THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS (AP) – Ukraine said on Tuesday that it was investigating an allegation that a toxic substance was thrown over the besieged city of Mariupol. Deputy Secretary of Defense Hanna Maliar said it was possible that phosphorus munitions – which cause horrific burns but are not classified as chemical weapons – had been used.
Now the question is how to establish the truth in the midst of the fog of war that has descended over a city still under attack by Russian forces. It is unlikely that there will be a clear answer in the near future.
The Global Watchdog for Chemical Weapons said on Tuesday that it is “concerned about the recent unconfirmed report on the use of chemical weapons in Mariupol” and is closely monitoring the situation in Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine are among the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ 193 member states.
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning OPCW says it “remains ready to assist any participating state at its request, in the event of use or threat of the use of chemical weapons.”
WHO COULD INVESTIGATE?
First in line to investigate in Ukraine are the country’s own law enforcement agencies. There are also teams from other nations investigating allegations – especially around the Ukrainian city of Bucha – of war crimes, and the International Criminal Court has launched an investigation in Ukraine. The OPCW has so far not announced any studies in Ukraine, although it says on its website that it “monitors the status of relevant chemical industrial plants and any threats of the use of toxic chemicals as weapons in the country.”
Marc-Michael Blum, former head of the OPCW’s laboratory and now an independent consultant, said the organization would not send a team to Mariupol at some point to investigate the matter.
“We have an active war zone where the OPCW would not send a team in because the team’s safety cannot be guaranteed,” Blum told The Associated Press.
HOW ARE CAREFUL CHEMICAL ATTACKS INVESTIGATED?
If a team of experts were able to investigate what was used and by whom, it would seek to build a dossier of evidence based on laboratory tests of samples collected on site and from victims. That means taking soil samples and testing them for traces of possible chemical weapons or other ammunition. Samples of blood and urine from victims exposed to the ammunition would also be tested.
The investigators would then seek to interview witnesses and survivors to create a picture of what they experienced and the doctors who treated them. In previous studies, experts have studied gas dispersion models and topographic diagrams and looked at digital images. The OPCW has experience building such studies in Syria, where its experts have confirmed the use of chemical weapons on several occasions.
Damascus refuses to use chemical weapons.
WHAT HAPPENED IN PREVIOUS CASES OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS USE ELSEWHERE?
Hundreds of people were killed in gas poisoning attacks in Syria during the country’s civil war. The OPCW faced several obstacles and Russian vetoes that complicated the establishment of investigative mechanisms. To this day, no one has been held accountable.
Two recent cases outside Syria show how a suspected use of chemical weapons can be investigated by local authorities – the poisoning in 2020 of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury in 2018.
In these cases, the authorities in Germany, where Navalny went for treatment, and in Britain in the case of Skripals, took and tested biological samples and concluded that they were attacked by a Soviet-era neurotoxin known as Novichok. In these cases, the OPCW tested the samples and confirmed the results of the national authorities.
Russia denied involvement in both attacks.
IF PHOSPHORUS WAS USED IN MARIUPOL, IS IT ILLEGAL?
Phosphorus ammunition is not considered a chemical weapon. Most armies have phosphorus ammunition to use to illuminate battlefields or targets or to produce smoke screens. But if an army deliberately fired a phosphorus ammunition into an enclosed space to expose people to toxic fumes, it could be a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, Blum said.
“When you start using the properties of white phosphorus, toxic properties, specifically and consciously, then it gets banned,” he said.
WHAT IS THE CHANCE OF A SUCCESSFUL INVESTIGATION IN THE CONCERNED MARIUPOL?
Blum is not optimistic. “Given the current situation, we have Mariupol, almost impossible to clarify, and so I have no great hopes for any kind of investigation,” he said.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine