By Catherine Harwood, Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies
The use of chemical weapons in Syria in August 2013 has generated widespread international outrage. International actors have condemned the use of chemical weapons and have employed the language of international criminal law to convey the severity of the violation. The UN Secretary-General stated that “[a]ny use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law. Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator.” Similar sentiments were expressedby the Bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. US President Obama also labelledchemical weapons “a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war”. The use of chemical weapons is prohibited under both conventionaland customaryinternational law and may be prosecuted as a war crime. But does the prohibition extend to liability under international criminal law as a crime against humanity?
Many voices have called on the Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC. Although practical prospects of referral remain doubtful, the ICC is in principle an appropriate institution to conduct international prosecutions regarding the situation in Syria. If a prosecution is initiated, many may expect to see the use of chemical weapons reflected in the charge sheet. In light of this, the question whether the use of chemical weapons could amount to a crime against humanity is explored by reference to the Rome Statute. This inquiry explores the statements by the UN Secretary-General and others that any and all uses of chemical weapons amount to crimes against humanity.