The recent Amnesty International report into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Sudan makes for difficult reading.
Using satellite imagery, expert analysis and more than 200 interviews with affected civilians, Amnesty concluded that the Sudanese government is responsible for more than 30 chemical attacks this year, all in the Jebel Marra area of Darfur.
‘The scale and brutality of these attacks is hard to put into words. The images and videos we have seen in the course of our research are truly shocking; in one a young child is screaming with pain before dying; many photos show young children covered in lesions and blisters. Some were unable to breathe and vomiting blood,’ said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Director of Crisis Research.
If true, this represents a disturbing escalation in the type of force that the Sudanese government is willing to use against its population. ‘This suspected use of chemical weapons represents not only a new low in the catalogue of crimes under international law by the Sudanese military against civilians in Darfur, but also a new level of hubris by the government towards the international community. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime,’ said Hassan.
It is important to note, however, that the Amnesty report has yet to be independently verified, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been careful not to jump to any conclusions. ‘Without further information and evidence being made available, it is not possible at this stage to draw any conclusions based on the content of the report,’ it commented in a statement.
The Sudanese government has denied Amnesty’s claims. ‘Amnesty’s report is incorrect because the situation on the ground does not need intensive bombing as there is no real presence of rebels anymore. There is also a clear order to our troops not to target rebels if they happen to be in villages or in areas inhabited by civilians,’ said Sudanese army spokesman, Brigadier Ahmed Khalifa a-Shami.
The furore around the possible use of chemical weapons in Sudan masks a bigger truth, however. Even assuming that Amnesty’s report is correct, Sudan would be the exception that proves the rule. And the rule is that the African continent is a key player in the global fight against chemical warfare. ‘I wouldn’t be too worried about further proliferation of chemical weapons in Africa,’ said Noël Stott, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies.
Almost all African countries are party to the Chemical Weapons Convention – a comprehensive international treaty that outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. It’s a very technical treaty with plenty of regulations on what chemicals are safe to use commercially and how to make sure they stay that way. In other words, the treaty is a serious commitment – and one that African countries have enthusiastically made.
Even Angola, which had long held out on ratifying the treaty for fear of damaging its commercial chemical industry, finally deposited its instrument of accession with the OPCW in September 2015. The only non-signatories in Africa are Egypt and South Sudan. Egypt, which is believed to have its own chemical weapons stockpiles, has said that it will not sign the treaty until Israel does so too; while South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, is unlikely to do so as long as its political instability continues.
These national commitments have been bolstered by strong support from the African Union (AU). ‘The AU has stated that it would like Africa to be a chemical-weapon free zone, and they’re quite active politically in ensuring that no country does develop chemical weapons,’ said Stott.
In 2006, the AU signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the OPCW, in which the two organisations pledged to cooperate closely to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention on the continent. (Ironically, the MoU was signed in Khartoum, Sudan.) Their relationship remains strong: in September this year, the AU lauded the OPCW and other international actors following the destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons stockpile, left over from the Gaddafi regime.
‘This milestone demonstrates how the international community, through a strong partnership and a sense of collective responsibility, can work collaboratively and constructively in countering the risk of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,’ said the AU in a statement attributed to commission chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.
Of course, none of this is much comfort to the civilians in Darfur who are, according to Amnesty, dealing with the devastating health consequences of a chemical weapons attack. But for the rest of the continent, it is encouraging to know that if the reports are true, they would be in defiance of continental and global norms and unlikely to be repeated anywhere else in Africa any time soon. Africa’s got plenty of problems to worry about, but thanks to a concerted international effort, state-sponsored chemical warfare is being combated effectively.
Written by Simon Allison, ISS Consultant