29th Jan 2023


How to react when an EU-applicant is suspected of using chemical weapons?

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A recent report from the well-respected organisation International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) raises serious questions about the extent to which Turkey — which still holds and benefits from EU-applicant status — is guilty of the illegal use of chemical agents in warfare.

The report is based on a mission conducted in later September 2022, which saw experts from Germany and Switzerland examine claims that have long been known, but which the EU has shied away from: The Turkish use of chemical agents in combat operations — something which is strictly and explicitly prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

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IPPNW's report is entitled, "Is Turkey violating the Chemical Weapons Convention? An independent investigation into possible violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention in Northern Iraq is urgently needed," and it makes for disturbing reading on a number of points:

1. Kurdish fighters report that they suspect what can be described as a systematic use of chemical weapons by Turkish forces in Northern Iraq. As the report outlines, it is hard to establish the extent to which this is true without further exploration. Further investigations are clearly needed.

2. The mission also reports on the possibility that Turkish soldiers have deliberately prepared chlorine gas and pumped it into caves in which Kurdish fighters were hiding. This claim should be either verified or debunked, as it, if confirmed, would be a clear war crime.

3. The report also cites an example of the Turkish Defence Minister admitting to using chemical agents in combat operations — in clear violation of international law.

Each of these points should, logically, be investigated by the EU and by the international community, and action taken where appropriate. The need for action is further underscored by the fact that the European Commission already on 4 July received a letter from a number of academics, journalists, politicians and intellectuals, raising the alert over atrocities committed during the attacks on Kurds in Northern Iraq.

Europe cannot remain silent

In other instances, even the suspicion of the possible use of chemical weapons have led to stringent words of warning about dire consequences, and the use of it can be classified as a war crime.

This means that the IPPNW report raises several new aspects to the discussion around EU-applicant countries: What can and will the EU do, when an applicant is under suspicion of such acts — and how will it act when a country admits to such illegal use, and shows no remorse or willingness to stop the use?

It should be clear that the EU cannot remain silent. It must send a clear signal that the Turkish actions are unacceptable and will have consequences for EU-Turkey relations. Especially in combination with an increasingly authoritarian Turkish regime that persecutes any form of political opponents, most notably the Kurds.

The regime in Ankara has now even arrested Sebnem Korur Fincanci, the head of Turkey's medical association, for calling for an investigation into the claims that the army used chemical weapons against Kurdish militants.

What can be done?

The situation is such that the European Union should immediately take one or more of the following actions:

1. Launch its own investigative mission to verify or debunk the claims — in line with what the IPPNW experts have suggested;

2. Request that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) send a mission to investigate the claims of chemical weapons use by Turkey, including those outlined in the report;

3. Request the UN to contribute to an investigation and to take measures to prevent further Turkish use of chemical agents in combat operations.

To be clear, requesting a mission from the OPCW is perfectly in line with the treaty on which the organisation is based, the 1992 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction. The only reasons not to do so would be purely political.

In addition to the above, it almost goes without saying that the Turkish representative to the EU should be summoned and an explanation requested.

A formal request has already been sent to the Council, to clarify if there are any circumstances under which the EU finds the illegal use of chemical warfare agents acceptable, and if so, which? We hope they will reply in the negative, and that their words will be followed by actions.

Author bio

Malin Björk is a Swedish Member of the European Parliament (The Left) since 2014. She is a member of the ENVI, LIBE and AFET committees.

Nikolaj Villumsen is Danish Member of the European Parliament (The Left) since 2019, and a former member of the Danish Parliament. He is a member of the EMPL, and substitute in the ENVI and AFCO committees.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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