OPCW Prepares for More Libya Inspections

Daniel Horner

Updated on December 5, 2011

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is preparing to send inspectors to two previously undeclared sites in Libya, the organization said in a Nov. 4 press release.

The announcement came in the days after statements by Ian Martin, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s special representative in Libya, and a subsequent press conference by officials of the new Libyan government announcing the existence of the sites, whose locations were not disclosed.

According to the Nov. 4 release, Libyan authorities on Nov. 1 “advised the OPCW that further stocks of what are believed to be chemical weapons had been found.” In his Nov. 28 opening statement to the week-long annual conference in The Hague of parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said his organization had received the “formal declaration by the Libyan authorities” updating the cataloguing of its chemical stockpiles that Libya had submitted when it joined the CWC in 2004.

The OPCW’s acknowledgment of the new Libyan sites came in a press release that dealt mainly with the return of the organization’s inspectors to the Ruwagha depot in the southeastern Libyan desert. That depot is the site of Libya’s remaining declared stockpile of sulfur mustard, a chemical warfare agent that is stored in liquid form.

Libya had begun destroying its sulfur mustard stocks in October 2010 and was moving ahead with that work until a heating component of the neutralization unit malfunctioned in February. The unrest in Libya that began around the same time prevented resumption of the work, in part because a UN embargo imposed on the country blocked delivery of the needed replacement part. (See ACT, October 2011.) The OPCW inspectors had been recalled from the idled facility.

In the press release, the OPCW said its recent inspection had “confirmed that the full stockpile of undestroyed sulfur mustard and precursors remains in place.” In addition, the release said, the inspectors “took further measures to ensure the integrity of the stockpiles until destruction operations can resume under OPCW verification.”

The months since the beginning of the uprising against the regime of Moammar Gaddafi have seen numerous and sometimes conflicting reports on new discoveries of chemical weapons or their components.

According to a Nov. 20 report in The Washington Post, U.S. officials suspect that Iran provided the Gaddafi government with artillery shells used for chemical weapons. An Iranian official called the allegation “fabricated,” the Post said.

Separately, the OPCW Executive Council, meeting in a special session Nov. 23-24, “reached a decision on the matter of the 2012 final deadline for completing destruction of all existing chemical weapons,” the OPCW said Nov. 25. The CWC sets a final deadline of April 29, 2012, for possessors of chemical weapons to destroy their stockpiles. Russia and the United States, which account for the vast majority of the world’s stockpiles, have acknowledged that they will not meet the deadline.

For the past two years, CWC parties have been discussing how to handle that situation. Diplomats have said that all parties except Iran have agreed to language drafted by Peter Goosen, the council’s South African chairman. (See ACT, October 2011.) In Nov. 24 remarks to the council meeting, Robert Mikulak, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, appeared to confirm that characterization, saying the council’s draft decision document is one “that every delegation except Iran indicated that it could support.”

According to the OPCW statement, the council decision “was taken by vote,” while the parties “highlighted their desire to continue upholding the OPCW’s tradition of reaching decisions by consensus.”

The council decision now goes to the conference of CWC members. In a Nov. 25 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a source familiar with the council’s discussions said, “[T]his draft decision was taken by vote by the Council but it is up to the Conference to decide to adopt it and how.”

In his Nov. 28 statement to the conference, Üzümcü called the council decision “constructive and forward-looking.” In a statement the same day, Iranian OPCW ambassador Kazem Gharib Abadi called the U.S. failure to meet the 2012 deadline “a clear-cut case of non-compliance.”

Üzümcü also announced in his statement that Libya had told the OPCW it would not be able to meet the deadline.

UPDATE: CWC States Reach Decision on 2012 Deadline

Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) voted overwhelmingly on Dec. 1 to approve a document reaffirming the importance of the treaty’s April 2012 deadline for destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles without declaring countries that failed to meet the deadline to be violating the terms of the pact.

Under the CWC, possessors of chemical weapons must eliminate their stockpiles by April 29, 2012, which marks the 15th anniversary of the treaty’s entry into force. However, Russia and the United States, whose chemical stockpiles are by far the world’s largest, have acknowledged they will not be able to meet the deadline. Libya recently said it also will not meet the deadline.

The document notes statements by the three countries of their “unequivocal commitment” to their treaty obligations and “tak[es] note that the inability to fully meet the final extended deadline” is “due to reasons that are unrelated to the commitment of these States Parties to the[ir] General Obligations” under the CWC.

In comments last May on the Russian and U.S. stockpiles, Ahmet Üzümcü, the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), cited the “massive” size of those stocks and said that “[t]he efforts and resources required for their elimination in conditions of safety and environmental sensitivity were no less daunting, and perhaps underestimated at the time when the convention was drafted.” The OPCW is the international body that implements the CWC.

The Dec. 1 decision document says that if the possessor states do in fact fail to meet the deadline, they should complete the destruction “in the shortest time possible.” According to the document, each state should “submit a detailed plan” that “specif[ies] the planned completion date by which the destruction of its remaining chemical weapons is to be completed.” The document also spells out reporting and monitoring requirements for the ongoing destruction work.

The vote, which came during the week-long annual meeting of CWC parties in The Hague, was 101-1. Iran was the “no” vote. For months, there has been near unanimity on the approach represented by the document, with only Iran opposing it. (See ACT, October 2011.) In the days before the vote, Iran and the United States engaged in a sharp rhetorical exchange over the 2012 deadline.

Decisions on the CWC generally have been made by consensus, but there have been a few previous exceptions.—DANIEL HORNER