and a Russian one at that.

· Casualties and death toll — that there were lots of them.

· Alternative Accounts — that there were only two and that neither is supported.

I’ll follow that up with some comments on the general approach and a few other issues.

Here’s a summary of what I have found (so far):

Nature of Attack — An air-dropped bomb.

· HRW provide only ONE eye-witness to a chemical bomb being dropped by a warplane.

· His evidence must be treated with extreme caution as he almost certainly could not have seen a shadow that he claims to have alerted him, would then have been looking directly into the sun at the time when the bomb alledgely dropped and, by his own admission, spent much of the rest of the day unconscious.

· HRW provide only two other local ‘witnesses’ to support their version of events (a chemical munition dropped from a plane). Neither of them actually saw the plane drop anything at all. The first of these witnesses, a ‘local journalist’ claims to have videoed the aftermath of the bomb, but then claims to have been videoing a second attack at precisely the same time that he also claims to have been helping ‘victims’ elsewhere in the town. This ‘local journlist’ curiously did not see fit to video any of the immediate alleged rescue attempts.

· The other ‘witness’ is a White Helmet who offers similarly heroic, but confused testimony. He claims to have been woken by the ‘first attack’ and then had time to report the incident and help a boy who he saw collapse in the street below his balcony. He later tells HRW that the boy was killed by one of the bombs dropped in HRW’s ‘second attack’ — which other HRW witnesses tell us were huge ‘vacuum bombs’. As the second alleged attack took place no more than nine minutes after the alleged first it’s hard to imagine what kind of help he could have offered the boy and escaped unscathed. The witness also stated that he spent much of the rest of the day unconscious having finally succumbed to a gas that was apparently felling others in seconds.

· Despite these problems, and apparently numerous other interviewees, these witnesses are returned to repeatedly throughout HRW’s KS report.

· HRW say that they have seen the videos said to have been taken of both alleged attacks, but do not provide any evidence from this hugely significant material at all.

· HRW provide NO expert analysis or corroboration of their witness statements or the media that they hold.

Medical Symptoms.

· Despite very grand claims in their ‘Methodology’, HRW provide NO evidence of ANY expert corroboration of the symptoms displayed by the alleged victims.

· The symptoms described by their witnesses differ wildly from one another and the list of symptoms of sarin exposure HRW themselves provide in their 2017 Appendix.

· The symptoms of sarin exposure described by HRW in the 2017 report differ markedly from those that they themselves described in their 2013 ‘Attack on Ghouta’ report.

· Two specific medical issues given prominence as conclusive proof of use of sarin in HRW’s 2013 report (cyanosis and lack of additional injuries) are not mentioned ANYWHERE in the 2017 report — in the witness statements or (more cynically) the list of medical symptoms in the Appendix. This is almost certainly due to them being completely absent in the 2017 victims.

· The ‘independent’ expert HRW refer to as having provided corroboration of the medical symptoms is in fact an employee of the US Federal Government and was previously a senior official at the US Department of Homeland Security.

Specific Munitions and ‘bomb site’.

· Despite very grand claims in their ‘Methodology’, HRW provide NO evidence of ANY expert corroboration of munitions used in the alleged attacks.

· The inclusion of lengthy descriptions of Russian made chemical munitions that HRW say could have been used in the KS ‘attack’ is made on minimal (frankly laughable) evidence and is accompanied by NO expert corroboration whatsoever.

· Despite acknowledging nine individuals with direct input into the authoring and review of the report, no one at HRW, or any of their claimed specialists, seemed bothered by the fact that the size of the KS crater (which they claim to have had provided to them by Forensic Architecture) is actually smaller than the contents of a teaspoon. Despite being told of this problem in June, the report (as of 8th August) remains uncorrected.

· Despite commissioning the work, HRW make no attempt to use any of these detailed measurements to validate their claims about the weapons fragments.

Death Toll and Casualties:

· HRW provide only lists of ‘reported’ victims.

· These lists were provided and/or ‘verified’ by individuals and groups hostile to the Assa government.

· HRW provide no evidence that they have attempted to corroborate these with external sources such as the reported autopsies and internet / Facebook activity.

· Despite claiming to have had extensive access to relatives of the alleged victims of the attack, HRW used only images already publicly available in their press conference and none at all in the report.

Alternative Explanations.

· HRW propose two alternative accounts of the events — that the bomb hit a chemical weapon stored on the ground or that the locals detonated a weapon on the ground. They dismiss both, but do not actually consider the latter at all.

· HRW ignore an alternative that reasonably they should have considered given that it was proposed for the 2013 Ghouta incident — that the number of casualties was hugely exaggerated and the victims may have been killed elsewhere.

Missing and Dubious Interviewees.

· HRW report having conducted 60 interviews for the report, but provide evidence from only half of these (31).

· For the Khan Sheikhoun incident this inclusion rate is even worse — just 12 referenced from 32 claimed interviews.

· Throughout the report, HRW introduce an discussion of certain events that support their narrative, by stating or strongly implying that numerous witnesses support their assertions. However, they always follow this with examples from only a very few — sometimes only one.

· For these examples HRW repeatedly return to the same few witnesses.

· HRW provide only very short extracts from the interviews they do include and offer no access to transcripts or even brief summaries of the full interviews.

· HRW offer no evidence of any kind of proper protocol being applied during the conduct of their interviews.

· Of the KS interviewees at least half were from members of opposition affiliated groups.

· All the interviews were arranged through ‘intermediary’ groups who have previously called for increased Western intervention in the conflict (including sanctions and no-fly zones).

· HRW provide NO evidence of any attempt to cross-reference the content of any of their interviews.

· There are significant and obvious contradictions between the portions of the interviews that HRW do deign to include.

· HRW provide NO evidence of ANY systematic expert corroboration of the content of their testimonies.

Hidden Evidence.

· Despite claiming to have seen “dozens” of images and videos provided to them directly, HRW include reference to only four in the entire report, with just one of these relating to the KS incident.

· They do not include any of these images or videos in the report.

· They do not provide any way to access any of this potentially hugely significant extra media elsewhere.

· HRW make claims about particular images that they do not include in their report — this is likely because evidence from these images would raise significant questions about their account.

Other Serious Issues.

· HRW’s selective reporting of UN and OPCW reports is deliberately misleading.

· A number of HRW’s assertions are directly contradicted by evidence that they themselves link to in the report.

In short, its a dodgy dossier and no one should take it seriously.

Taken My Time.

I started this blog weeks ago, but for a number of (family and work related) reasons have only got round to proofing and publishing it now. In the meantime Adam Larson and a number of excellent investigators at the ‘Closer Look At Syria’ wikisite have published this article, which I recommend highly — it includes many more extrernal references than mine, but comes to the same conclusions:

HRW Wags the Dog:


Written by

A concerned reader who occasionally reads the original sources rather than the press releases. PhD in Applied Psychology & expert in data-mining FWIW.