Tu Thanh Ha summarizes recent chemical attacks on Syrian civilians in the context of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, signed by Syria in 1968, which prohibits the use of poison gas in warfare.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, current events, history

Key Questions to Explore:

  • What is the work of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons? How does it support the Geneva Protocol of 1925, and why is it significant in the light of events in Syria, in April, 2017?

New Terminology:

Asphyxiating, protocol, OPCW, sarin, organophosphorus

Materials Needed:

Globe article, Internet ( )

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

On April 4, 2017, an attack on Syrian civilians in Khan Sheikhoun, claimed 72 lives, many of them children. Medecins Sans Frontieres, a non-governmental medical association, has reported that the condition of the victims is consistent with exposure to sarin gas and possibly chlorine gas. The United States responded with a guided missile attack on a Syrian airbase, which has raised tensions between the US and Russia, an ally of the Syrian Government, which is blamed for the gas attack.

The Syrian regime, with its Russian ally, has engaged in bombings, shelling and small arms violence against its opposition movements for years. Only after the most recent chemical attack did the US respond, largely supported by world opinion. Students can benefit from a lesson focused on the history of chemical weapons bans, to better understand the reasons for the current escalating geopolitical tensions. Following an introductory discussion, students will be assigned a short written report on the issue of the use of chemical weapons and the organization that is tasked with overseeing adherence to international law in this regard.

Action (lesson plan and task):

Engage students in a short discussion to determine what they may already know about the chemical attacks in Syria in April of 2017. These questions can focus the discussion:

  • How many people were killed in the attack, as far as is known today? (72)
  • How do we know that sarin and/or chorine gas was used? (Doctors treating patients have reported that the symptoms are consistent with sarin, and that they also smelled something like bleach on the victims)
  • Is this the first time that chemical weapons have been used in the recent Syrian conflict? ( A rocket attack on Damascus in 2013 killed as many as 1,200 people. A UN investigation claimed that sarin was used)
  • What is sarin? (A powerful nerve gas agent)
  • Why would a chlorine attack leave victims smelling like bleach? (Chlorine is a major component of bleach)
  • What is the most infamous use of chlorine gas in modern warfare? (WWI)
  • How many soldiers were killed by gas in WWI? (More than 100,000; 1,000,000 casualties, overall)
  • Note that the use of chlorine gas in WWI resulted in the Geneva Protocol of 1925, banning the use of chemical weapons in warfare.

Provide students with the Globe article, the link, above, and the following written assignment, which they are to do in class or for homework, as you prefer.

Work Sheet

Write a one-page report on the use of chemical weapons, explaining why they are banned by international agreements, and describe the organization that oversees compliance with these agreements.  Base your report on the attached article, as well as this link to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW),

Your report should include the following:

From the article:

  • What actions by the Syrian government prompted “three years of global outrage”?
  • What is the Geneva Protocol of 1925? What are the types of weapons does it prohibit?
  • What is the role of the OPCW?

From the OPCW website:

  • What kind of weapon was prohibited by international agreement, as early as 1675?
  • When was the use of poisonous gases first prohibited by international agreement?
    • Where were these agreements signed?
  • What does the Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibit? What does it not prohibit, relative to chemical weapons?
  • Describe the work of the OPCW, when it came into force, how many member states have signed on, and what is provided for in its key provisions.
  • Does Canada support the OPCW and, if so, how significant is our contribution?

Finally, offer your opinion on the importance of containing the use of chemical weapons. Do you think, for example, that use of chemical weapons would justify a military intervention by outside forces?

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Following evaluation of written assignments, students discuss their findings in a short general session.
Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Students can describe, briefly, the history of the banning of chemical weapons and the role of the organization that monitors the bans.

Confirming Activity:

  • Students report on events or media reports on the use of chemical weapons, and/or the aftermath of the chemical attacks in Syria.