Pay up in the name of BW disarmament (2) – Civil society gets involved

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 2 April I described how non-payments by states parties were defunding the implementation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and risking to shut down the 3-person Implementation Support Unit (ISU) and the convening of meetings. A couple of weeks earlier the Ambassadors of the three Depository States – the Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States – had written an urgent letter to the BTWC States Parties to immediately comply with their financial obligations.

Since then, the situation has ameliorated somewhat. The contracts of the ISU staff have now been extended until the end of the year. But the crisis is far from over. When I wrote my blog posting, the deficit for the BTWC stood at US$ 379,557. According to the latest update on the financial situation (31 March) this figure has been reduced to US$ 188,631.

One county stands out in this dossier: Brazil. As reported in the earlier blog post, it owed the BTWC US$ 298,459 or 78.6% of the total deficit of the BTWC. With the exception of 2011 it has defaulted on its financial obligations or paid its dues only partially since 2001. That figure has not changed, which means that its debt now exceeds the current budgetary shortfall. It exceeds the combined outstanding debt of all other states parties.

The combined outstanding debt for four weapon control agreements administered by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs in Geneva –  the BTWC, Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), and Anti Personnel Landmine Convention (OTW) – amounts to a staggering US$ 929,112. Brazil’s share is US$ 652,657 or 70%.

Civil society rears it head

Civil society is now taking up the issue. Mary Wareham, advocacy director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, has engaged Brazilian officials directly. In a Twitter exchange she elicited from Mr Benoni Belli, Policy Planner at Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, that ‘other payments will be made this year‘. Promising indeed, but promises unfortunately do not alleviate the financial problems.

The civil society platform Friends of the Biological Weapons Convention, coordinated by Kathryn Millett, has now also taken up the issue. Yesterday it posted an appeal to its Facebook page and announced the launch of an action campaign to prompt Brazil and other states to pay their assessed contributions:

On 31 March, the UN Financial Resources Management Service released a summary of the status of financial contributions to four disarmament conventions – the BWC, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and the Mine Ban Treaty.

The summary (which updated an earlier summary dated 28 Feb) demonstrated that 3 of the 4 treaties were owed almost $1 million USD by states parties in unpaid assessed financial contributions. The BWC alone is owed almost $190K by its member states.

The significance of these debts cannot be overstated. New UN financial rules mean that meetings cannot take place nor can staff contracts be renewed unless the money is already in the bank. To that end, an extraordinary letter from the BWC co-depositories (Russian Fed, USA & UK) dated 21 March was sent to all states parties urging them to pay up or risk the possibility of a) not being able to renew ISU contracts past April 2017, and b) cancellation/curtailment of the 2017 Meeting of States Parties (MSP) scheduled for December.

While the BWC is hosted by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, it is NOT an UN treaty and therefore cannot take advantage of central UN funds or reserves, nor is there a working capital fund like at the OPCW, which can be used to cover temporary financial shortcomings. In short, the BWC is fully dependent on states parties paying their dues in a timely fashion. If states do not, meetings will not happen and staff cannot work to administer the treaty.

That BWC ISU staff contracts have now been renewed until the end of the year is a very welcome development, but does not mean the BWC is out of the woods yet: the BWC does not have sufficient funds to cover the costs of the MSP in December.

Following the failure of the BWC Eighth Review Conference to achieve any meaningful progress in strengthening the convention, a successful MSP in December is more critical than ever to the continued health and relevancy of the treaty. This unsatisfactory situation is further compounded by the rise in use of non-conventional weapons by both states and non-state actors as evidenced by the situation in Syria. The norm of the Chemical Weapons Convention (the BWC’s sister convention) is under threat by the continued instances of the use of sarin and chlorine as weapons of war. The use of banned conventional weapons in warfare such as cluster munitions and landmines is also on the increase. Disarmament treaties are under threat and states parties must act to positively reinforce the norms against the use of banned weapons.

So – what can be done?

Civil society across disarmament domains will be writing letters to states that are the most significantly in arrears (such as Brazil). Please do consider signing these letters (we will post the letter here from the BWC community) and also check directly with your country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the status of their payments. If they haven’t paid their contributions, call/ email them demanding that they do so. Contact your country’s mission in Geneva and ask them what they are doing to remedy their debts. Make a noise on twitter.

If you would like more information on this situation as it progresses, please send a private message and we will get back to you. You can also read more on the issue here:

– JP Zanders, Pay up in the name of BW disarmament:…/

– G Koblenz & P Walker, ‘Can Bill Gates rescue the bioweapons convention?’,…

Thank you all for your kind attention and for any action you can also undertake to remedy this situation. The latest UN financial summary can be found here:

It was a remarkable act. On 21 March the Permanent Representatives to the UN Conference of Disarmament of the three co-depositories of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)—the Russian…

Time to act is now

Today, 22 April 2017, is the 102nd anniversary of the first modern chemical weapons attack. Chlorine is still a weapon of choice in the wars in Syria and Iraq. In both countries we have seen escalation to mustard and nerve agents. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which is as strong as a weapon control treaty gets today, is facing huge challenges to restore the basic principle of non-use under any and all circumstances. Not technical challenges, but as a consequence of the pursuit of geopolitical priorities by some key players…

While great civil society optimism is currently pushing many UN members to negotiating a ban on nuclear weapons, existing weapon control treaties are facing daily challenges. Some states are eroding value of these treaties as armed conflicts appear interminable; in other cases they simply fail to pay their dues, which undermines the tools to uphold the international norms embedded in those agreements. We simply cannot afford a breakdown in those regulatory regimes!

To this end, any stakeholder (professional or scientific association, academia), civil society organisation, or individual who wishes to preserve the four afore-mentiond international instruments to prevent of mitigate the consequences of armed conflict –  the BTWC, CCM, CCW, and OTW – should contact Mary Wareham or Kathryn Millett to see how they can participate in letter campaigns or other initiatives under development.

Hate mail for standing up for CW disarmament – A first?

The news just broke that the Trump administration launched cruise missiles against al Shayrat airfield in Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib Province on 4 April.

I then got the following message:

As usual with such religion-infused hate messages, the basic facts are all wrong and ignorance reigns supreme.

It is really sad that with so much intolerance concerning social relations, ethnicity and personal identity, the efforts at disarmament – a core tool in creating international stability, preventing the outbreak of war, or should that fail, escalation of the conflict – now too become the object of highly individualised hatred.

But Kathryn, to reply to your question: Yes, I am proud to stand up for disarmament and peaceful conflict resolution, and will always do so in spite of your hateful intercessional prayers for a person unknown to you.

In the meantime, please reflect on the fact that your president has never allowed or gave those (beautiful) innocent children a chance to seek refuge in the United States from the war calamaties in Syria.

Otherwise, I hope you have a nice and peaceful day in California.

CW attack in Khan Sheikhoun: Documents from the UNSC debate on responsibility

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

{Update 4 – 12 April 2017}

This posting brings together the most important documents circulating at this stage.

First, the minutes with the statements by UN Security Council (UNSC) members and debate on 28 February, during which a resolution to sanction certain Syrian individuals deemed responsible for the earlier CW attacks was vetoed, can be downloaded here.

On 5 April, the UNSC held an emergency debate after the chemical weapon attack against Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib Province, Syria that killed scores of civilians – the death toll is now approaching 100 – and hundreds of other casualties.

In a statement also issued on 5 April, the WHO gave credence to the hypothesis that the agent or one of the agents used might have been sarin:

The likelihood of exposure to a chemical attack is amplified by an apparent lack of external injuries reported in cases showing a rapid onset of similar symptoms, including acute respiratory distress as the main cause of death. Some cases appear to show additional signs consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents.

The full document is available from the WHO website.

The UNSC emergency session began with a report by Mr Kim Won-soo, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) has published his statement.

A detailed summary of the session presentations and discussion is available here.

At present, Russia, on the one hand, and France, United Kingdom and the United States, on the other hand, have started circulating draft texts for resolutions.

And he made the early French, UK and US draft available via the web.

A debate and vote on these draft resolutions was expected in the evening of 6 April (EST), but has been cancelled.

Also on 6 April the European Union released a statement denouncing the chemical attack, but supporting ‘the efforts of the OPCW in Syria with regard to the investigation of the use of chemical weapons and [considering] that such efforts have to be continued in the future by the international community‘.

The UN Security Council is meeting on 7 April to discuss the US airstrike against Syria. A briefing ahead of the meeting updates the status of the negotiations on a resolution condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

{Update}revised French, UK and US draft resolution on his blog.

{Update} Meanwhile the 4-page White House report on the chemical weapon attack against Khan Sheikhoun is also available.

More to follow as they become available.

Pay up in the name of BW disarmament

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

It was a remarkable act. On 21 March the Permanent Representatives to the UN Conference of Disarmament of the three co-depositories of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)—the Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States—wrote to their colleagues in Geneva to address the question of ‘assessed financial contributions to the Convention’. The matter is extremely urgent:

We have been informed that the funding currently available will only allow the [Implementation Support Unit – ISU] staff to have their contracts extended until end of April 2017. We, therefore, urge all States Parties to the Convention to pay their assessed contributions as soon as possible and to settle their arrears without delay. Without the prompt resolution of this issue, the structures and decisions agreed upon just a few months ago at the Eighth Review Conference will be in serious jeopardy.

But the lack of funding could spell trouble for the BTWC process too:

With respect to the Meeting of States Parties scheduled for December 2017, States Parties are kindly reminded that sufficient funds must be received in advance in order for the meeting to be organized as scheduled. The financial situation will be monitored regularly and a decision will need to be made three months prior to the meeting as to whether or not it can be held as planned.

For those in Geneva closely monitoring the health of the BTWC, the issue of non-payments is not new, but acquired greater urgency throughout 2016 to the point that the 8th Review Conference last November discussed the matter several times during the three-week meeting. As stated in the final document (p. 22, §12):

The Conference notes that, under new UN financial procedures, funds must be available before meetings can be held. The Conference requests States Parties to proceed with the payment of their share of the estimated costs as soon as the assessment notices have been received from the United Nations to help ensure that the meetings can be held as scheduled.

Not just the BTWC

The issue is not unique to the BTWC. Merely a few weeks before the 5th Review Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (the so-called Inhumane Weapons Convention or CCW) was due to take place (12–16 December 2016) people were in despair whether it could be held at all. The CCW ISU even had to organise two informal briefings chaired by the President-designate on 8 and 14 November 2016 to discuss the financial challenges. As the CCW ISU wrote in its report covering the previous intersessional period:

An issue of significant importance in 2016 is the timely payment by States of their financial obligations under the framework Convention, Amended Protocol II and Protocol V to which they are High Contracting Parties, or meetings and conferences in which they participate as States not parties (observers). This has ended up being a major area of work for the ISU. The existing United Nations Financial Rules and Regulations have always required that funds are received in advance of incurring expenditures such as the organising of meetings and conferences under the CCW and the salary costs for the two ISU staff members. Recent financial accountability initiatives including the introduction of International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) and the introduction of the new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, Umoja, are bringing greater transparency as well as stricter enforcement of these rules and regulations. These initiatives will no longer allow the Secretariat to convene a meeting or renew contracts of staff members, unless the necessary cash has been received in advance and previous arrears are paid in full.

This document also detailed the resource burden the arrears place on the small ISU (2 persons) and UN Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA):

UNODA, the Financial Resources Management Service (FRMS) of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) and the ISU are working together to address the current financial situation. Letters were dispatched to States reminding them of their outstanding dues, comprising their 2016 assessed contributions and past unpaid arrears. The ISU directly contacted States, updated the website on the status of contributions and facilitated the sending of messages on behalf of the President-designate on the financial crisis concerning the Review Conference. In addition, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Mr. Kim Won-Soo, has brought this matter to the attention of the UN Member States in his statement at the UNGA’s First Committee and sent letters to all those States with outstanding dues.

In a letter similar to the one addressed to BTWC states parties dated 1 March, the UK’s Permanent Representative in his capacity of Chairperson-elect of the 2017 CCW Meeting urged states parties to meet their financial obligations:

Any outstanding arrears and the 2017 assessed contributions for the CCW must be received as soon as possible in order to ensure the continuity of the CCW Implementation Support Unit (ISU), particularly its staff members. Currently the funding available will only allow the ISU staff to have their contracts extended until the end of April 2017.

Blame it on Umoja …

The financial troubles affecting the implementation of multilateral disarmament and arms control treaties are not new. However, it is striking how last year they almost brought the work of agreements administered by the United Nations to a screeching halt. For treaties whose implementation is overseen by bodies outside the UN system, parties had to adopt specific measures to coax states into paying their arrears. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), having faced similar challenges for several years, has adopted multi-year payment plans. It can also coerce a recalcitrant member into paying by taking away its voting rights. Or by less formal measures … For instance, last year an ever louder suggestion circulated that the Technical Secretariat would no longer consider hiring Brazilian nationals until the country had fulfilled all its financial obligations. (On Brazil, more below.)

The United Nations adopted an organisation-wide resource planning system, which takes care of all staff and financial administration, including record-keeping, workflow and communications, as well as any activities undertaken by UN agencies. It controls the work of any UN operative even in the most far-flung places on this planet. Commonly known as Umoja—Swahili for ‘united’—it is former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s brainchild. It was rolled out in November 2015 but the inevitable growing pains became an immediate source of intense frustration among UN staff. As UN connoisseur Colum Lynch noted in Foreign Policy half a year later, the software required several years of development work at a cost of over $400 million. Still, he reported that because of the chaos it created people could go without pay for several months (a claim disputed by a UN spokesperson) and that the UN was struggling with outside contractors.

Umoja also places full administrative responsibility with the individual, irrespective of the person’s job description. There is little room for delegation or functional specialisation. Data input for the simplest of tasks, e.g. registering a travel mission, requires several pages of input. Organising a seminar halfway across the world against a tight deadline can be even more challenging, particularly if mandatory minimal bureaucratic timelines cannot be met. The slightest mistake blocks the whole process; a software glitch that fails, for example, to connect administration with finance to release the required funds can take many hours, if not days to locate people not just in the building where one works, but also at one’s destination. And when things seem to get arranged in Geneva, somebody in New York can still override the whole process, and without notification or explanation make different and unasked arrangements that suit nobody and end up costing a lot more. Of course, by the time such an intervention is nullified, original arrangements have been cancelled.

Umoja indeed concentrates a lot of bureaucratic power in New York, but has made administrative responsibility diffuse. Today people claim that Umoja works much more smoothly than in 2016. One may wonder whether this is the case, or whether UN staff is falling prey to some bureaucratic variant of the Stockholm syndrome.

But let us not digress too far. The core point concerning the rigidity imposed by Umoja is that even the smallest expense must have a specific budget line. Insufficient budgetary provision automatically entails that no money can be expended. Given the interconnectedness of all elements in Umoja’s process flow, the organisation of a meeting will therefore be automatically blocked.

… but it is really an individual responsibility of states parties

US$ 379,556.66. That is the deficit the BTWC was facing on 28 February. The budgeted expenditure for 2017 amounts to $1,109,500. Over one third of the money due has not yet been paid into the accounts. As the tables prepared by UNODA show, the nature of the deficit is even more hallucinating. Some arrears go as far back as 2001, year of the 5th Review Conference!

For the current year the deficit appears less dramatic at first sight: just under $27,000. In reality, however, the UN received only $759,796 in contributions. The remaining $322,767 comprises overpayments from states parties, money that in principle the UN ought to refund at the end of the year (i.e. 2016).

Thirteen out of 178 states parties owe UNODA money in excess of $10,000 (See Table 1). An additional 32 states are between 1,000 and $10,000 in arrears. The majority—107 states parties—have negative balances of less than $1000, of which 51 owe less than $100.

Twenty-six countries have paid a combined $322,767 in excess of what is due. In all but 8 cases the overpayment amounts to less than $1,000 and in many instances to less than $100. The overpayment by two countries stand out: the USA ($249,491 or 77.3%) and Saudi Arabia ($57,711 or 17.88%).

Table 2 shows that in seven cases the outstanding money is for 2017 only. A quick glance at the comprehensive table prepared by UNODA indicates this is also the case for many other countries.However, the responsibility of one country for the financial crisis is overwhelming: Brazil owns 78.6% of the total deficit of the BTWC. With the exception of 2011 it has defaulted on its financial obligations or paid its dues only partially since 2001. While it is true that 16 other states also owe UNODA money from before 2015, their combined outstanding balance amounts to $75,678. (As Table 2 demonstrates, three of those countries are also listed among the states parties owing more than $10,000 and are responsible for $57,472 of that debt).

Urgent response needed

While one can easily envisage Umoja provoking computer screens to fly across offices, it still remains the responsibility of individual states parties to meet their commitments under international treaties. In fact, it is because of Umoja that the scale of the disarmament deficit could be laid out in detail. And the management tool is discretely being deployed to diplomatically name and shame recalcitrant payers.

In October 2016, a mere two weeks before the start of the 8th Review Conference, the ISU prepared the first information document on the status of assessed contributions to the BTWC from 2001 up to 21 October 2016. The total outstanding balance was then $196,964. Comparison with the table issued in February shows that many states parties promptly responded, leading to a different pattern in overdue balances. The overall sum due increased by over $80,000, but as indicated earlier, many states still have to transfer their contribution for 2017.

At first sight, the situation may not appear as dramatic as suggested in the letter by the co-depositories. However, this is where Umoja raises its head again. Received funds have to be spread over different budget lines. Some of these budget lines will not be used until a specific event takes place (e.g., document printing or interpretation for a meeting); other ones cover regular expenditure (e.g., salaries). Umoja is all but inflexible about money transfers from one budget post to another (even temporarily). So, if the budget line for salaries is not replenished in time, then the ISU staff goes without remuneration, even if money were available for documents or interpretation to bridge a temporary gap. Alternatively, even with salary cost fully funded for some months, if insufficient money is available to organise an event, such as a meeting of states parties, then that event is in jeopardy. This explains the urgency in the call for contributions. The ISU cannot draw on a working capital fund like the OPCW, which it used to cover temporary financial shortcomings, or reserves. And while the ISU is placed under UNODA, it does not belong to the core UN units. As a consequence, it cannot draw on central UN reserves or spare resources in case of a temporary shortfall. (The same goes when an ISU staff member is on sick or maternity leave: because the absentee continues to receive remuneration, no other person can be hired on the same budget line and the ISU cannot draw on a central pool of UN staff resources.)

Looking at how the OPCW addresses unpaid dues by states parties, it is clear that Umoja imposes bureaucratic rigidity and limits human initiative. Yet, in all likelihood adaptation of the way in which the BTWC is administered will alleviate, if not resolve the current financial anxieties. Still, this does not absolve the responsibility of individual states parties to pay their dues in time.

Brazil bears an overwhelming responsibility for the current crisis: it owns more than three-quarters of the overall deficit of the BTWC. Its arrears go back a decade and a half. This is not the consequence of a single incident or forgetfulness. The period in question covers moments of more than average GDP growth as well as the recession of the past two years. The problem manifests itself is different disarmament and arms control forums, including the OPCW. Last summer Brazilian officials indicated publicly and privately that money was being made available to address this deficit of the BTWC. However, comparing  the UNODA tables presented in October 2016 and February 2017 reveals no reduction in the outstanding balance. Quite on the contrary.

It will be up to the BTWC states parties and the highest political level in the United Nations to bear pressure on Brazil to resolve this matter urgently.

VX assassination and ALT+Reality

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

The assassination of Kim Jong-nam with—according to Malaysian authorities—the nerve agent VX unsurprisingly yielded many press articles, expert commentaries and other opinion pieces. Equally unsurprising is how uninformed several commentators are about the basics of all things chemical warfare. And I am not even referring to the ignorati who characterise VX (or mustard agent, for that matter—courtesy Dan’s unrelenting aspiration to educate the Twitterati) as a gas (it is a liquid with the viscosity of motor oil). It is about not checking basic facts or the accuracy of sources (which may quickly become outdated), as well as copy-and-paste work—particularly from peers or Wikipedia.

VX categorised as a weapon of mass destruction, according to the UN

In popular speech chemical weapons (CW) are easily called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD). However, if one thinks of CS tear gas (yes, it should be ‘lachrymatory agent’, because it is a solid) or pepper sprays, then one immediately realises how misleading the term is. The same goes for the use of a poisonous substance, be it VX, ricin, or something less glamorous like rat poison, to assassinate a single individual. Even if the victim has a high body mass, it still does not make the murder weapon a WMD. Anyway, this is an unresolvable, and therefore never-ending discussion about a term certain Western political elites politicised and popularised to justify their invasion of Iraq in 2003. (Yes, WMD later came to stand for ‘weapons of mass delusion’, a proto-reference to ALT+Reality.)

Even so, I became intrigued by the recurring phrase ‘listed / classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations’ in many of the press accounts after Malaysian authorities publicly identified VX as the murder weapon on 24 February. Some articles had an additional, but very specific reference: such characterisation was contained in UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). See for example:

It is true that the first resolution ever adopted by the UN General Assembly, namely ‘Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problem Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy(UNGA Resolution 1(I), 24 January 1946) contained the following provision in the terms of reference of the proposed commission (para. 5 (c)):

For the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.

On 12 August 1948, the UN Commission on Conventional Armaments adopted a resolution for consideration by the UN Security Council in which it proposed that its jurisdiction include ‘all armaments and armed forces’ with the exception of atomic weapons and weapons of mass destruction. It further proposed to define WMD

to include atomic explosive weapons, radio active material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above.

This, however, was a negative way of defining ‘conventional weapons’ as a residual weapon category so as to serve the commission’s interests. It is by no means a legal definition. No such definition exists, despite the many references to WMD in UN documents and working papers. Consequently, there is no UN classification of WMD, including for lethal chemical agents like VX.

It is worth noting that the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) does not use ‘lethality’ as a criterion for defining a chemical weapon. The United States adopted such a specification in the 1920s in an effort to exempt riot control agents from the prohibition on CW use in the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which other states did not accept at the time. It revived the concept in the 1960s and 1970s to avoid characterisation of its widespread use of lachrymatory and anti-plant agents during the Viêt-Nam war as chemical warfare and to retain such military options while Congress was debating ratification of the Geneva Protocol. A final hiccup occurred during the Senate’s ratification of the CWC in 1997. In short, the so-called ‘non-lethal’ lachrymatory and incapacitating agents are part and parcel of the legal definition of a chemical weapon. (Too bad for the WMD aficionados.)

This leaves us with the reference to UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). This document essentially comprises the cease-fire agreement after the eviction of Iraq from Kuwait and the Iraq’s disarmament requirements with regard to biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles. However, it contains no reference whatsoever to VX.

So, where does the quote come from? Given the as good as identical phrasing in different articles (with or without the specific reference to Resolution 687), I would say that writers copied from each other without checking the statement’s foundation in reality. However, somebody did research and then copied and pasted word for word the erroneous sentence from the entry ‘VX (Nerve Agent)’ in Wikipedia (1st paragraph):

As a chemical weapon, it is classified as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) by the United Nations Resolution 687.

Students get busted for such sloppy investigative work.

Saddam Hussein used VX in Halabja in 1988

Another theme recurring in several reports is:

VX, which Malaysian police said was detected on Kim Jong Nam’s eyes and face, was used by Saddam Hussein’s forces in a 1988 poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in northern Iraq that killed thousands.

This version is taken from: Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung, AP Explains: What chemical weapons N. Korea possesses (24 February). As an Associated Press feed, it got into several major news outlets and papers.

A variant of the assertion appeared in the US magazine Rolling Stone, which almost certainly did not draw on the AP report.

Now, anybody vaguely familiar with the history of chemical warfare knows that nerve agents were used for the first time during the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war (sarin and tabun), but also that VX has never been used in combat. In fact, the only time VX was deployed to kill people was when in the mid-1990s the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo attempted to eliminate several of its opponents. One person died; some victims of the attacks survived.

So, where did that come from? As it turns out, the same Wikipedia article (Section ‘Instances of VX use’). Only this time around, the writers misquote the entry, which reads [emphasis added]:

There was evidence of a combination of chemical agents having been used by Iraq against the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 under Saddam Hussein. Hussein later testified to UNSCOM that Iraq had researched VX, but had failed to weaponize the agent due to production failure.

The first sentence is referenced with a BBC press report dated 16 March 1988, which was when the first accounts about the chemical bombardment of the Kurdish town came out. The article stated (in a speculative way):

According to experts, the chemicals dropped by the planes may have included mustard gas, the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX and possibly cyanide.

As the BBC explains in a separate comment on the same web page that places the original press item in context: ‘Most of the details about the Halabja killings only emerged a few days later.’ In this instance, the error is not with Wikipedia: despite the entry’s title, it did not assert that the combination of chemicals used in Halabja (which is a correct statement) included VX and it immediately followed up with Iraq’s failure to weaponise VX.

The Rolling Stones writer (whose article includes several errors – check out my comment) tried to avoid the stigma about Wikipedia as a source among academics by directly quoting the BBC piece. Alas …

Again, students get busted for such sloppy investigative work.

North Korea has the world’s third largest CW stockpile

Kim Jong-nam’s murder also led some writers to speculate about the chemical warfare threat posed by North Korea. Based on a South Korean Defence White Paper published in 2014, the general assumption is that the country holds between 3 and 5,000 tonnes of warfare agent. These figures have been around for ages.

However, more surprising is the recurring assertion in national media and by international press agencies that the stockpile is the world’s third largest. In this case, there is somewhat more transparency, as several authors point to a fact sheet on North Korea’s CW capacities prepared by the National Threat Initiative (NTI). However, that fact sheet has not been updated since December 2015. It includes the following judgement in the opening summary:

While assessing CW stockpiles and capabilities are difficult, the DPRK is thought to be among the world’s largest possessors of chemical weapons, ranking third after the United States and Russia.

In support of this assertion it cited: North Korean Security Challenges: A Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), p. 161.

So here, the press takes over an easy, catchy quote but fails to understand that the original source is six years old. As if there is no CWC; as if the United States and Russia made no progress in eliminating their respective cold war arsenals.

I can assure you, a student in my course on ‘Armament and Disarmament Dynamics’ who submitted such sloppy investigative work would not have survived (and indeed, some did not).

Moral of the story

Alternative facts are not the privilege of an occupant of one presidential seat. It is a reality we need to address every day, and it is up to each one of use to test for the factual truth time and time again, even (or especially) if it goes against received wisdom or the trending opinion of the day .

(Gosh, did I really have to write that?)

VX murder in Kuala Lumpur?

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

According to an overnight statement by the Malaysian police, Kim Jong Nam—half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—was assassinated with the nerve agent VX at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

VX is one of the high-end chemical warfare agents developed and produced in large quantities by the USA, USSR and some secondary powers during the cold war. Former military chemical weapon arsenals are being eliminated under the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), of course, is together with Egypt, Israel and South Sudan one of the four hold-out states. It is widely believed to have a significant chemical warfare capacity, but how militarily effective it might be is anyone’s guess.

Commentators will happily inform you that it possesses the world’s largest stockpile, which is as good as meaningless given that all other arsenals have been almost entirely eliminated under international supervision. BBC World already broadcast a report in which an unidentified ‘expert’ said it had to be a nation-state because its synthesis is far too complex for your backroom.

Statement by the Malaysian Police on the identification of the VX nerve agent (24 February 2017)

However, the substance is not unknown in terrorism: Aum Shinrikyo synthesised somewhere between 100 and 200 grammes of the substance between 1993 and 1995. It tried to assassinate several opponents by spraying it in the face of the victim with a syringe. Only one person died; the others survived. It always appeared technological overkill: had the cult used more ‘traditional’ assassination weapons, such as knives or guns, their attacks would have been far more lethal.

Many questions; few answers so far

As the information stands right now, the Malaysian police’s claim is remarkable for what it does not say. The preliminary toxicology report reportedly states that traces of VX were detected on swabs of the dead man’s face and eyes. If this is the case, then the following questions require an answer:

  • Why were there no previous descriptions in press reports of symptoms typically associated with nerve agent exposure (spasms, foaming, discolouration, etc.)?
  • Why did it take 9 days since the assassination on 13 February before the poison was confirmed?
  • Why did the preliminary toxicology report (or at least the police officer) not mention physiological consequences of nerve agent exposure, such as increased acetylcholine levels (which is responsible for the spasms)?
  • What is meant by ‘traces’? Residue? Or small amounts? VX is a pretty persistent agent that can last for days. Rubbing the agent in the face suggests an area with a rather high concentration of the agent, even if the amount was limited.
  • Why did the assassin not display any of those symptoms? Was she wearing gloves or was the agent contained in a capsule? (And if she was wearing gloves, were they then not found? Or frangments of a capsule?) Did she receive a nerve agent pretreatment antidote? There were some reports of vomiting, but was this reaction related to nerve agent exposure? Any splash of a tiny droplet anywhere on her body would have resulted in some symptoms of varying degree. She was jailed, but nothing to such effect was reported.
  • There was apparently no decontamination effort at the airport. So, were first responders or medical staff at the airport clinic, police officers and other persons who came to the victim’s assistance or were in his vicinity affected through secondary contamination? No reports, thus far.
  • Have samples been sent to one of the top-level OPCW certified laboratories, such as the Verification Laboratory, Defence Medical and Environmental Research Institute, DSO National Laboratories in neighbouring Singapore (with or without involvement of the OPCW)?
  • Why did the Malaysian authorities say earlier today that they would sweep the airport and other locations for radioactive material? And apparently not for VX traces?

These, and I am sure, many more questions require clear answers before we can arrive at reasonable conclusions. More to come over the next days and weeks …


Allegation of chemical warfare in Darfur

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Warning: contains extreme graphic images of injuries and infection

Last September Amnesty International (AI) issued a 105-page report entitled Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air alleging the use of chemical weapons (CW) among other atrocities committed by Sudanese forces in the Darfur region. The chemical warfare section contains numerous images of civilian victims with horrifying skin lesions. It suggests that these are the consequence of exposure to a vesicant, possibly a mustard agent. The report is accompanied by a 4-minute video on YouTube. Several press articles and contributions to on-line media after the report’s publication have reinforced the allegation of mustard agent use.

To AI’s great frustration some countries have expressed reservations about the allegations, and so has the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The non-governmental expert community on CW matters has remained silent. After the initial buzz of interest in the press, the ripples caused by the investigation have all but faded. No fresh chemical warfare allegations seem to have surfaced since the report’s publication.

Were the reservations warranted? This posting reviews the report.

The allegation

The AI report documents several atrocities allegedly committed by Sudanese government forces against civilians in Jebel Marra, an area east of the town of Zalingei in south-west Sudan. Zalingei is the state capital of Central Darfur State. For decades famine and war have ravaged Darfur, causing immense human suffering and displacing millions. Humanitarian concerns about people living in camps set up by the United Nations or in the most squalid conditions in remote villages are immense. Access to Jebel Marra is as good as impossible, meaning that the plight of the local population and war crimes remain under-reported. According to AI, even the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) cannot access the region.

It is in this context that AI alleges CW attacks against civilians. According to the report summary (p. 5):

Amnesty International interviewed 56 residents of Jebel Marra, 46 civilians and ten members of SLA/AW, who alleged that Sudanese government forces utilized “poisonous smoke” during attacks in Jebel Marra between January and September 2016. These individuals, all of whom are either survivors of the alleged attacks or cared for survivors and victims, provided Amnesty International with substantial testimonial and photographic evidence in support of the allegations. The evidence strongly suggests that Sudanese government forces repeatedly used chemical weapons during attacks in Jebel Marra.

Survivors and caregivers described a wide variety of ailments that victims of alleged chemical weapons attacks experienced during the hours and days after exposure to the alleged chemical weapons agents.

Based on testimony from caregivers and survivors, Amnesty International estimates that between 200 and 250 people may have died as a result of exposure to the chemical weapons agents, with many – or most – being children. The vast majority of survivors of the suspected chemical weapons attacks have had no access to adequate medical care.

Amnesty International documented alleged chemical weapons attacks in and around at least 32 villages in Jebel Marra between January and September 2016. Several of the villages were attacked multiple times. The earliest attacks occurred during the start of the government’s offensive in mid-January. The attacks are ongoing. The most recent attack recorded by Amnesty occurred on 9 September 2016.

Exact identification of the specific chemical agents allegedly used in the attacks documented in this report would require the collection of environmental samples and physiological samples from those directly or indirectly exposed to the alleged chemical agents. An identification would also require an analysis of weapon remnants used during the attacks. Given that access to Jebel Mara is severely restricted, it was not possible for Amnesty International to obtain such samples.

Amnesty International asked two chemical weapons experts to independently review the clinical signs and symptoms revealed by the photographic and video evidence and interview notes. They are both respected experts with experience in unconventional munitions, including biological and chemical warfare agents, and are experienced in the diagnosis of exposure to chemical weapons agents.

Both experts found that there was credible evidence to strongly suggest that chemical weapons agents were used in the attacks documented in this report.

Both experts concluded the clinical signs and symptoms were most consistent with exposure to a class of chemical warfare agents called vesicants or blister agents, which include lewisite, sulphur mustard and nitrogen mustard. However, they also asserted that it was possible that survivors were exposed to a combination of chemicals in addition to blister agents.

These claims the report elaborates in chapter 6 (pp. 69–94), which includes numerous pictures of the effects of the alleged warfare agents on the victims and transcriptions of interview notes. Supporting evidence comes essentially in three forms: witness narratives, pictures, and expert assessment.

Witness narratives

AI collected statements from three categories of witnesses: caregivers, civilian victims and members of Sudan Liberation Army/Abdul Wahid (SLA/AW). It conducted most of its interviews pertaining to the chemical warfare allegations between June and September 2016. Five statements were recorded earlier: one in April and four in May. The earlier assertions thus appear to have been registered while investigating other atrocities such as the deliberate targeting of refugees and local civilians. They likely prompted AI to expand its probe so as to include possible chemical warfare.

Unsurprisingly, many witness accounts are confusing and descriptions of experiences do not easily match academic and medical treatises on CW exposure. They often reveal an interviewee’s subjective linkage between cause and effect, something not uncommon in crisis situations. Equally striking is the rapid sequence of symptoms suffered by victims in various witness accounts. Unfortunately, at no point did the interviewers attempt to establish as precise as possible intervals between the noted incident and the onset of particular symptoms, or the sequence of manifestation of symptoms (e.g., in the eyes, miscarriages, etc.). Consequently, the AI report can but enumerate indicators (p. 70):

Survivors and caregivers reported a variety of changes to skin [Sic]. The changes included severe blisters, rashes, and itchiness. The victims’ skin reportedly hardened, changed colour to white, black, or green, and subsequently fell off. Changes to the skin often occurred very soon after exposure, normally within an hour; however, many caregivers reported that changes to the skin occurred the following day.

If the agent were to have been a vesicant, as is often suggested in the AI report, then some time frames are short.

Certain witness statements appear consistent with mustard agent exposure. However, the random listing symptoms, lack of time frames for their appearance, or the generalisation of observed symptoms from multiple casualties all make it difficult to attribute causality (p. 86):

“These are the most common symptoms from the bombardment and the rocket fire, which diffused poison, which changed the colour of eyes and induced vomiting and diarrhoea, which was sometimes bloody and caused many miscarriages… Sometimes people with diarrhoea get a high fever and then their diarrhoea becomes bloody… Sometimes you can see the colour of the body change and the colour of the eyes and then, all of a sudden, they die… their skin becomes dark black and there are rashes and blisters and they turn into wounds… Some people’s eyes become yellow/green, some become yellow/orange, and some become maroon… and if you open the eyelid, the inside changes to red with black spots… In two cases it looked like [the eyes] were going to pop out of the head… Some children suffered hair loss… The patients’ urine changes to different colours. To orange and then red. Sometimes [the urine] is mix of black and dark blue…. Some people have trouble breathing… and they have a very fast heartbeat… Sometimes the blood pressure is low and sometimes it is very high… Many children have swollen bodies… [In three cases] adults had seizures. Two died… Once we noticed the sick person shaking uncontrollably… we needed three or four people to keep him on the bed until one part of the body became paralyzed. Fifteen minutes later, he passed away.”

While passages such as this one each represent a single interviewee, the AI report does not lay out any individual case studies detailing the evolution of symptoms. Even when allowing for the difficulties in collecting testimonials, two other methodological issues also affect the quality of the claims.

First, as the quote above illustrates, many sentences are not written out in full. Combined they do not leave the impression of having been transcribed from a recorded interview; they rather seem handwritten notes transposed into sentences. As a consequence the reader has no inkling how the interviewer pursued his questions, whether and when he followed up replies with additional questions to collect more detail, or if he attempted to corroborate, correlate or disambiguate individual witness accounts. This inevitably opens AI’s estimates of the number of CW incidents and fatalities to critical questioning.

Second, which communication framework was established to ensure that interviewer and interviewee share a common interpretation of signifier and signified? More specifically, how were concepts transposed from a local language whose speakers are unlikely to have assimilated vocabulary of chemical warfare during the interviews?  Chapter 2 on methodology (p. 7) describes the difficulties AI encountered trying to acquire information and evidence from the Jebel Marra region. It also outlines the general methodology:

Amnesty International’s investigation was carried out by two researchers with extensive contact networks inside Jebel Marra, one of whom is from the area and fluent in Fur, the main local language’.


Amnesty International interviewed the survivors and witnesses individually. Interviews generally lasted between 30 and 120 minutes. The majority of the interviews were conducted in Fur, a minority were conducted in Arabic, and a few were conducted in English.

Fur is unlikely to contain specific chemical warfare vocabulary. The report does not reveal who translated the interview notes: the interviewer himself or a specialised translator? Since the report does not list the questions put to witnesses, it is not possible to assess how the interviewer communicated his questions on chemical warfare. Similarly, the reader has no sense whether and how he assisted witnesses when they did not fully comprehend a question. Finally, the reader also lacks insight into possible interpretation bias by the questioner and what steps were undertaken to avoid it from occurring as much as possible.

I noted earlier that the bulk of interviews concerning CW use took place in the later stages of the investigation. So, at what point in the project and how did AI become convinced that Sudanese government forces had resorted to mustard agent or another vesicant? Were chemical warfare experts already at this stage involved in this assessment? At what point in the investigation did AI begin to receive pictures suggesting possible exposure to chemical warfare gents? The latter question is of particular importance to know how the pictures in the report correlate in time and place with the narrative or individual testimonials.

Read the rest of this entry »