Strengthening the Chemical Weapons Convention: An Interview with Joseph Manso, U.S. Ambassador to the OPCW

April 2023

Joseph Manso, U. S. ambassador to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, says that “a violator of the norm against chemical weapons [such as Syria] will not be treated as a normal country.” (Photo: OPCW)Delegates to the fifth review conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) will convene in The Hague on May 15 with two markers on their scoresheet. One is positive: the United States is on track to complete the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile in September, in line with its CWC obligations. The other is ominous: two CWC states are known violators of the 26-year-old convention, which outlaws the development, production, and use of deadly chemical weapons and requires the verifiable destruction of remaining stockpiles. As the convention’s implementing body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), recently confirmed that Syria has used chemical weapons five times against its own civilians. U.S. and European officials have accused Russia of using a chemical agent in its attempted assassinations of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and of Sergei Skirpal, a former Russian military intelligence office, and his daughter, Yulia, in the United Kingdom. Political leaders, academics, and civil society groups have many ideas how the CWC can be strengthened, including enhancing OPCW forensic capabilities, adding more chemicals to the CWC ban list, and reframing the CWC mission to expand the use of challenge inspections. Yet, the review conference takes place under the same tough conditions plaguing many international meetings in the past year. Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine has upended the international system, intensifying hostilities and mistrust among leading nations and making it more difficult to deal with security challenges. Carol Giacomo, editor of Arms Control Today, spoke with Joseph Manso, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, about expectations for the review conference. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

ARMS CONTROL TODAY: What do you think have been the major successes of the CWC over the
past three decades?

U.S. Ambassador Joseph Manso: I think it is a tremendous success. The United States really values both the CWC and the OPCW. Among the successes would be, first of all, the now-almost-completed destruction of declared chemical weapons stockpiles. I am emphasizing declared stockpiles, and this is, I think for the first time, the elimination of a whole category of weapons of mass destruction. It’s an impressive achievement and has strongly reinforced the norm against chemical weapons use, and I think that’s tremendously important. Even today, only a very small number of countries challenge that norm, and they don’t do so openly. The Assad regime [in Syria] does not admit to using chemical weapons. The Russian Federation, even when Navalny was poisoned or the Skripals were poisoned, does not admit to using chemical weapons because they know that the norm against chemical weapons use is so strong that if they admitted to it, they would really have no sympathy in the international community. So, I would say destruction of a whole class of weapons of mass destruction and reinforcement of the norm against chemical weapons use are two very significant achievements.

Then there is the work of the [OPCW] Technical Secretariat in international cooperation and assistance, which is important [and] ongoing, and we hope to see it further strengthened. Part of what will strengthen it is the new Center for Chemistry and Technology that’s coming online. The center has a lab, much expanded from what the OPCW has now. It also has classrooms for training and cooperation, conference spaces for meetings, and an equipment storage area that allows for hands-on training with very sophisticated equipment to detect and analyze various chemical weapons and compounds. The bottom line is, I think the OPCW has done a lot of good work.

ACT: When does that center become operational?

Manso: The 12th of May is the official opening, but the Technical Secretariat is in the process of moving into the facility now.

ACT: The OPCW determined that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against the opposition in Syria. There has been public shaming, but no real price paid for that. How does that serve deterrence? It certainly isn’t deterring Assad.

Manso: That’s a fair question. I would say there are a couple of points to it. First, before the OPCW did this investigating allegations of chemical weapons use alone, it had a joint team with the United Nations, the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which attributed four chemical weapons attacks in Syria to the Assad regime. The Russians decided they were not happy with this and vetoed the extension of the JIM. They used their veto three times in one day to prevent any extension of the JIM. So then, the OPCW created the Investigation and Identification Team, which has now attributed five chemical weapons attacks, through rigorous scientific methods and analyzing the evidence, to the Assad regime. This is a tremendous advance over what the OPCW could do previously, when its teams were authorized to say whether or not chemical weapons were used, but they were not authorized or mandated to attribute the attacks to any particular party. So, it is a step in the right direction and some added teeth for the OPCW because the organization can investigate and say chemical weapons were used or not and can attribute it to a particular party.

Last August, people in Idlib, Syria, staged a demonstration against the Assad regime for its chemical weapons attack on Eastern Ghouta in 2013. Thousands of women and children were affected by the poisonous agents used in the attack.  (Photo by Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)The other thing is that the OPCW is a treaty-based international organization. It is a political organization, not a court of law or a military alliance. It is not fair to expect them to do things that legitimately fall in the domain of other types of institutions. What the OPCW can do, and I would agree with you that deterrence is important, is the OPCW can extract a political price for using chemical weapons. A violator of the norm against the use of chemical weapons will not be treated as a normal country. People will know that you are not a normal country, that you used chemical weapons. In fact, at an OPCW Conference of the States Parties meeting in 2021, it was determined that Syria would be stripped of certain rights and privileges at the OPCW, such as the right to vote and the right to hold office until it fulfills its obligations. Now you might say, well, President [Bashar] Assad probably isn’t up at night worrying about whether or not he has an OPCW vote or Syria holds an office at the OPCW. But there is a broader strategy here, and the broader strategy is to isolate the Syrian regime, delegitimize them, and not have them treated as a normal country.

This OPCW action is not an isolated incident. It is part of this broader policy of not treating the Assad regime as a normal country and reinforcing other tools so there is a political price to pay. Having said that, there’s also a conversation, and I’m not the right guy to go into detail on this, on judicial pathways for attributing judicial responsibility for chemical weapons use. That’s what courts could do. One person to talk to about this would be, for example, Beth Van Schaack, who is the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice. There are criminal cases that have been brought against the Assad regime by officials in Germany and France, and now there is an ongoing discussion of whether there should be an international attempt to hold them judicially responsible.

ACT: Is that something that the United States is planning to participate in, to lead?

Manso: Well, not me personally because I’m the U.S. representative to the OPCW and the OPCW is not a judicial body. But if you ask, is the United States interested in this, the answer is yes, and we’re very interested in participating in these conversations on judicial responsibility for chemical weapons use and seeing how this could be designed and carried out. But we’re in the early days on this.

ACT: You said the norm against chemical weapons has been strengthened. But Russia is a major impediment. It has been accused of using chemical weapons itself and is creating havoc in Ukraine. The Russians are aligned with Assad and don’t hold him to account. What do you do about that?

Russia is blamed for the near fatal poisoning of the now-imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, seen inside a glass cell during a district court hearing in Moscow in 2021. Russia and Syria are the only two states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention that are accused of using chemical weapons. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)Manso: I would say that Russia is not in compliance with its obligations under the CWC, and I would very much agree that the evidence points to Russia having used a chemical agent in its attempted assassination of Navalny and also for the acts [against the Skripals] on UK soil. But I have two other points. One, it is only a very small number of countries that are willing to use chemical weapons. You have Syria and Russia. North Korea probably was also involved in an incident, but they’re not a member to the CWC. So, of the countries in the CWC that have used chemical weapons, it’s essentially Russia and Syria. As I said, they deny it. So, they feel the need to try to cover their tracks; Bellingcat has done a great job of uncovering those tracks.

I’m very glad the Navalny film won the Oscar, and I hope Navalny is released from his unjust imprisonment. But at the end of the day, on the enforcement of regimes, you strive for perfection, you don’t always get it. Most countries abide by the CWC. There are a very small number of bad actors, and we need to focus on that. You don’t cover it up, but also don’t ignore the fact that most countries are in fact playing by the rules.

ACT: As we look toward this review conference in May, apart from Russia and Ukraine, what other challenges do you see, and what are you expecting to come out of it?

Manso: The review conference is also an opportunity. The future holds different challenges than the past. Destruction of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile should be completed by September. The new Center for Chemistry and Technology is coming online, as I said, in May. So, we have an opportunity to strengthen the OPCW and make it fit for purpose for the future.

We’d like the verification regime and international cooperation and assistance programs enhanced. We would like to see further work on dealing with the threat of nonstate actors or terrorists using chemical weapons. We would very much like to see continued scientific work and improved capacity for addressing the threats from new and novel types of toxic chemicals. All of these are opportunities to make this organization fit for the future. So, the U.S. policy is, we value the CWC, we value the OPCW. Based on that policy, we’re very much looking to have a positive forward-looking agenda as part of the review conference.

What always happens in diplomacy is that getting consensus on a final conference document among all the CWC states-parties is going to be difficult. As in other arms control forums over the past year, sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t, and my crystal ball is no better than anybody else’s. If you ask me, will the review conference succeed, the answer is, we’re committed to doing our part to make it a success. We’d certainly like to see a consensus document, which I think most participating countries would like to see. Let’s stay flexible and work for success.

ACT: On verification measures, what would you consider success coming out of this review conference?

Manso: There are a lot of different angles on verification, so part of it would be the OPCW retaining the knowledge that they have gathered from these various investigations that they’ve done and combining that with the new lab where they’d be able to do things like chemical forensics.

It is also about making the industry verification regime more efficient and updating the approach there. We could explore the challenges in the industry cluster and see what is needed in terms of improvements. The idea would be that better verification helps build confidence in the treaty. From the U.S. point of view and the point of view of many other countries, while you want to do verification more efficiently and you want to do it well, you don’t want to do it in a way that creates an undue burden on industry.

ACT: Is improved verification a priority among the things you’d like to see come out of the review conference?

Manso: It’s one of the priorities. The overarching priority is full implementation of the treaty. That means we do better on verification, and it also means we do better on areas like international cooperation and assistance.

ACT: Of the eight CWC states-parties that have declared that they possess chemical weapons, the United States was the first to begin destruction of its stockpile under the treaty but is now scheduled to be the last one to complete the process. What has been the holdup?

Manso: If you’re going to deal with these issues, you’re going to deal with local governments, with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), with the U.S. Congress, with environmental concerns. It’s a complicated process. Not that we can’t do it, not that we haven’t been doing it, not that we aren’t going to finish in September; but if you ask me why it took us such a long time, one, we did have a large stockpile; and two, we had to work it through our system. Our system is not the fastest system in the world, but it does provide for stakeholders to express their views and be satisfied.

If you go to Bluegrass, Kentucky, or Pueblo, Colorado [where the last U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles are based], the local communities are very well informed of what’s going on in those destruction sites. They are very well aware of the environmental safeguards that have been taken. I was very pleasantly surprised at the level of local support for those efforts. That didn’t happen overnight or easily, and with the congressional history of this, even just moving those chemicals around to get them to certain destruction sites was a controversial thing because who wants a trainload of chemical weapons passing through their community? These were the kinds of environmental and political issues you would expect in a project of this type. Not only is the United States committed to the destruction of our own stockpile, but we have given substantial funding and expertise to help other countries destroy their stockpiles, including the Russian Federation.

ACT: Are you confident the September deadline is firm?

Manso: Yes, we are. There are two sides to the deadline. We agreed to a compromise at the OPCW, in which September was the deadline. But my understanding, and again the experts on this are over at [the U.S. Department of Defense], and what they tell me is we’re on track. In fact, we have destroyed more than 99 percent of the U.S. stockpile.

ACT: There are still four countries outside the CWC: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan. Can you bring them into the fold?

Manso: The United States is committed to universality, so we’d like to see everybody in. I do think it’s different for each country. South Sudan is working with a number of other participating states on developing its national legislation. My impression is that this is a capacity issue. It’s a new country, it’s a new government. I don’t think they have a political problem with acceding to the CWC, but they want to develop the capability so they’re able to say they can fulfill their obligations. South Sudan’s accession is a work in progress; I would not call it a problem.

North Korea, that is a problem. They’re not inclined to join. They probably have a very big stockpile, and it’s part of a much bigger problem that goes beyond just the OPCW. I think what we can do in partnership with the OPCW Technical Secretariat is stay ready so that when the U.S. stockpile destruction is over, the OPCW maintains the expertise to verify destruction so that they could help the North Koreans, should that ever come to pass.

That leaves us with Egypt and Israel. I think there the likely scenario would be that they both decide to join the CWC at the same time. Given the larger dynamics of the politics in the Middle East, that’s a tough one. But that’s the broad expectation, that when the politics are ripe, we could get both of them in. We would be happy to work with our Egyptian and Israeli friends on this.

ACT: You’ve been very supportive of the involvement of NGOs in the CWC and the OPCW, although some states-parties have put up roadblocks. What would it take for the CWC and the OPCW to become more inclusive of civil society?

Manso: Not just the United States. There are many countries that are very supportive of including NGOs. One thing we did at the last conference of the states-parties was, together with Canada, Norway, Germany, and the European Union, organize a series of events outside of the conference hall. We were able to invite those NGOs that had been blocked and also the NGOs that were in the hall, so the NGOs could talk with each other through organized programs. I certainly think that more could be done along those lines, and maybe we could have—these are just ideas—a one-day meeting with NGOs and civil society before important OPCW meetings. As long as you don’t have it on the premises of the conference, NGOs could participate, and nobody could block them. Under the current OPCW guidelines, and it’s going to be hard to change them because of the nature of international organizations, there is the possibility to block NGOs from participating in the [conference] hallway, but you can’t block them from showing up in The Hague and interacting with delegations.

Then maybe we can incrementally modify and improve the guidelines so it gets a little bit harder to block NGOs. A lot of organizations have this problem. It’s not unique to the OPCW, but there is a group of delegations that are committed to immediate relief, by doing events for NGOs connected to the meetings but not in the meeting hall so they can’t be blocked. They are also committed to incremental improvements in the guidelines so that we can better interact with NGOs. It should be one of the topics at the review conference: how do we improve our connection to civil society. NGOs are part of civil society, but that could also include academics and industry representatives. I mean we should be able to have fluid interaction with civil society.

ACT: Have you set up those kinds of side meetings for the May review conference?

Manso: We’re talking about them right now, and I would think that we’ll get serious about planning them right after the Executive Council session, which is on March 14–17. The only thing I’d add is that this administration is very committed to arms control. The United States wants to maintain a leadership position in arms control. We want to see it advance, even understanding that the overall geopolitical framework is not always the easiest. But we remain committed to arms control in general and the OPCW specifically. The whole idea of using the review conference to strengthen the OPCW, enhance its capabilities, enhance the norm against chemical weapons use, all of that is part of the broader policy.

ACT: As we discussed, Russia is a problem, but does China work with you?

Manso: I will say China does sometimes support the Russians. Depends on the issue, but not every time. We can certainly talk to our Chinese colleagues, absolutely.