OPCW at the Crossroads: A Talk With the Chair-Designate of the Fifth Chemical Weapons Convention Review Conference

May 2023

This discussion with Henk Cor van der Kwast took place on March 21 and was hosted by the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition and the Arms Control Association in advance of the Fifth Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) Review Conference, scheduled for May 15–19. Paul Walker, coalition chair, asked questions and fielded those from the audience. This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

Henk Cor van der Kwast, shown here in 2021, is the chair-designate of the Fifth Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention, scheduled for May 15 at The Hague.  (Photo by Dean Calma / IAEA)Paul Walker: You've recently come from the 102nd CWC Executive Council meeting. It was quite lively and had some interesting statements by a couple dozen of the state-parties. There's also been the open-ended working group, headed by the Estonian ambassador, Lauri Kuusing, who has been active in considering what results we want out of the fifth review conference.

Henk Cor van der Kwast: I think it's very important to have these talks because the review conference will be difficult. I have no illusion on that, and I don't want to hide it. At the same time, it's quite important because the fourth review conference, in 2018, did not end with a result. So, I think that puts more pressure on us to have a result this time with which the [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] OPCW can act in the future and address its new tasks.

The OPCW is at a crossroads. We have had quite a number of good developments, and I am referring to the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpile in the United States later this year and to the new Centre for Chemistry and Technology, which gives us a lot of possibilities for further cooperation, for verification, but also in a wider international cooperation. Another thing is the addition of [central nervous system-acting] agents to the OPCW list. I'm also referring to the [OPCW] reports on [chemical weapons use by] Syria. I think the last one on Douma was quite an important one. It was an excellent report by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team. I'm also referring to chemical use cases in the United Kingdom, Malaysia, and the Russian Federation, where Novichok was used. It's important to address those cases and give follow-up to that.

The last point I want to mention from the international framework is the current situation we have in the UN Security Council. What we see is that the Security Council is paralyzed because of one member using its veto more than ever. I've forgotten how many times, but it's quite a number. It's not serious dealing with international politics. At the same time, we've seen that Russia is trying to use the United Nations as a podium for other things. We will have a presentation this week on the abduction of children, whereby the Russians want to give what they call their side of the coin, and they use the UN for that. Having said that, I think it is at the same time fairly important not to have this as a sort of anti-Russian discussion, but to have the central question be, How can we strengthen the OPCW with the new challenges? What I see as most important is that there is a balance between verification on the one hand and international cooperation on the other hand.

The CWC, after all, is an arms control organization, and that should be the starting point. We should see how we can help other states by implementing the convention in the first place, protecting their borders, and protecting them against possible threats of chemical weapons. There are also good developments in that field. The issue of chemical weapons and terrorism, which was shared by the ambassador of South Africa, is a very good example where we have initiative from one group, which is really helping the organization further.

With regard to the presence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the review conference, we are still in discussion with the OPCW Technical Secretariat about how we can enlarge the possibilities for having NGO presentations. It's always a little bit difficult to get the OPCW from the pattern they have used over the last four and a half years to a more open pattern because for the right reasons, they're fairly careful, which is good. But we insist that it's very important to have a good and open exchange.

Walker: Terrorism and terrorist use of chemical weapons has been a big topic of discussion. It’s obviously related to the Russian assassination attempts in 2018 and 2020 and to the innumerable alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria by the Syrians, but also by ISIS. Will there be any specific resolution proposed at the review conference, perhaps strengthening national implementation or looking more closely at trade and precursor chemicals or other issues, to try to limit the availability of toxic chemicals to national and subnational groups?

Van der Kwast: Yes. There’s a bit of drive, as it was explained to me by several members of the African group, particularly because of ISIS, [which] is very active in northern Africa. There is a serious fear that that might be something that could be used. The other thing is protection. For us, the most important thing is implementation of the convention. Training programs can help, but most important is things like border control. How can we help you to do that? How can we exchange information as different states? Having read the report by the committee on terrorism, I think there are a number of good recommendations, which we can work on. I think it's also important because the report comes from the African group, which is very active at the moment in the OPCW. It's important to continue that engagement. It would be important to have a number of recommendations included in the review conference conclusions.

Walker: Is the goal of the conference to have a final consensus document and an actual vote on a final report or just a chairman's report?

Van der Kwast: That's the central question. My intention is to see how much we can do, and I will do the utmost to have a consensus report, because if you have a consensus report, the effect is the best. Having said that, it's important to realize that if we would have a very meager consensus report—for instance, if there would not be a fairly clear reference to Syria—I mean, what's the value of such a report? So, it is for member states to decide that. As most of you will know, there has been a [preparatory study] on the different possible outcomes of the CWC review conference. I thought that was a good report, and I welcomed it very much because it gave the different options. There are a number of states who say, “Well, there is only one option, and that's the consensus report.” I think there are indeed different possibilities, but we have to concentrate absolutely on a consensus report first and to see how far we get.

I am, for the moment at least, somewhat hopeful. What we have seen so far is, thanks to Ambassador Kuusing, who has done a marvelous job, very transparent, a lot of consultations with all groups sitting down, trying to incorporate as much as he could from the different groups. So, what we have on the table now as a report from the open-ended working group is quite good, but the job is not finished. We will still have some creative talks, and we'll have to see how that is balanced.

Walker: Will the size, quality, and capability of the inspectorate be raised? This is a concern as the end of the declared chemical weapons stockpile destruction winds down. The inspectorate, which used to be over 200 inspectors, now is down to 100 or so. Going forward, we need a strong and capable inspectorate that can surge quickly for challenge inspections and the like. Has that issue been raised?

Van der Kwast: Yes, that has been raised by different countries, as well as by the secretariat. As you say, there's a serious shortage, and it will only get worse. That is also related to the fact that there is a tenure policy of seven years, which often in practice means that if somebody is here for five or six years, they start looking around and if they get a good offer, they disappear to somewhere else. Particularly for inspectors, it's quite important because it takes time to train them. So, one of the things is to see whether we could have a more flexible tenure policy for inspectors, because it's so fundamental.

The other issue related to that is geographical distribution. That's a question that is brought up particularly by the Latin American group. They want to see something there also in the review conference. We have already discussed this in the open-ended working group. We will continue to do so and see if we can find certain solutions for that. We should get more people from those regions, but we should maintain quality because merit is fundamental for people in the OPCW.

Walker: If the review conference does not generate a consensus strategic outcome document, there will not be another opportunity until 2028, leaving potentially a gap of 14 years without a strong strategic document. That is an important point to make with regard to finding consensus at the end of the meeting.

Van der Kwast: I share that absolutely.

Walker: When chemical weapons use is alleged, the CWC is reliant on states-parties to request an investigation or clarification. There is no route available for an alleged use to be addressed if states-parties do not raise the issue directly. Will there be any consideration given at the review conference to finding a means for such issues to be discussed formally and even actions taken by the OPCW Technical Secretariat.

Van der Kwast: It's a very good point. This was raised in relation to the cases in Iran, where the schoolgirls were poisoned and there was also, according to the authorities, a clear link with chemical gases. It was discussed by different states-parties, but obviously, it's very difficult if Iran, one, is not going to do it itself or put the question on the table and, two, is not willing to work together with the OPCW. There have been a number of declarations by different states on this, but it is a sensitive issue. I haven't heard from states who want to bring this up, but I wouldn't be surprised if anybody does because it is an important point.

Walker: To make the new Chemical Technical Center successful, a long-term, stable central budget will be required. To build the center, we relied on 35 to 40 million euros in voluntary donations. As part of a stable budget, states-parties will need to agree on the activities the new center will conduct. How are those conversations going?

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) considers its new chemical technical center, set to open this month in The Hague, as a pathbreaking opportunity to expand training, verification activities and international cooperation in its mission to eradicate chemical weapons. (Photo courtesy of OPCW)Van der Kwast: We absolutely agree that they should not come primarily from voluntary donations but rather mainly from the central budget. At the same time, that might be difficult. I think the good thing is that we have the ChemTech Center, and it has been paid for completely by donations from different states.… [S]tates have given opportunities for the organization to work it out, and I think that's the right order because then you cannot see a situation whereby states that have donated more would direct the direction of activities of the center. That's a good starting point.

But it's important to have a good budget. There we see two developments. First, the intention by many member states, and the organization as well, to have training in the center. There is broad understanding that it is of great value for the organization, for the implementation of the convention, but also for further developing possibilities for states to deal with threats and to follow up on what their chemical industry is doing.

The last point is also important because we see a development over the last 10 to 15 years whereby more factories that are producing chemicals are moving to developing countries, sometimes with disastrous results. It's important that we will have inspections there as well and follow-up and also that the states will be in a position to control that and oversee that. The center also can have a role in educating groups from different countries, and that could help on geographical representation. If we would have special trainings for certain regions, that could help enormously. We'll have to see how the budget develops. For the moment, there is a clear will to see how we can use the center as much as possible.

Walker: The American Thoracic Society has great concerns about the rise in the use of riot control agents worldwide and the limited knowledge about their health effects. The OPCW Scientific Advisory Board has defined conditions for the safe use of riot control agents and recommended to remove certain agents from the not-controlled list. Are you aware of any efforts by states-parties and the review conference to revisit riot control agents as a category, implement the science board recommendations, or investigate the use and toxicity?

Van der Kwast: I agree that it's an issue that deserves more attention. It has been mentioned to me by one or two countries, but not as a quite important issue. I would definitely encourage nongovernmental organizations to see how we could make a point that this is on the agenda as well, because it's absolutely an issue.

Walker: There have been repeated delays in the U.S. chemical weapons destruction program, along with every other country, particularly Russia. The U.S. program, scheduled to be finished in 1994, is now looking at 2023. Are you confident that it will meet the September deadline? If they don't make it, the concern is that there could be political fallout during the review conference, particularly as part of national statements.

Van der Kwast: I think you're absolutely right. I have to say personally also, having been involved before when I was head of the Department for Nonproliferation on this, in 2008-09 we were told that it was rapidly progressing and there was a lot of progress that has not materialized. So, it's important that it happen this time. Otherwise, it will be very bad for the review conference, for the reputation of the United States as the main upholder of this treaty. On the other hand, I have positive signs. We've had presentations regularly by people from the defense ministry, including last week, and that presentation looked very good. But as we all know, you can make presentations, and Americans are particularly good at that, look very good without the results.