For months now, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been accusing the Turkish army of using chemical weapons against them. Earlier this month, ‘evidence’ was presented: a video allegedly showed the gas lingering in the air in front of a cave. A family from the area where chemical weapons are reportedly used, ended up in hospital, and now the PKK has released the name of a fighter whom they claim succumbed to the poison gas. The limited mechanisms there are to investigate the accusations will not work – and Turkey knows it.
The Chemical Weapons Convention bans the use of chemical weapons. The (Nobel Peace Prize winning) Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is responsible for the implementation of the Convention. They don’t comment on ‘outside assessments’, they told me, but their website explains that an investigation into chemical weapons use can be triggered at the request of a so-called ‘State Party’. Almost all states (except North Korea, Israel, South Sudan and Egypt) have ratified the Convention and are ‘State Parties’. In this case, Iraq would have to request an investigation because it is the state on whose territory the alleged chemical weapon use takes place. The chance of Iraq doing this is zero – the Iraqi defence minister doesn’t even find Turkey’s border violations a breach of Iraqi sovereignty so that says enough about the leverage he has.
What complicates the situation is that officially, Turkey doesn’t have chemical weapons. There are substances that can be used in certain circumstances, like white phosphorus, which are not banned altogether. Turkey and its mercenaries in Syria may have used it in 2019 but that was never followed up by the OPCW. What you don’t have, you can’t use.
The OPCW also responds in cases of alleged use of chemical weapons either involving non-State Parties or taking place in territories not controlled by State Parties. This doesn’t apply in the case of alleged use by Turkey against the PKK, because ‘involving non-State Parties’ refers to perpetrators, not victims. In short: the OPCW won’t act.
How about the authorities in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq? Aren’t they the ones that should at least try to investigate what happened? Yes, but the doctors treating a family that was brought in with ‘unusual symptoms’ didn’t investigate the cause of the symptoms (burning and watering eyes, breathing problems, nausea). The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which reigns the affected part of the Kurdistan Region, won’t thoroughly investigate either, because its ties with Turkey are too close and it is even cooperating with Turkey’s military operations. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) may also not have all the laboratory facilities to investigate properly, not to mention the difficulties of gathering evidence in a war zone: the PKK may give permission to access areas under their control, but surely Turkey won’t halt operations to enable an investigation.
Tunnels and caves
Some have suggested that the footage the PKK released shows teargas. Could be, although the PKK claims that several fighters have been killed by the gas used and teargas (in general) doesn’t kill. Teargas is not considered to be a chemical weapon but a ‘riot control agent’. Chemical weapons can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm, while riot control agents rapidly produce sensory irritation or disabling physical effects that disappear within a short time following termination of exposure. However, the use of riot control agents is prohibited in warfare. But who’s gonna check? And is it ‘warfare’, or, as Turkey would say, ‘anti-terrorism’, and does that matter in this particular case in international law?
It may be a double violation, by the way, because it is prohibited to use teargas in closed spaces, and I think tunnels and caves qualify as such, although I can’t imagine there’s any jurisprudence about it. It becomes a little bit too detailed here and it may sound absurd to you (as it does to me), but I mention it anyway because it completes the picture of the amount of questions that must be raised and answered to see which convention, treaty or law applies, and why. And how impossible it is to unravel this tangled mess without being able to establish even the most rudimentary facts about the PKK’s accusations.
Turkey is, of course, aware of this practical, (geo)political and legal situation. It knows very well that whatever it uses, it can do so with impunity.