Next month, Syria will chair the United Nations disarmament forum that produced an international ban on chemical weapons use, despite accusations that the Syrian government carried out another deadly chemical attack over the weekend.
Under U.N. rules, Hussam Edin Aala, the Syrian ambassador to the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament, will help organize the conference's work and set its agenda, according to United Nations Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization. Aala will also represent the body in its relations with states, the U.N. General Assembly, and other U.N. entities.
The Conference on Disarmament describes itself as "the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community," adding that its mandate includes "practically all multilateral arms-control and disarmament problems." The forum has negotiated both the Chemical Weapons Convention—an arms-control treaty that prohibits the use, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons—and the Biological Weapons Convention, as well as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Syria is set to assume the forum's presidency from May 28 until June 24, despite accusations that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday perpetrated the latest of several chemical weapons attacks.
Dozens of Syrians in Douma, the last rebel-held enclave in eastern Ghouta, died by suffocation in a suspected chemical attack. Some media outlets reported that at least 42 people were killed, including several women and children, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number at more than 80. Several hundred civilians were injured.
President Donald Trump blamed the Assad regime for the attack, tweeting, "Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price … to pay." Several analysts, commentators, and Syrian activist groups also said the Syrian government is responsible.
The Assad regime has used chemical weapons on the Syrian people, including unarmed civilians, dozens of times during Syria's ongoing conflict, which began in 2011.
The Syrian government claims it is not responsible for Saturday's attack, as does Russia.
U.N. Watch expressed outrage at the idea of Syria heading a body that has sought to prevent the use of chemical weapons.
"Having the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad preside over global chemical and nuclear weapons disarmament will be like putting a serial rapist in charge of a women's shelter," said Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch. "The Assad regime's documented use of chemical weapons remains the most serious violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention in the treaty's 20-year history."
The independent monitoring group said that it intends to hold protests outside of the U.N. hall featuring Syrian victims of their government's chemical weapons attacks.
"We urge the U.N. to understand that at a time when Syria is gassing its own men, women, and children to death, to see Syria heading the world body that is supposed to protect these victims will simply shock the conscience of humanity," Neuer said.
U.N. Watch called on the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, and "all other member and observers states" not to send their ambassadors to any meeting of the forum chaired by Syria. The U.S. and Canada did not participate in conference meetings when Iran served as its president in 2013.
While the presidency of the conference is more ceremonial than functional, Neuer said that "Syria holding the president's gavel is liable to seriously undermine the U.N.'s s credibility, and will send absolutely the worst message."
Beyond chemical weapons, the Syrian government has also been accused of violating international rules regarding nuclear production. In 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported Syria to the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly for failing to declare the construction of a nuclear reactor (which Israel destroyed in 2007), finding Damascus in non-compliance with its nuclear safeguards obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty.
"The Assad regime simply cannot be a credible chair of this or any other United Nations body," Neuer said. "Syria's use of deadly chemical weapons and its illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons, in breach of its disarmament obligations, run counter to the objectives and fundamental principles of the Conference on Disarmament itself. Syria's chairmanship will only undermine the integrity of both the disarmament framework and of the United Nations, and no country should support that."
The Conference on Disarmament is not a formal U.N. organization, but it reports to the U.N. General Assembly. Its budget is also part of the U.N. budget, and the current director-general of the U.N. Office at Geneva is both the secretary-general of the Conference on Disarmament and the personal representative of the U.N. secretary-general to the conference.