Wow! Did the OPCW really say that?

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

It is true that pressure for Israel to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is steadily mounting. Presently 190 states are party to the treaty. Besides Israel, only Angola, Egypt, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan have not ratified or acceded to it. As participants in the 2014 Jonathan Tucker Conference on Chemical and Biological Arms Control heard yesterday from Dr Peter Sawzcak, Head of Government Relations and Political Affairs Branch of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Myanmar is expected to ratify the CWC in its forthcoming parliamentary session in January. The Council of Ministers of Angola, which will take up a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council next year, is to decide on joining the Arms Trade Treaty, Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and CWC really soon. South Sudan may also become a party to the CWC in the near future as part of a broader package deal under development. As was pointed out by some other speakers at the Jonathan Tucker Conference, being in the company of North Korea is not good for a democracy such as Israel.

However, in an article published on 11 December the Times of Israel quoted an anonymous OPCW official affirming that Israel has a chemical weapon (CW) stockpile. He also stated that he knew the size of the chemical arsenal, but refused to go into details. According to a second article in Arutz Sheva Israel Radio quoted the official as saying that the UN needed to begin an investigation of Israel on its chemical weapons stores, as it did with Syria.

According to the Times of Israel, he also said that Egypt has thousands of tonnes of CW.

Israel is a CWC signatory state. Under Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties a signatory state is obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty. In other words, if Israel were indeed to have a CW stockpile, it would be in a clear breach of its international obligations. This is not a light accusation to make. Particularly if it is made in the name of the multilateral organisation that is responsible for ridding the world of these heinous weapons.

Striking too is the lack of nuance in the claims. Egypt and Israel have had past CW programmes. But in the absence of reports of troop training and testing of munitions, how useful is it to retain aging stockpiles? Would the agents be subject to degradation? Are stocks being replenished (which implies active CW production facilities)? Egypt’s ‘thousands of tonnes’ puts the country in the same league as Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North Korea (according to South Korean assessments) and well ahead of what has been removed from Syria over the past eighteen months. Mohamed Heikal, an Egyptian journalist and commentator on Arab affairs, described in his excellent book Illusions of Triumph: Arab View of the Gulf War (London: Fontana, 1993, pp. 91–93) how then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat closed down Egypt’s CW production plant after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and in 1981 refused to reopen it to supply Saddam Hussein with CW. To the best of my knowledge, this passage has not yet been seriously challenged.

Considering the culture of confidentiality at the OPCW and the organisation’s systematic refusal to comment on individual states—just take the many anodyne press statements on the CW disarmament project in Syria—the incident is remarkable to say the least. One would hope that those specific assertions were intended to be wholly off the record, but even so…

 Update

OPCW Statement Regarding Israeli Media Reports on a Recent OPCW Briefing
Thursday, 11 December 2014

OPCW officials met with a group of journalists from Israel on Monday of this week and briefed them on the OPCW’s work, achievements and future challenges. On the issue of achieving universality of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), it was mentioned to the journalists that there are six non-States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, including Israel.

In regard to the capacities of those six countries, it was clearly stated that the CWC verification regime functions on the basis of declarations, and that the OPCW would be able to ascertain possession of chemical weapons by any non-State Party only after it joined the Convention and made a formal declaration to the Organisation.

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