The Fourth is with you… always

The recent Special Session at the OPCW could have major ramifications for the future of the organisation

Normally the Fourth Special Session of the Conference of the States Parties at the OPCW would not attract mainstream news media (or any media in all honesty), but thanks to the pre-conference comments made by the UK it looked like something genuinely interesting might happen. The UK Foreign Office tabled a draft decision to “strengthen… the ban on chemical weapons. We propose the OPCW begins attributing responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria. We also want action to support states to address the chemical terrorism threat.”

The proposal was finally agreed, 82 for, 24 against. Russia and Syria vainly filibustered to try and drag events into the sand, and six amendments to the proposal were suggested, by Russia, China, Burundi, Iran, Kazakhstan and Venezuela, but voted down. What then came out of the motion? The full text can be found here,, but essentially the pertinent paras are: “10. Decides that the Secretariat shall put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic by identifying and reporting on all information potentially relevant to the origin of those chemical weapons in those instances in which the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria determines or has determined that use or likely use occurred, and cases for which the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism has not issued a report; and decides also that the Secretariat shall provide regular reports on its investigations to the Council and to the United Nations Secretary-General for their consideration; 11. Notes that under paragraph 35 of Article VIII, the Council shall consider any issue or matter within its competence affecting the Convention and its implementation, including concerns regarding compliance, and cases of non-compliance, and, as appropriate, inform States Parties and bring the issue or matter to the attention of the Conference, and further notes that under paragraph 36 of Article VIII of the Convention that, in its consideration of doubts or concerns regarding compliance and cases of non-compliance, the Council shall, in cases of particular gravity and urgency, bring the issue or matter directly to the attention of the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council…”

This is not first time that there has been a mechanism to determine attribution. The Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) and later the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), both had elements of attribution in them, the former comprehensively. These had run foul of either Syria directly, through massive delays where the 'crime scene’ was comprehensively sanitised, or indirectly through Russia changing the mandate of the JIM (here).

What then does the new text mean for the OPCW directly, and Syria generally? Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and now Senior Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, stated that until there was a clear accountability mechanism there was little that could be affected by this mechanism. “…What happens to the findings? It was not clear in the JIM, and it won’t be clear with the OPCW, who pursues the accountability mechanism. I [previously] warned that, once you have accountability and the finger is pointed at either an individual, government, DAESH or presidential guard etc. you need to follow that up. That mechanism has never been decided, in the two years of the JIM it wasn’t, and now [with] the OPCW there is still no mechanism to bring the responsible individuals or entities to justice.”

With the mechanism ultimately reverting to the UN Security Council (UNSC), which has previously faced Russian vetoes to stop any serious investigation into CW use in the Syrian Republic, it does not look like much can be expected from this other than headlines. Presumably there will now be an opportunity for an official OPCW report that states that Country X is responsible for an attack with agent Y at point Z. This will generate a degree of political interest, but if history is anything to go by it is unlikely to lead to much.

For the OPCW it will also generate a series of headaches. For example, there is likely to be increased interest in how the individuals for that team are picked. In previous Syrian missions individuals from the five permanent (P5) members of the UNSC were not allowed to take part due to concerns about bias. Yet once you look outside of the P5 there is a shortage of trained individuals from mutually acceptable countries who could take part (though hopefully Spiez Labs in Switzerland would be an exception).

It is also going to result in some soul searching in the OPCW, as it moves from one concept to another. Dr Kane explained; “The OPCW always talks about being a technical secretariat, and stresses the technical aspect of its work, DG Üzümcü has always been very clear that OPCW is not a political body but a technical one. Now, because is has been decided that they can determine accountability, the ball has been thrown back into the OPCW court with what will end up a political mandate.”

The OPCW has always been an overtly legal organisation, and this shift from technical to political is going to take a while for the organisation to digest. This is not going to be a short process, and there is a good chance that the Syrian conflict will be long over before the OPCW has managed to orient itself.

There is also the 'what Russia did next…’ question. Georgy Kalamonov, Russia’s industry minister, stated “A lot of the countries that voted against the measure are starting to think about how the organisation will exist and function in the future.” It may decide that continually sandbagging any opposition to its client states is not enough and take more decisive action. “It would be speculation,” said Dr Kane, “but I worry when someone says that this is not a body that we want to participate in any more. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was extended indefinitely, which stopped people withdrawing from it… apart from North Korea, but despite their withdrawal, when you look at the list of states parties North Korea is still there. Withdrawal could happen with the CWC …”

Russia pulling out of the CWC would be a major blow, but they would be able to justify it by their claims that they have destroyed their stocks of chemical weapons. While it is easy to be struck by the legion of countries that are represented by the OCPW, in reality the most important members are the US and Russia, which had aging Cold War stocks that needed to be made safe/destroyed. The Salisbury attack has questioned how complete the destruction of the Russian stockpiles was. Dr Kane suggested that this has not gone unnoticed. “I find it remarkable that when you read Üzümcü’s speech three days ago he refers to how successful the chemical weapons convention has been as countries had eliminated their stocks, he then refers to the delay granted to the US and Russia that had been approved by the executive council but doesn’t reference Russia’s announcement last October that they had destroyed their stocks. Ever since that announcement I haven’t seen anything from the OPCW that states they have verified the destruction, and this is their job! There has been no statement saying, 'we agree and have verified their destruction.’”

What the UK proposal might have set in motion is not only attribution in Syria, but also in Salisbury and if that happens the verification of Russian CW destruction might not be as straightforward as some state parties might want. This could lead to a Russian walkout of the CWC resulting in the eventual collapse of the OPCW itself.

[A full interview with Dr Angela Kane will be in the August edition of the magazine]

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