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OPCW Chooses New Director-General

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Oliver Meier and Daniel Horner

The Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) last month chose Ahmet Üzümcü of Turkey to succeed Rogelio Pfirter as the organization’s director-general.

The council made the decision by consensus during its Oct. 13-16 meeting in The Hague, according to an Oct. 16 OPCW press release. The 41-member council also accepted Libya’s request to extend the deadline for the destruction of its chemical weapons by five and a half months, until May 15, 2011.

Both decisions require formal approval by the Nov. 30-Dec. 4 conference of states-parties of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the annual meeting and highest decision-making body of the 188 CWC parties.

In addition to Üzümcü, six career diplomats had been put forward by their governments as candidates for the post of director-general: Benchaa Dani of Algeria, John Freeman of the United Kingdom, Peter Gottwald of Germany, Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat of Indonesia, Aapo Pölhö  of Finland, and Anton Thalmann of Switzerland. (See ACT, September 2009.)

The director-general heads the OPCW Technical Secretariat, which implements the CWC. He is in charge of administering a €75 million ($105 million) annual budget and manages a staff of 500.

According to a diplomatic source close to the process, three straw polls conducted in the eight days before the Executive Council meeting quickly established Üzümcü as the front-runner. On Oct. 13, Pölhö  and Thalmann were the first to withdraw. Sudjadnan was next on Oct. 14, after a fourth secret ballot, the source said. These three candidates had consistently received the lowest number of votes in the initial polls, the source said. Shortly before a fifth vote Oct. 15, Freeman also quit the race, the source said. On Oct. 16, the last day of the council meeting, Gottwald and Dani conceded to Üzümcü, who was then unanimously appointed by council members, the source said.

Üzümcü, 58, is currently Turkey’s permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Previously, he held a variety of posts at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as Turkey’s representative to NATO.

There had been fears that the election of a new director-general might be contentious, pitting the Nonaligned Movement against Western states. That was the case in the 2002 OPCW election of Pfirter and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) election this year of Japan’s Yukiya Amano as director-general. (See ACT, September 2002; September 2009.) Speaking privately, some observers said Üzümcü had been able to win only by securing the support of some key nonaligned states. Turkey is a member of the OPCW’s Western Europe and Other States group but is seen as a country with “one foot in the South and one foot in the North,” Paul Walker, director of security and sustainability for the environmental group Global Green USA, said in an Oct. 21 interview.

According to the observers, there was relief that a lengthy selection process and formal vote could be avoided. Pfirter, who is scheduled to step down in July when his second four-year term ends, emphasized in the OPCW press release that the consensus appointment of Üzümcü reaffirmed that the OPCW is “an example of successful multilateralism” and described the outcome as “a proud moment” for the organization. Jorge Lomónaco Tonda of Mexico, who is currently chairing the council and facilitated the selection process, said in an Oct. 16 interview that he had worked “relentlessly to make clear that this process was not about regions and not about North and South.” The decision has proven that the OPCW is able to operate on a consensus basis “even in complicated situations,” Lomónaco said. During the whole selection process, there was consistent cross-regional support for all candidates, and council members made “no distinction whether a candidate came from one region or another,” he said. In an apparent reference to the IAEA process for selecting Amano, he said the OPCW decision showed “a level of cooperation and the ability to work as a team you rarely see in other international organizations.”

Walker called Üzümcü “a very good choice,” citing his experience in arms control and multilateral organizations. Walker also noted that Üzümcü has had postings in Israel and Syria, which, with Egypt, are the Middle Eastern countries that have not ratified the CWC. In his July 15 presentation to the council, Üzümcü said the CWC members and the OPCW director-general should “vigorously pursue” the goal of “universal adherence” to the treaty. Although Turkey has good relations with all three of the Middle Eastern nonparties, “early progress” will be difficult, he said.

At the October meeting, the council, after some discussion, agreed to forward to the upcoming conference a request by Libya for an extension of its deadline for the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile. Libya acceded to the CWC in February 2004. In December 2006, states-parties granted the country an extension of its original April 29, 2007, deadline, to Dec. 31, 2010. In an Aug. 24 paper submitted to the council, Libya requested that the deadline be moved again, to May 15, 2011. The Libyan paper was not released to the public, but according to an Oct. 7 OPCW report, Libya cited several reasons for its difficulties in meeting the 2010 deadline, “including certain logistical and financial problems that have arisen against the background of the global economic crisis, as well as strong opposition from civil organisations to the destruction of chemical weapons, prompted by fears about the potential harmful consequences of implementation of the destruction project.” According to diplomats, several delegations were unhappy with the Libyan explanations. During the meeting, “some delegations requested additional information on how Libya intends to use the additional time,” Lomónaco said.

In June 2007, Libya withdrew from a bilateral agreement with the United States on major U.S. assistance to the technically challenging and costly effort of eliminating chemical weaponry in the Libyan desert. In addition to destroying 23.6 metric tons of mustard gas, Libya must eliminate around 1,300 metric tons of precursor chemicals to comply with the convention. (See ACT, July/August 2007.) Libya has not yet begun destruction of the most dangerous chemical weapons, which were developed on the basis of chemicals listed in Schedule 1 of the CWC’s Annex on Chemicals. Schedule 1 lists chemical agents and precursors that were developed and manufactured for military purposes and have no significant commercial applications.