Guilt, poison gas and Wilfred Owen revisited

Today the Security Council voted on a resolution seeking to hold accountable those who were responsible for the use of chemical weapons. The resolution failed because Russia and China vetoed it.

Working on Syria in the Council causes a strange mixture of guilt and sadness. Guilt because, while I have worked in war zones and humanitarian catastrophes on the front lines, from New York it feels horribly hypocritical to be sitting in a comfortable room in New York and failing to make a difference to protect innocent civilians from the horrors of war. Sadness because the human cost of this war is unbearably high. There is no issue on which I feel this so acutely than Chemical Weapons. It’s particularly resonant for me because of the story of my Great Grandfather.

As a soldier in the trenches of Northern France in World War I, he saw the new horrors of industrial warfare from the front lines. That included the suffocating sensation of being attacked by chlorine gas. One of the first poems I learnt as a young student vividly depicts this horror. Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorm est’ describes an anonymous soldier’s experience of a gas attack:

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, chocking, drowning

The poem goes on…

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

My Great Grandfather was a soldier in 1917, but today, in 2017, this cruel fate is being inflicted on civilians in Syria. In April 2015 doctors from the Syrian American Medical Society shared with the Council their experiences of treating the victims of chlorine gas attacks in Syria. The videos they brought were every bit as shocking as Owen’s poem, only instead of soldiers, they were children.

In the poisoned aftermath of WWI the warring parties began to examine their consciences and declare they would never again use chemical weapons. But mutual suspicion and fear meant they would retain huge stockpiles and it wouldn’t be until 1992 that the UN General Assembly would approve the Chemical Weapons Convention banning the use and stockpiling of chlorine, and other chemical weapons.

The international consensus banning the use of chemical weapons has been painstakingly constructed through patient diplomacy in tribute to the memory of those like my Great Grandfather who died because of their use. Syria’s use of chemical weapons in a civil war a hundred years after WWI is not only despicable, but a serious risk to all that progress we have made. Since Syria first used chemical weapons in 2013 the UK has been seeking to hold them to account.

At first, Syria agreed to give up their chemical weapons, but then they started using chlorine gas in the conflict. Russia wouldn’t take this at face value so with our partners France and the US, we proposed the Security Council create a mechanism to independently investigate who had used them — the Council unanimously agreed. That mechanism confirmed in August of 2016 that the Syrian Government was responsible for three chemical weapons attacks on its own people. We then got to work on a resolution that would hold those who had used chemical weapons to account. Outrageously Russia, in an effort to protect its ally, the Syrian regime, has sought to discredit that independent investigation.

My Great Grandfather passed away not long after the war — he had never recovered from being attacked with chlorine and his final days were spent coughing and choking until his lungs eventually failed him. My Grandfather and his brother, who not only had to watch their father suffer this painful death, had to give up pursuing their own dreams in the arts and academia in order to help their mother run our family business and provide for the family.

For those who have escaped Syria’s horrific civil war there will be many shattered dreams. My Grandfather’s generation believed the sacrifices they had made, though painful, had led to a better, more peaceful world governed by norms such as the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria’s civil war comes dangerously close to undermining so much of that. Russia’s irresponsible support to a murderous regime not only robs many Syrians of their lives, but their dreams of a better future for their families. It has dented the taboo surrounding the use of chemical weapons and means their use is now sadly more likely. We already know terrorists like Da’esh are emulating the regime’s tactics. We’ll continue to carry on trying to use the international architecture to prevent this, but today I will feel a little bit more guilty and sad that the Council has once again failed to stop a new generation having their future stolen from them.

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