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March 7, 2018
Syria Issue Roils CWC Review Conference

Daniel Horner and Oliver Meier

Differences over language addressing the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria sharply divided the recent review conference of states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), according to official statements at the conference and interviews with key participants and observers in recent weeks. Some diplomats, speaking on background, described the conference as being on the verge of failing to reach agreement on a final document over the differences on how to deal with that subject.

In spite of the disagreement on Syria and other issues, most notably on possible restrictions on chemical agents known as incapacitants, the conference participants praised the results of the April 8-19 meeting in The Hague. In a May 23 interview in Washington, Ahmet Üzümcü, the director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), called the meeting, which 122 of the treaty’s 188 parties attended, “very productive” and its final document a “very positive outcome.” The OPCW is the body charged with implementing the CWC.

In the final document, the parties “reiterated their deep concern” that chemical weapons may have been used in Syria and “underlined that the use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances would be reprehensible and completely contrary to the legal norms and standards of the international community.”

The parties also “expressed their support for the close cooperation” between the UN secretary-general and the director-general of the OPCW to investigate alleged instances of chemical weapons use.

Differing Views

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set the stage for conference discussions on the use of chemical weapons on Syria in his opening remarks April 8. Ban urged the international community to act and said that “the use of chemical weapons by any side under any circumstances would constitute an outrageous crime with dire consequences, and a crime against humanity.”

On March 21, in response to a request by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Ban announced he was launching a UN investigation on the alleged use of chemical weapons by rebels, but France and the United Kingdom asked him also to look into the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. (See ACT, April 2013.) Ban assembled a team of experts and inspectors from the OPCW and the World Health Organization to go to Syria to investigate the competing claims of chemical weapons use in that country.

But the team has not been able to enter Syria, as Ban and Assad have not agreed on the terms of the proposed investigation. Syria is one of eight states that is not a party to the CWC.

At the review conference, the opening statement of Russia, a main ally of Syria, made clear Moscow’s reservations about the UN probe and OPCW involvement. G.V. Kalamanov, deputy minister of industry and trade, said April 9 that Russia welcomed the investigation into alleged use of chemical weapons but wanted to limit it to the request by the Syrian government to examine just one instance of alleged chemical weapons use. Kalamanov warned that “the obscure manoeuvres” to broaden the scope of the investigation “are a cause for serious concern.”

China and Iran joined Russia in blocking stronger language in the final document, a U.S. official who attended the conference said in a May 21 interview. Other diplomatic participants and independent observers confirmed this account.

In his April 19 closing statement to the conference, Robert Mikulak, the U.S. permanent representative to the OPCW, decried the final document’s “vague language” on OPCW cooperation with Ban’s office as “clear evidence that we are heading in the wrong direction.” He said that some delegations were opposing language that they previously had found acceptable.

He was referring to the March 27 statement by Bhaswati Mukherjee of India, issued after a meeting of the OPCW Executive Council in The Hague. In the statement, Mukherjee, who chaired the council at the time, said that it “expressed its unequivocal support” for the UN investigation. The 41-member council is the OPCW’s main policymaking organ.

Üzümcü acknowledged that some parties “wanted to see more on Syria” but that others argued that “the political aspects have to be addressed rather in New York,” referring to the UN headquarters. He said the focus of the final document’s language on the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria and its “unequivocal rejection” of chemical weapons use should be welcomed.

Mikulak also highlighted the importance of that aspect of the document, but said that, overall, the language on Syria “is a faint whisper from a gathering of States Parties that should speak loudly and clearly when the world faces a real threat from chemical weapons.” Mary Whelan of Ireland, speaking for the 27 member states of the European Union, said the language on Syria “does not adequately capture the depth of concerns expressed by many delegations of all groups and regions in the plenary debate.”

In contrast, a Russian delegate to the conference called the language “well balanced and demonstrative of a common ground.” In a May 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today, he said it “sends the right message to the right people and avoids taking sides based on political preference.”

Standoff on Incapacitants

The conference also failed to find consensus on the use of incapacitants. Despite extensive discussions, the final document contained no new language clarifying the permissibility of the use in domestic law enforcement of these chemicals, which are developed for the purpose of incapacitating people without killing them. Several delegations, led by Switzerland, raised the issue in their opening statements. Switzerland had pushed consideration of the issue at the 2008 review conference. (See ACT, May 2008.) At this year’s review conference, there were extensive negotiations, primarily involving Russia, Switzerland, the United States, and a few other countries, but the talks failed to produce language on which participants could agree.

Perhaps the most notable use of incapacitants involved Russian police forces in 2002 ending a hostage crisis by pumping incapacitating gas into a Moscow theater where Chechen rebels held 850 hostages. More than 130 of the hostages and 40 attackers were killed during the raid, many of them by the effects of the gas.

The CWC permits riot control agents for “law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes.” The convention defines riot control agents as chemicals that can “produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.” The CWC has no corresponding definition for incapacitants, which is one reason that many CWC member states have sought clarification of the issue.

“The silence and uncertainty surrounding the use of toxic chemicals for law enforcement purposes other than riot control agents” may erode the CWC, argued Markus Börlin, the Swiss ambassador to the OPCW, in his opening statement to the review conference April 8.

Rose Gottemoeller, acting U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said in her opening statement that “concern has increased that illicit programs could possibly be concealed under the guise of a legitimate treaty purpose, such as law enforcement.”

A Swiss paper drafted for the conference suggested that a definition of incapacitants be included in the final report. Switzerland suggested that the review conference ask the Executive Council to “initiate discussions on what measures should be taken to increase transparency” among states-parties on incapacitants “for law enforcement purposes” and that the issues should then be discussed again at the end of 2013 at the CWC’s annual conference of states-parties.

According to several diplomatic sources, the proposal ran into opposition, particularly from Russia. The 2002 Moscow theater incident was “in the back of everyone’s mind,” the U.S. official who attended the conference said in the May 21 interview.

According to the diplomats’ accounts, Switzerland and Russia, with the involvement of several other delegations, tried to sort out their differences. The day before the end of the conference, participants agreed that the review conference should ask governmental experts to discuss the application of toxic chemicals, except riot control agents, for law enforcement purposes and deliver a consensus report on the issue to the Executive Council. According to several diplomats, Russia on the final day of the conference tried to broaden the focus of future deliberations by suggesting that the experts’ mandate should be expanded to discuss all chemicals that can cause temporary incapacitation through their action on life processes. Such a mandate would include riot control agents. The United States has consistently argued that the use of riot control agents is permissible under the CWC.

The new language by Russia differed “radically” from the earlier version, the U.S. official said. According to him and other diplomats who were present, the U.S. delegation requested guidance from Washington, which did not arrive before the end of the conference. As a result, the final document dropped the issue completely, which many delegations lamented in their final statements.

Several participants argued that the broad support at the review conference for further discussions means that incapacitants are now likely to be discussed in the policymaking organs of the OPCW. In the May 23 interview, Üzümcü conceded that the OPCW Technical Secretariat did not receive a mandate by the review conference to pursue the issue of incapacitants. But he said he expects states-parties such as Switzerland to “continue to raise this issue.”

In the May 28 e-mail, the Russian delegate said that “much will depend on addressing the problems of that one delegation which blocked the adoption of the language on incapacitants,” a reference to the United States.

Mikulak, speaking to the Executive Council on May 6, said “the United States believes that agreement on language [on incapacitants] is within reach.” He promised that the U.S. delegation would “work closely and intensively with the Swiss and other delegations so that this important discussion can continue.”

In her comments on behalf of the EU at the same meeting, Whelan said she regretted that, “in spite of widespread support,” there was no reference to incapacitating agents in the final document. She said that the EU “hopes that this matter can be taken up again soon.”

Stefan Mogl, head of the chemistry department at Spiez Laboratory in Switzerland and a member of Swiss delegation to the review conference, wrote in a May 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today that his country would continue its “efforts to support policy discussion as well as to develop verification methods for incapacitating chemical agents.”

Progress Seen

For years, diplomats at the OPCW, the organization’s staffers, and independent analysts have said they fear that as the destruction of declared chemical weapons stockpiles progresses, and the need for monitoring of weapons destruction therefore decreases as the remaining stockpiles shrink, the OPCW will lose expertise and manpower. Üzümcü referred to this issue in his opening remarks to the review conference, saying that a “sudden reduction of resources for any institution can rapidly erode its capacities, its expertise, its institutional memory, and indeed its ability to carry on the remaining tasks.”

But in the May 23 interview, he cited this area as one in which the final document demonstrated significant progress. According to the document, the parties “[s]tressed that the OPCW should remain the global repository of knowledge and expertise” on chemical weapons issues and asked the secretariat “to identify and implement ways of ensuring continuity in its knowledge base and expertise in these areas.”

Üzümcü said that one idea he wanted to explore is building a center to ensure that the OPCW retains its expertise on the destruction of chemical weapons and is able to provide this expertise when required. The center would include a library and expand the development of “e-learning tools” for use by CWC parties, he said.

Another positive development from the conference, the U.S. official said, is that the OPCW secretariat is preparing a matrix of follow-up activities for the upcoming Executive Council meeting in July. “It remains to be seen how effective the follow-up is,” but the postconference activities have “started on the right track,” he said.

He also said the process was “much better” than in previous review conferences, allowing broader participation among the parties and by nongovernmental organizations.