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Interview With OPCW Director-General Rogelio Pfirter

Interviewed by Oliver Meier

On April 29, 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force. Ten years on, the CWC has won support from nearly all UN member states: 182 states-parties have agreed to be bound by the convention, while an additional six states have signed but not ratified it.

On March 16, Arms Control Today International Correspondent Oliver Meier spoke with Rogelio Pfirter, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), about the CWC's achievements and challenges that lie ahead. The OPCW is the international organization charged with implementing the CWC.

ACT: On April 29, we mark the 10th anniversary of the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention. What, from your perspective, are the biggest achievements of the convention and the biggest problems lying ahead with regard to banning chemical weapons?

Pfirter: We have been successful in implementing the very concretely focused mandate of this convention. We have made progress in the actual destruction of chemical arsenals. Soon, 25 percent of the declared stockpile will have been destroyed under verification.[1] We have also achieved enormous progress in terms of national implementation. Although much, of course, remains to be achieved, we have already in place a good part of the required legislative and administrative measures. We have also been able to work in the area of assistance and protection and in developing the type of arrangements the convention foresees.[2]

Secondly, we have been able to prove that, through multilateral action, it is possible to address effectively the issues related to peace and security and, more concretely, issues that involve disarmament and nonproliferation. This is particularly important at a time when the multilateral system has been questioned in several areas, especially in the area of peace and security.

ACT: Not all states have joined the convention yet. On universality, what in particular do you think can be done to improve the number of states-parties in the Middle East?[3] There have been expectations that Iraq and Lebanon might soon accede to the CWC.

Pfirter: I think that universality is one of the biggest challenges facing the CWC because the convention is only as strong as its weakest link. The ban is weakened, of course, if any countries remain outside of it, particularly countries seen as potential possessors of chemical weapons. The Middle East is one such region where there have been allegations that a few of the countries might have chemical programs, so we definitely need to move forward with universality there. The problem is unique because, of course, the issue of chemical weapons in the region is part of the much larger problem of the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, I do believe there are states where the chemical issue can be addressed on its own merit and at a speed distinct from other issues, particularly those of weapons of mass destruction. It is quite clear that, today, the ban on chemical weapons is universal and it is mandatory for all states.

How to address it? I think that we have to look at the peculiarities of the area while not forgetting the overall context. We should work with each country there to try to renovate the dynamics by ensuring that the issue is reviewed, is revised, and remains topical, that [it] is not static or stagnant or condemned to follow the fate, for instance, of the nuclear issue or tied to the overall problem. This is what we are doing, and I myself am engaging with countries in the region. Of course, it will also require the collective effort of all members of the OPCW to ensure that this issue remains on the top of the agenda and that the countries realize that they need to join.

ACT: Can you say something specific about Iraq and Lebanon , which are on the list of countries expected to join soon?

Pfirter: In the case of Lebanon , it is our understanding that the parliament has recommended accession to the convention. In fact, only positive action by the executive power is pending, which we hope will take place fairly soon. If Lebanon joins, of course, that would be an important step forward, not just for member states or for Lebanon itself but for the whole Middle East issue. So we look forward to that. We remain in contact with Lebanon in that respect. In the case of Iraq , the government has expressed its willingness to accede to the convention. We understand that steps are being taken and decisions are being made at the highest political level. Indeed, we have been engaged in helping to train Iraqi officials and to work with Iraq on the required documentation. We hope that this will take place before too long.

ACT: You mentioned destruction efforts and achievements. In an interview with ACT in 2005, you said that it would have a “devastating effect” if Russia and the United States missed their 2012 destruction deadlines. Now, at least with regard to the United States , it seems all but certain that it will not make the 2012 deadline.[4] What would be the consequences for the convention if the United States would indeed take much longer to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile? And do you still expect Russia to fulfill its obligation to destroy its chemical weapons stocks by 2012?

Pfirter: Officially, the position of the United States, repeated here [in The Hague] only 48 hours ago, is that it remains faithful to the convention and committed to its implementation and to the destruction [of its chemical weapons stockpile] at the earliest possible date. I will stick to that in the sense that I believe that there is a very strong political commitment on the part of the United States to support the convention and to comply with it. So, I am aware of the projections, I am aware of the current debate. Officially we have been told that the commitment remains, and I am convinced that the United States could comply with its obligation by 2012. So that's what I hope, and I think that's the hope of every member state in this organization.

In the case of Russia , destruction has taken on a new dynamic. Russia now has two destruction facilities in full operation, and one has already completed its task. Others are being built. I would hope that Russia picks up and maintains the momentum and will eventually in 2012 have a much better possibility of complying.

I think the issue of noncompliance is something that we should not prematurely address at this stage. It is an issue to be looked at later, as we come closer to the deadlines. For the time being, I think what remains is the commitment of the countries. None of them has in any way expressed any doubts about their obligations. The policy-making organs of the organization have granted both Russia and the United States an extension of the destruction deadlines to 2012. The OPCW has also created an additional reassurance mechanism in the sense that the policy-making organs maintain frequent contacts with the possessor states to ascertain their political will and the degree of progress. Again, I think that the general perception is that there is a strong commitment and determination from these states. That is where we stand at the moment, and I will not speculate beyond that.

ACT: If I can turn toward verification more generally, you told ACT in 2005 that “of particular concern are Other Chemical Production Facilities (OCPF) where I believe our effort is still very low in proportional terms when one looks at the universe of the number of plants we have identified as potentially relevant to the convention.” What has happened since then to address this issue, and generally what do you think can be done to improve the balance between inspections for OCPFs and other facilities that handle chemicals listed on the schedules?[5]

Pfirter: First of all, let me reaffirm that I maintain the concern that I expressed in 2005. And secondly, yes, there is an issue related to the balance of inspections in terms of how intensely they are applied to each and every country. Due to the present site selection methodology, the inspection effort is being applied unevenly. I would say it is applied with a degree of inequality. A country that has, for instance, seven facilities relevant to us is treated exactly like a country that has 1,000 facilities on its territory. This has meant that we end up inspecting 100 percent of the facilities in a country with seven or 10 facilities and less than one percent of the facilities in a country with a large number of facilities.

That needs to be addressed. Less than a week ago, I announced to member states that something needs to be done. I myself intend to have the secretariat look again into this formula and introduce those modifications that would allow for a greater sense of equality among member states. We will work on the factor of the algorithm that equalizes countries irrespective of the actual number of facilities they have and try to ensure that countries with a higher number of facilities stand a greater chance of being inspected than the countries with a lower number of facilities. This is very technical. It has no political connotation in itself. When I made my announcement, there was an enormous sense of relief and support from the majority of countries. We will take it from there. There are other issues that are more political in nature that remain to be discussed. We will leave those issues to the member states to continue their discussions, and whenever they agree, we will add those modifications to the algorithm.

ACT: When do you expect to table your proposal on this issue?

Pfirter: We are working on it. It is a technical matter. [The OPCW] Verification Division is looking actively into the matter, and I hope that before too long I can offer a definite proposal.

ACT: Ten years after entry into force, it still seems unlikely that a challenge inspection will be requested despite various allegations of noncompliance, for example, by the United States against Iran . How is the secretariat preparing for challenge inspections?[6]

Pfirter: The secretariat continues to retain a high degree of readiness. Hopefully, if we are requested to conduct a challenge inspection, we will be able to do it as the convention foresees. As you very well said, triggering a challenge inspection remains in the hands of member states. So, we will be available, should they take those steps. I myself believe that the challenge inspection is a very important and fundamental instrument within the toolbox of verification for the Chemical Weapons Convention to expose violations and to deter potential violations. So, we need to make sure that this very important tool remains actual and available. And in that context, I am of course very aware of the fact that while we in the secretariat retain that readiness, there is still a need for countries at the political level to discuss these issues because there is no agreement on the matter. I hope, however, that challenge inspections are not in question at all, as countries have already agreed in the convention that the mechanism should exist.

In order to help countries understand challenge inspections, I also have thought that it would be good to offer member states and delegations, particularly here in The Hague , a better opportunity to see what challenge inspections are all about, in practical terms. So I am trying to organize with the generous contribution of the Netherlands , a mock challenge inspection exercise near The Hague , which would be available to member states for them to observe and participate. Challenge inspections are not a punishment mechanism. It is entirely a mechanism for reassurance, and we need to un-demonize it.

ACT: Is there a date set already for this mock exercise?

Pfirter: It is going to be later in the year or early next year.

ACT: The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission headed by Hans Blix warned in its report of “a dangerous erosion of the fundamental ban on chemical weapons” because they perceived “an increasing interest among some governments to adopt a more flexible interpretation of the CWC rules on the use of incapacitating chemical weapons, even as a method of warfare, in order to be able to use them in diverse situations.” How do you expect states-parties to address this challenge to the convention?[7]

Pfirter: First of all, I think that we do not know enough on this matter to say whether this is a challenge. We have a scientific advisory board, and we have policymaking organs that in due course may look into this matter. But more information is needed. Let me just start by saying that we expect all countries to be fulfilling their obligations in full and in good faith. There is no reason to suspect that this is not the case. Secondly, it is quite clear that the convention establishes unequivocally through the general purpose criterion what can and what cannot be done with these specific chemicals.[8] I am sure that countries understand that each and every development needs to be tested against that principle, and we take it from there. So I think that's the stage we are in.

ACT: States-parties have still not banned transfers of Schedule 3 chemicals to non-states-parties.[9] Do you expect this issue to be addressed any time soon? Generally, what do you think can be done to improve national implementation and monitoring on restrictions of trade with relevant chemicals? In the long term, do you see the OPCW playing a stronger role in this regard, for example, by monitoring imports and exports?

Pfirter: This is an area where action is required. It is an important component of the whole equation on what should be available to member states and what should not be available to nonmember states. I think this is a big inducement for formal involvement with the CWC. So I hope that this issue is not entirely finalized, although I do not expect that it will be reopened right away. Countries are required to make certain declarations, and sometimes we do find a lack of correlation between what a country declares and our own [data]. We are already aware of the need, and we have highlighted this many times, for better refinement in the way some things are declared. It's obviously part and parcel of a chemical ban, and we should make sure all of us, collectively, have in place mechanisms that account for any transfers [of scheduled chemicals] and that there is a way of following the chemicals as they move around the world.

ACT: Now, on national implementation, in April 2006 the 1540 Committee reporting to the UN Security Council found that a total of only 69 states had enacted some prohibitions related to chemical weapons in their national legal framework.[10] What do you think can be done to improve this situation, and should the action plan on implementation agreed to by the CWC states-parties in 2003 be expanded?

Pfirter: The action plan was quite successful, although not totally successful. Today 96 or 97 percent of states-parties already have a national authority in place.[11] Almost 50 percent of member states have comprehensive [implementing] legislation in place. This is very important because without adequate implementation the member states can not fully uphold the ban. We have to encourage and help some countries to not just implement, but implement in full. We will continue to work with any country. I hope we see the second review conference in 2008 approve a renewal of the action plan, which will still be necessary. I think that, again, we have not reached the finish line. The trend shows that countries are now much more aware and willing to enact the legislation that is required and set up the administrative measures.

ACT: You already mentioned the review conference coming up next year. From your perspective, which issues should member states address most urgently in 2008, and what is the status of preparations in the open-ended working group? Is there already agreement on whether the conference should review the convention on an article-by-article basis or on a thematic basis?

Pfirter: The open-ended working group is still undergoing a more generic type of debate. I do not think that there is yet a decision whether it will go article by article or subject by subject. There is a possibility that in fact there will be a comprehensive approach to this issue from both angles. In the next session member states will begin to focus on more concrete issues. I think the open-ended working group is a good demonstration of how countries are determined to face these issues in a spirit of consensus, working together in a collegial fashion. I believe that it will be extremely successful in producing the basis for the sort of document and declaration that will be adopted on the occasion of the second review conference.

The issues of the second review conference are being defined at the moment in the three areas that I mentioned. First of all, in the area of disarmament. I am sure that the conference would reaffirm the commitments that are there as well as the obligations in the field of nonproliferation. I do hope that the second review conference will be able to reaffirm the need for these particular parts of the agenda, which are so important, to be addressed effectively. I also hope that the issue of Other Chemical Production Facilities will receive an adequate echo in the documents. I hope also that, although this is not an anti-terrorist organization, the contributions that this organization can make under UN Security Council Resolution 1540 will also be reaffirmed through full implementation and through universality. In the field of assistance and protection, where we receive considerable demand from member states requesting support in capacity building, which also have a lot to do with their concerns in the face of the terrorist threat, I hope that we will get a reaffirmation of the need for the OPCW to fully attend to this important dimension. [The issue of assistance] also includes international cooperation aimed at helping developing countries receive training for their experts in the industrialized world, and in general, the promotion of the peaceful uses of chemistry.

ACT: You mentioned terrorism. On Feb. 23, you briefed the Security Council on the role of the OPCW in implementing UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673.[12] You stated there as well that the OPCW is not an anti-terrorist organization. Can you explain how the work you are doing in The Hague helps to prevent terrorist attacks with chemical weapons?

Pfirter: The OPCW is not an anti-terrorist organization. It is not defined as such in the treaty, and therefore, it's a political organization. At the same time, after the events of September 11 in the United States , the member states did meet. They reached the conclusion that no organization of this nature can remain indifferent in the face of this new threat or increased threat. Secondly, the best way to make a contribution against terrorism is through the universality of the convention and full implementation of its program. And I think that this is where we made a commitment. As part of our program, countries are obligated to enact legislation and administrative measures so that they will be in a position to make the chemical weapons ban effective and to punish violations of the chemical ban on their own territories.

ACT: Finally, since this is the 10th anniversary, if you were able to look ahead another 10 years, where would you like to see both the convention and the OPCW in 2017?

Pfirter: Well, I would like to see that, of course, the destruction of chemical weapons arsenals in each and every country on this earth will have been completed and that we will have in place an effective means for monitoring and addressing their potential production in the future. In the long run, the nonproliferation regime will remain vital. In the field of cooperation and assistance, the organization will have ensured that countries develop the ability to face threats. I don't know whether the threat of terrorism will be as pertinent in 10 years time as it is today, but certainly security will remain a concern. We need also to make sure that the OPCW is capable of helping countries to acquire the means to face such a threat.

If you read Resolution 1540 and what it asks in order to prevent the access by terrorists to weapons of mass destruction, in particular chemical weapons, it calls upon countries to enact legislation and administrative measures in exactly the same manner as the CWC. There is a synergy there that demonstrates that the Chemical Weapons Convention, when effectively implemented, is an effective contributor to the prevention of use of chemical weapons by terrorists.

So, in that conviction we continue to work toward full implementation by all countries. We have also cooperated with the 1540 committee by remaining available to them to exchange information that could be of use to the committee, of course within the very strict mandates and strict confidentiality regulations we have. I look forward to the chairman of the committee's visit here in the near future and addressing their goals and sharing their experience in implementing [the resolution].

 


ENDNOTES

1. Six states-parties (Albania, India, Libya, Russia, South Korea, and the United States) have declared that they possess a total of more than 71,000 metric tons of chemical agents and are in the process of destroying them.

2. Under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), states-parties have pledged to provide assistance and protection to fellow member states when they are threatened with the use of chemical weapons or have suffered a chemical attack. If a state-party requests assistance, the Technical Secretariat is responsible for the effective coordination of assistance and protection measures provided by member states. These capabilities can include expertise in predicting hazards, in detecting and decontaminating chemical agents, in medical relief, and in on-site coordination with humanitarian and disaster response agencies. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) also relies on cooperation with other international organizations to assist it with dispatching and delivering assistance, managing on-site activities, and training.

3. Of the seven states remaining outside the CWC, four are in Middle East ( Egypt , Iraq , Lebanon , and Syria ). Israel has signed but not ratified the convention.

4. The convention requires states-parties to destroy their chemical weapons by 2007, 10 years after the CWC's entry into force. It is possible to request an extension of this destruction deadline by up to five years, until 2012. The conference of states-parties on December 8, 2006, approved requests for extensions of the final date for the destruction of the declared chemical weapons stockpiles. The following deadlines for complete destruction are now binding: India —April 28, 2009; Libya —December 31, 2010; Russia —April 29, 2012; South Korea —December, 31, 2008; the United States —April 29, 2012. Washington has recently admitted that complete destruction is unlikely to be completed before 2023, and it appears unlikely that Moscow can keep its promise to destroy its stocks by 2012. (See ACT, January/February 2007.)

5. The CWC verification system is based on three “schedules,” or lists of toxic chemicals and their precursors that have been developed and manufactured in the past for military purposes. Schedule 1 consists of chemical warfare agents and precursors that have no significant commercial applications, although they may be synthesized in small quantities for scientific research, pharmaceutical development, or chemical defense. Schedule 2 lists toxic chemicals and precursors that have commercial applications in small quantities. Schedule 3 contains toxic chemicals and precursors that have commercial applications in large quantities. The primary focus of routine inspections of the chemical industry under the CWC is on declared production facilities that manufacture the dual-use chemicals listed on Schedules 2 or 3. In recent years, however, the advent of small, multipurpose chemical-production facilities has made the batch synthesis of organic (carbon-based) compounds more automated and flexible. Such multipurpose plants, which constitute a fraction of the category of Other Chemical Production Facilities (OCPFs), are potentially easier to divert to chemical weapons production than large, inflexible facilities that produce specific scheduled chemicals. As of November 2006, 77 member states had declared a total of 5,225 OCPFs, or more than five times the number of declared facilities that produce Schedule 1, 2, and 3 chemicals. (See ACT, January/February 2007.)

6. Article IX of the convention grants CWC states-parties the right to request a challenge inspection of any site, declared or undeclared, on the territory of another member state “for the sole purpose of clarifying and resolving any questions concerning possible non-compliance.”

7. See: The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, “Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms,” June 1, 2006. Article VI of the CWC gives states-parties the right to maintain toxic chemicals for purposes not prohibited under the convention, including “law enforcement, including domestic riot control.” Whether the CWC permits the development and use for domestic law enforcement purposes of incapacitating agents with long-lasting effects, in addition to riot-control agents with transient effects, such as CS tear gas, is a matter of intense debate.

8. The “general purpose criterion” refers to the fact that the basic prohibitions of the CWC apply to all toxic chemicals and precursors that are acquired or used for hostile purposes, including those developed at any time in the future, and are not limited to the toxic chemicals and precursors listed in the three schedules of chemicals.

9. Article VI of the CWC specifies a number of restrictions on trade, keyed to the treaty's three schedules of chemicals. With the entry into force of the convention in April 1997, transfers to non-states-parties of the chemical warfare agents and precursors listed on Schedule 1 were banned immediately, and trade with non-states-parties in chemicals listed on Schedule 2 have been prohibited since April 2000. In 2003 the OPCW Conference of the States-Parties to the CWC considered a possible ban on exports to non-states-parties of Schedule 3 chemicals but could not agree by consensus. At present, the CWC allows exports of Schedule 3 chemicals to non-states-parties only if the recipient provides an end-use certificate clarifying the intended use and pledging not to make any further transfers.

10. On April 28, 2004, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1540 under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The resolution mandates that all states establish domestic controls to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and means of delivery, in particular for terrorist purposes, including by establishing appropriate controls over related materials, and adopt legislative measures in that respect. In that context, the council also established a committee comprising all council members (the 1540 Committee) that would report on the implementation of the resolution.

11. To make sure that the convention is implemented effectively, states-parties are obliged to designate or establish a “national authority.” This body participates in and coordinates OPCW inspections of relevant industrial or military sites, makes initial and annual declarations, participates in assisting and protecting those states-parties that are threatened by or have indeed suffered a chemical attack, and fosters the peaceful uses of chemistry. In addition, the national authority acts as the focal point in the state-party's interaction with other member states and the OPCW's Technical Secretariat.

12. On April 27, 2006, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1673, which extends the mandate of the 1540 Committee for another two years, until April 27, 2008.