OPCW Chief Looks to Middle East

Daniel Horner

Countries in the Middle East that are not parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) should “delink” their decisions on joining that treaty from issues relating to other accords, the head of the CWC’s implementing body said Aug. 30.

At a breakfast session with reporters in Washington, Ahmet Üzümcü, the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the use of chemical weapons “has become militarily meaningless and morally unacceptable.”

Egypt and Syria have said they will not join the CWC unless Israel becomes a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Egypt and Syria are parties to the NPT; Israel has signed the CWC, but not ratified it. They represent three out of the seven countries that have not joined the CWC; the others are Angola, Myanmar (Burma), North Korea, and Somalia.

At the 2010 NPT Review Conference in May, the parties agreed to a final document that includes a commitment to steps toward establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East. (See ACT, June 2010.) A key step is to hold a conference on the issue in 2012.

“Obviously it would be in the interest of the whole international community to see a WMD-free zone, as has happened in other parts of the world,” Üzümcü said. However, “[i]f for one reason or another it doesn’t happen in the immediate future, what we advocate for the immediate future is at least to achieve a [chemical-weapon-]free zone in this part of the world.”

It is in the interests of the three Middle Eastern nonparties to join the CWC “as early as possible,” said Üzümcü, a Turkish diplomat. He said that, in speaking with representatives of those countries, he would emphasize “incentives provided by the convention itself.” He specifically cited Article X, which deals with “assistance and protection against chemical weapons,” and Article XI, which deals with “economic and technological development,” including international cooperation.

The OPCW is planning to provide “substantive input” to the 2012 conference and will use it and the run-up to it as an opportunity to interact with the countries from the region, he said.

Üzümcü took office in July, succeeding Rogelio Pfirter.

One of Pfirter’s initiatives had been to draw attention to inspections of “other chemical production facilities” (OCPFs), which are inspected at a lower rate than other facilities that are declarable under the treaty but are technically capable of producing chemical weapons agents or precursors. Pfirter proposed that in countries with many OCPFs, the countries’ national authorities would, or could, verify some of the declared OCPFs. (See ACT, January/February 2010.)

Üzümcü said he also considered OCPF inspections to be an important issue. There are about 5,000 OCPFs in the world, and the OPCW currently conducts 125 OCPF inspections per year, he said. It would take years to inspect all of them, but “[m]aybe we don’t need” to do that and could instead “identify the most relevant OPCFs to be inspected,” he said.

Also, he said, the OPCW should be able to convince states that the inspections are in their own interest. “It may create some burden” for the states in which the inspections take place, but “it provides an added value to the overall domestic control mechanisms” of those states. If the states are worried about diversion from the facilities, they should see this type of “verification mechanism” as being in their interest, he said.

Such an inspection “ensures a certain discipline, which in my view is very much in the interest of the receiving state-party,” he said.

Üzümcü was in Washington to meet with Obama administration officials and then travel to the U.S. chemical weapons storage and disposal facility at Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. According to a Sept. 6 OPCW press release, the administration officials included Gen. James Jones, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser; Rose Gottemoeller, the assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation; and Andrew Weber, the assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear and chemical and biological defense programs.