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former IAEA Director-General

OPCW Chiefs Ponder Chemical Arms Deadlines
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Oliver Meier

A possible failure by Russia and the United States to meet a 2012 deadline set by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) for the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles does not call into question the commitment of states-parties to the eventual elimination of chemical weapons, the current and future chiefs of the treaty’s implementing body said in December.

Rogelio Pfirter of Argentina, outgoing director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and his designated successor, Ahmet Üzümcü of Turkey, made the comments during and just after the organization’s annual meeting in Geneva Nov. 30-Dec. 4.

Russia and the United States are by far the biggest possessors of chemical weapons. Since the CWC entered into force, member states have declared about 70,000 tons of chemical weapons, with Russian and U.S. stockpiles accounting for more than 95% of that total. Under the CWC, Russia and the United States are obligated to eliminate their stocks by April 29, 2012. Yet, the United States has already announced that it will be unable to meet the 2012 date, and there are doubts about Russia’s ability to do so. (See ACT, July/August 2009.) At the meeting, Russia announced that it has met a Dec. 31, 2009, intermediate deadline and destroyed 45 percent of its stockpile. The United States has destroyed more than 65 percent of its stockpile, according to an Oct. 7 OPCW report.

In a Dec. 3 conference call with journalists, Üzümcü said that the commitments of both countries to the destruction of their chemical weapons stockpiles are “unwavering” and that the problems they have encountered in meeting treaty deadlines for destruction are “more technical ones than political ones.”

Pfirter, in a Dec. 14 interview with Arms Control Today, said the CWC’s core purpose is “to ensure the full, irreversible, complete and universal destruction of existing stockpiles by possessor states.” Russian or U.S. inability to meet the 2012 destruction deadline would not mean that “we run the risk of that central objective being violated by the two major possessor states,” he said. He argued that “we need not…make the ultimate success of the treaty dependent on any particular date.”

Pfirter welcomed the OPCW Executive Council’s October decision to ask the council’s chairman, Jorge Lomónaco Tonda of Mexico, to begin informal consultations on how and when to initiate discussion on issues related to meeting the “final extended deadlines” for the destruction of chemical weapons. “The fact that the council has chosen to act in the way it has chosen indicates to me that people indeed share this view of moving on prudently,” Pfirter said.

At the OPCW meeting, members adopted a council recommendation to approve an extension of Libya’s deadline for the destruction of its chemical weapons to May 15, 2011. (See ACT, November 2009.) They also followed the council’s lead by unanimously agreeing to appoint Üzümcü as the next director-general. He will begin his four-year term July 25.

Achieving Universality

During the conference call, Üzümcü emphasized that Turkey “has good relations” with Egypt, Israel, and Syria, the three Middle Eastern states that are not parties to the CWC. Üzümcü has served as Turkey’s ambassador to Israel and has also been posted to Syria. He said that as director-general he hopes to use “those relations and contacts to discuss this issue from a constructive perspective and try to persuade [Egypt, Israel, and Syria] to soon join the convention.”

The CWC currently has 188 states-parties. Israel and Myanmar have signed but not ratified the treaty; Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia, and Syria are nonsignatories.

Pfirter said that Angola might join the convention very soon. “I’m hopeful about Angola because I don’t believe there is any issue behind the delay or at least not any issue related to the objectives and purposes of the convention,” he said.

Industry Verification

Pfirter used his Nov. 30 statement at the meeting to suggest a new approach for tackling an issue that exists under the current OPCW inspection regime: the large number of Other Chemical Production Facilities (OCPFs) that are inspected at a lower rate than other declarable facilities.

Many OCPFs use modern production techniques and could be converted with relative ease for chemical weapons production. Yet, these facilities fall outside the three “schedules” of chemicals that can be used for chemical weapons production that form the basis of most industry inspections by the OPCW. These schedules are listed in the CWC’s verification annex. (See ACT, January/February 2007.)

Speaking personally, Pfirter told delegates that the OPCW’s technical secretariat “should significantly augment the organization’s verification effort concerning the OCPF category of chemical industry.” As a complement to the existing verification regime, he proposed to involve national authorities in verification, particularly the ones in countries with large numbers of declared OCPFs. Pfirter suggested that national authorities themselves verify some of their declared OCPFs, especially those “that could be defined as less relevant for treaty purposes.”

In the Arms Control Today interview, Pfirter said he believes that the number of OCPF inspections would need to be increased “because otherwise we run the risk of being complacent.” He argued that OCPFs could not only be misused by governments for the production of chemical weapons but that these facilities also are potentially of interest to terrorists who “would like to engage in something more than an occasional act.” Pfirter said that he would not present a formal proposal to move his idea forward but that several states-parties had privately expressed interest in the concept. “No one came to me rejecting this,” he said.

Regulating Nonlethal Weapons

In personal remarks to the meeting on the issue of incapacitants and nonlethal weapons, Pfirter emphasized “the need for the OPCW, at some stage in the not too distant future, to take stock of the growing interest on the part of some governments and civil society” in developments related to potential gaps or gray areas in the comprehensive ban on chemical weapons.

The CWC allows the use of toxic chemicals for “law enforcement, including domestic riot control purposes.” Yet, there have been ongoing discussions on which types of incapacitating agents are prohibited and on the circumstances under which the use of such agents might be legal. (See ACT, May 2008.)

In the interview, Pfirter said he wants to avoid a politicization of the debate. “This issue first and foremost needs to be well informed from the scientific point of view, and that is why I am suggesting that the [OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board] be the first one, if the organization so considers, to look into this matter, and then at the next review conference, if sufficient information has been produced by that date, the member states will look into it.” The third review conference of the CWC will take place in 2013.

Pfirter said there are “some countries which are very keen on having it debated” and that a debate about limitations on the use of nonlethal weapons and incapacitants is unavoidable. “The issue will not go away,” he said.

Asked about the need to take action on stricter regulations of incapacitants under the CWC before the next review conference, Üzümcü reacted cautiously. He said that “the convention is quite clear with regard to riot control agents” and that states-parties “are fully aware that they have to operate within those rules.” He acknowledged the debate on the issue among nongovernmental experts and groups, but said that to his knowledge “states-parties did not discuss this issue recently.”

At the meeting, the 122 states-parties in attendance adopted the OPCW’s 2010 budget of 74.5 million euros. This marks the fifth consecutive year of zero nominal growth for the organization.

At its meeting last July, the Council of the European Union approved a voluntary contribution of 2.1 million euros in support of the OPCW.

During the interview, Pfirter praised the launch of a network of nongovernmental organizations on the sidelines of the meeting. During a two-day conference convened by Global Green USA, more than 30 groups established a “Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition” to support efforts to rid the world of chemical weapons. Global Green USA will serve as the coalition’s initial network coordination hub. “I think it’s a brilliant idea,” Pfirter said. “The OPCW needs continued support.”

Article corrected January 21, 2010. The original version misstated the date of the decision by the Council of the European Union to approve a voluntary contribution of 2.1 million euros to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The decision was made by EU foreign ministers on July 27, and the project became operational on November 6.