Interviewed by Oliver Meier
Since 2002, Rogelio Pfirter has served as director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body charged with implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Pfirter, an Argentinean diplomat, replaced José Bustani, who was voted out of office. Pfirter’s second four-year term will end in July; last December the members of the CWC appointed Ahmet Üzümcü to succeed him.  Arms Control Today spoke with Pfirter on December 14 about the OPCW’s achievements, as well as current and future challenges.
The interview was transcribed by Andrew Fisher. It has been edited for clarity.
ACT: Over the eight years of your tenure, what do you see as the biggest accomplishments? What are the biggest problems that you were not able deal with? What do you hope to achieve before you hand the reins over to Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, the next director-general? It may be a bit early to sum up but maybe you can try nevertheless.
Pfirter: Overall I feel satisfied. Objectively one can say that the organization is in much better shape today than it was in 2002. In 2002, there were big questions about the continued viability and ability of the organization as such. I remember very well, in July 2002 when I came, there was a profound political crisis. My predecessor’s term had been terminated early, there was a big division between some member states, and the secretariat and there were no industry inspections going on. A lot of inspectors were just sitting idly. The destruction [of chemical weapons stockpiles] in some important countries had not even started. Overall, there was a fear that the organization might find it very difficult to move on, certainly after the high expectations that gave birth to the CWC.
Today, we have a very different situation. We have moved on substantially in the implementation of the core program. Not because of the director-general but because of the overall atmosphere surrounding the organization, we have seen a substantial increase in destruction. We have seen a substantial increase and consolidation on the nonproliferation front. We have also seen a parallel increase in the other core activities of assistance and protection as well as international cooperation. Not only that, I think that as a result of us having been able to deliver on these very concrete objectives of the convention, the overall political atmosphere surrounding the organization is much stronger. We operate by consensus. It is today considered an organization that is a model and a reference for others, certainly uniquely successful in the field of disarmament and nonproliferation. The fact that seven highly qualified diplomats from very important countries presented themselves as candidates [for the post of director-general] I think is a sign of the respectability and regard in which the OPCW is kept today. I think also that on the administrative front, we have been able to establish an organization that is efficiently administered and managed. For the last five years we have been able to propose zero nominal growth budgets with no detriment whatsoever to our ability to deliver on the core front. Program delivery has been always to the full. Hopefully, all these things can be assessed as positive.
Now, do I regret that some things have not been achieved? Certainly. First of all, I think one our big achievements has also certainly been on the front of universality. We have 188 states-parties today. So we have come a long way; we cover 98 percent of the surface of the earth. However, I do regret that, much as we have made enormous progress, we still have not been able to bring in all the countries that are out there. There are still seven missing, of which four are very important for the ultimate success of the organization─
I also regret that it doesn’t necessarily seem that 2012 will be the date when the destruction will have been completed. But I also believe that the success of the convention is not tied to any particular date. The dates are very important milestones but certainly what is crucial is the destruction of the stockpiles, is that there is no doubt about a very strong commitment of possessor states.
On nonproliferation, I do regret that we have not been able to gain greater support for the case for inspecting more intensively certain categories of industry, particularly what is called OCPFs [Other Chemical Production Facilities]. I do believe also that there is some unfinished business in terms of getting all the necessary political support for the technical secretariat to have all the necessary equipment to face potential challenge inspections.
I think that that is more or less the status of things. It doesn’t mean that big challenges do not lie ahead. I think that there are very big challenges ahead. The fundamental challenge is probably to continuously ensure that the organization enjoys the degree of necessary political support. That necessary political support is crucial for the ability to perform. This is an organization with a strong technical arm. It could not achieve its goals without such a technical arm. But the technical arm per se would not exist without the necessary political support of governments. So the continued support for disarmament, for nonproliferation of this category of weapons of mass destruction, I see as crucial for the organization to continue its long-term mission.
ACT: Many observers, and you also, have emphasized that the election of your successor was an “example of multilateralism” and that member states acted unified. Yet on a number of issues, including reform of the industry verification system that you mentioned, and interpretation of Article XI, there are ongoing discussion between the North and South. What is your opinion as to how these differences can be overcome?
Pfirter: Well, I think that they need to be overcome through consensus. There is no question: whatever we work for, it will require consensus. But if I may say so, the fact that these are the issues that you mentioned as divisive, is a show of the strength of the organization because although these issues are extremely important, they are not show-stoppers. Nobody is saying that the organization is not doing anything on international cooperation. The dilemma or divisive issue at the moment is how to continue and enhance that from the point of view of some, and what are the ultimate implications of that. But it is not a show-stopper in the sense that it has not split the organization into two. It does not in any way deviate countries from the implementation of the core objectives of disarmament and nonproliferation. I think this organization can survive with a deep debate about international cooperation but it cannot survive if there is no agreement about its disarmament or nonproliferation chapters. I’m not saying that one is less important but I think quite clearly the name of the organization itself tells what this is all about substantially. So this is an issue which is important, but I don’t think this endangers the life of the organization.
ACT: The annual budget for 2010 is 74.5 million euros. This is the fifth time in a row that a zero-nominal-growth budget has been approved by states-parties. At the same time, the scope of responsibilities is growing for the organization. How long do you think you can keep the organization running on this budget?
Pfirter: I don’t think forever. Certainly not. I think that it depends on the year, each year. I think no year necessarily sets a precedent for the following year. The work we do starts from scratch, and zero-nominal-growth budgets should not be the premise but rather the consequence of the process of elaboration of the budget. We have gone for zero nominal growth budgets not out of our whims but because that is the honest evaluation about the resources necessary to carry on full program delivery.
Certainly the commitment to efficient and prudent administrative management requires continued oversight of the issues that have a budgetary implication. It requires from us regular reassessment of the resources and also a re-evaluation of resources, as they come. For instance, take human resources. Every time we have a vacancy, we do not automatically proceed to fill it but rather reconsider whether this is necessary. Reallocation of resources, re-evaluation of resources, elimination of redundancies, and so on: these are all key to prudent management, and I think, as much as is feasible, zero-nominal-growth budgets will continue. And if it is no longer feasible with zero-nominal-growth budgets, then it will be for the director-general to propose.
ACT: How can and how should member states deal with a possible violation of CWC destruction deadlines, particularly by the
Pfirter: Well, first of all you speak about violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention if I heard you correctly. The core purpose of the CWC is to ensure the full, irreversible, complete and universal destruction of existing stockpiles by possessor states. I do not believe that we run the risk of that central objective being violated by the two major possessor states. I think all possessor states are fully committed to the complete and irreversible and verifiable destruction of their stockpiles. I also believe that their commitment has never weakened and that they have taken and continue to take the necessary measures for that. So I don’t think the convention will be violated from that point of view.
The convention of course also establishes a date for this to be completed. We know already that present estimates in the
Should destruction not be completed by 2012, I think that will be the moment when we need to cross that particular bridge. In the meantime, as I said in my statement, I think it is prudent, it is correct for the policymaking organs and particularly the Executive Council to have entrusted its chairman, on the basis of a proposal made by
I myself have as an add-on to my official statement included some personal reflections on this issue, and I have tried to indicate that I am convinced that the date of 2012 is extremely important. It is a legally standing date in the convention, but I think we need not to make the ultimate success of the treaty dependent on any particular date.
The treaty will be successful if all chemical weapons are destroyed. 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, always bearing in mind as a priority the ultimate goals of the treaty. I have said in preparations for the second review conference [in 2008], in a document I produced in late 2007, that in my view, as we approach 2012, there would probably be merit for some sort of special meeting in order to address this issue. At such a meeting member states could take stock of the actual status of destruction and if the situation would merit it, they could also decide some sort of additional remedial action. I am not saying we ignore the significance of meeting the destruction deadline in 2012, but certainly we do not at the same time overstate its implications for the ultimate central disarmament goal of ensuring destruction of chemical weapons.
ACT: Two questions on verification. The first one is rather general. What is the state of affairs is with regard to shifting the focus of CWC verification from destruction monitoring to industry verification? What progress on this issue has been made since the last review conference in 2008 and what do you think the next steps should be?
Pfirter: I think as a consequence of the ultimate success of the convention in ensuring the total destruction of existing declared stockpiles, unavoidably there will be a progressive devolution in the engagement of the organization into chemical weapons verification activities. You have to recall that at this moment, 85 percent of the verification effort is allocated to destruction. As this is completed, unavoidably there will be less demand on our hands. At the same time, we have a long-term objective in the convention of ensuring the future nonproliferation of chemical weapons. I’m not saying all energies allocated to verifying destruction will automatically be shifted to verifying nonproliferation, but there will certainly be greater emphasis [on] and greater visibility of [the] nonproliferation goal because somehow this will demand and receive the greater percentage of the verification effort.
So I think it is a natural result of the flow of activities, as the convention moves on. Of course disarmament will not be completed because there might still be countries outside which have chemical weapons, but by and large, the task of verifying Russian and American stockpiles will have diminished. I think that we have made progress in the sense that people increasingly recognize this flow of emphasis, not from one to the other, but rather [in the sense of] nonproliferation being more evident. People have to recognize this is not a consequence of any sort of political doctrine of the convention intended to shift priorities, but rather just as I said, it is the natural flow of the implementation of the treaty. The more people understand that, the more confident they will be that this is not a change in the objectives of the convention but rather a reassuring indication of fulfilling it to the full. And the long-term goal is obviously nonproliferation.
ACT: The other question on verification is related to so-called Other Chemical Production Facilities. This is one of the issues you have highlighted over the years. In your statement to the conference of states-parties, you basically admitted that within the current verification framework, it might be very difficult, or maybe even impossible to inspect a sufficient number of OCPFs to be sure that they are not misused for prohibited purposes, at least in the few states that have a large number of OCPFs  Instead you have proposed a complementary approach for expanding the number of OCPFs that can be inspected each year. You have said that in those countries with many OCPFs, the national authorities themselves would verify, or could verify some of the declared OCPFs. Can you elaborate how this system would work and how under such a system, other countries would be ensured that these self-inspections would be credible? What have been the reactions to your proposal from states-parties?
Pfirter: After several years of dealing with this issue and after several years of hopefully having shown my strong belief in the need for considerably greater effort on the front of OCPFs─particularly those OCPFs, which, due to their characteristics, offer the potential for quick reconversion for introduction of chemicals which are prohibited under the convention─after these many years and having represented that in my proposals for increased number of inspections, I believe that it is appropriate for me to recall also the fact that the convention itself is a source of some ambiguity on this front. As you might know, there is a quantitative limit on the number of OCPF inspections that could be conducted in any given year or in any particular country. The combined schedule 3 and OCPF number of inspections per country, the maximum allowed under the convention is 20. So for a country which declares a thousand OCPFs it is just a question of dividing the totality [of facilities] by the maximum number [of inspections] allowed under the convention, and you can well see how many decades it would take the organization to verify those facilities.
In addition to that, there is some urgency arising from the fact that the organization can only inspect that which has been approved in the budget. The budget negotiations show quite clearly that improving or obtaining the necessary resources to increase, not significantly but just modestly, the number of OCPF inspections, is very complex It is very, very difficult to get any consensus around it. So the realities of the convention are also augmented by the inflexibilities we face with regard to the practical allocation of resources for this type of inspection.
In that light, and because I remain strongly convinced that we do definitely need to enhance our efforts on that particular category of facilities, I have tried to find a way of enlarging the scope of inspections while at the same time somehow dodging the obstacles we face at present.
I thought that maybe, bringing it to the fore and seeking the cooperation of national authorities in those very few countries that have a large number of facilities, seeking their cooperation, as a complement, not as a substitute for, but as a complement to, what the OPCW will do on its own, and based on the regular budget for [inspecting] OCPFs, maybe could help us to augment the number and quality of what we are addressing currently through our OCPF regime.
Therefore, it will not replace the OCPF program which will work as usual. Rather, through the goodwill of national authorities and through a procedure which will have to be cleared with the OPCW, which will have OPCW endorsement─and that could only be forthcoming if we know there will be no diversion whatsoever from the strictness of the verification regime─we could in this way enlarge the number of facilities under verification.
But let me be clear that this would be without prejudice to the OPCW carrying out its regular program. I don’t see how the regular program can be increased, because we would either need to change the convention or change budget allocations.
ACT: Have you had any reactions to your proposal yet from states-parties?
Pfirter: I made it quite clear this was not part of my statement in what pertains to the implementation of the convention as dictated by the convention but rather a personal reflection. What I sought at this stage is to, if possible, motivate some discussions on the basis of these [proposals] or something different. What I believe is we need to break the inertia and the status quo. Our discussions have been inconclusive with regard to any concrete improvement in the verification of this category and this may be something that will motivate member states.
Some member states have expressed to me an interest in the concept. No one came to me rejecting this. Of course some countries have questions. I am not thinking of presenting a concrete format nor is it a formal proposal. It is just an idea. And I hope in that sense we will have been feeding some food for thought and provoking some brainstorming on the part of member states about this.
I think that we need to do something on this front because otherwise we run the risk of being complacent in believing that we are doing what the convention allows us to do and that is all right, we are very fine and therefore should not be worried. But the truth is we are not doing a sufficient amount in terms of quantity nor in terms of quality. For me, it has been a source of some frustration to see that we have not necessarily succeeded in awakening all member states to what needs to be done in this category. This is a category that is difficult not only for what a member state itself could do but if terrorists would like to engage in something more than an occasional act. This is a category that would open itself for such a possibility. So I think we have to be very careful and we have to act on that.
ACT: The next question is on incapacitants. The last review conference was unable to address the issue of how toxic chemicals, such as incapacitating chemical weapons, can be better regulated when used for permitted law enforcement purposes. For example,
Pfirter: I prefer to be a bit shy on that front. However, I have to say that throughout my years as director-general, this issue has risen in interest, not just from a purely theoretical point of view. It needs to be tested vis-à-vis the convention, also because some riot control agents have been used in certain circumstances, with the result that we have a special interest of concern. And so these issues are real. I think we will all recognize that when it comes to types and quantities [of toxic chemicals for purposes that are permitted under the CWC], and when one takes into account developments in chemistry and the appearance of so-called nonlethal chemicals, we need to seek further clarification, just to make sure that the CWC remains the ultimate relevant document for addressing anything that has to do with the issues which are central to its objectives.
In that context again, some legitimate questions have been presented and we need to look into that. We need to look into that prudently. We should not allow this issue to be politicized. 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 issue will not go away. There are some countries which are very keen on having it debated. Precisely because I believe we should look at the future and be prepared [and that] we should also recognize that questions have to answered, I have suggested what I have suggested. I think this is a prudent and reasonable way to move on.
ACT: There are only seven states that have not ratified the CWC. What can be done to convince the remaining holdout states, particularly those in the
Pfirter: I’m hopeful about
In the case of
Then we are left with the other four countries. As for
And a bit of that also goes for the
Something of the same goes to
In the case of
But in none of these countries should we be expecting any quick moves. So it will remain a challenge for the organization, and I am absolutely convinced that Ambassador Üzümcü should continue with this matter. I’m sure he is ideally positioned for doing so. I am an optimist that progress will eventually be achieved.
ACT: On the sidelines of the last conference of states-parties, the “Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition,” a new network of nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], was launched. What is your view on how civil society can best support the CWC?
Pfirter: I think [involvement of] civil society in these things, which are subjects of interest to the international community and humanity as a whole, is crucial. It is absolutely legitimate that NGOs take an interest and recognize us as stakeholders on this issue and that we will try and engage them. That is why I have been delighted to support the initiative of Global Green in the
ACT: Thank you very much.
4. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) 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 for
7. During its October 13-16 session, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW’s) Executive Council requested its chairperson, Ambassador Jorge Lomónaco Tonda of Mexico, “to engage in informal consultations with interested delegations on how and when to initiate discussion by the Council on issues related to meeting the final extended deadlines for the destruction of chemical weapons and to keep the Council informed of these consultations.” See OPCW Executive Council, “Report of the Fifty-Eighth Session of the Executive Council” EC-58/9, October 16, 2009, p. 5, http://www.opcw.org/index.php?eID=dam_frontend_download&fileID=13461.
8. OPCW Conference of States Parties, “Opening Statement by the Director-General to the Conference of the States Parties at its Fourteenth Session” C-14/DG.13, November 30, 2009, p. 26, http://www.opcw.org/index.php?eID=dam_frontend_download&fileID=13622.
9. 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 in 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 Jonathan Tucker, “Verifying the Chemical Weapons Ban: Missing Elements,” Arms Control Today,, January/February 2007, pp. 6-13, www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_01-02/Tucker.
11. 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.
12. OPCW Conference of States Parties, “Opening Statement by the Director-General to the Conference of the States Parties at Its Fourteenth Session” C-14/DG.13, November 30, 2009, p. 27, http://www.opcw.org/index.php?eID=dam_frontend_download&fileID=13622.
13. The Scientific Advisory Board is a group composed of independent experts who are mandated to assess relevant scientific and technological developments and report on such subjects to the director-general.