Syria

In Briefing on Syria, Top Disarmament Official Says Security Council Unity Required to Re-establish Norm against Use of Chemical Weapons

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Eradicating the use of chemical weapons hinges on unity among Security Council members at a time when ending the Syrian conflict still remains a collective responsibility, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs said in a videoconference meeting today.

Izumi Nakamitsu provided a snapshot of recent achievements and delays, largely due to the conflict and COVID-19, briefing the 15-member Council on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013), which outlines the scheduled destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Indeed, the pandemic continues to affect the deployment of the Declaration Assessment Team, but other efforts to clarify the remaining outstanding issues are ongoing between Syria and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Citing several gains, she said samples collected in September 2020 have been analysed, with some unexpected results, and in March 2021, Syria provided the OPCW Technical Secretariat with further explanations currently under review. Damascus also stated that a former chemical weapons production facility was never used for those activities. Her Office has held meetings with Syria’s representative and regularly contacts OPCW for updates, she said, emphasizing that the Government’s engagement and dialogue is critical to closing all outstanding issues. While reports are pending on certain issues, she said Syria has yet to provide explanations that would allow OPCW to close all its investigations.

Meanwhile, she continued, OPCW continues to engage with Syria and other States parties concerning to a variety of activities, and the Investigation and Identification Team is continuing its work on several reported activities identified by the fact-finding mission. OPCW continues to monitor the security situation, providing updates on when it will be prepared to deploy further investigations. However, eight years after adopting resolution 2118 (2013), much work remains to be done. Unity in the Security Council is required to re-establish the norm against the use of chemical weapons, which should be seen as a taboo. Cooperation is imperative going forward, she stressed, emphasizing that a solution to the conflict must meet the aspirations of all Syrians and ending the war is a collective responsibility.

The representative of Syria regretted to note that the High Representative omitted recent Government updates on several matters from her latest report. Highlighting a range of concerns, he demanded that due attention be paid to Syria’s reports on the presence of terrorist groups working with foreign intelligence agencies to launch chemical weapon attacks and blame the Syrian Arab Army and its allies. Certain States must stop politicizing the matter, he said, adding that despite this and other challenges, including COVID-19, Syria remains committed to its obligations to international conventions and working with OPCW towards the resolution of outstanding issues.

Delegates exchanged views during the meeting, with many welcoming the deployment of the Declaration Assessment Team and others highlighting an urgent need to eradicate chemical weapons and for perpetrators to be held accountable. Others urged Syria to provide full explanations so OPCW can close its investigations while abiding by all elements of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and of Their Destruction. Some delegates raised concerns about weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists, emphasizing a need to continue the fight against these terrorist groups.

The representative of the Russian Federation said that in two weeks, the OPCW Conference of the States Parties will approve a decision to strip Syria of its rights within the organization. The OPCW’s created an illegitimate identification team, which produced a report replete with factual and technical errors, accusing Syria of chemical weapons use on two occasions. While this report was roundly criticized by independent experts, the OPCW Technical Secretariat remained deaf to the Russian Federation’s criticism of the document. Western colleagues will rush to present these events as proof of alleged chemical weapons use by Damascus, while the Director-General alleges Syria’s non-compliance with the OPCW Executive Council. Damascus rejects such blatant manipulation — and yet, it continues to work with the organization.

Regarding February consultations to assess the initial declaration, he said Syria offered responses to the so-called unanswered questions — and nonetheless heard that its initial declaration was incomplete. There has been progress on issues related to the initial declaration. If depriving Syria of its right to participate in OPCW decisions is the goal, he asked why Damascus would continue working with the organization at all. He called on all parties to vote against the draft decision, as it threatens to undermine the authority of both OPCW and the Security Council. The Russian Federation categorically condemns the use of chemical weapons by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes. The Government even shared with OPCW evidence of such use by opposition members, and in December, submitted several questions to the Director-General. It has never received a response. “Where is this transparency” that Western colleagues like to lord over others, he asked. “Silence and insufficient responses only strengthen suspicions that the Technical Secretariat has something to hide.”

The representative of Estonia said the Director-General’s monthly report remains largely unchanged. “There is no progress,” he insisted, recalling that this is the ninetieth report published since 2014. Citing the July 2020 decision to respond to findings by the Investigation and Identification Team that the Syrian Arab Armed Forces used chemical weapons against their own people on three occasions, he said a robust response by the Council is essential to seek justice for the victims and prevent such acts from happening again. There is a responsibility to protect the global non-proliferation regime, he said, stressing that the use of weapons of mass destruction by anyone, anywhere cannot become acceptable. He expressed Estonia’s full confidence in the professional and independent work carried out by OPCW, calling on Syria to cooperate with the Technical Secretariat, and urging the Russian Federation to fully disclose the circumstances around the poisoning of Alexei Navalny with the Novichok nerve agent.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone and under any circumstances violates international law and necessitates condemnation by the international community. Reaffirming support for the OPCW mandate, she said the organization must always be characterized by impartiality, independence and non-politicization. She underscored the importance of resolving all gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies contained in the initial declaration and encouraged engagement between the parties. She also cautioned the Council and the OPCW Technical Secretariat not to overlook Syria’s notification concerning preparations by armed groups to use and/or fabricate incidents of chemical weapons use. “This matter requires urgent attention,” she said, pressing OPCW Member States to prioritize the pursuit of consensus-based decisions to thwart polarization and divisiveness.

The representative of France said the Syrian regime continues to lie and shirk its international obligations, denying evidence and making false declarations. Anticipating reports by the Declaration Assessment Team and other mechanisms, she said Syria must be held accountable. A draft decision will be tabled at the OPCW to prevent Syria from holding a seat on the Executive Board, she said, urging States parties to support it. Accusations against OPCW are taking place at a time when there is evidence of the use of chemical weapons. These horrific weapons must be eradicated. This Council has a responsibility in this regard, including combating impunity, and all perpetrators must be held accountable.

The representative of Kenya welcomed the deployment of the Declaration Assessment Team and Syria’s subsequent diplomatic note containing explanations regarding the sample analysis results. Anticipating further updates, he welcomed regular briefings by OPCW to the States parties on the status of the mandated activities. He encouraged such briefings, as they constitute a critical component for ensuring transparency in the investigative role of OPCW. An expeditious conclusion and closure of these investigations will allow the Council to direct its full attention to helping the Syrian people reach a sustainable solution to the decade-old political crisis, he said. Calling for closer coordination between Syria and OPCW, particularly in resolving the pending identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies, he reiterated Kenya’s support for the Syrian people as they continue to seek a sustainable solution, through an inclusive Syrian-led dialogue aimed at a political resolution that is truly responsive to their will and needs.

The representative of Tunisia, welcoming the dialogue between Syria and OPCW, called for further cooperation to ensure that all responses are submitted to address pending questions. Any allegation of the use of toxic chemical materials as weapons, including by terrorist groups, must be subjected to transparent, independent and impartial investigation. It is incumbent for the Security Council to work together on the Syrian chemical weapons file to resolve this issue, he said, adding that doing so will be the best way to resolve this issue and put an end to the conflict in the country.

The representative of the United States, recalling chemical weapons attacks in 2017 and 2018 in Syria, said the Bashar al-Assad regime has a pattern of use and abuse of such arms while the Russian Federation continues to promote Damascus by spreading misinformation. The United States firmly supports the impartial and independent work of OPCW and its mechanisms, she said, applauding its leadership and ongoing activities. However, because of the Russian Federation’s dangerous enablement, the Assad regime continues to delay providing the required information involving several investigations or giving false responses. These exceptions have become the rule, she said. The Security Council has a role to play, having declared that the Assad regime should not use, produce or stockpile chemical weapons. She urged all Member States to suspend Syria’s representation at OPCW at the forthcoming Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on Chemical Weapons.

The representative of Mexico said the Security Council cannot continue in an exercise of mutual accusations on such a delicate matter. “We should try to encourage dialogue,” he stressed, recommending that new avenues for collaboration be sought. For example, the Council could strengthen its unity in condemning chemical weapons use by any actor, anywhere. It could also support the OPCW mandate, call on all parties to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention, foster more informal dialogue with the Technical Secretariat and call on the Secretary-General to bolster the use of his good offices for Syria and interested parties and thoroughly discuss related reports.

The representative of the United Kingdom said that by Syria’s own admission, its initial declaration was inaccurate. The Declaration Assessment Team process has led to Syria’s subsequent declaration of one chemical weapons production facility, four research and development facilities, five previously undeclared chemical warfare agents and several thousand large calibre chemical munitions. Recalling that Syria has amended its declaration 17 times, she said 19 issues remain outstanding relating to the fate of several hundred tons of chemical warfare agents, indicators of three undeclared chemical warfare agents and unknown quantities of chemical warfare agents. Their significance falls squarely within the Security Council’s mandate. Syria’s failure to meet its obligations has led the OPCW Executive Council to recommend suspension of that country’s rights and privileges until it takes steps to redress the situation, she said, underscoring the United Kingdom’s support for measured actions to be considered by the Conference of the States Parties in April.

The representative of India, recognizing the OPCW efforts in the Declaration Assessment Team and the fact-finding mission, said his delegation is awaiting further updates. Expressing hope that the ongoing engagement and cooperation between Syria and the OPCW Technical Secretariat will progress further in the coming months, he welcomed the six-month extension of the in-principle agreement at the beginning of 2021. India has consistently underlined the need for an impartial and objective investigation into any alleged use of chemical weapons. Any concerns or disagreement should be addressed on the basis of consultations and cooperation among all concerned parties and the OPCW Technical Secretariat, he said, highlighting a need for an objective analysis among Council members of what has been achieved since the adoption of resolution 2118 (2013), following Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention. For its part, India has provided $1 million to the OPCW Trust Fund. However, concerns remain about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorist entities and individuals and about reports of the resurgence of groups like ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/Da’esh) in the region, he said, cautioning that: “We cannot afford to dilute the fight against these terrorist groups.”

The representative of Niger said Council unity is required to resolve the Syrian chemical weapons dossier. Also needed is cooperation between Syria and OPCW, which could help to resolve pending issues and advance the work of the Declaration Assessment Team in line with the Chemical Weapons Convention and relevant multilateral and bilateral treaties. All related investigations must be carried out transparently and inclusively, he said, rejecting all uses of chemical weapons.

The representative of Norway expressed regret that few developments have been registered on the critical issue of Syria’s chemical weapons programme “even against the backdrop of grim anniversaries” such as a full decade of conflict. On 7 April, the world will also mark three years since the deadly Douma chemical attacks. Warning Council members not to tolerate that impunity, she voiced concern that evidence collected from inspections remains largely unanswered by Syrian authorities, with 19 out of 22 issues still unresolved. Norway is particularly troubled by the factual disagreement regarding the presence of a chemical nerve agent in site samples taken in September 2020. As the OPCW’s monthly report makes clear, Syria’s recent explanations “cannot be considered accurate and complete”, and the Syrian experts have failed to sufficiently explain or justify the presence of chemical nerve agents found in the former Chemical Weapons Production Facility. Calling on Syria to fully cooperate with OPCW and resolve all outstanding issues, she stressed that those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable through credible national, or international, criminal justice mechanisms.

The representative of China outlined his country’s consistent opposition to any chemical weapons use by anyone for any purposes, stressing that reports by the fact-finding mission and Independent Investigation Team are still subject to different views. He objected to “jumping to conclusions amid doubts”, pressing the international community to strengthen its supervision of the Technical Secretariat and encouraging the parties concerned to continue their cooperation to resolve pending issues. Syria’s note verbale containing information on pending issues deserves attention. Meanwhile, OPCW and Syria are working jointly to resolve issues around initial declaration. Haste will only make State parties more divided and OPCW work more politicized. The investigation and handling of chemical weapons use must be brought back to the framework of the Chemical Weapons Convention, he said, expressing hope that OPCW will return to the practice of taking decisions by consensus.

The representative of Ireland joined other speakers in unequivocally condemning any use of chemical weapons, anywhere and at any time. When Damascus acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and its annex on implementation and verification, it took on clear legal obligations, including to abide by OPCW’s 2013 decision regarding inspections in Syria. However, a clear pattern has emerged of Syrian evasion, with items going undeclared and mis-declared, and Syrian cooperation has been sporadic and limited. The OPCW Executive Council and members of the Security Council have repeatedly expressed their concerns, which Syria has ignored. Citing OPCW evidence of documented, repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria since 2013, including seven occasions that warrant attribution of use to the Syrian authorities, she described that country’s efforts to undermine the organization’s professionalism as an unacceptable response. Urging Damascus to comply with OPCW’s July 2020 decision, she said Ireland will support the new proposed decision on Syria at the Conference of the States Parties later in April.

The representative of Viet Nam, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity to categorically condemn the use of chemical weapons anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstance. Any such use constitutes a flagrant violation of international law. As a committed advocate of multilateralism, Viet Nam recognizes OPCW’s important role in supporting implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and at the same time, underscored the imperative that it abide by the Convention itself. Investigations of alleged violations should be carried out in a most objective and impartial manner, based on verified information. In seeking solutions, he took note of Syria’s engagement with the Technical Secretariat. “It is our strong belief that this spirit of cooperation is the best way forward to resolve the remaining gaps and inconsistencies,” he said, calling on both sides to bolster their efforts.

The representative of Syria said his delegation is working with OPCW on all matters. Recalling his recent meeting with the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, he remained concerned that some Government updates were omitted from her briefing. Today’s repeated statements from Western countries, led by the United States, have been dominated by politicization and unfounded accusations, he said, confirming and clarifying several points, including his Government’s commitment to settle outstanding issues. Highlighting a list of concerns, he regretted to note that OPCW had ignored the recent Courage Foundation statement, signed by a large group of experts and prominent scientific figures and led by José Maurício de Figueiredo Bustani, the first OPCW Director-General, regarding the conduct of the investigation into the alleged Douma incident. He demanded that due attention be given to information Syria provides to the United Nations, relevant Security Council committees and OPCW about ongoing cooperation among terrorist groups and foreign intelligence services to stage incidents of chemical weapons use only to accuse the Syrian Arab Army and its allies, including cases involving Al-Nusra Front and “White Helmets” in Idlib and Latakia.

Calling on all States to reject the draft decision submitted to the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, he said the text was based on inaccurate and unprofessional conclusions of the illegitimate Investigation and Identification Team. Those concerned with accountability should demand that the United States be held accountable for its crimes in the city of Raqqa and for its flagrant violation of the sovereignty of the Syrian territories in 2017, he said, renewing his country’s demand that certain States stop politicizing this file, remove it from political games, and stop the practices of pressure and blackmail. For its part, Syria, despite a range of challenges including COVID-19, will continue to implement all its international obligations.