OPCW Moves to Update Banned Chemicals List

March 2019
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

Reacting to the use of a lethal nerve agent in the United Kingdom in March 2018, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) agreed on Jan. 14 to expand the list of banned chemicals defined by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It was the first time a change to the treaty’s Schedule 1 list of the most dangerous chemicals has been approved since the 193-nation pact prohibiting chemical weapons entered into force in 1997.

The change followed a chemical attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom in March 2018, and the OPCW’s subsequent confirmation that the chemical was a type of Novichok, a family of nerve agents. The United States and many other nations have accused Russia’s GRU intelligence agency of conducting the attack. (See ACT, April 2018.)

Novichok-related chemicals were not listed in the treaty’s Schedule 1, although the pact bans the use of any toxic chemical as a weapon, even if it is not included on that list.

Adding Novichok chemicals to Schedule 1 will strengthen the treaty by subjecting those chemicals to declaration and verification under the treaty, Canadian Ambassador to the Netherlands Sabine Nolke said on Jan. 14. The Russian mission to the Netherlands denounced the proposal as politically motivated.

Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States first proposed adding the chemicals to the treaty’s list in October 2018, and the 41-member OPCW Executive Council approved the proposal by consensus in January despite Russia’s reported disassociation with the decision. The treaty allows any party to object to the change within 90 days, and such an objection would lead to a vote by all treaty parties. If there is no objection, the change will enter into force 180 days following the January decision.

Russia submitted a proposal in late November to add five chemicals to the Schedule 1 list, but the council rejected the proposed change on Feb. 25. The OPCW Technical Secretariat determined that four of the five chemicals met its guidelines, but that the fifth may not. Russia refused to remove the fifth chemical from its proposal, according to Sumita Dixit, Canada’s deputy permanent representative to the OPCW. The Russian Embassy in the Netherlands blamed the rejection of its proposal on “politicized causes” in a Feb. 26 press briefing. Nolke tweeted the same day that Russia wanted to distract from the use of Novichok.

EU Sanctions

In the meantime, the European Union and the United States have taken their own steps to penalize the perpetrators of the UK chemical weapons attack.

On Jan. 21, the European Council imposed sanctions on the Russian agents allegedly responsible for the Novichok attack, as well as on the leader of the GRU.

On a separate chemical weapons matter, the council also sanctioned a Syrian research center and five individuals involved in Syrian chemical weapons use. The new sanctions bar travel to the European Union and freeze assets, and EU persons and entities are prohibited from doing business with the sanctioned targets.

“This sends a clear message that the world condemns chemical weapons use wherever it occurs,” said UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt the day the sanctions were announced.

The sanctions are the first taken under a new regime adopted by the European Council in October 2018, intending to penalize those nations involved with the development or use of chemical weapons regardless of nationality or location. (See ACT, November 2018.)

In December 2018, under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, the United States added the two GRU agents allegedly responsible for carrying out the Novichok attack to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list, blocking their assets and generally prohibiting U.S. persons from conducting financial transactions with them.

Last August, the United States banned national security-related exports to Russia under the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act. (See ACT, September 2018.) The law stipulates that the United States must impose a still harsher second round of sanctions on Russia because U.S. President Donald Trump did not certify to Congress in November that Russia provided reliable assurances that it is no longer using chemical weapons.