BTWC @ 40: Morning impressions

On 30 March 2015 the 40th anniversary of the entry into force of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) was celebrated in the Council Chamber at the United Nations in Geneva, the same room in which the treaty had been negotiated.

In the morning the formal commemoration took place. About 100 people attended the celebration. Below are some impressions of that session (Please click for full-size images).

The full programme and texts of remarks are available from the website of the BTWC Implementation Support Unit.

(All pictures by myself.)

The general setting of the 40th anniversary event

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Opening speeches

20150330 BTWC 40 Opening-02     20150330 BTWC 40 Opening 20150330 BTWC 40 Kane message

Addresses by the three Depository States: Russia, UK and USA

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Guests of honour: Amb. Masood Khan and Dr Caitriona McLeish

20150330 BTWC 40 Khan     20150330 BTWC 40 McLeish

(Civil society academic session to follow.)


Flashback: 30th anniversary of the BTWC (2005)

On 24 March 2005 the BioWeapons Prevention Project  (BWPP) and the Geneva Forum co-organised a seminar in the Palais des Nations in Geneva to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

It was a tense time: the 5th review conference in 2001 had basically failed and following a one-year suspension, the states parties were able to agree on a work programme that eventually became known as the ‘intersessional process’ — a series of meetings of experts followed by meetings of states parties. In 2005 people began looking towards the 6th review conference that was to take place the next year. Expectations were not very high: saving a troubled treaty was back then the primary goal, The BTWC Implementation Support Unit did not yet exist; the small unit was to be one of the positive outcomes of that review conference.

For the meeting the BWPP and the Geneva Forum invited three speakers to highlight the (then) past, present and future of the BTWC: Erhard Geißler (Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine), Nicholas A. Sims (London School of Economics and Political Science) and John Borrie (United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research).

Today, a commemorative event will take place in Geneva; the academic session in the afternoon jointly organised by the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP) of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) will revisit some of the themes raised 10 years ago.

It is a good moment to reflect on what the issues were back then. The BWPP published an Occasion Paper with the three presentations: 30 Years of the BTWC: Looking Back, Looking Forward (June 2005), which is here now again available for download.

BTWC — A weird kind of 40th anniversary

Four decades have passed since the entry into force of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). The 173 states parties happily blew out the 40 candles on 26 March.  Rejoice we all did, and tomorrow, 30 March, a special commemorative event will take place at the United Nations in Geneva. In the very same room where the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (the forbear of the current Conference on Disarmament) negotiated the document. (For a brief overview of the birth of the BTWC, check out the dedicated web page prepared by the BTWC Implementation Support Unit.)

Yet, there is something weird about this anniversary.

First, in the United States a researcher published a commentary on the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists expressing his deep concern about the impact of a nuclear winter on the future of humanity following the use of this class of weapons. He argued that most of the the nuclear devices currently in the military arsenals should be replaced with other weapon categories that possess an equivalent deterrence value. In passing he mentioned non-contagious biologicial agents. The biological weapons (BW) community reacted strongly, and several academics have responded that BW are and should remain beyond the pale. Rightly so.

One can say many things about the BTWC, but one cannot deny that today not a single state — whether a party to the convention or not — will admit to possessing BW or maintaining an offensive BW programme. The treaty may have its intrinsic flaws, but the norm it embodies is strong. So, yes, it was strange to read on the eve of the 40th anniversary of a global disarmament treaty that an academic could still discern a future role for this class of weaponry.

Second, friends of the treaty sent out congratulatory messages via Twitter, blog postings or newspaper Op-Eds. The British daily The Guardian managed to publish two contributions on a single day. James Revill and Caitríona McLeish of the Harvard-Sussex Program, University of Sussex let the bells ring out (Happy birthday to the bioweapons convention), before warning on the possibility of creeping legitimisation of BW for deterrence purposes, as proposed by the US scholar mentioned earlier.

The other piece was written by Alex Spelling and Brian Balmer of University College London and entitled ‘Remembering an Overlooked Treaty‘.

An overlooked treaty? Since 2 March 2015, 173 states are party to the BTWC. This makes it the third most universal agreement regulating the acquisition, possession and use of weaponry after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (191 parties, including the State of Palestine) and the CWC (190 states parties).

Later in the piece, the authors ask: So, why has this disarmament treaty been neglected? This is a remarkable question, considering that the community of states parties has met twice or more annually in Geneva since the third review conference in 1991 and continuously engages in various regional or bilateral activities to strengthen regulatory frameworks or capacities to address challenges identified in the Geneva meetings.

The authors, of course, zoomed in on one formal characteristic of an arms control or disarmament treaty lacking in the BTWC: a verification machinery to systematically monitor compliance and detect treaty violations. However, neither they nor any of the commentators on the zany idea of BW deterrence offer an idea on how to remedy this deficiency — and I agree, it is a major one — in the near future.

2016 will be the year of the 8th review conference and the states parties will gather to plot the course of the BTWC for the ensuing five years and beyond. Now is really a time for bright ideas and thinking out of the box. Otherwise, on the 50th anniversary of the convention, people will still be lamenting an imperfect past or happily consider future roles for prohibited weapons.

Yes, happy anniversary to the BTWC. The future is challenging, but there is a future. People willing.



Conference Report from IAI Conference on Coercive Diplomacy, Sanctions and International Law

I just received today a link to a very fine conference report of the excellent conference on coercive diplomacy, sanctions and international law in which both I and Marco Roscini participated last month at the Instituto Affari Internationali in Rome. This conference report is remarkably thorough, providing an excellent summary of the presentations, including mine beginning on pg. 24.  I’m currently revising my paper, which will be published along with the other conference papers in a volume under contract with Brill.

I again wish to thank my friends at the IAI for including me in this very successful conference. In particular, Professor Natalino Ronzitti, Nicoletta Pirozzi, and Elisabetta Farroni.

Biological Weapons Convention 40th Anniversary Event – Programme

In my previous blog posting I noted the organisation of a special event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the entry into force of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC / BWC) on 30 March. The event takes place in the Council Chamber of the United Nations in Geneva and prior registration is required.

The programme consists of two parts:

A light lunch will be available and the afternoon session will be followed by a reception.



Academic Session

14:00–15:15 Making progress in strengthening the BWC

Chair: Dr Jean Pascal Zanders, Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP)

  • Dr Ursula Jenal, Jenal & Partners Biosafety Consulting, Biorisk management: awareness, responsibility and codes of conduct
  • Dr Gary Burns, Independent Consultant, Development of an ISO Laboratory Biorisk Management Standard – can ISO/AWI 35001 help in supporting the BTWC?
  • Dr Piers Millett, BioSecure, Science, Technology & the BWC: staying relevant for the next 40 years

15:15–15:45 Coffee break

15:45–17:00 Future challenges for strengthening the BTWC

Chair: Ms Kerstin Vignard, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research

  • Mr Nicholas Sims, Emeritus Reader in International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science, What Future for Biological Disarmament?
  • Dr Gunnar Jeremias, Research Group for Biological Arms Control, The future of confidence building in biological arms control
  • Dr Iris Hunger, Robert Koch Institute, A new international order for extraordinary public health risks? Norms, actors, modes of interaction

17:00–18:00 Reception

Location: Council Chamber, United Nations, Geneva

Invitation: Biological Weapons Convention 40th Anniversary Event

Forty years ago, on 26 March 1975, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC)—the first multilateral treaty to effectively prohibit an entire class of weaponry worldwide—entered into force.

The Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP) of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) would like to invite you and your colleagues to a seminar to mark the 40th anniversary of this Convention on Monday 30 March 2015.

This academic seminar is convened by the CCDP, GCSP and UNIDIR from 14:00 to 17:00 to reflect on the current challenges and future options for the BWC. It is organised with the support of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This event will take place in the Council Chamber of the Palais des Nations, Geneva. This venue has historical significance as it is the room in which the BWC was negotiated by the Committee of the Conference on Disarmament before being finalized in 1971. Prior to the seminar, there will be a formal commemorative event organised by the BWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) with the assistance of the Chairman of the 2015 BWC meetings and the Depositary Governments of the BWC, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. An invitation from the Chairman of the 2015 BWC Meetings and more details can be found here.

A light lunch will be available to participants and a reception follows the afternoon session.

If you would like to attend the seminar, please register here  by 25 March 2015. Attendees without passes to access the Palais des Nations will need to complete the attached registration form [download here] in order to be cleared through UN security. You will have to present it together with valid identification.

Updated information on the programme will be available from a dedicated page by the BWC Implementation Support Unit.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Keith Krause, Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP)

Dr Gustav Lindstrom, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP)

Mr Jarmo Sareva, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research


Point of contact: Mr Marc Finaud, GCSP (

LA Times Reports the IAEA is Unlawfully Sharing Safeguards Information with the U.S. Government

I saw this story in the LA Times from yesterday, entitled “Top-Secret U.S. Replica of Iran Nuclear Sites Key to Weapons Deal.” After talking with friends, the paragraph that strikes me most in this story is this one, with my added emphasis:

U.S. officials won’t comment on the classified research, which is being conducted at an undisclosed location in the United States. But former officials and private analysts say American agencies have constructed models of the Iranian facilities, relying on informants in Iran, information from foreign governments and voluminous data about Iran’s program collected by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.

So to cut to the chase, this new replica enrichment facility – which I can’t help thinking of as a Madurodam for US nuclear engineers (“Bill, look at the little Iranian nuclear scientist, he’s going into the centrifuge hall. And look, there’s a little Mossad figure on a motorcycle outside, waiting to kill him when he goes home from work.”). Ok, that got too tangential and too weird to continue. Let’s start that sentence again.

So to cut to the chase, this new replica enrichment facility that the US has built, was based inter alia on “voluminous data” that the US obtained from the IAEA. What?!? But Article 5(b) of the Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA provides that:

The Agency shall not publish or communicate to any State, organization or person any information obtained by it in connection with the implementation of this Agreement . . .

So how did the US government get this “voluminous data” from the IAEA? And isn’t it not OK that this happened?

This isn’t the first time that concerns have been raised about the IAEA’s inability to keep confidential information obtained through safeguards implementation in Iran. Iranian officials have complained of exactly this sort of thing happening before. And, coincidentally, the IAEA just today released a statement by Iran communicated to the agency, which on page 3 contains an entire section devoted to expressing Iran’s concerns about the IAEA’s  inability to keep information gained through safeguards implementation confidential.

But while it isn’t the first time these concerns have been raised by Iran, it is the first time I know of that a major news outlet has reported this inappropriate information sharing by the IAEA as a fact.

If what the LA Times has reported is accurate, then it’s hard to see how this isn’t a serious violation by the IAEA of its safeguards agreement with Iran. Maybe there are other explanations for how the US government got this information from the IAEA, that don’t involve bad faith by the IAEA. I don’t know. But I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

Suspicions of arms control inspection agencies being used as tools of Western espionage are not new. Allegations of this type are basically what killed UNSCOM, the first incarnation of the UN’s arms control inspection agency in Iraq after the first gulf war.

It is an absolute imperative for the IAEA to be seen as above reproach when it comes to its ability to keep confidential information obtained through safeguards implementation. If it is not so perceived, its credibility as an independent monitoring and verification body, and its effectiveness in performing this role, will be seriously undermined.

Nuclear outrage!

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

In its situation report of 11 March 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) tallies a death toll of 9,961 out of 24,247 cases (41% mortality rate) in the three West-African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. While the overall rate of new infections seems to be slowing down, the numbers nevertheless continue to rise. Infectious disease is the greatest threat to mankind, far higher than any imaginable terrorist plot. According to WHO statistics from about 10 years ago, infectious diseases are responsible for over 13 million deaths worldwide each year. That is 25% of all deaths worldwide each year. Distribution across the planet is highly uneven: in developing countries that percentage rises to half of all deaths. What does more than 13 million fatalities per year represent? Well, it corresponds more or less to the number of people who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 every two hours.

This already intolerable situation is likely to get worse with global warming. Emerging and re-emerging diseases are already wreaking havoc not just in developing, but increasingly also in developed countries. Disease vectors are migrating to what used to be more temperate zones and ever increasing numbers of people are at risk of infection. Globalisation implies more human interactions across the planet. The speed of travel today means that a person can pick up an infection at one end of the world and be back home before the symptoms begin to manifest themselves. This requires drastic action and it is a moral imperative for humanity to prevent this kind of catastrophe from materialising. We must consider drastic measures.

One tool the international community may consider are small tactical nuclear devices, not to be used in anger, but to eradicate any ground zero of an epidemic so as to prevent the further spread of the disease. The advantage is that the technology exists and that this technology is not prohibited by any treaty. Being a small nuclear device, the radiation effects would be limited to a small area and the fireball would eradicate any bacterium or virus in its immediate surroundings. While I can see that people may be shocked by my suggestion, I repeat that those nuclear devices would not be detonated as part of an aggression. Quite on the contrary, the idea actually represents the first practical application of ‘peaceful nuclear explosions’ directly beneficial to humanity. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty must be considered among the greatest successes of the international community. Many people would probably rather not even consider rescinding these conventions to proliferate such small nuclear devices. But as bad as they are, an epidemic with a highly contagious disease can be even worse, certainly much worse than anything we think terrorists can inflict upon us.

Outraged? I bet you are!

Such a scenario is exactly what Mr Seth Baum outlines in two presentations—a featured column on the website of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and a pre-print version of a journal article to be published in the April edition of Contemporary Security Policy—and defends in several replies to online comments and tweets. The only difference is his absolute desire to prevent a nuclear winter instead of a global health pandemic. To achieve his wish he proposes to replace most of the nuclear weapons in the global arsenals with other weapon categories that can equally maintain effective deterrence. Among those weapons categories he includes biological (BW) and chemical weapons (CW), despite the fact that the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) outlaw these weapon categories under any and all circumstances. Not just use, but also their acquisition and possession.

Of course, the author does not call for the abrogation of the BTWC and CWC. But he is clearly conflicted, so he frames the appeal in an indirect way, thus shirking from the consequences of his thoughts (p. 12):

The Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions must be considered among the greatest successes of the international community. Many people would probably rather not even consider rescinding these conventions  to re-proliferate these weapons.

But he immediately adds the following two sentences:

But as bad as [CBW] are, nuclear winter means that nuclear weapons can be even worse. The exception is contagious biological weapons, which could also cause global catastrophe and thus would not qualify as a safer deterrent […].

In other words, CW and non-contagious BW—Mr Baum names anthrax and ricin as examples—are fine. He even turns the CBW taboo on its head to support the deterrence argument (p. 13):

There is something extra about these […] types of weapons that give them a major stigma, to the point of even being considered taboo. To the extent that these weapons cause additional fear, as they clearly did after the 2001 anthrax attacks, it only makes them more powerful as a deterrent.

(Thanks al Qaeda; arrgh, Hatfield; oops, Ivens … well, did the FBI get it finally right? … for strengthening deterrence.)

And if you did not yet grasp his point about deterrence, Mr Baum gets an old cliché out of the cupboard: CBW are sometimes known as ‘the poor man’s atomic bomb’.

Should you still hesitate about the rationality of Mr Baum’s argument, the opening paragraph of the pre-print article must surely take any doubts away (p. 1, emphasis added):

Nuclear weapon states should pursue winter-safe deterrence both because it helps (or at least does not significantly hurt) their national security and because it is morally the right thing to do. This is ethics with strategy […].

Major failing of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The Bulletin contribution, in contrast, is short and outlines some elements of Mr Baum’s argument. Whether one agrees or not with his nuclear winter-free deterrence concept and vision on how to realise it can be the subject of discussion, as indeed it has been in the Bulletin’s comments section.

In the penultimate paragraph he argues that ‘non-contagious biological weapons’ is one of the weapon categories that stands out to organise nuclear winter-free deterrence. Here Mr Baum does not elaborate, nor does he reflect on possible consequences of the suggestion. (CW are strangely absent from the column.) Any person dealing with BW disarmament immediately realises that the idea is tantamount to repealing the BTWC. Indeed, the prohibition in the BTWC covers all pathogens irrespective of whether they are contagious or not. Moreover, the prohibition on their application is the default position; any authorised application is limited to the listed permitted purposes in Article I. Over the years states parties have made it abundantly clear that in their common understanding of that article, deterrence is not one of the ‘other peaceful purposes’, however vague that rest category may be.

The BW angle in the Bulletin column has elicited at least two blog contributions, one by Kathryn Millett of BioSecure and one at BioChem Security 2030 . In a Twitter reply to the online discussions, Mr Baum emphasises that the BTWC ‘must be considered among the greatest successes of the international community’, as stated in his pre-publication paper. But as said above, that generous thought does not offset the basic fact that his reasoning calls for major violation of that treaty.

The other question is why during the editorial process the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists did not take exception to the author’s call for breaching a major disarmament treaty. BioChem Security 2030 challenges the publication regarding its responsibilities head on, and I support their points fully. No need for a repeat here.

The controversy, however, may point to a deeper, growing problem. Online presence is becoming a goal in its own right. For some think tanks and advocacy groups, rising above the clutter must be achieved irrespective the substance of the message. Catchy titles, vile pictures, etc. are part and parcel of the process, irrespective of the contents of a contribution. PR people or media savvy operators run that part of the show. For an online column somebody inside the organisation will perhaps give the manuscript a read through, but mostly to check that the posting will not conflict with any institutional goals or sponsors. However, a review of the substance, factual correctness of data, or deeper implications of a particular assertion is all but absent. Moreover—and this is very clear from the Twitter replies I and other critics of the column got from the Bulletin—those operators perceive the controversy as a positive thing, because it ratchets up the website visit statistics. However, the score comes at a cost, namely diminished integrity.

In this particular case: how could a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists even allow a suggestion that it is OK to violate a major disarmament treaty? Surely, the enormity of what Mr Baum proposes is clear from the intro to this blog posting.

My other question: why has thus far nobody from the nuclear arms control community challenged the proposition to replace nuclear deterrence with the threat of retaliation with bugs (and poisons)?

Outraged? You bet I am.

Syria’s CW disarmament: spill-over effects for Middle East?

Using the Momentum of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Dismantlement and Identifying Spill-Over Potentials

Discussion note prepared for:  Academic Peace Orchestra – Middle East (APOME), Tackling the Middle East WMD/DVs Arsenals in the Context of Military Asymmetries Towards Zonal Disarmament, Berlin, 11–12 March 2015

[Cross-posted from The Trench]


  • Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on 14 September 2013 and formally became a state party on 14 October. This was the outcome of a framework agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capacities between Russia and the United States reached in Geneva on 14 September. This accord averted military strikes by France, the United Kingdom and the United States as reprisal for the use of chemical weapons (CW) in the Syrian civil war. In particular the attacks against the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August represented a major escalation in the conflict. The sarin nerve agent killed hundreds of people and injured many more. At the time of the attacks a UN team comprising experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) were in Damascus in response to an earlier request by the Syrian government to investigate alleged CW use during the spring of 2013. After modification of its mandate, it investigated the Ghouta attacks and issued their preliminary report on 16 September, two days after the Geneva accord. The findings all but blamed the Syrian government. The team submitted its final report covering all chemical warfare allegations from the original mandate as well as some additional attacks after the Ghouta incident on 12 December.
  • After becoming a party to the CWC the verification activities have consisted of four types of activities:
    • Syrian declarations on CW holdings, CW-relevant infrastructure (production and storage sites), and on the history of its chemical warfare programme since 1 January 1946. Given the special circumstances that have led the country to accede to the convention, Syria was requested and has (or is in the process of ) providing information on the destruction of CW before becoming a CWC party. As illustrated by the cases of France and Iran, a state party is not normally required to declare this type of information. However, in order to ensure that Syria is not hiding secret stashes of CW, the requested data contribute to establishing a baseline for its past capacities.
    • The OPCW verifies those declarations, resolves anomalies and where required requests amendments to those declarations.
    • The OPCW conducted inspections at the declared production and storage sites. It oversaw the removal of chemical warfare and precursor agents from Syrian territory and the destruction of delivery means, relevant equipment and installations, and precursor chemicals. It also oversaw the hydrolysis of mustard agent and the neutralisation of a range of precursor chemicals aboard the US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean and the destruction of the resulting effluents in incinerators in Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. At present the OPCW is also overseeing the destruction of the former Syrian CW production facilities. To date, two out of twelve buildings have been destroyed and completion of this task is envisaged for this summer.
    • The OPCW carried out field investigations into the alleged use of chlorine during the spring and summer of 2014.
  • This background note discusses some unique features of the disarmament regime for Syria and their potential relevancy for the Middle East Zone free from non-conventional weapons.

Adaptation to specific circumstances

  • Nobody anticipated that the OPCW would ever have to evacuate CW from a state party under conditions of war. Such a situation never occurred before. Even the disarmament of Iraq during the 1990s took place after a cease-fire agreement, endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). Syria joined the CWC as a CW possessor state, which was also a first after the treaty-defined destruction deadlines had expired. As a consequence, the responsibility to determine Syria’s interim and final destruction deadlines fell to the Executive Council. Its decision of 27 September 2013 was an adaptation of the US-Russian framework agreement. That same night the UN Security Council endorsed the decision in Resolution 2118 (2013). However, given the virtual impossibility to destroy the CW inside a country at war and the extremely tight deadline to complete destruction operations, the EC adopted several exceptional measures in a second decision of 15 November, none of which are precedent-setting.
  • A first major departure from the standard CWC process concerns the initial declaration. Under Article III this document is due within 30 days after the convention enters into force for a state party and establishes a baseline for the country’s status as CW possessor, plans for the destruction of CW and related installations if so required, a description of any CW-related activities after 1 January 1945, the types of chemical facilities on its territory and the types and quantities of treaty-relevant chemicals they produce. Following that submission OPCW inspectors will verify the accuracy of the initial declaration, upon which the state party can submit amendments if so required. In practice OPCW staff will assist a country preparing to join the CWC with compiling the initial declaration and other measures to be undertaken (e.g., national legislation). In the case of Syria inspectors entered the country even before it had formally become a state party (i.e., 30 days after accession) and such an initial declaration was submitted. The Syrian government had agreed to the accelerated pace. While it enabled the OPCW to quickly secure key CW sites that were accessible (some were in combat zones or under the control of insurgents), prepare inventories and render the delivery systems and special equipment useless, it also created a situation in which the OPCW received a lot of information piecemeal. Combined with the chaos of war, Syrian claims of poor bureaucratic administration of the chemical programmes and quite possibly reluctance to cooperate in full, this led to quite a few corrections of the initial declaration and submission of fresh data. Within the Technical Secretariat a small Declaration Assessment Team was set up to raise questions based on the initial declaration, to identify the gaps, find discrepancies, and so on, in order to correct the declaration. In this way, the OPCW has been able and is still continuing to develop the full picture of Syria’s past CW capacities and programmes.
  • Under the terms of Article IV of the CWC, each state party remains the owner of the CW thatmust be destroyed, destroys those CW on its own territory, and pays for the destruction operations and the OPCW verification activities.Given the inability to destroy the CW inside a country at war and the extremely tight deadline to complete destruction operations, the EC adopted several exceptional measures, none of which are precedent-setting:
    • With the exception of one precursor chemical that had to be destroyed in-country, all warfare agents and other precursors were evacuated by sea from Syria.
    • Once they had left the territory, the international community as represented by the OPCW assumed responsibility for the toxic substances. The legal status of the weapons outside of Syria, and therefore the liability in case of a mishap, was never precisely determined.
    • The toxic substances were neutralised or hydrolysed aboard the specially adapted US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean, and then transferred to commercial incinerators in Finland, the United Kingdom and the United States and a dedicated CW destruction facility in Germany.
    • Both the UN and the OPCW set up special trust funds to finance the operation as Syria claimed to be unable to pay for the destruction and verification costs. Many countries offered funds or contributed in kind.
  • The Executive Council vested the OPCW Director-General with the authority to launch a procedure similar in purpose to the challenge inspection, but without many of the procedural formalities detailed in the in the CWC. His decision was to follow a request by a state party and a personal judgement as to the seriousness of the allegation based on information supplied by the requesting state party. He could redirect inspectors working in Syria to the designated site of alleged treaty violation. Despite the difficulties in implementing the decisions regarding the CW disarmament in Syria and the many accusations of procrastination and incomplete declarations, nobody has so far requested such a special inspection.
  • For the time being Syria remains under a special disarmament regime and it may still take one or two years, depending on the level of cooperation from Damascus, before the country can become a ‘normal’ state party. Nobody can presently affirm the way in which the transition to normalcy will take place, but the assumption is that both the Executive Council and the UN Security Council will have to take decisions to that effect.
  • OPCW decisions were endorsed by the UN Security Council, which had also insisted on a role for the UN. (The OPCW is not one of the UN organisations.) In order to coordinate negotiations and assess various risk factors related to the inspections, preparation of transportation and the movement of the chemical substances across Syria to the northern port of Latakia, the OPCW-UN Joint Mission was established. (It completed its mandate on 30 September 2014.) Its head reported to both the OPCW and the UN Security Council.

The emerging challenge of opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals

  • Opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals occurs when a particular entity resorts to a mode of chemical warfare using toxic chemicals that are readily available at a chemical plant or storage site, but does not undertake steps to develop and produce such weapons. The types of agent thus used can range from extremely common chemical substances, such as chlorine (often used in liquid form for water purification), to compounds such as insecticides and pesticides that, just like sarin or VX, belong to the family organophosphates. A typical characteristic of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals is that the attacks cease as soon as stores have been depleted or access to other sources of supply cut off. Delivery is extremely crude, but some indicators suggest a development process for dissemination devices may take place to enhance the impact of the attacks.
  • Through the spring and summer of 2014 there were several reports of chlorine strikes in Syria. Barrel bombs filled with liquid chlorine were dropped on villages from helicopters, strongly suggesting that government forces were responsible for them. As chlorine (or any other toxic chemical) falls under the General Purpose Criterion (GPC) of the CWC, any use as a method of warfare is prohibited. With Syria a state party to the CWC, the OPCW launched an investigation of alleged use. The fact-finding mission arrived in Damascus on 3 May, five days after its creation by the OPCW Director-General. During an onsite investigation on 27 May the team’s vehicle convoy was hit by an explosive device and came under fire. While this part of the mission had to be discontinued, the investigators were able to collate considerable data by means of other techniques, including victim and witness interviews, analysis of medical records and discussions with medical staff, and the analysis of flight paths of helicopters and correlating them to the precise time and site of the barrel bomb attack. It presented three reports in June, September and December 2014. On 4 February 2015 the OPCW Executive Council’s decision formally determined that chlorine had been used as a method of warfare and condemned the acts as a major breach of the CWC. Even though the conclusion did not identify the culprit, it is clear that as a state party Syria bears responsibility for preventing any violation on its territory.
  • Other allegations of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals attributing responsibility to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) emerged during the second half of 2014. One such claim related to the intense fighting at Avdiko village, 12 km east of Kobani in northern Syria; the other incidents came from Iraq. These occurrences pose a special problem under the CWC. While a state party is responsible for the implementation of the CWC on its territory, the reported events took place in areas not under the control by the government. Moreover the way the alleged use was described in Avdiko, both the perpetrator and the victims were non-state actors, a situation that may potentially create a legal and practical vacuum. Under the terms of the CWC (Verification Annex, Part XI, §27), if use has been alleged on territory not under the control by the government of a state party, then the UN Secretary-General’s mechanism will apply. However, in view of the attacks on the OPCW investigative team in May 2014 and the reliance on the Syrian military for the security and safety of UN and OPCW personnel inside Syria, the question arises how a UN investigation would be able to access an area of intense fighting in which the government military play no role. Thus far no concrete ideas suggestion an international military force to be inserted into a UN member state for the sole purpose of protecting an investigative team have been put forward.

Concluding thoughts

  • The arrangements made to enable the CW elimination in Syria are not precedent-setting. However, the whole process has demonstrated a willingness by the OPCW members to approach difficult and exceptional circumstances in a practical way and they have taken several decisions that deviated significantly from the letter of the CWC. This leads to a cautious optimism that if the international community were to request specific types of assistance in support of a nascent zone free of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East, the OPCW might agree.
  • However, any such optimism would dissipate fast if there were no serious indications that the two countries not yet party to the CWC—Egypt and Israel—were to show no inclination of acceding or ratifying the convention. After all, in Syria’s case inventiveness was also stimulated by the fact that on the same day Russia and the United States announced their joint framework agreement, Damascus deposited its instrument of accession with the UN Secretary-General and agreed to collaborating with the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW even before the treaty became legally binding on it. This fact alone already deviated from the standard process as foreseen in the CWC.
  • If Egypt and Israel were to embark on a range of CBM-types of activities to enhance transparency with regard to past and present CW activities and issues of concern, then the OPCW might be open to assist the process in a discrete fashion.
  • Particularly in view of the many emotional reactions to events in the Middle East, any scenario of OPCW involvement would require strong common purpose between Russia and the US, and at least tacit endorsement of their initiatives by the other P-5 members.
  • Other than that, the Syrian CW disarmament effort may well remain a truly exceptional case of international collaboration under exceptional circumstances with little bearing on other situations in the Middle East.
  • With ISIL moving into Egypt, a scenario of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals in that country cannot be wholly discounted. By staying outside of the CWC, Cairo denies itself certain international tools of assistance and cooperation that could help to counter the threat or mitigate the consequences of such an attack.

Yousaf Butt on NYT Reporting on Iran

Just wanted to pass along that friend of ACL Dr. Yousaf Butt has published a very good new piece over at The Hill, in which he takes NYT reporters David Sanger and William Broad to task for their reporting on Iran’s nuclear program. The piece is titled “The Obsession with Discredited Allegations about Iran’s Past Nuclear Work.”

I do think that this is an important subject, and I’ve noticed too that media reports about the issue of allegations made by the IAEA and the West about possible past military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program, often express these allegations as being presumptively well supported factually, when as Yousaf and others have long argued, there are a lot of problems with these allegations.

I also think Yousaf and others have made an important point on the subject of Iran’s interactions with the IAEA, which is that the IAEA has often complained about unsatisfactory answers on Iran’s part in response to questions about these allegations, when in most instances Iran’s answer has been that the documents procured by the IAEA on which these allegations are based are fraudulent. Now, that’s only an unsatisfactory answer if an independent review has been made in some kind of credible way about the documents, and they have been found to be credible. That has not happened in this case.

To a lawyer’s mind, it’s instinctively similar to a criminal trial wherein prosecutors want to introduce evidence into the record, but won’t let the defense either see or challenge the evidence, and rather demand that the evidence be accepted categorically as credible on the prosecutor’s say-so alone, and that the defense be compelled to explain the meaning of the evidence, with a presumption that the defendant bears the burden of explaining it to the prosecutor’s satisfaction.

Obviously, that’s not how it works. The defense gets a chance to both see and challenge the evidence, and only then can the independent finder of fact have any reasonable chance of determining what to believe about the guilt or innocence of the accused.