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Remaining Inconsistencies, Assessment Delays Due to COVID Holding Up Verification of Syria Chemical Weapons Disarmament, High Representative Tells Security Council

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SC/14621

Security Council
8849th Meeting (PM)

Nearly eight years after the Security Council mandated the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) — tasked with ensuring that goal is achieved — is still not able to consider the file closed, the senior United Nations disarmament official told delegates today.

Izumi Nakamitsu, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, briefed the 15-member Council on her Office’s recent engagement with its OPCW counterparts. Noting that their work remains subject to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and conditions on the ground, she reported that the Syrian authorities requested talks with the organization’s Declarations Assessment Team to be pushed back to October from the initially requested date in September. She also noted that, due to several remaining “gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies”, the OPCW is still unable to consider the declaration made by Syria to be complete or accurate.

“Full cooperation by the Syrian Arab Republic with the Technical Secretariat is essential to close those outstanding issues,” she said, detailing the latter’s intention to conduct inspections of two Syrian Science and Research Centre sites. Noting that plans to hold a meeting between the Syrian authorities and OPCW officials in October are still on track, she expressed her hope that a substantive and constructive exchange will be held on the way forward for OPCW’s mandated activities.

Recalling that two chlorine cylinders — suspected to have been used in the alleged 2018 chemical weapons attack in the town of Douma — were destroyed in a June attack on a military facility, she noted that the cylinders were 60 kilometres away from the site where they were previously stored and inspected, despite OPCW’s previous warnings to the Syrian authorities not to open, move or alter their contents in any way without the organization’s prior consent. Emphasizing that any chemical weapons use is totally unacceptable and that those responsible must be held accountable, she cautioned that the world must not risk tolerating such crimes or treating them with impunity.

As Council members took the floor, many reiterated their strong condemnation of the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, under any circumstances. While some expressed concern over the delays outlined by Ms. Nakamitsu and the latest OPCW report, others spotlighted Syria’s continued cooperation with the organization and urged all parties to engage in dialogue and stay the course. Several speakers also voiced concern that the Tripartite Agreement between Syria, OPCW and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) was extended for only three months, rather than the nine-month period initially proposed.

The representative of the United States said the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly used chemical weapons and has tried to avoid accountability by obstructing independent investigations. Noting that the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team has attributed four separate chemical weapons attacks in Syria to his regime, she voiced support for its impartial and independent efforts and expressed concern that Syria continues to ignore calls for cooperation. “We now have overwhelming evidence of numerous incidents of non-compliance by the Assad regime,” she stressed.

Norway’s representative, noting that 21 August marked the eighth anniversary of the incident in the town of Ghouta that led to the adoption of resolution 2118 (2013), expressed regret that the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team has yet to deploy to Syria. Regular inspections, including of the Barzah and Jamraya facilities of the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Centre, must remain a priority. She also joined others in voicing concern that the extension of the Tripartite Agreement for only three months could have an adverse impact on OPCW’s ability to plan and conduct its mandated activities.

The representative of Tunisia expressed his delegation’s support for the OPCW mandate to serve as an impartial investigative body. Commending initial agreements to hold a meeting between the OPCW and the Syrian Government in October, he expressed his wish that it will mark the beginning of constructive dialogue, trust-building and mutual engagement. He also joined other speakers in emphasizing the importance of transparent, impartial investigations into any instances where the use of chemical weapons was likely, adding that the OPCW’s efforts would be more effective if they were based on strong support from the Security Council and the broader international community.

The representative of the Russian Federation said the latest OPCW report is as unbalanced as its previous ones. “Our Western colleagues are very carefully sidestepping the issue of the air strike” on a sovereign State, he said, referring to the attack that destroyed the chlorine cylinders and asking the Council to consider who stands to benefit from getting rid of such important material evidence. Stressing the absence of any real evidence of any violation by Damascus of the Chemical Weapons Convention, he said the OPCW is merely trying to create the impression that Syria is causing delays. In fact, she said, Damascus continues its cooperation with the organization.

Syria’s delegate echoed those points, decrying false allegations against his country — especially by the United States, which continues down its longstanding path of aggression and proxy war. Pointing out that Syria voluntarily joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and has met its obligations in record time, he said it continues to cooperate with OPCW and has always granted entry visas to its staff. Additionally, he emphasized that the OPCW fact-finding mission investigating the alleged Douma incident has not adhered to the standard procedures laid out in the Chemical Weapons Convention, including on the collection of samples and chain of custody, and continues to rely on information from unverified sources.

The representative of Iran, reaffirming her country’s commitment to the Chemical Weapons Convention, stressed the importance of its universality and non-discriminatory implementation. Noting that independent, impartial and professional work by the OPCW is of the outmost importance, she noted Syria’s efforts to complete the destruction of its chemical weapons programme in the shortest possible time and under severe conditions. “It is extremely disappointing that the Syrian chemical file has been politicized by a certain group of countries,” she concluded.

Also speaking were the representatives of China, Estonia, the United Kingdom, India, Mexico, France, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Viet Nam, Niger, Kenya, Ireland and Turkey.

The meeting began at 3:01 p.m. and ended at 4:43 p.m.

Briefing

IZUMI NAKAMITSU, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, briefing the Council on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013) concerning the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, noted that her Office has been in regular contact with its counterparts at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on the Syria file. Among other things, she took part in a monthly call with its Director-General on 31 August to receive an update and hear his views. While deployment of some OPCW teams remained subject to the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said that, travel restrictions notwithstanding, the organization continued to carry out its mandated activities and engage with the Syrian Government over the period under review.

The OPCW Technical Secretariat remains of the position that the Government of Syria must declare all its chemical weapons materials and facilities previously used for their production, she continued. On 9 August, the Syrian national authorities were informed of OPCW’s intention to deploy a Declaration Assessment Team to Damascus in September. However, Damascus subsequently requested that those talks be postponed until October. “Full cooperation by the Syrian Arab Republic with the Technical Secretariat is essential to close those outstanding issues,” she stressed, noting that due to several remaining “gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies”, OPCW is still not able to consider the declaration by Syria complete or accurate.

She noted that the Technical Secretariat still plans to conduct two inspections of sites in Syria — including the Syrian Science and Research Centre — though those inspections remain subject to the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic. She also noted that a representative has been nominated to prepare for an upcoming meeting between the Syrian Government and OPCW, in October, and a contact point has been appointed on the Syrian side. Describing the desired objective of that meeting, she expressed hope that a substantive and constructive exchange will be held on the way forward for OPCW’s mandated activities in Syria.

Recalling that an attack on 8 June 2021 targeted a military facility housing a declared former chemical weapons facility, she added that two chlorine cylinders related to the incidents that took place in Douma in April 2018 were destroyed. While OPCW has requested more information on the damage to the declared site, it noted that the cylinders were destroyed 60 kilometres away from the site where they were stored and inspected in November 2020. OPCW had previously warned the Syrian authorities not to open, move or alter the contents of the cylinders in any way without the Organization’s prior consent, but the Technical Secretariat was not notified that they had been moved until after their destruction.

She went on to note that the OPCW fact-finding mission is still in the process of studying all available information relating to the use of chemical weapons in Syria and is engaging with Damascus and other parties on “a variety of incidents”. Following the publication of its second report in April 2021, the Investigation and Identification Team continues to investigate incidents in which the fact-finding mission previously determined that chemical weapons were likely used. It will release its findings on those matters in due time. Emphasizing that any chemical weapons use is totally unacceptable and that those responsible must be held accountable — no matter who they are — she cautioned that the world must not risk tolerating such crimes or treating them with impunity.

Statements

ANNA M. EVSTIGNEEVA (Russian Federation), stressing that the current OPCW report is as unbalanced as its previous reports, said the text contains no assessment of the air strike on the territory of a sovereign State. “Our Western colleagues are also very carefully sidestepping the issue of the air strike,” while highlighting the movement of the cylinders by the Syrians, she said. At the last meeting on this matter, the Syrian delegation provided exhaustive clarifications, she said, calling on the Council to consider who stood to benefit from the air strike and from getting rid of important material evidence in the context of investigating the incident in Douma. The report has an “overabundance” of details on purely technical issues such as the visa issue, she said, also adding that in the absence of real evidence of any violation by Damascus of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, the Technical Secretariat is trying to create the impression that the Syrians are causing delays. Despite unprecedented pressure and double standards, she added, Syria continues to discharge its obligations under the Convention and has demonstrated the political will to continue dialogue with the leadership of the Technical Secretariat.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD (United States), condemning the use of chemical weapons anywhere by anyone under any circumstances, said there should be no impunity for those who use these weapons. The Assad regime has repeatedly used chemical weapons and has tried to avoid accountability by obstructing independent investigations, she said. Noting that the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team has attributed four separate chemical weapons attacks in Syria to the Assad regime, she voiced support for its impartial and independent work. Welcoming the OPCW Director-General's intention to deploy the Declaration Assessment team to Syria to conduct a round of consultations in Damascus later this fall, she said the Syrian Government has a clear obligation to cooperate with them. That regime continues to ignore calls from the international community to fully disclose and verifiably eliminate chemical weapons, she said, adding that “we now have overwhelming evidence of numerous incidents of non-compliance by the Assad regime.” Calling on the Council to enforce accountability for the atrocities committed against the Syrian people, she said that without such accountability, lasting peace in Syria will remain out of reach.

GENG SHUANG (China) underlined his country’s longstanding view that the Council’s consideration of the Syria chemical weapons issue should be based on facts and science. Urging all the parties to cooperate and engage in good faith, he said the international community should create favourable conditions for dialogue, take into account the legitimate views of the parties and avoid exerting political pressure. “We must go back to the framework of the Chemical Weapons Convention” and ensure that the handling of all incidents and allegations is conducted in strict conformity with its terms and remains fully impartial, he stressed. All States parties should preserve the crucial principle of multilateralism, reduce confrontation, work together and create a good atmosphere for OPCW to return to its normal functioning.

TAREK LADEB (Tunisia) firmly condemned the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere for any reason, emphasizing that they remain a threat to international peace and security and constitute a violation of international law. In that regard, he expressed support for OPCW’s mandate as an impartial investigative body. Commending initial agreement to hold a meeting between OPCW and the Syrian Government, he expressed his wish that it will mark the beginning of constructive dialogue, trust-building and mutual engagement, and urged the Technical Secretariat team to resume its activities in Syria in cooperation with the Government. He stressed the importance of transparent, impartial investigations into any instances where the use of chemical weapons was likely, adding that the OPCW’s efforts would be more effective if they were based on strong support from the Security Council and the broader international community.

ANDRE LIPAND (Estonia) recalled that 21 August marked the eighth anniversary of the chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. It remains among the most horrendous, large-scale atrocities conducted during the Syrian conflict by the Assad regime against its own people. Estonia continues to support accountability mechanisms to combat impunity, such as the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism and the Commission of Inquiry. The opening of criminal inquiries by judicial authorities in France, Germany and Sweden are encouraging steps towards ensuring justice for the victims of the sarin attacks in Ghouta. The outstanding issues with the initial declaration unfortunately persist and Syrian cooperation with the OPCW is deteriorating, he said, voicing concern that despite that body’s efforts, the next round of consultations has not taken place.

TRINE SKARBOEVIK HEIMERBACK (Norway), noting the eighth anniversary of the Ghouta incident in 2013, said there have unfortunately been few positive developments on the Syrian dossier. Voicing regret that the Declaration Assessment Team has yet to deploy to Syria, she said that regular inspections, including of the Barzah and Jamraya facilities of the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Centre, must remain a priority. Syria must complete the necessary measures to lift the suspension of its rights and privileges as a State party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, she said, adding that the extension of the Tripartite Agreement for only three months, instead of the nine months proposed, could have an adverse impact on the Secretariat’s ability to plan and conduct its mandated activities.

BARBARA WOODWARD (United Kingdom) said the Syrian Government has breached its obligations by using chemical weapons throughout the conflict in Syria. There were many signs of Syria’s failure to cooperate fully with the OPCW, she added, expressing concern that Syria has agreed to only a three-month extension of the Tripartite Agreement rather than the nine months requested. That agreement is often “held up by some Council members as evidence of Syria’s alleged cooperation”, she said, adding that this is actually evidence of the country’s failure to cooperate fully. Also pointing to the Syrian Government’s delays in agreeing to the next round of consultations with the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team and in granting visas to the Technical Secretariat staff, she called on it to resolve these compliance issues.

RAVINDRA RAGUTTAHALLI (India), describing the Chemical Weapons Convention as a “unique, non-discriminatory disarmament instrument” banning an entire category of weapons, underscored his country’s longstanding support for its implementation. India also supports collective efforts to ensure the Convention’s credibility is maintained to the fullest extent. As such, any investigation into alleged chemical weapons use must be impartial, credible and objective, and scrupulously follow the terms of the Convention in order to establish facts and reach evidence-based conclusions. India has long cautioned against the possibility of terrorists gaining access to chemical weapons and is concerned about reports of resurging terrorist groups in Syria and the wider region, which the international community “cannot afford to ignore”. When the Council came together several months ago to unanimously adopt resolution 2585 (2021), it showed the world that it is in fact able to act in concert on the Syria file, even after more than a decade. It must now continue down that same path, he stressed.

JUAN RAMÓN DE LA FUENTE RAMIREZ (Mexico), noting the upcoming inspections by the Declaration Assessment Team, expressed hope that the pending issues of Syria’s initial declaration can be clarified and discrepancies resolved. Expressing concern that the post of OPCW team head in Syria is vacant for the second time this year due to the lack of issuing a visa, he also regretted that the tripartite agreement between the OPCW, United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and Syria was extended only for three months. He went on to reiterate his country’s proposal that the OPCW investigation teams be able to report to the Security Council, as this would allow for first-hand information about their investigations and break the inertia during the monthly review of the Syria file. He expressed hope that the dialogue between the two sides during the upcoming high-level meeting between Syria and the OPCW would generate confidence and clarify doubts such as the presence of the chemical detected in the third round of inspections in Barzeh in 2018, or the recent destruction of cylinders related to the Douma incident, among others.

NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France) said it is once again clear that the Syrian regime is evading its international obligations. Among other obstructions, it failed to provide a response to the 20 remaining questions related to Syria's initial declaration. Expressing his hope that the upcoming meeting between Damascus and the OPCW Director-General will address those issues head-on, he reiterated concern about the unauthorized removal and destruction of two cylinders relating to the Douma incident and urged the regime to provide all information requested by the OPCW Technical Secretariat to shed light on that matter. He also described as “damaging” delays in deploying the initial declaration assessment team, which resulted from the OPCW liaison officer’s inability to secure a visa in good time. Urging the regime to cooperate resolutely and in good faith with OPCW, he noted that “it is naturally up to the Security Council to guarantee this” and warned that those saying the Syrian chemical weapons issue is resolved “are not fooling anyone”.

DIANI JIMESHA ARIANNE PRINCE (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), stressing that perpetrators of chemical weapons atrocities must be held accountable, expressed continued support for OPCW’s mandate. While recognizing various impediments to OPCW’s work due to COVID-19, she nonetheless remained concern about the lack of progress on the Syria file and unresolved gaps and inconsistencies in the original declaration. She expressed hope that consultations in October would yield tangible results. Also looking forward to the in-person meeting between the OPCW and Syria, she welcomed the three-month extension of the tripartite agreement between the OPCW, UNOPS and Syria. Sustained international cooperation is vital to successfully implement both the Chemical Weapons Convention and Council resolution 2118 (2013), she said, calling on the OPCW to ensure integrity, transparency and non-politization of its internal structures and activities. Moreover, States parties to the Convention should engage constructively and pursue consensus-based decisions. “In all discussions political quarrels ought to be set aside and the collective vision of achieving a world free of chemical weapons must remain at the forefront,” she said.

HAI ANH PHAM (Viet Nam) reiterated his country’s consistent policy in favour of non-proliferation and disarmament regimes, as well as its support for the role of OPCW in ridding the world of chemical weapons. “At the same time, it is our belief that the organization’s work […] must be carried out in a most comprehensive, objective and impartial manner,” he said, urging it to abide strictly abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Voicing concern over the alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria and the current impasse, he called on the two sides to deepen their technical cooperation in a constructive and non-politicized manner, with the aim of finally settling remaining outstanding issues related to Syria’s initial declaration. In that context, he looked forward to the upcoming meeting between the Foreign Minister and Head of the National Authority of Syria and the OPCW Director-General — which should serve as a confidence-building measure — and called for the international community to lend its support to that engagement.

NIANDOU AOUGI (Niger), urging the Council to demonstrate unity with regard to OPCW’s work in Syria, said only continued and frank dialogue between the organization’s Technical Secretariat and the Government of Syria will resolve the issue of Syria's initial declaration and ultimately advance the work of the Declaration Assessment Team in accordance with resolution 2118 (2013). Taking note of the Government’s cooperation and its willingness to work with the Technical Secretariat, he welcomed the decision to hold talks between Damascus and the OPCW in October. Emphasizing that all allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria must receive the same attention and be treated with the same diligence, he said the divergences in opinion between Council members must give way to a calm and technical analysis of the results of OPCW’s investigations.

JAYNE JEPKORIR TOROITICH (Kenya), lamenting the unfortunate lack of progress on the matter under consideration, stressed that the use of chemical weapons anywhere constitutes a threat to international peace and security. Expressing support for the mandate of the OPCW as the technical body overseeing the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, she said that expediting the investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria is crucial for the achievement of peace in that country. Calling for increased cooperation between Syria and the Technical Secretariat, she underscored that many discrepancies remain unresolved. Noting the Director-General’s intention to deploy the Declaration Assessment Team to conduct a round of consultations in Damascus, she voiced hope for an inclusive Syrian-led dialogue aimed at a political resolution that genuinely responds to the needs of millions of Syrians.

GERALDINE BYRNE NASON (Ireland), Council President for September, spoke in her national capacity, reiterating that the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, at any time is abhorrent and unacceptable. The Council should be united and firm in upholding the international prohibition against these terrible weapons, and clear in its strong support of the OPCW, and in rejecting efforts to undermine that body. The lack of progress by Syria in addressing the serious and growing list of issues under its initial declaration remains a matter of serious concern. Minister Mekdad has accepted the proposal by the OPWC Director-General to meet to explore ways to break the impasse. It is discouraging that Syria has yet to engage seriously with Mr. Arias in relation to the meeting’s agenda, format, timing and location. The reported destruction of chlorine cylinders from the incident at Douma raises serious questions, she said, adding that their removal to a new location without informing the OPCW is disturbing, and symptomatic of the difficulties the OPCW faces. Ireland strongly encourages Syria to provide the OPCW with the requested information and materials, including any remains of the cylinders. “It is only through Syria’s real and meaningful cooperation with the OPCW that we can resolve these outstanding issues and be assured that Syria’s entire stocks of chemical weapons are declared — and verifiably destroyed,” in line with its commitments under the Convention and Council resolution 2118 (2013), she said.

Ms. NAKAMITSU, responding briefly to questions raised about the Tripartite Agreement between Syria, the OPCW and UNOPS, said in its current form the agreement remains valid through 31 September. At the end of July, the three parties held a videoconference to discuss its further extension. The OPCW proposed a nine-month extension, while the Syrian authorities proposed a three-month extension, to which the OPCW ultimately agreed. As a result, the Tripartite Agreement will now be valid through 31 December. However, she noted, the OPCW has relayed to the Syrian authorities that the shortened duration will have a negative impact on its work.

BASSAM SABBAGH (Syria) said some Western States regrettably continue to derail meetings on the Syria chemical weapons file by politicizing them and turning them into a platform to levy false allegations. The paradox is that one such country, the United States, remains the only State party to the Chemical Weapons Convention that has yet to meet its obligations to destroy its own chemical weapons arsenal. Syria has repeatedly condemned the use of chemical weapons and reiterates that it no longer has any. False allegations to the contrary, which are without a shred of evidence, are only intended to mislead the international community and are further proof that the United States had not strayed from its longstanding, aggressive proxy war against the Syrian people.

He pointed out that Syria voluntarily joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and has met its obligations thereunder — including destroying its entire weapons programme — in record time, and it continues to cooperate closely with the OPCW. On 15 August, Syria submitted its ninety-third report on the destruction of its chemical weapons and their facilities, and it plans to meet and cooperate with the Declaration Assessment Team in October. In that regard, he noted that it was in fact the OPCW Director-General who did not wish to deploy the Team in the summer months, as he told the Council directly during a previous briefing. In addition, Syria has granted an entry visa to the OPCW team lead — a process that typically takes longer when a foreign national seeks to enter Syria for the first time — and has never denied a visa to a foreign official working with OPCW.

Meanwhile, he said, the fact-finding mission investigating the alleged Douma incident has not adhered to the standard procedures laid out in the verification annex of the Convention. Among other things, it has overlooked the required methodologies for sample collection and on chain of custody, and it relied on information from unverified sources, including the White Helmets organization. The two cylinders in question were destroyed not by Syria, but in a brutal act of Israeli aggression that should be strongly condemned by the international community. Syria remains committed to assisting OPCW’s investigation of the Douma incident and would never attempt to move evidence outside of its territory, he stressed, adding that such accusations once again reveal the flagrant politicization of the Council’s Syria chemical weapons dossier and show that OPCW’s work lacks professionalism and objectivity.

ZAHRA ERSHADI (Iran), reaffirming her country’s commitment to the Chemical Weapons Convention, stressed the importance of its non-discriminatory implementation. Underscoring the Convention’s universality, she said the Israeli regime must be compelled to join the Convention without any precondition or further delay. Independent, impartial and professional work by the OPCW is of outmost importance, she emphasized, also acknowledging Syria’s efforts to complete destruction of its chemical weapons programme in the least possible time and under severe conditions. Noting the ongoing preparations for the meeting of the OPCW Director-General and the Syrian Foreign Minister as well as for the next round of consultations with the Declaration Assessment Team, she said: “it is extremely disappointing that the Syrian chemical file has been politicized by a certain group of countries.”

FERIDUN HADI SINIRLIOĞLU (Turkey) noted that the latest monthly report by the OPCW Director-General yet again pointed to identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies in the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons declaration. Therefore, the OPCW cannot confirm whether the declaration is accurate and complete. The increasing number of outstanding issues is a matter of grave concern, he said, adding that the presence of an undeclared chemical weapons production facility is a case in point. The Assad regime has failed to declare chemical warfare agents produced and weaponized at this site. Equally worrisome is that the regime moved the two chlorine cylinders related to the Douma attack despite the warnings of the Technical Secretariat and without its knowledge. The regime must be urged to provide information about the movement of these cylinders, he said, requesting the Council to unite on this matter. The use of chemical weapons by the regime against its own people is well documented, he stressed, adding that with the recent two reports by the Investigation and Identification Team, it has now proven that the regime conducted at least eight chemical attacks. The Council must take immediate steps to ensure accountability for the regime’s war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ending impunity is a pressing task for the international community and the Council to achieve peace in Syria, he stressed.

For information media. Not an official record.