With a treaty-imposed deadline for destruction of all chemical weapons stockpiles less than seven months away, diplomats are scrambling to avoid a crisis over the officially acknowledged fact that Russia and the United States, the holders of the world’s largest stockpiles of those weapons, will not eliminate them by that date.
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) sets April 29, 2012, as the final deadline for destroying those weapons. For years, experts have viewed that deadline as unrealistic for a variety of reasons.
Last year, Russia acknowledged that it would not meet the deadline, estimating that the effort would stretch to the end of 2015. (See ACT, July/August 2010.) The United States announced in 2006 that it would not meet the 2012 deadline and has set 2021 as its target date.
In May 24 comments to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Ahmet Üzümcü, the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said, “Although the convention does not permit any further extensions in the destruction deadlines, the imminent default needs to be viewed dispassionately and objectively.” The OPCW is the international body that implements the CWC.
Üzümcü cited the “massive” size of the stockpiles, adding 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 CWC was opened for signature in 1993; it entered into force in 1997.
In his Geneva comments, Üzümcü said he was “confident” that the CWC parties “will seek a balanced way forward that preserves both the credibility and the integrity of the convention.”
The issue figured prominently at the most recent meeting of the OPCW Executive Council.
Kazem Gharib Abadi, Iran’s ambassador the OPCW, said in his July 12 opening statement that failure to meet the destruction deadline “will be viewed as noncompliance.” Citing Article XII of the treaty, he said such a “breach” should be “brought to the attention” of the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, and the annual conference of CWC parties.
Robert Mikulak, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, said his country has an “unwavering” commitment to completing the destruction of its stockpile and would be about 90 percent of the way to that goal by the April deadline.
In a Sept. 23 interview, a third OPCW ambassador said that if the parties do not find a way to accommodate the missed deadline, “the risk of endangering the system will be huge.” It is crucial to avoid “politicization” of the issue, which will become much more intense, with “finger pointing” and accusations, if the deadline arrives without a solution, he said.
He said delegations are working with Peter Goosen, the South African chairman of the Executive Council, to craft language that would resolve the issue. The draft text will not impose sanctions for failing to meet the deadline, he said, adding that sanctions would be “counterproductive.”
In a Sept. 22 interview, Paul Walker, director of security and sustainability at Global Green USA, also said the proposed text would not use terms such as “violation” or “noncompliance.” The draft text has not been made public.
According to the OPCW ambassador, the text would require confidence-building measures based, as he put it, on a “reinforced framework of verification and reporting”; a regular review of progress until all the weapons are destroyed; and a reaffirmation of countries’ obligation under the CWC. Several delegations also are pressing for the possessor states to issue a new timeline, he said.
In his July statement, Mikulak listed several transparency measures the United States is taking, including inviting council members to visit U.S. destruction facilities every other year. Walker underlined the need for Russia and the United States to take additional steps to reassure their fellow CWC parties that both countries “are doing all they can to abolish their [chemical weapons] stockpiles in a safe and timely manner.” In particular, he proposed annual high-level OPCW visits to chemical stockpiles and demilitarization facilities and to national capitals to meet with “all stakeholders—federal, state, and local.”
The draft text has attracted “almost a general consensus,” the OPCW ambassador said in the Sept. 23 interview. Whether the issue is resolved before the deadline depends on two factors, he said. One is whether “the delegation that is currently opposing the text”—a clear reference to Iran—is “interested in the content of the decision”; if so, “there is room for negotiation,” he said. On the other hand, if the country is seeking confrontation and trying to embarrass the United States, the parties will have to decide whether they want to accept a situation in which one party blocks a decision, he said.
By tradition, the OPCW operates by consensus, but it is not legally required to do so, the ambassador noted. When the organization broke from that tradition almost a decade ago over the ouster of Director-General José Bustani, it was “traumatic,” he said.
Walker said he thought Iran would be “quite isolated” if it sought to penalize Russia and the United States, as those two countries “have been working in very good faith.” In any case, he said, the issue is “a tempest in a teapot”; there is nothing the parties can do about the failure to meet the deadline, “which was arbitrary to begin with,” he said.
The OPCW ambassador, however, said that because of the chances for increased politicization and resulting damage to the regime, the timing of the decision is “almost as important as the content.”
The next Executive Council meeting is scheduled for Oct. 4-7 in The Hague. After that, the parties are to hold their annual conference Nov. 28-Dec. 2. Although the conference generally takes its cue from the council, the conference could come to a decision without council action, the ambassador said. Also, the council could convene an extraordinary meeting between its October session and the parties’ conference, he said.