United Nations leaders on Thursday called the recent attack on a school in Syria a possible war crime and said there is need for further investigation. The outcry came even as Russia rejected the findings of an independent analysis on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, asking instead for president Bashar al-Assad’s government to carry out its own investigation.
Twenty-two children and six teachers died after a school compound in Hass, a town located in Idlib province, was hit in an airstrike on Wednesday, an act UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake called “the deadliest attack on a school since the war began more than five years ago.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was “appalled” and that the strike, if deliberate, “may amount to a war crime.” Ban requested an “immediate and impartial investigation of this and other similar attacks against civilians in Syria.”
Echoing Ban’s remarks, former UK prime minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown said those responsible should be “hunted down and the case against them prosecuted.” Speaking at a press conference at UN Headquarters in New York, the Special Envoy urged Member States to ask that the Security Council recommend the case to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
Because Syria is not a member state of the Rome Statute, the treaty which established the ICC, the only way the international tribunal can have jurisdiction over the case is if the Security Council refers it.
“Until now, Russia has blocked investigations to have the ICC investigate,” said Brown, referencing a case two years ago when Russia and China, two of the five permanent members that hold veto power, blocked a Security Council bid to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC. “Now they have said this morning said they are prepared to support and have called for an investigation.”
The Security Council must “seize this opportunity” Brown said. “There are perhaps a few hours, a few days where this opportunity can be taken up.” He added, it is the UN and the international community’s duty to “make sure the lives of these children have not ben lost totally in vain.”
“I am determined that these atrocities be properly investigated and reported on and we have been unable to do this in Syria for many years and here is a chance we should take up immediately.”
Russia quickly denied any involvement in the attacks despite accusations by the United States and France.
According to Russian media , Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, dismissed the allegations. “Everyone has accused Russia and Syrian forces of the attack, saying directly that it was a bombardment carried out by Russia and Syria. This is a lie,” she said, adding that Russia “calls upon all international organizations to join the investigation” into the incident.
Going further, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed the attack may have been faked after obtaining more images of the site via drone, which showed “no evidence” consistent with airstrikes. The ministry said it was an “indisputable fact” no Russian planes in the vicinity of the school yesterday morning when the attack occurred.
“What it sure is that it can’t be the Syrian opposition, because they have no planes. So it’s either the Syrian regime or somebody else with planes,” said François Delattre, Permanent Representative of France to the UN, alluding to Russia’s support of president al-Assad’s regime. “And if this is not a war crime, frankly what is a war crime? We must hold the perpetrators of those barbarian acts accountable.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: “We don’t know yet that it was the Assad regime or the Russians that carried out the airstrike, but we know it was one of the two.”
“Even if it was the Assad regime that carried it out” Earnest continued, “the Assad regime is only in a position to carry out those kind of attacks because they are supported by the Russian government.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry recently called for a war crimes investigation of Syria and Russia after a hospital in Aleppo was bombed earlier this month, an attack which killed 20 people and wounded 100 others.
Russia has repeatedly sided with the interests of the Syrian government, most recently vetoing a Security Council resolution in early October that would demand Assad’s regime halt air attacks in Aleppo. On Thursday, Russia rejected the findings of the fourth report by the OPCW-UN Join Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which found the Syrian government responsible for three toxic gas attacks.
The dismissal antagonized France, Britain and the US, which hoped to extend the current OPCW-UN mandate by 12 months, (it expires on October 31st ) and draft a resolution to punish those—possibly with sanctions— those responsible for the chemical weapons attacks.
“The conclusions of the JIM are not definitive, have no legally binding force and cannot serve as accusatory conclusions for taking legal decision,” Russia’s Ambassador to the UN and President of the Security Council for October, Vitaly Churkin told the other members of the Council according to a copy of remarks leaked to the press.
“Damascus should carry out a comprehensive national investigation on chemical incidents confirmed by the JIM,” he said, adding the report is “full of contradictions and therefore, unconvincing.”
Of the attack in Hass, Churkin told reporters after the meeting, “Everybody is investigating, if the Secretary-Genera starts an investigation we will welcome that, but I have seen preliminary reports that have nothing to do with us.”