Fernando Arias, the new director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, discusses the challenges to the international chemical weapons ban and how the OPCW is responding.
Spanish diplomat Fernando Arias took office July 25 as the fourth director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), stepping into the leadership post at a time when the prohibition regime and international norms are being undermined by Syria’s open use of chemical weapons and by assassination plots using banned toxins blamed on Russia and North Korea.
In response to questions last month from Arms Control Today’s Alicia Sanders-Zakre, Arias discussed the challenges facing the OPCW, the actions underway to document violators of the chemical weapons ban more fully, and the measures he is employing to improve the transparency and responsiveness of the 193-member-state organization that is the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
The war in Syria has put the issue of attribution in the spotlight, particularly in instances where member-state Russia, Syria’s ally, has used its UN Security Council veto to thwart investigations. The independent OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) has determined that chemical weapons were used by Syria and the Islamic State group.
With new authority granted by CWC member-states, Arias said he is putting in place arrangements for the purpose of identifying entities responsible for chemical weapons use. A special office for attribution will consist of a head of investigations and a few investigators and analysts who will be supported by existing Technical Secretariat expertise and structures. “Those responsible [for chemical weapons attacks] should now have nowhere to hide and should be held accountable by the international community for breaking the global norm against chemical weapons,” Arias said.
Arias is a career diplomat who served as Spain’s UN ambassador from 2012 to 2013. Before becoming director-general, he served as Spain’s ambassador to the Netherlands and permanent representative to the OPCW from 2014 to 2018.
Congratulations on your election. What is your top goal as director-general?
I am committed to working with our member-states to protect, defend, and uphold the CWC. This means implementing the mandate given to the organization by the convention, as well as the decisions adopted by the executive council and the plenary body, the Conference of the States-Parties. I will also respect and develop the important work undertaken by my predecessors and their teams.
The OPCW is charged with verifiably eliminating chemical weapons, preventing their re-emergence, and promoting chemistry for economic and technological development. I am especially interested in shaping a balanced organization that ensures a stringent verification regime and offers cooperation and assistance in the very wide field of peaceful uses of chemistry, while addressing the growing threat of re-emergence of chemical weapons use.
Our organization has a track record of measurable results, and we will build on it. For instance, more than 96 percent of declared stockpiles have been eliminated. But there is ongoing work to verify the destruction of old chemical weapons that are a legacy of World War I and World War II and abandoned chemical weapons in China. Moving forward, we will have to evolve to meet the increasing needs of our member-states and the expectations of the international community. Doing so means good management of the organization and introducing the reforms necessary for keeping the OPCW fit for purpose and ready to face any new challenges.
What are currently the greatest threats to the CWC regime?
The main threat to the convention is the re-emergence of chemical weapons, which is no longer theoretical but rather a tragic reality. Despite the global ban, we have witnessed their ongoing use. What worries me is the proven willingness of governments, terrorists, and criminals to use chemicals as weapons indiscriminately. Chemical weapons belong in a history book, not on the front page of newspapers.
The OPCW has almost fulfilled its foundational goal, the destruction of the world’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles. As mentioned, more than 96 percent of these stockpiles have been destroyed under the OPCW’s watchful eye. Although the remaining work is on track for completion by 2023, four more countries [Egypt, Israel (a signatory), North Korea, and South Sudan] need to join the convention before the world can have confidence that all chemical weapons stockpiles have been accounted for.
As the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, our mission to verifiably destroy declared stockpiles has a conceivable end point. But our mission to prevent the re-emergence of chemical weapons requires constant vigilance in perpetuity. As we move into the postdestruction phase, our mission will be far from complete. In fact, it will only grow in significance and complexity.
Destroying chemical weapons is a relatively straightforward exercise; preventing their re-emergence is much more complex. Science and technology are constantly evolving, introducing new potential for misuse. The OPCW’s experience and expertise makes it the undisputed global authority on chemical weapons. In response to an evolving security landscape, OPCW member-states and the Technical Secretariat have become increasingly agile and resilient as we respond to threats. Even so, we must continually adapt and grow to contribute to global security.
This is especially crucial in an era of increasing competition for resources. Securing the resources the OPCW needs to uphold the global ban on chemical weapons requires the continued engagement of our member-states.
Are you concerned about the erosion of the norm against chemical weapons use due to repeated chemical attacks by Syria, a CWC state-party? If so, how will you address this problem?
Of course, I am concerned about any erosion of the norm. Any use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, and for any reason is unacceptable.
Chemical weapons use in Syria has been confirmed by both the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission and the JIM. These findings and recommendations represent an opportunity to uphold the prohibition against chemical weapons and to ensure accountability for those who violate it. This prohibition is unequivocal. All are bound to never, under any circumstances, develop, produce, stockpile, transfer, or use chemical weapons.
Since April 2014, the OPCW has been investigating allegations of the use of toxic chemicals as weapons in Syria. Our technical teams of impartial, experienced, and expert chemists and inspectors seek to establish the facts. The facts confirm the use of chemical weapons, including sarin, chlorine, and sulfur mustard.
The OPCW is making use of all of the legal tools at its disposal to clarify and resolve the remaining gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies with the Syrian declaration [of its stockpiles]. This will continue to take an investment of time and effort, and we are working with the Syrian authorities to ensure the convention’s rules are implemented. The nations that have committed themselves to the convention also have to take steps to protect the global prohibition enshrined within it.
What challenges remain for completing the destruction of all declared chemical weapons?
Verifiably destroying most of the world’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles has been an unparalleled achievement of the CWC. This treaty has so far proven to be the most successful at eliminating an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. However, the convention has yet to achieve universal membership. Until we reach it, we cannot know with confidence what other stockpiles of weapons may exist. I encourage the four remaining countries to join with the rest of the world and take up the responsibilities of the convention.
The United States, which has the last remaining declared chemical weapons stockpile, is scheduled to complete its destruction by 2023. How will the OPCW’s role change once all declared chemical weapons stockpiles have been destroyed?
The OPCW has always had a multifaceted mission. When people think of the OPCW, destruction of chemical weapons most likely comes to mind. This is true, but it is not our sole mission. We also aim to prevent the re-emergence of chemical weapons by working with governments, industry, and other international organizations. We have been working with our member-states to provide assistance and protection against chemical threats. In parallel, we strive to foster international cooperation to strengthen implementation of the convention and to promote the peaceful uses of chemistry.
When all declared stockpiles have been verifiably eliminated, the OPCW will still be actively pursuing these goals. The organization needs to retain the knowledge, expertise, and equipment to support any future destruction activities. This may come about with the OPCW gaining new members. The same goes with addressing the threat of chemical weapons use. We need to maintain and broaden the expertise we have gained across the years if we want to be successful in fulfilling this mission.
Eliminating chemical weapons in a way that is safe and secure and protects the environment, as mandated by the convention, is very expensive and very complex. Even once all declared stockpiles are destroyed, concerns will remain about the management and trade of chemicals. As long as there are those with malicious intent, the OPCW will continue its work with national authorities and the United Nations and other international organizations to reduce the risk of the diversion of chemicals in the fight against the harmful misuse of chemicals by anyone, anywhere, and under any circumstances.
Will you increase transparency and civil society engagement, as the past two directors-general have done?
Of course. Civil society has been a champion of the convention from even before its inception. The community of researchers, scientists, and nongovernmental organizations is essential for raising awareness of chemical weapons issues and keeping us all accountable. Over the last few years, there has been an emphasis on the role of education and outreach. I want to see this continue. The next generation of chemistry practitioners and decision-makers will play a critical role in ensuring that the global ban on chemical weapons remains strong.
I will continue to encourage civil society to engage with the OPCW and its member-states. Since the last review conference, in 2013, we are projected to more than double civil society participation for this upcoming review conference, in November. As our organization focuses more and more on preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons, we understand that achieving that goal will require the engagement of a much broader cross-section of society than before.
Transparency is important for organizations to thrive. For instance, one step I have already taken is to ensure senior leadership positions are recruited through a more open and transparent process. For the first time, recently we have publicly advertised director-level vacancies in an effort to find the best and brightest for these critical roles. As the organization faces new challenges, we need strong leadership and a good, independent, and professional team.
Another key to improved transparency is access to information. The OPCW has a new website that communicates with authority and trust while making information easy to find and use. This is part of an effort, initiated by my predecessor, to make the OPCW more engaging and accountable. This new website is a core part of our effort to use digital platforms such as social media to reach people all over the world.
Before leaving office, your predecessor, Ahmet Üzümcü, called the OPCW’s former lack of attribution power a “major gap.” What should be the role of the OPCW in assigning blame for chemical weapons attacks?
The international community has long placed its trust in the OPCW to rid the world of chemical weapons. Determining that a chemical weapon has been used is an essential step, but it is not enough. As of this past June and through the decision adopted by the Conference of States-Parties, the OPCW has been tasked with the mission to identify the perpetrators. So far, we have been detectives who could only say if a crime has happened; now we can identify who did it. But it is up to a court or others to determine the consequences. Attribution is not accountability.
Those responsible should now have nowhere to hide and should be held accountable by the international community for breaking the global norm against chemical weapons. Achieving justice involves a wider range of international institutions and mechanisms, but the OPCW will do its part in the process. Attribution will be our contribution.
How will you advance the recent decision in late June to give the OPCW the mandate to assign blame for chemical weapons attacks in Syria?
To clarify, the decision adopted by the Conference of States-Parties addresses the threat of chemical weapons use. It is not only about Syria. Instead, the decision lays out several avenues for OPCW action to address the use of chemical weapons.
For instance, the OPCW has been tasked for the first time to investigate uses of chemical weapons for the purposes of attribution. We will take on this task in instances where the Fact-Finding Mission has determined chemical weapons were used or likely used in Syria. We would also do this if a member-state investigating possible chemical weapons use on its territory asks us for assistance.
The OPCW will help with efforts to pursue justice by preserving and providing information to relevant UN investigatory entities. We have been asked to further assist our member-states in preventing chemical terrorism while helping them develop protection against a potential attack. Finally, per the request of the Conference of States-Parties, we will propose measures to strengthen the verification regime. I am confident that all of these measures, once identified and implemented, will help to make our world a safer place.
I have set up a task force that has been working swiftly and intensively to implement the decision. The task force has consulted with relevant international organizations and structures that deal with attribution issues. The Technical Secretariat currently has the capability to support this new mission, but we need additional and complementary expertise and skills in investigations, forensics, and related analysis. The task force has assessed the human, financial, and technological resources and organizational structures needed.
Taking on this new mission successfully requires adequate resourcing. I have faith that our member-states will grant the OPCW the means it needs to fulfill the mission they have given us.
In terms of chemical weapons use in Syria, we are creating a new office responsible for attribution that will report directly to me. This special office for attribution will consist of a head of investigations and a few investigators and analysts who will be supported by existing Technical Secretariat expertise and structures. As attribution can serve to deter the use of chemical weapons, this is one way that we are implementing our mandate to prevent the re-emergence of chemical weapons. We need to take an integrated approach to this issue, using our current skills and recruiting new staff and resources to meet demands for specific skill sets.
The OPCW’s findings must hold up to technical and legal scrutiny. The design and implementation of the decision must be beyond reproach to ensure that those who are identified as responsible for the use of chemical weapons are ultimately held accountable, not by the OPCW but by the appropriate authorities.
What should states-parties do at the Fourth CWC Review Conference in November to strengthen the treaty?
The conference is a crucial yet narrow window of opportunity for our member- states to set the OPCW’s strategy and priorities for the next five years. Its outcomes may have a lasting impact on the tone and structure of the organization as we further transition into the postdestruction era.
The increasing focus on preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons and confronting the threat of chemical weapons use will mean changes for what we do and how we do it. Accordingly, the conference must consider how to match sustainable resources to the responsibilities and composition of the OPCW.
The time allocated for the review conference is short, but the stakes for the organization are high. Member-states have gathered to deliberate on the future priorities of the OPCW and the work of the conference. These deliberations are the foundations for what I hope will be a forward-looking and constructive outcome document.
For more than 20 years, these governments have invested in a global effort to verifiably eliminate declared stockpiles of chemical weapons, while preventing the re-emergence of such weapons and simultaneously promoting the peaceful uses of chemistry. In the face of today’s threats, everyone has a lot at stake to make sure the regime underpinned by the CWC continues to function and adapt as needed.
Banishing the scourge of chemical weapons depends on those who have built the international system to make full use of it. The senseless loss of life is a reminder that the protection promised by the convention is only as strong as those willing to uphold it.