Impunity through knowledge management: The legacy of South Africa’s CBW programme

Book review:

Brian Rappert and Chandré Gould, The Dis-Eases of Secrecy: Tracing History, Memory & Justice (Jacana Media: Johannesburg, 2017), 261p.

It took me almost a year to write this book review. There are reasons why. First, the book is not that easy to read. While one can read it linearly (that is one page after another, as one would normally do), it instead invites readers to follow the logic of the argument, which entails dashing back and forwards from one part in the book to another. Second, the insights are profound, and the reader needs to let them sink in. Even in a straightforward linear reading mode, it is simply not possible for one to finish the volume in a couple of hours and claim to have understood the authors’ arguments. And finally, closely linked to the second excuse, while following the trails of various issue threads, I was simultaneously trying to figure out why it is so difficult, if not impossible, to use a country’s past experiences with chemical and biological warfare as a point of departure for education and outreach to prevent the re-emergence of chemical and biological weapon (CBW).

The Dis-Eases of Secrecy tells multiple stories of South Africa’s weird CBW activities between 1981 and 1995, commonly known as Project Coast. The stories are not primarily about individuals or their activities. They are about how those individuals or outsiders construct their actions and the narratives surrounding those actions as ways to shape the legacy of Project Coast and define individual responsibilities of Project Coast participants. At the other end of the spectrum stand the victims of Project Coast. Despite the special attention paid to Project Coast by the Truth and Reconciliation in 1997 and afterwards, did the public narrative — incomplete as it still is — bring closure? Facts are different from Truth, but did the Truth that emerged from those hearings suffice to reconcile?

Structuring the threads

How often does one come across a book whose opening chapter of the introductory section is entitled ‘How to read this book’?

The whole book is constructed around 11 sutras. A ‘sūtra’ in Sanskrit means ‘thread’; in Buddhism ‘narrative part’. A ‘thread’ can mean a group of intertwined filaments; so little surprise that another introductory chapter is called ‘Sewn threads’. Another nod to Sanskrit? ‘Sūtra’ is semantically linked to ‘sīvyati’ (he sews). Irrespective of whether etymology or philosophy inspired the authors, their playing around with both words in the chapter title characterises the book well: one has the option to proceed page after page (in which case, one receives a chronological progression of the authors’ investigation that led to the book) or one can follow any one of the thematic threads via the red thread identifier and number at the end of paragraphs.

The 11 threads are:

  • What was done?
  • Total war
  • Forgetting and remembering
  • Legacies of the past
  • Need to know
  • Victims
  • International relations
  • Best offence
  • Silence and the fury
  • Transitional justice
  • Lessons from the past

Inspired by Sven Lindqvist’s technique of thread-based entries in ‘A History of Bombing’ (2001), both authors equally encourage their readers to take ‘one of many possible paths through the chaos of history’ and thus to sense the many different ways a complex social issue can be perceived or experienced.

The threaded approach represents a conscious effort to break through the linearity of communication. As any person will have experienced in an inspired moment, multiple thoughts can near-simultaneously crisscross consciousness and frustrate prose when trying to transpose them into tangible communication. Speak, and phoneme will follow phoneme. Write, and letter will follow letter; word will follow word; and page will follow page. This immutable limitation on verbal communication challenges any author on presenting different angles to an account. A non-linear approach to writing cannot remove this limitation; instead, it places the reader in charge of how and in which sequence she or he wishes to explore individual threads in the narrative twine.

Rappert and Gould use the technique to good effect. Whereas Lindqvist broke with conventional narration to reinforce his view that indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets had its roots in the imperialistic, discriminatory Western views of other cultures, both authors let the reader sense profoundly why a ‘fact’ (e.g. a reference in a meeting record) acquires meaning only in the presence (or absence) of other information and why ‘truth’ is a constructed perception based on the selective inclusion of personal experiences and/or access to ‘facts’ with (selected) meanings.

However, as the previous paragraph makes clear, the technique may be heavy on the reader. It forces one to flip back and forth through the book in search of the corresponding paragraph number while absorbing information just received. Precisely at that moment one will also be processing that information against one’s own knowledge and understandings. The flipping back and forth distracts. Yet at the same time, it is difficult to see how the authors could achieve the same intellectual impact without the disruption of the non-linear presentation of arguments. The brain cannot sink into the comfort of a smooth narrative ride.

Challenging the knowledge comfort zone

To most people CBW present a clear-cut case: they are inherently inhumane, the subject of a longstanding and universal taboo on their use and banned under current international law. Therefore, such weapon use is evil and must be condemned by all. Alas, history and current direct challenges to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention contradict the good vs evil tale. (See my paper International Norms Against Chemical and Biological Warfare: An Ambiguous Legacy.)

The dichotomy between victim and perpetrator is similarly built on such binary approach. Yet, the types of attributes assigned to each category of persons will be asymmetric. Observation or allegations of collective and individual actions violating the norm or treaties against CBW will feature prominently when designating a perpetrator. In contrast, a range of broad-scope characteristics not specifically related to CBW will habitually define the victim. As Rappert and Gould write (para. 212):

In relation to everyday offences, the ‘ideal victim’ is generally someone that is regarded as weak compared to the offender (which often translates into being female, very young or elderly), blameless for what transpired, a stranger to a clearly reproachable offender and, importantly, able to elicit sufficient concern about their plight without threatening other interests.

Victimhood becomes more difficult to circumscribe if one begins to consider people who participated in trials involving exposure to CBW agents. Even if the test subjects were volunteers, questions arise as to whether they were facilitators of crimes to be committed later (by others) with weapons they helped to optimise, they had been adequately informed of the risks to their health posed by the experimental agents, how free their choice to participate in such trials was, and so on. The authors also point to potential social and other consequences for the children of staff after Project Coast made press headlines (see interview with a Project Coast scientist, para. 486) and the veil of secrecy behind which many of the activities took place was ripped open in certain parts (but never fully removed). As they note, such children fit several expectations of ‘ideal victims’, but just like with relatives of victims who suffered physical harm from CBW use, they only receive secondary consideration.

If ‘victimhood’ suits political discourse or emotional mobilisation well, then varying degrees of vagueness or abstraction will likely hamper criminal prosecution of the alleged perpetrators. More specifically, how will a specific action by an alleged perpetrator be linked to a specific victim? Rephrased more broadly, how can justice be obtained in CBW cases?

Secrecy, justice and reconciliation

A reply by Dr Wouter Basson, Project Officer of Project Coast, to the question why he does not seem to understand what he did wrong in a radio interview best illustrates the quandary (para. 6):

It’s very simple, they must just show me what I did wrong. It’s easy, all they need to do is bring one single case of anybody that was either damaged and/or hurt in this process and I’ll live with it. But nobody can do that. I mean it’s been 20 years that this has been going on and there is not a single scratch and/or blue mark and/or bruise on anybody that could be proven anywhere, so who did I damage and how?

Much of the book turns around two questions: Was there justice for the victims of Project Coast? Did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) reconcile victims and perpetrators? The quest to answer those questions raises further questions: How is Project Coast being remembered? How is it being forgotten? And by whom? Indeed, beyond the victims and perpetrators (and their relatives and social communities), other categories of protagonists also play or have played substantial roles in shaping the legacy left by Project Coast. These include government leaders and officials under the Apartheid regime; the post-Apartheid government and officials from the African National Congress (ANC); members of the military and security forces; the scientific community and research institutes; TRC members, research staff and other officials; civil society; the press; and the international community. And probably many more …

Secrecy is an all-pervasive element in the book. Through compartmentalisation and an overall policy principle to disseminate information on a need-to-know basis, few people (if any) had a total overview of Project Coast. It also allowed people who came to suspect certain things through casual conversation to ignore inconvenient knowledge; and later, before the TRC, it enabled people to claim ignorance about certain goals or actions, or deny or minimise their responsibility in them. The fact that Project Coast comprised so many different elements, so many different institutions, without clear lines of overall oversight or even management, easily reinforced the utility of secrecy in ‘forgetting’. Paradoxically, the promise of amnesty offered by the TRC to persons willing to admit to norm-breaking or criminal activities as part of the reconciliation process generated exaggerations of complicity. These also tended to obscure rather clarify the past, more so as secrecy and compartmentalisation of knowledge precluded deep verification. One never obtains the certainty that all is (or can be) known and what is supposedly known may be suspect. Ultimately, guesses must fill the gaps, but nobody or nothing can confirm or refute those guesses.

Secrecy was also claimed on the level of national security. However, as Rappert and Gould write (para. 220; emphasis in original):

What the state itself was ‘allowed’ to know was limited to what was officially told. The new ANC state needed to protect the state secret that it did not know. What the Project Coast scientists would say when under questioning at the TRC was wholly unknown.

Add an overlay of ‘proliferation risk’ to whatever might become publicised, and the ‘secret’ got new keepers. Thus, the post-Apartheid government became the owner of secrets, whose contents it did not and could never fully know. Its officials are today extremely reluctant to talk about Project Coast. Both authors tested, for instance, whether it might be useful for South Africa to at least come clean internationally by revising the information submitted under a BTWC Confidence-Building Measure (CBM) on past biological weapon (BW)-related activities. This was rejected, and Rappert and Gould were strongly encouraged not to pursue this line of enquiry by the (British) funders of their project. The latter aspect also demonstrates international community’s contribution to the way Project Coast will be remembered. One international expert suggested that Project Coast was not a typical BW programme and therefore no need exists to discuss it under the BTWC. Some other diplomats held the view that there is no longer any urgent reason to press South Africa on revising its CBM because the nature of the government had changed, the country had re-entered the international community, and it had stopped the programmes. Even though the authors also interviewed other experts and diplomats holding opposite views, the key point remains that consensus on the step was and remains elusive.

In conclusion

Rappert and Gould present a complex, but nonetheless compelling narrative about how a community – in this case, South Africa – addresses the legacy of a CBW programme and the use of such weapons in an armed conflict. Ultimately, the reader is left with the question: what is justice? Dr Wouter Basson in many ways epitomises the complexity of the question: he testified before the TRC; he faced criminal charges; and he was taken to justice for breaching his professional code of conduct by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). Only in the latter case he was found guilty in December 2013 but procedural battles before the HPCSA and in courts have thus far blocked his sentencing. Would a final guilty verdict in this case bring closure to the victims? To answer, one may refer to the widow of one of the victims of the 1995 sarin attack against the Tokyo underground after learning that senior Aum Shinrikyo members had been hanged. She said that the executions did not bring closure to survivors or victims’ families and pledged to continue efforts to ensure that the crimes are not forgotten (Sarin victim’s widow comments on execution, 26 July 2018; and Aum victims and bereaved express sense of closure, disappointment and confusion over executions, 6 July 2018):

What I mean by this is that there are lots of things I wanted them to talk about so we can learn more about future counterterrorism. I really wanted them to speak to experts, for example. It’s a disappointment that they can no longer do this.

Arguably, in this instance the direct linkage between perpetrator and victim was much clearer than for Project Coast. Yet, closure does not equal vengeance or mere punishment. It seems to imply the retention of future common value derived from the experiences suffered. It needs to have meaning; remembrance serves the purpose of preventing recurrence.

Towards the end of the book, Chandré Gould reflects on the outcome of the research and the role she and Brian Rappert might come to play in preserving the memory (para. 528):

[…] While most South Africans of a certain generation are likely to be familiar with the name Wouter Basson, artefacts, documents or accounts of the programme are not to be found at significant sites of memory, such as Freedom Park or the Apartheid Museum. What is the reason for this absence of a narrative? I would posit that this has to do with the absence of a coherent, easy-to-relate narrative. With no victims and no voices, or testimony post-TRC to assert the needs or interests of victims, the narrative, staccato and broken as it is, becomes a narrative of ‘perpetrators’. It becomes a story of motives, intentions and possibilities, all of which have been contested. The stories told by willing witnesses were both ridiculous and horrific, a science fiction of apartheid. Basson, as the person who holds all the answers but refuses to release them, becomes not only the secret-keeper (and in this maintains tremendous power over those who believe they might have fallen victim to the programme) but also the focus of all the attention.

The absence of a victim narrative or account also serves to strip the narrative of credibility or resonance. Personalising the violence of apartheid through victim narratives and testimony rendered it visible. In this case, there was no victim (other than Frank Chikane) to associate clearly with the programme, and no one other than the investigator to keep making the case for its importance or relevance. In this situation, the person investigating becomes the story-teller and the person responsible for the victims’ untold victim stories, the placeholder until a more legitimate voice can be heard.

In one of my many discussions on how to use past experiences with CBW in education and outreach, I happened to mention Project Coast, citing a museum exhibition entitled Poisoned Pasts then underway. One member of the group, a retired South African academic, replied, ‘This is controversial’. To me, controversy is a good foundation for discussion. Alas, as I have now learned, in plain English the three words meant: ‘Do not touch’.

Thus, one remains stuck with three cardinal questions: What lessons can be identified from past CBW programmes? What lessons can be learned from those activities? And, how can these insights help preventing the re-emergence of CBW programmes?

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Promoting chemical knowledge

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

 

On 2 May the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) organised a workshop relating to its programme to fully implement Article XI of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). I addressed the States Parties in the session on ‘Promoting chemical knowledge’ and focussed on the responsibilities of chemists, both as members of their scientific associations and as individuals, in preventing the misuse of their discipline.

 

Consequences down the road

The role of chemists in war is not a new thing. The role of chemists in chemical warfare is of more recent origin. Just over a century ago, modern chemical warfare, as it began in my country, Belgium, on 22 April 1915, may seem like it came out of the blue. Actually, it resulted from the confluence of several trends in Europe and North America. Those trends emerged in the late 18th century. They included the establishment of chemistry as a science and the onset of the first industrial revolution. Those trends gathered pace throughout the 19th century.

Chemistry discovered many new molecules. Organic chemistry—one of the early convergences of chemistry and biology (another one of the new scientific disciplines)—yielded compounds that later often acquired widespread use as intermediaries in industrial production. Many decades after their initial discovery, several also became warfare agents during the 1st World War. In the first half of the 19th century, chemists also synthesised the first organophosphorus structures, which laid the foundation for the development of the nerve agents from the mid-1930s onwards.

After 1850, industrialisation increasingly shaped the organisation of science; it gave direction to the scientific endeavour; and it helped to restructure the scientific curricula at universities and other institutions of education. The idea of science for science’s sake gave way to a much more utilitarian vision in service of society.

Stagnation on the Western front in the autumn of 1914 would prove to be the catalyst for modern chemical warfare. Belligerents drew on national industrial and scientific prowess to try and force the decisive breakthrough on the battlefield to end the carnage. Toxic chemicals used to deliberately harm humans were one choice. Alas.

Addressing the audience in the Ieper Room at the OPCW headquarters

I am not saying that in the 19th and early 20th century chemists set out to design and develop chemical weapons (CW). All I know is that in each of the belligerent countries, these chemists were fully aware of the social and technological dynamics that were transforming their respective societies; often they were the drivers of these changes.

The 1st World War was the catalyst that brought science, industry and military art together with the purpose of devising a new mode of warfare. It was almost accidental. (With the design of the atomic bomb a quarter of a century later, the convergence was deliberate, and governments have maintained that interconnectedness ever since.)

Today, our societies are once again undergoing major transformations. Chemistry is changing fast; the interactions with other disciplines are widening as well as deepening. Chemical industry has spread across the planet; so many people all over the world are seeking careers in fields that have more than a tangible impact on the CWC. These areas are also critical to development; they are key to ameliorating the conditions of peoples everywhere and meeting future challenges to individual and human survival.

International cooperation and development benefit from peaceful intent

The OPCW’s Advisory Board on Education and Outreach (ABEO) is keenly aware of current transformations that might once again contribute to CW development and acquisition. Its members are also keenly aware that we are facing new situations in which toxic chemicals can be and are being used. A big challenge to the CWC is that our conception of CW is changing fast. Indeed, opportunistic use of industrial toxicants (such as chlorine) on the battlefields, terrorism and non-state actor use of toxic agents, and now more recently, assassinations with substances that had initially been developed or produced for military arsenals, are situations the CWC negotiators could not—and did not–anticipate.

In February of this year, the ABEO produced a report on the role of education and outreach in preventing the re-emergence of CW. It contains many recommendations for the Technical Secretariat to enhance the impact of its activities with States Parties in terms of education and outreach. The report also addresses how chemists everywhere can expand their consciousness about the dual-use characteristics of much of their work. It also seeks to enhance their awareness of the international and domestic scientific and technological environment in which they are functioning. It helps them to anticipate possible outcomes of their work many years into the future.

Engagement of chemists is evident from a key clause in the report’s title: ‘preventing the re-emergence of CW’. The report defines this goal as ‘the collective of actions undertaken by the OPCW, its Secretariat, and the National Authorities to implement the Convention, on the one hand, and by professional, scientific, and academic communities, as well as civil society constituencies and individuals, to advance consciousness, responsibility, and specific behaviours that support purposes not prohibited by the Convention, on the other hand’. (p. 6, para. 2.11)

In other words, ‘Prevention of the re-emergence of chemical weapons’ appeals to the responsibility of stakeholder communities and individuals, including chemists, to uphold the norm in the CWC.

Members of the ABEO have been involved in the development of the Hague Ethical Guidelines to promote responsible practice of chemistry. They are also active in promoting the Ethical Guidelines, including through active learning processes that involve chemists, which are advanced in the ABEO report. Some members have been instrumental in mobilising chemical societies and chemical industry councils to formally condemn the use of chlorine as a weapon. Some among them have also participated in the development of the on-line educational tool ‘Multiple Uses of Chemicals’ to promote the beneficial uses and prevent abuses of multiple-use chemicals, which the Technical Secretariat now supports by offering translation into the six official languages.

Reaching out to today’s chemist and the next generation of chemists (who are now in secondary school) is a task that National Authorities can help to promote, in addition to the ongoing initiatives undertaken by the Technical Secretariat.

At this point, I wish to stress that while the ABEO report suggests educational strategies, it does not offer one-size-fits-all suggestions. There is great need to adapt educational strategies to specific regional and national characteristics.

Awareness of the challenges—those visible today, as well as those looming on the horizon—is a task of permanent education. The ABEO report contains many practical examples of how such permanent education can be organised and practically implemented. It is of benefit to development for peaceful purposes and international collaboration in the scientific field of chemistry worldwide.

States Parties are welcome to approach the ABEO and its members—via the Office of Strategy and Policy of the Technical Secretariat—for assistance and concrete advice on education and outreach to key stakeholder groups.

Thank you.

 


Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 2: When alternative facts become blatant untruths

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 18 April 2018 the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held its 59th meeting, which was wholly dedicated to the assassination attempt with a nerve agent of the Novichok family. The Technical Secretariat presented its classified full ‘Report on Activities Carried out in Support of a Request for Technical Assistance by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Technical Assistance Visit TAV/02/18)’. A summary released by the Technical Secretariat on 12 April, although lacking in detail, stated that:

  • Two OPCW designated laboratories confirmed that the three hospitalised individuals had been exposed to a toxic chemical;
  • Another two OPCW designated laboratories confirmed the presence of the toxic chemical in environmental samples;
  • The results confirmed the UK’s findings relating to the identity of the toxic chemical; and
  • The TAV noted the high purity of the agent because of the almost complete absence of impurities.

Russia’s unprecedented revelation of the identity of a designated laboratory in an investigation

Prior to the Executive Council meeting Russia caused an uproar when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly identified one of the designated laboratories involved in the analysis of samples (Spiez laboratory, Switzerland). In his address to the Assembly on Foreign and Defence Policy on 14 April, he also confirmed the identification of Substance A-234 (a Novichok agent) and furthermore claimed (from Russian via Google Translate):

Based on the results of the examination, the traces of the toxic chemical BZ and its precursors belonging to the chemical weapons of the second category in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are found in the samples. BZ is a nerve agent temporarily disabling a person, psycho-toxic effect is achieved in 30-60 minutes and lasts up to four days.

This recipe was in the arsenal of the US Army, Great Britain and other NATO countries, there were no developments or accumulations of these chemical compounds in the Soviet Union and Russia.

The statement as such contains two errors.

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What is a chemical weapon? When is chlorine a chemical weapon?

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

 

A recurring question in the context of the investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into the use of chlorine in the attack against Douma on 7 April is whether chlorine is actually a chemical weapon (CW).

The simple answer is ‘yes’ if the chemical element is released as method of warfare, an act of terrorism, or any other deliberate act intended to harm or kill a person or animal.

There are two elements in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to bear in mind, namely the definition of a CW and the three Schedules (or lists with chemicals), which are annexed to the convention.

Definition of a chemical weapon under the CWC

Most toxic chemical are potentially dual-use. Moreover, the CWC wishes to cover not only yesterday’s and today’s toxic chemicals but also the ones that may be developed in the future. To this end, the CWC uses the so-called General Purpose Criterion (GPC): not the toxic chemical as such is prohibited; however, the purposes to which it may be applied are.

In this context it is useful to know that the treaty’s default condition is prohibition. In other words, all usage of toxic chemicals is prohibited unless for purposes that are not-prohibited (note the negative formulation). The CWC considers only four non-prohibited purposes.

Thus Article II, 1 states:

1. “Chemical Weapons” means the following, together or separately:

(a) Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes; […]

Here one can see that any toxic chemical is defined as a CW, except where intended for purposes not prohibited …, in which case the toxic chemical is by definition not a CW and therefore does not fall under the CWC.

Article II, 2 defines ‘toxic chemical’ as

‘Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. This includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere’.

In other words, this definition clearly bears on chlorine.

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Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 1: Deconstruction of the Russian denial

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Since the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent now just over one month ago, so much has been written about ‘Novichok’; so much has been opined about what ‘Novichok’ is meant to be (if it exists at all); and so much smoke has been spewed about what the identification of ‘Novichok’ suggests about culprits. This blog posting is the first of several to look into a specific aspect of the discussions concerning Novichok in the hope of clarifying where certain positions come from and what factual knowledge exists about this group of nerve agents.

Facts have been scarce. In fact, as a member of the public with long-time interest in chemical and biological weapons, I know very little about what took place in Salisbury on 4 March. I still have to see the first statement from British authorities—government officials, police, scientists at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down—in what form the Novichok agent was delivered. Was it a liquid? A solid in powdered form? A binary concoction? Delivered in a gel or ointment? Anything else?

‘Novichok’ as we know the family of nerve agents today was researched, developed, produced and field-tested in sizeable quantities in the Soviet Union and at least during the early years of Russia as an independent state. Little else beyond this basic information given by some of the chemists involved in the armament programme is available. Those researchers are not always in agreement with each other, especially as regards the skill levels required to synthesise the agent.

Meanwhile, government officials from both the United Kingdom and the Russian federation have launched a war of hyperbole. London overstated the nature and quality of evidence from forensic chemistry; Moscow, amid a broad smoke-and-mirrors campaign, used the exaggerations to poke holes in the British narrative. Just like with allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria, Russia has released a barrage of denials concerning the assassination attempt in the UK through disaffirmation of any involvement, construction of spurious logic and citation of any ‘expert’ willing to entertain conspiracy theories. It furthermore rejects any outcome unfavourable to its world view and questions procedures and methodologies applied by investigative bodies. Moscow, however, never supplies any physical evidence in support of its claims.

Yet, over the din there are two steadfast Russian positions: (1) Russia is not responsible for the Soviet Union’s actions, and (2) CW declarations concern only ‘produced’ toxic chemicals for use in warfare. In the specific context of the CWC, it places the three Schedules central to the prohibitory regime.

Read the rest of this entry »


Geopolitical manoeuvring behind Skripal

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 4 April the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will meet in a special session. Russia called the extraordinary meeting. It has been a month now since former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been exposed to a nerve agent in Salisbury. The United Kingdom (UK) government identified it as a member of the ‘Novichok’ family, once researched and developed by the Soviet Union. Russia is believed to have continued the programme at least during the first years after the breakup of the USSR. It has never come clear on the nature of the programme or identified the agents’ characteristics. As no other country has ever been associated with the Novichok family of agents, London’s finger-pointing at Moscow was not difficult.

War of loud words

Since the assassination attempt a war of loud words has erupted. The UK has continued with its investigation and called in the OPCW’s expertise with a view of validating its analyses of the nerve agent. By the latest indications, the results from the OPCW-certified laboratories will not be available before the middle of this month.

Meanwhile, London also launched a diplomatic offensive to isolate Russia internationally (for an overview, see the dedicated UK government web page), which so far has ended with tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomatic staff. The rhetoric strayed off course. The assassination attempt got linked to similar incidents over the past years and decades, Russia’s actions in its near-abroad and Syria, its cyber campaigns against the institutions of Western democracy, and the country’s more assertive stance against Western interests, particularly those of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). And, of course, the post-penultimate British schoolboy’s meme had to be called forth for domestic consumption: a mention of Nazi Germany.

Battle royale for the internet’s heart and minds

The British government’s (quite necessary) quietness about the investigation, the dearth of factual information beyond some generalities, and the distraction-causing verbal digressions into unrelated issue areas presented Russia with an open playing field. It was an opportunity it could not, and did not ignore.

Beyond the stacks of concealing black smoke and initial ridicule spouted by the government-sponsored international media and its diplomatic representatives to the UK, OPCW and EU, Moscow stayed much more focussed on the Skripal case. It was testing messages fast, discarding the ones failing to gain immediate traction and pursuing those that got picked up. Together, they addressed several issues simultaneously to drown out or cast doubt over any possible counterargument. That Russian officials or media contradicted themselves or seemingly confessed to total ignorance about past chemical warfare programmes did not matter. Speed was of the essence to avoid a coherent ripostes.

So, they challenged the notion that Russia was the sole originator of Novichok agents; they denied that there had ever been a Novichok programme; they suggested that the agent came form the British chemical defence laboratories at Porton Down or from similar facilities in other European countries; they questioned the OPCW’s legitimacy in the investigation while embracing the procedures foreseen in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to discuss the matter; etc. They upbraided the UK government for not releasing details about the nerve agent while the investigation is going on. And then Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proffered motive for the British using a Novichok agent against the Skripal family: covering up difficulties over Brexit.

However ludicrous some of the arguments, Moscow ultimately turned the tables on London. Russia now portrays itself as the victim of the attack because the UK was unable to guarantee the safety and security of its citizens, in addition to which it now refuses Russian consular access to Yulia. And exploiting both British silence on the heart of the matter and the waiting period for the OPCW test results, it called for an special session of the OPCW EC after having publicly released two sets of questions (1st set; 2nd set), some of which it could use to initiate the clarification process under CWC Article IX, 2. Quite a few of these questions Moscow has field-tested via its global megaphone. (A subset of questions Russia addressed to the French government too.)

Will Britain’s hand be forced?

How will the EC meeting tomorrow pan out? Difficult to say, but if the debates over Syria’s chemical weapon (CW) use offer any guidance, then the following broad lines may re-establish themselves: the Western countries will decry the violation of the CWC and seek justice; Russia will play out a geopolitical strategy based on nominal pledges of cooperation to influence the votes of members of the Non-Aligned Movement who are wary of being caught up in a new hegemonic struggle between Moscow and Washington.

Russia has definitely laid the groundwork for triggering Article IX, 2. But will it trigger it tomorrow? This is far from certain. Moscow’s core aim may be to place some of the key questions it has already publicised into the formal record, thereby forcing the UK to respond. Any reluctance or avoidance by London would feed a certain narrative, at least until the OPCW submits its own laboratory findings to the UK. That narrative will anticipate those findings; at a minimum it will place the British government under great pressure to release the analyses to other OPCW members, including Russia. That pressure might also compel the British government to follow OPCW procedures rather than pursuing the case through other diplomatic means, in which case Moscow’s gambit may already be anticipating crucial votes further down that path. (For an overview of the Article IX process, see my earlier blog posting Novichok and the Chemical Weapons Convention.)

Remains one question in all this: Where is Washington? в кармане?


Novichok and the Chemical Weapons Convention

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Assassinations with nerve agents are rare. Very rare. The reason is simple: other means to eliminate a person are simpler and much more effective. The marginal benefit from using even some of the most toxic substances ever made by man is negligible. What is more, the attempt fails often, as Aum Shinrikyo experienced when trying to take out some of the cult’s enemies with VX before the 1995 sarin attack in the Tokyo underground. Last year’s murder of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North-Korean leader Kim Jong-un, also involved VX according to Malaysian authorities. However, the real perpetrator behind the two women who rubbed the substance in his face was quickly identified.

The surprise that the assassination attempt on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK on 4 March involved one of the Novichoks was not little. First, this family of nerve agents is relatively unknown. Outside specialised disarmament and HazMat communities few people would have been aware of its existence. Over 100 chemical structures are believed to belong to it, all related yet different. The group of chemical structures does not figure in the Annex on Chemicals of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  Second, the substance was produced in any sizeable quantities in only one single country, the Soviet Union. Third, the required precursor chemicals and the pathways to synthesise the final agents are completely obscure to most of the public.

The UK government has formally accused Russia of the assassination attempt and expelled 23 Russian diplomatic personnel. Moscow vehemently denies the accusal and has retaliated by demanding that a similar number of diplomats leave the country. It furthermore denies ever having developed and produced Novichoks. The incident follows an already bitter stand-off between the West and Russia over Syria’s proven chemical weapon (CW) use that blocks effective UN Security Council action and splits the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). As the government of Prime Minister Theresa May has formally declared its intention to have the OPCW independently verify its analyses and share it with its international partners, the question is whether and how the international organisation can contribute to resolving the matter.

Ensuring compliance under the CWC

Beyond the CWC’s routine verification process involving declarations, assessments and inspections, Article IX ‘Consultations, Cooperation and Fact-Finding’ foresees procedures to resolve uncertainties about compliance or breaches of the convention. These procedures are consultations, clarification, challenge inspection and investigation of alleged use.

Consultation concerning anomalies

The CWC does not detail what consultations should entail, but views and encourages them together with information exchanges as one of the early (or low-key) diplomatic exchanges among states parties to resolve doubts or ambiguities about compliance.

According to a statement issued by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on 12 March Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson summoned the Russian Ambassador to seek an explanation from the Russian Government. The statement strongly suggests that the step was undertaken under the consultative process foreseen under Article IX. It added that Russia provided no meaningful response.

Summary of the consultation procedure (Slide by JP Zanders)

Clarification of compliance concerns

If in doubt or concerned about compliance, a state party may seek clarification. A state party will address the initial request for clarification to another state party, who must reply within 10 days. Although not stipulated in the convention, a degree of expectation exists that the latter would supply supplementary information (i.e. beyond what is available from, for instance, annual declarations or routine inspections) to address the concern.

In case the reply does not resolve the concern, the requesting state party may call for assistance from the EC, which must use its authority to lend weight to the request, including through forwarding the request within 24 hours. The state party to whom the clarification request is addressed has once again a maximum of 10 days to respond. If the replies still do not satisfy, the requesting state party my next request the EC to obtain further information, in which case it may (not ‘must’) decide to set up a group of experts to examine all available information and reports and submit a factual report. Although the group of experts can draw on previous inspection reports, it is in no position to launch its own inspection procedure.

After either of the two previous steps, the requesting state party may call for a special session of the EC, which then has the decision authority to ‘recommend any measure it deems appropriate to resolve the situation’. Although not stated explicitly in Article IX, those measures would presumably include obtention of further information or persuasion of the targeted state party to resolve the presumed violation in accordance with the CWC. If the requesting state party remains unsatisfied with the response, it may call for a special session of the Conference of States Parties (CSP) 60 days after the submission of the request for clarification to the EC. The CSP is to consider and may take any measure, which, as in the case of the EC, remains unspecified in the convention.

It is important to note that the launch of a clarification procedure does not require the outcome of routine inspections, but inspection reports may trigger additional requests for information. It should also be noted that the procedures described above do not affect the requesting state party’s right to call for a challenge inspection, nor are they affected by the conduct of a challenge inspection.

Summary of the clarification process (Slide by JP Zanders)

Challenge of non-compliance

Challenge inspections are the third tool outlined in CWC Article IX. It consists of a short-notice inspection at any site (irrespective of whether it has been declared or not) in a state party. Once the OPCW has authorised the challenge inspection the targeted state party has no right of refusal, but it can invoke the technique of managed access through which OPCW inspectors may be denied access to certain parts of the site. Managed access cannot be implemented in such a way that inspector access to the site as such is denied. However, irrespective of the outcome of the managed access negotiations between representatives of the challenged stated party and the OPCW inspectors, the latter retain full right to interview any staff member of the site (and thus possibly obtain relevant information about the areas to which they have been denied access).

Although a challenge inspection can be requested at any stage of consultation of clarification processes, the CWC encourages states parties to view the tool as an instrument of last resort.

Summary of the challenge inspection process (Slide by JP Zanders)

Investigation of alleged use

Part XI of the Verification Annex details the process of investigating the alleged use of CW or the alleged use of riot control agents as a method of warfare. In case the alleged use involves a state not party to the CWC, then the Director-General of the OPCW will closely cooperate with the UN Secretary General.

The procedure is applied (and has been further developed) with respect to the many allegations of chemical warfare in Syria. It is less relevant to the Novichok case.

Pathways to resolving the Novichok matter

How the investigation of the Skripal assassination attempt plays out will largely depend on the next key decisions by the UK government. The OPCW experts travel to the UK under Article VIII, 38(e), which qualifies their activity as a ‘Technical Assistance Visit’ to help with the evaluation of an unscheduled chemical (the Novichock agent) is not listed in any of the three schedules in the Annex on Chemicals).  They will likely visit the sites of investigation and collect their own samples (if for no other reason than to validate any laboratory samples they may receive), take all materials and documents related to the forensic investigation back to the Netherlands where the sample will be divided up and sent to two or more designated OPCW laboratories. (The list for 2017 can be consulted here.)

After having received the report, the UK government may opt to pursue the case using its own diplomatic means, possibly together with its allies, or it may decide to invoke one of the procedures outlined above, the most likely one being the clarification process. Given the current level of political rhetoric and the earlier summons of the Russian Ambassador, consultations will have little utility left. To call for a challenge inspection the UK will need to have extraordinarily precise information about the production or storage location (which might be difficult if, for example, forensic analysis points to recent, small-scale synthesis of Novichok or to a chemical structure different from those associated with the Soviet programme).

At present the outcome of any one of the procedures is difficult to foresee. Neither the clarification process nor challenge inspection option have been invoked previously. Moreover, even though the CWC may at first sight seem to suggest a hierarchy among the different procedures in terms of increasing stringency or steps in an escalatory process, each one can be pursued independently. They may also be invoked in succession, or they can run in parallel. One procedure is not necessarily a prerequisite to another one.

Central to the understanding of the procedures is that the OPCW, as an independent international organisation dedicated to overseeing the implementation of the CWC, provides a forum for consultation and cooperation among states parties, also in matters concerning compliance or conflict resolution.