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.

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Non-proliferation assistance: A proliferation of national focal points?

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 9 December I attended a one-day seminar entitled Assistance and capacity-building in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It took place in one of the committee rooms in the old building of the African Union Commission. It had none of the trappings of many modern high-tech venues, but offered all amenities one can wish for during a day-long meeting: an electricity plug under the desk (a civilisational advance that has yet to reach the main room for meetings of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, or BTWC, at the United Nations in Geneva), internet access, soothing brown background colours of wood-panelled walls, and—most unusual nowadays—daylight. Two pyramidal domes in the ceiling let in glorious sunshine and skimming light entering through the rows of windows running the entire length of the back wall softened the sharp contrasts thrown by the sunrays from above. Even in the late afternoon when a diffuse darkness was gradually filling the committee room, the rays of a setting sun lit up the roofs of nearby buildings in a colourful backdrop to participants exchanging final impressions of the day’s discussions.

Listening to the various assistance providers

A diverse African landscape of assistance and capacity-building programmes

The seminar organised by the African Union and the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) aimed to map out the many initiatives underway to assist the African continent with meeting its obligations under various UN Security Council Resolutions and multilateral global and regional treaties limiting the acquisition, possession and use of non-conventional weapons. As good as the entire day was structured around a new publication by the ISS entitled CBRN [Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear] Assistance and Capacity-Building Programmes for African States. Written by Annie DuPre and Nicolas Kasprzyk, the 95-page directory gives a detailed overview of worldwide providers of assistance, be they states, international organisations or civil society entities. The seminar also built on a major conference convened by the African Union on 6–7 April 2016 to review the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540 in Africa.

Some 40 people attended, just under half of whom were representatives from local embassies of African states. Other participants came from global and regional organisations and specialised agencies involved in assistance and capacity-building in support of disarmament, non-proliferation and counter-terrorism, or had long-term expertise in relevant fields.

Ms Einas Mohammed presenting an overview of the African Union programmes in support of UNSC Resolution 1540 and weapon control treaties

While I had been aware of several initiatives, the range of organisations running such programmes took me by surprise. Besides entities such as the African Union, the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa (UNREC), the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) in collaboration with the EU CBRN Centres of Excellence, many other international bodies are also deeply involved. Among those presenting overviews of their activities were the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight-nation cooperative arrangement in East Africa whose role in non-conventional weapon control is rather unexpected, but explicable in view of the security situation in founding member Somalia; the African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE)—a specialised branch of the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD); and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that also works on the prevention of terrorism.

My former colleague, Alex Lampalzer of the BTWC Implementation Support Unit, and I reflected on the outcomes of the BTWC Review Conference last month. Another colleague of mine at the Paris-based Fondation pour la recherche stratégique, Emmanuelle Maitre, spoke on progress in the universalisation of the Hague Code of Conduct (HCoC) against the proliferation of ballistic missiles.

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Education & outreach in chemical weapon disarmament

Exactly one year ago today, the Conference of the States Parties in its 20th session decided on the establishment of the Advisory Board on Education and Outreach (ABEO) as a subsidiary body to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

In 2016 the 15-member board met twice and formulated its first sets of recommendations. On 1 December I reported on the ABEO’s work to the 21st session of the Conference of the States Parties. Due to a 7-minute time restriction I could deliver only a summary of the most important points. Below is the full text of the statement as circulated to the states party to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

[Cross-posted from The Trench]


Statement by Dr Jean Pascal Zanders
Chairperson of the OPCW Advisory Board on Education and Outreach, to the 21st Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention
The Hague, 1 December 2016
Mr Chairperson,
Director-General,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

At last year’s Conference of the States Parties you decided to establish the Advisory Board on Education and Outreach (ABEO) as one of the subsidiary bodies of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The ABEO received as mandate to advise the Director-General or States Parties on matters of education, outreach and awareness-raising, and public diplomacy concerning the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and its international and domestic implementation in relation to States Parties and key stakeholder communities. Put differently, it seeks strategies to assist the OPCW with deepening the involvement of the stakeholder communities in preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons.

The Director-General appointed 15 members to the Board, whose mandate started on 1 January of this year. Based on the principle of equitable regional distribution, they comprise:

  • 3 persons from Africa: Kenya, Morocco and South Africa;
  • 4 persons from Asia: China, India, Iraq and Japan;
  • 2 persons from Eastern Europe: Poland and the Russian Federation;
  • 2 persons from Latin America and the Carribean: Argentina and Mexico; and
  • 4 persons from Western Europe and Other States: Belgium, Germany, the United kingdom and the United States.

Two members—Prof WANG Wencai (China) and Dr Austin ALUOCH (Kenya)—are Alumni of the Associate Programme. One member, Prof. Alastair Hay (UK), is a recipient of the 2015 OPCW–The Hague Award. While the ABEO resulted from groundwork laid by the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), ABEO membership includes not just chemists and other scientists, but also experts with backgrounds in the political sciences, history, diplomacy, as well as persons well versed with issues in chemical weapon disarmament, education and outreach strategies, or the functioning of National Authorities.

In addition, and as a first for Advisory Boards, the ABEO can also benefit from the expertise of select observers. Observers are non-permanent and they are invited in function of the meeting agenda. However, the Rules of Procedure stipulate that a representative of the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) is to participate in the ABEO’s work as a permanent observer. At their second meeting in October 2016, the Board Members decided to accord a similar status to a representative from the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA).

In its first year of activity the ABEO has met twice, in April and October 2016. With the help from the Technical Secretariat an electronic discussion platform has been set up, so that Members can continue to discuss and develop recommendations in the so-called ‘intersessional period’. This electronic platform allows the setting up of sub-groups in which ABEO Members, as well as observers, can develop ideas and discuss working papers on topics decided at the preceding meeting. The goal is to have well-conceived proposals for final consideration and adoption by the full Board.

Towards common understandings

Mr Chairperson, the first meeting (28–29 April 2016) focussed mainly on team building. Each member and observer presented an overview of their education and outreach activities, thereby highlighting objectives and describing their respective methodologies. The Board furthermore heard detailed briefings by Technical Secretariat staff members. Substantive work developed along two tracks, namely specific requests submitted to the Board by the Director-General requiring short-term replies, and identification of strategic-level, i.e., longer-term aspects of developing education and outreach methodologies.

Strategic-level thinking implies a need for common understandings for key concepts and terms as well as identification of key stakeholder communities. It also implies the identification, elaboration and prioritisation of issue areas, the development of multi- and cross-disciplinary approaches to education and outreach, and the permanent evaluation of tasks and activities in function of changing circumstances under which the OPCW must continue to function.

The ABEO proceeded in its second meeting (4-6 October 2016) with identifying key stakeholder communities and plotting how they and the OPCW interact with each other.

Interaction between stakeholder communities and the OPCW

Interactions between stakeholder communities and the OPCW

As the CWC effectuated a clear division of labour between the Technical Secretariat and the National Authorities it followed naturally that stakeholdership in the convention exists on both the international and national levels. From the exercise also followed the insight that certain stakeholder communities may be targets of the OPCW’s education and outreach activities, while they may be partners under different circumstances. The press is a case in point. A well-conceived public diplomacy strategy can clarify to journalists the CWC’s intricacies, the functioning of the OPCW and the tasks and responsibilities of the Technical Secretariat in its various missions. When the OPCW makes the headlines, the media will be better situated to reflect accurately the challenges and opportunities facing the community of States Parties.

For its deliberations, the ABEO accepted working definitions for concepts such as education, outreach, training and public diplomacy. Such differentiation in turn enabled identification of primary strategies to be developed under each concept in function of the type of stakeholder community to be engaged. Moreover, it will also enable the ABEO to take into consideration different regional and local cultural approaches to education and outreach. The ABEO Members are agreed that no single methodology can fit all circumstances.

First substantive recommendations

The upcoming 20th Anniversary of the CWC’s entry into force was one area that preoccupied the ABEO in its first year. During the intersessional period the subgroup dedicated to the topic already submitted to the Technical Secretariat a list with concrete programme elements and activity proposals. At the second meeting the ABEO formulated more conceptual recommendations. These include:

  • to brand the celebration as ‘20th Anniversary Year’ to emphasise that a series of activities rather than a single event will commemorate the CWC’s entry into force, as well as provide a common heading for all regional and national commemorative activities;
  • to set up a website dedicated to the 20th Anniversary Year with information about events. A celebration-specific logo could be adopted;
  • to promote besides the major event in The Hague global, regional and national celebration;
  • to ensure OPCW strategic outreach to stakeholders. The 20th anniversary celebration in The Hague should include senior representatives of the sciences and industry. For other activities, appropriate regional or international industry and scientific organisations ought to be invited;
  • to celebrate the science behind the effectiveness of the OPCW in meeting its mandate in regional or national events. These could be organised back-to-back with regional National Authority events and involve key partners, such as academe and industry;
  • to produce a film on the destruction of chemical weapons so as to preserve some filmic record of these processes for future education of scientists and engineers;
  • to provide early notification to enable organisational planning of regional and local events; provide funds to initiate and support such regional and organisation; and create outreach material on the OPCW and the CWC, specific to the 20th Anniversary Year, for broad distribution.

A global campaign condemning the use of the industrial toxic chemicals—chlorine in particular—as weapons led to many letters by chemical associations worldwide and increasingly by chemical industry associations being sent to the Director-General. The ABEO recommended that these letters be publicised on the OPCW website. It gives me great pleasure to note that this recommendation was implemented last Tuesday (29 November).

The ABEO also recommended a thorough review and overhaul of the OPCW’s public diplomacy strategy in function of permanent, systematic engagement with stakeholder communities.

Other recommendations addressed youth outreach and engagement of civil society during sessions of the Conference of the States Parties. Some elements are already being implemented, such as briefings on the workings of the Technical Secretariat to the members of the CWC Coalition attending the 21st Conference of the States Parties.

Current activities

Mr Chairperson, in preparation for its third meeting next March, an ABEO working group is considering in detail how to assist National Authorities with carrying out education and outreach activities. In particular it will seek to enhance regional coordination among National Authorities, encourage use of existing educational materials, and stimulate ideas for developing new ones. Online educational tools already developed by the Technical Secretariat will be assessed and recommendations for methodological harmonisation and other improvements submitted.

A second working group is looking into ways to engage specific stakeholder communities, in particular scientific associations, industry, professional organisations and other expert communities. Primary themes to be developed include raising barriers against erosion of norm against chemical weapons and the CWC, means and ways of keeping those stakeholder communities informed and engaged in Convention-mandated activities, and engaging them in the further development of the treaty regime in light of the changing national or international environments in which the CWC must remain relevant.

Other working groups of ABEO Members will consider recommendations on how to address immediate challenges to the CWC regime as part of a public diplomacy strategy, ways to engage with other international organisations in promoting peace and disarmament education.

Work will also continue on ‘Longer-term strategies’, ‘Outreach at the regional, national and local levels’ and ‘Youth outreach’.

Besides these activities ABEO Members have also actively participated in regional seminars for National Authorities organised by the Technical Secretariat. In my capacity as Chairperson I made presentations on opportunities for education and outreach in the Workshop on Article XI implementation and the Annual Meeting for National Authorities. Finally, the ABEO and the Scientific Advisory Board have established a working relationship and plan to collaborate and consult with each other in areas of common interest.

Mr Chairperson, by way of conclusion I wish to thank on behalf of the Board Members all States Parties that have recognised the work of the ABEO in its first year and support its goal of promoting substantive interaction between the OPCW and its many stakeholder constituencies with a view of safeguarding the world from a re-emergence of chemical weapons. We are looking forward to your continuing endorsement, including in a more tangible form when we will set up a trust fund to support our projects and activities. And as a final reminder: you the States Parties can also request the ABEO’s advice on pertinent matters.

I request that the full text of this statement be considered as an official document of the Conference and published on the OPCW public website.

I thank you.

 


Crowd control with chemical agents: Fundamental questions raised

Book review

Michael Crowley, Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and their Means of Delivery (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2015), 378p.

Crowd control-sAnybody who has attended one of Michael Crowley’s annual presentations at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on the challenges posed by riot control and incapacitating agents for the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) knows his passion for the subject matter. And his overwhelming knowledge about the latest developments in science, technology, industry and government policies. These characteristics also typify his book on the topic, Chemical Control, published late last year.

The book can be read on three levels:

  • as an almost encyclopaedic presentation of facts,
  • as an in-depth analysis of the regulatory regimes pertaining to chemical crowd control agents, which leads to concrete policy recommendations, and
  • as a treatise on the analytical framework that has guided the research and the book structure.

Each level has merit in its own right. The third one, however, lifts this book above many other monographs on weaponry. Not just because of the ways in which it has informed Crowley’s research and analysis, but because it opens windows to fundamental debates on the purpose of disarmament and arms control today and tomorrow. He was right to resist calling his analytical framework a theory, but it nevertheless contains elements of theory. He formulates certain assumptions, but the book’s primary goals unfortunately do not give him the space to discuss them in depth. Because Crowley fundamentally questions some traditional understandings of the purpose of disarmament and arms control, he lays down an intellectual challenge that disarmament theorists or international lawyers cannot ignore.

A rich data source

The first level is that of the researcher’s data paradise. The monograph offers highly technical and detailed information on the nature of riot control and incapacitating agents and their delivery systems, the research and development behind them, where they are being manufactured and how they are traded, and most importantly for the other levels on which the book can be read, where and how they are being used.

Chemical warfare has its fair share of horror stories. About the impact of toxic chemicals on the body—from the painful and slow-healing blistering of the skin by mustard agents to the uncontrollable convulsions caused by exposure to sarin or other nerve agents. About the human experiments conducted not just in the Japanese prisoner of war camps in China in the Second World War or the dungeons of the darkest totalitarian regimes, but also in the bastions of Western democracy. Until today veterans in the UK and the USA, for example, are fighting to have their contribution to the national defence effort officially recognised and receive adequate compensation and health care—if they are still alive.

However, it is quite a different present-day horror story to read that quite a few states use incapacitants and riot control agents (such as tear gas)—toxic chemicals that some try to sell to public opinion as so-called non-lethal or humane weapons—to torture prisoners or regime opponents. Page after page, table after table Crowley details national practices of certain countries. They beggar belief were it not for the fact that source references make up two-thirds of the pages with tables.

Crowley methodically presents the different types of agent together with their characteristics and consequences after exposure, the country armament programmes and practices, and incidents. He never meant those pages to be read in a systematic way; they are detailed reference materials for researchers worldwide. In that sense he comes as close as possible to an encyclopaedic treatment of the subject matter. Future reports by him and other researchers will have to update the data sets.

If assimilation of this wealth of data might appear daunting, then section introductions and conclusions pull the main strands of his empirical analysis neatly together.

Considerations for policy shapers and makers

The second level is that of policy advice. I must admit that when I first saw the table of contents and noticed that the final chapter addressed conclusions and recommendations I had concerns about the substance of the book. It is one thing to undertake solid empirical research; it is quite a different thing to lay out arguments (and thereby present data selectively) in support of policy recommendations. Too often such treatises display superior argumentative logic, all the while lacking foundation in factual reality. Or they may sink to the level of wholly speculative ‘may and might’ analyses spinning hypothetical, often worst-case scenarios whose projected consequences then inform policy recommendations.

To my relief Crowley avoids this trap because a solid analytical framework structures his analysis (see the third level below). Thus after having laid out the technical aspects and national programmes of crowd control agents, he moves to the regulatory regimes. Again he proceeds systematically. In what amounts to over half of the book, he devotes a chapter each to arms control and disarmament law, international humanitarian law, human rights law, international criminal law, technology transfer control regimes, and UN drug control conventions. For each of the treaties, regulations, policy declarations, or informal arrangements (such as the Australia Group or Wassenaar Arrangement) Crowley presents the reader with a summary of the objectives and tools, an analysis of their implementation, and options for amelioration.

In the penultimate chapter he examines how civil society can contribute to the strengthening and implementation of the respective regimes. It comprises a comprehensive overview of ideas that have been explored in the fields of chemical and biological weapon control over the past decade and a half, as well as various initiatives whose primary concern have been the humanitarian and human rights consequences of the application of crowd control agents. In the process the author comments on such activities and suggests further options and improvements.

Crowley’s recommendations are rooted in this detailed analysis. He identifies areas of action where governments (and by extension, intergovernmental organisations) have to assume their responsibilities with regard to the strengthening and implementation of the international rules. He also considers how civil society constituencies can contribute to the strengthening of existing tools (e.g., through the development of ethical and professional codes of conduct, educational initiatives, etc.) or develop independent initiatives to track developments (e.g., open source monitoring of the use of crowd control agents or the political and technological imperatives for their further development and international commercialisation) with a view of holding policy makers accountable.

The final chapter thus comprises succinct summaries of the issues treated in the preceding chapters and related policy recommendations.

Analytical framework

As already indicated in the introduction, to me the best aspect of the book is the analytical framework. Crowley calls it ‘holistic arms control’ (HAC). It concentrates on existing arms control and disarmament measures, but seeks to expand on the numbers and types of regulatory measures and broaden the range of possible stakeholders.

The ambition is not small: he must weave a net whose meshes are sufficiently wide to catch all relevant data, while small enough to filter out irrelevant elements. Moreover, his construct is multidimensional, capturing the technologies together with national and human security concerns of inappropriate use, all relevant international legal regimes and other types of regulation together with the relative strengths and weaknesses, and possible strategies to reinforce all barriers against misuse of crowd control chemicals.

He deconstructs this ambition in the opening chapter and in the process outlines a step by step methodology that will form the backbone for the whole book. Cowley’s rigid adherence to the model contributes significantly to the readability of his analysis: throughout the reader remains aware of the stage of analysis and when particular questions are likely to be addressed. At the same time, he leaves the reader with a strong sense of comprehensiveness by bringing in many elements that one might not immediately consider when touching upon the subject of incapacitating and riot control agents. His discussion of the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances is but one example.

A theoretical knot

However, the HAC framework is not merely analytical, it is also aspirational. It carries elements of theory formation that offer the perspective of substantive debates on the purpose of disarmament in fast changing times. As the author states (p.4):

Recognizing that reliance upon a single disarmament or arms control agreement alone would not guarantee success, scholars have explored a number of concepts, seeking to broaden the range of possible regulatory mechanisms.

His analysis is therefore also aspirational:

Although the proposed HAC analytical framework concentrates upon existing arms control and disarmament measures, it attempts to widen the range of applicable mechanisms for regulation, and also the nature of the actors involved in such regulatory measures.

Consequently, HAC can be thought of as a framework for analysis to aid the development of a comprehensive, layered and flexible approach to arms control […]

Left unsaid is the central question: what is the core purpose of disarmament (as embedded in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the CWC, two key pillars of the regime against the misuse of incapacitating or riot control agents)? Furthermore, how do treaty regimes evolve in the light of technological, political and social changes over the years since their adoption and entry into force?

Humanitarian considerations have over the past two decades taken up a prominent place in the disarmament and arms control discourses. This means that today a different reference framework for judging effectiveness of a convention exists than the one originally intended: the focus of the public debate has shifted from the weapon technology (which must be eliminated) to the consequences of their use under a variety of circumstances on individuals and communities, which in turn has amplified calls to hold those responsible for violations accountable under national and international criminal law. That conflict of purpose is on clear display in the Syrian civil war: many people do not understand why the international community can invest resources in eliminating Syria’s chemical warfare capacity, but does not want to intervene to stop the slaughter of civilians.

The issue really becomes interesting when two humanitarian considerations intersect at a given decision-making moment in a disarmament setting, and a choice has to be made. Crowley points to such a moment during the 3rd CWC Review Conference in April 2013 (pp. 130–31), however without realising the underlying conflict (of conscience) that led to the item of incapacitating agents being dropped form the final document. The debate occurred when the number of reported chemical weapon (CW) incidents in the Syrian civil war was rising fast, and only a few weeks after the UN Secretary-General established a mission to investigate allegations of CW use. Including a condemnation of the escalating chemical warfare crisis proved highly controversial. Compromise was possible on severely weakened language only, which was totally unacceptable to the Western Group and Other States (WEOG). The final document was in the balance. Given that Poland was chairing the review conference, failure was not an option for the European Union members.

One WEOG ambassador was unable to get updated guidance on compromise language on the questions of incapacitants and Syria from his capital, and therefore had to decide under his personal responsibility (all the while bearing in mind that the successful outcome of the review conference hung in the balance). He opted to go with the compromise language on Syria and (in consultation with the original sponsor, Switzerland) drop references to incapacitants, a key consideration being that the issue could be taken up at a later date. Does such a decision make the CWC less effective? The consensus language in the final document would ultimately form a not insignificant foundation for subsequent action by the OPCW following the sarin attacks in the district of Ghouta less than four months later, and Syria’s accession to the CWC and subsequent disarmament. Outcomes at meetings can result from complex decision processes when different interests conflict with each other and priorities (often in function of developments at the time) need to be established.

So, I raise the question whether the global community is best served by finding ways to ameliorate core instruments or by broadening the range of tools in order to capture a particular issue of interest? I have no immediate answer because, as the book describes, science and technology and their application in various circumstances may evolve much faster than the international community can regulate them or update existing treaty regimes. Nevertheless, I do have the concern that multiplication of treaties and other regulatory instruments lead to different lists of states participating in each one of them and different levels of compliance and enforceability. That could lead to a cacophony of expectations based on different requirements and interpretations of obligations.

This final reflection is not a criticism of Chemical Control. The question touches upon theories of regime formation and international law and goes beyond the purpose of Michael Crowley’s book. However, it is a matter I definitely wish to engage him on. I can only commend him for offering a solid framework for structuring that particular debate on the future of disarmament and arms control and identifying the fundamental assumptions underlying both concepts.

 

[Cross-posted from The Trench]


Investigation of alleged CW use in Syria: The reports 2013–15

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Investigations under the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism

Investigations by the OPCW Fact-Finding MIssion

The Trench blog comments


Syrian soldiers exposed to ‘sarin or a sarin-like substance’

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

In November I presented the main findings of the preliminary Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) report of 29 October. This particular investigation of alleged use by the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had been requested by Syria. Government officials had transmitted four Notes Verbales alleging  26 chemical weapon (CW) events resulting in 432 casualties. The preliminary report focussed primarily on incidents at Jobar (northeast of Damascus) on 29 August 2014. While the investigators believed that government soldiers had been exposed to an irritant, they could not confirm that the chemical had been used as a weapon. They as good as ruled out chlorine or a neurotoxicant, such as sarin, as the causative agent.

However, the investigative team also looked into five other events reported by the Syrian government: Al-Maliha on 16 April and 11 July 2014, al-Kabbas on 10 September 2014, Nubel and al-Zahraa on 8 January 2015, and Darayya on 15 February 2015.

On 17 December the Technical Secretariat circulated the final report on those allegations by the Syrian government. Whereas the interim report of 29 October comprised 59 pages, the final report almost doubled in size to 106 pages.

The final report repeats the findings about Jobar. With respect to the five other incidents, it reaches similar conclusions. However, as regards Darayya it summarised:

From the results of blood sample analyses, the FFM is of the opinion that there is a high degree of probability that some of those identified as being involved in the alleged incident in Darayya on 15 February 2015 were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance. In order to determine how, when, or under what circumstances the exposure occurred, further investigation would be required to complement the interviews carried out and the documents reviewed.

It does not say that those individuals were exposed to the neurotoxicant at Darayya, nor does it confirm that such exposure was the consequence of combat operations.

Investigating possible use of irritant chemicals as a weapon

With regard to the alleged incidents in Jobar on 29 August 2014 (for details, see my earlier posting), al-Maliha on 16 April 2014 and 11 July 2014, al Kabbas, Damascus on 10 September 2014 and Nubel and al-Zahraa on 8 January 2015, the report offers parallel conclusions. These are:

  • The affected soldiers ‘may have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating airborne substance, secondary to the surface impact of the launched objects’.
  • The investigators could not determine with any degree of confidence as to whether exposure was the consequence of the irritant being delivered as the payload of a projectile, or whether the irritant had another source of origin (combustion product of a propellant, detonation of a conventional or improvised explosive device on a stored chemical already in-situ, some combination of substances mixed with surface soil and dust, or a combination of all mentioned factors).
  • The affected soldiers in question present clinical symptoms that are ‘consistent with a brief exposure to any number of chemicals or environmental insults’. Furthermore, ‘the visual and olfactory description of the potential irritating substance does not clearly indicate any specific chemical’.

In each of the five cases, the investigators pointed out that the lack of hard evidence precluded them from gathering facts in a definitive way. Little ‘objective evidence’ was made available to the team to complement the materials given by the Syrian authorities, ‘either because it was unavailable or because it was not generated in the first place’. The report lists the types of evidence that would have been crucial to establishing facts with a higher degree of confidence:

  • Photographic or video recordings of the incident;
  • A visit to the site where the incident took place;
  • Detailed medical records including, inter alia, X-rays, pulmonary function tests, and timely blood laboratory values;
  • Timely biomedical samples from the patients;
  • Remnants of any ordnance, launching system, or other forensic evidence retrieved from the location of the incident;
  • Unfired ordnance similar to that used in the incident;
  • Environmental samples from the surroundings of the location of the incident, including background samples;
  • Comprehensive contemporaneous incident reports generated by the chain of military command and the medical system; and
  • Comprehensive witness testimonies generated at the time of the incident.

Concerning some alleged incidents, the investigators would have also welcomed:

  • A greater sample of witness testimonies (al Maliha, 11 July 2014; Nubel and al-Zahraa, 8 January 2015); and
  • Samples from remnants of cylinders or other containers alleged to have been used in the incident and retrieved from the incident location (al Kabbas, 10 September 2014; Nubel and al-Zahraa, 8 January 2015).

Exposure to a nerve agent-related substance

According to Note Verbale 41 (29 May 2015), a follow-up to the initial document submitted by the Syrian government on 15 December 2014 that led to the FFM investigation, eight military personnel became casualties in an alleged CW incident on 15 February 2015. It provided a brief description of the incident, signs and symptoms, a more precise location, the hospital where casualties received treatment, and the names of the victims. The incident appeared sufficiently grave for the FFM to investigate it.

The FFM conducted interviews with medical staff and casualties relevant to the allegation and visited hospitals and research laboratories where tests on victim blood samples had been conducted. It also visited the Centre for Studies and Scientific Research Institute in Barzi, Damascus, on 12 and 14 August 2015. On the first day, team members had a discussion with the head of the research institute on the storage and research methods for blood collected for acetyl-cholinesterase (AChE) analysis and were made aware of the existence of several blood samples stored onsite related to the Darayya incident. Two days later the FFM revisited the institute to seal the selected blood samples.

In the course of the investigation the FFM received a variety of documents, including battlefield and medical reports, video footage and images from GoogleEarth indicating exact locations. These documents included the medical records of the eight reported casualties and the AChE analyses of six alleged victims. In several cases the investigators were granted access to requested documents, albeit without being provided with photocopies. Four of the reported casualties were given HI-6 (asoxime chloride) and dematropine, both nerve agent antidotes.

The retrieved blood samples were forwarded to OPCW-certified laboratories for analysis and a certified laboratory conducted DNA analysis to link the samples to the casualties.

In its medical review the FFM report draws a sharp distinction with the other investigated Syrian allegations:

The Darayya incident was the only reviewed incident wherein the alleged victims had a prolonged recovery phase of 10-12 days. This departed from all other alleged incidents wherein recovery was rapid and rarely resulted in hospital observation for more than two nights. Darayya is also the only alleged incident wherein antidotes and specific treatments such as oximes and atropine were employed, or were even mentioned. Finally, and perhaps most notably, this was the only incident wherein blood analysis was performed with quantitative results noted in the medical records. Though such results are precisely the type of objective evidence the medical team would have preferred to have had in the aforementioned incidents, in the case of Darayya the presented test results proved more confounding than helpful, as they were significantly outside of the expected range for such a scenario.

As a consequence, the report notes, the recovered blood samples had to be forwarded to an independent laboratory for further assessment. The final results were still pending when the report was issued. In its absence the medical evaluation necessarily rests on the interviews and provided documents, but given the shortcomings of the methodology and gaps, these merely contribute to the uncertainties that permeate the entire report on the allegations by the Syrian authorities. (It should be noted that Appendixes 8 and 9 provide detailed results of the analyses of the blood samples suggesting exposure to neurotoxicants in all tested samples collected from casualties, so that paragraph 90 of the report may either indicate failure to delete language from an earlier draft or point to additional laboratory testing.)

As with the investigation of the other incidents, the FFM noted that the Syrians could have supplied more documentary evidence or undertaken certain actions to  corroborate the testimonies of the casualties and witnesses it interviewed and establish the value of the evidence supplied:

  • Immediate notification to the OPCW that a suspected chemical attack had occurred would have allowed the prompt deployment of the FFM to gather primary evidence and establish the facts surrounding this incident;
  • Photographic or video recordings of the incident;
  • Visit to the site where the incident took place;
  • Detailed medical records including, inter alia, X-rays, pulmonary function tests, as well as timely and complete blood laboratory values;
  • Remnants of any ordnance, launching system, or forensic evidence retrieved from the incident location;
  • Unfired ordnance similar to that used in the incident;
  • Environmental samples, including animal tissue, from the surroundings of the incident location as well as background control samples;
  • Comprehensive contemporaneous incident reports generated by the chain of military command and the medical system;
  • Comprehensive witness testimonies generated at the time of the incident; and
  • A greater sample of witness testimonies.

On the basis of the evidence collected, the FFM concludes that:

there is a high degree of probability that some of those involved in the alleged incident in Darayya on 15 February 2015 were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance. However, the FFM could not confidently link the blood sample analyses to this particular incident nor determine how, when, or under what circumstances the exposure occurred.

The one sarin-like substance the report mentions is chlorosarin (O-isopropyl methylphosphonochloridate), a final precursor to the manufacture of sarin. However, the analysis did not indicate a specific date of exposure, nor a specific time that the blood was drawn. The FFM was also unable to verify the chain of custody between the time the blood was drawn from the casualties and the time it sealed the samples. In addition, blood sample analyses indicated that four of the eight individuals were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance, but the investigators were unable to link these results to the Darayya incident of 15 February 2015 as reported by the Syrian government. It is in this context that the report observes that the immediate notification to the OPCW of the suspected chemical attack would have allowed the prompt deployment of the FFM to gather primary evidence and establish the facts surrounding this incident.

Some observations

A striking feature of the general debate at the 20th Session of the Conference of States Parties (30 November–4 December 2015) was that not a single country referred to the preliminary FFM report on the allegations put forward by the Syrian government. As one participating diplomat put it to me, conclusions were not yet definite. He added that ‘the Executive Council had kicked the can down the road’ and that the findings would make for a difficult meeting early in 2016. Indeed, a week earlier, on 23 November, the Executive Council had noted the FFM’s inability to confidently determine whether or not a chemical was used as a weapon. It further noted that the FFM report was an interim report and that other incidents under investigation are pending final analysis and will be included in the final report.

The paragraph stands in stark contrast to the previous one addressing the FFM reports on alleged CW use in Marea and Idlib province, where the Executive Council

Expresses grave concern regarding the findings of the Fact-Finding Mission that chemical weapons have once again been used in the Syrian Arab Republic, and in this regard:
(a)     underscores that, with respect to the incident in Marea, Syrian Arab Republic, on 21 August 2015, the report of the Fact-Finding Mission confirmed “with the utmost confidence that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard” and that it is “very likely that the effects of sulfur mustard resulted in the death of a baby” (S/1320/2015); and
(b)     further underscores that, with respect to several incidents in the Idlib Governorate of the Syrian Arab Republic between 16 March 2015 and 20 May 2015, the report of the Fact-Finding Mission concluded that they “likely involved the use of one or more toxic chemicals—probably containing the element chlorine—as a weapon” with an “outcome of exposure [that] was fatal in six cases in Sarmin,” including those of three children in the same family (S/1319/2015).

Reading the latter two documents, I was struck by the fact that despite the difficult circumstances in which the investigations had to be conducted, the reports were still able to advance conclusions with fair to very high degrees of confidence that toxic chemicals had been used as a weapon. The investigators also indicated which chemicals may have been involved and proffered details about the munitions that delivered the agents. Indeed, the Idlib report contained a detailed graphical reconstruction of the barrel bombs dropped from helicopters to deliver the chlorine (see my earlier posting). All the evidence collected from Idlib province leaves little doubt that government units were responsible for those attacks. Concerning the mustard agent attack at Marea, the report does not implicate the Syrian government despite the certainty of its conclusions. Press and NGO reports have pointed the finger to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The OPCW and Iraq are collaborating on the investigation into a similar incident implicating ISIL near Mosul last summer.

During the Conference of States Parties the Syrian delegate vehemently denied that his country had ever launched a CW attack. In 2013 Damascus requested the UN Secretary General to investigate certain allegations of chemical warfare; the UN investigative team was in the Syrian capital when sarin-filled rockets hit the Ghouta suburb. The offer to accede to the CWC and have its chemical warfare capacity eliminated under international supervision averted international military strikes and ensured regime survival, at least in the short term.

The request for an investigation submitted in December 2014 was the first since Syria had joined the OPCW. One imagines that the Syrian government would have mobilised all possible resources to substantiate its allegements to the greatest possible extent. Trivial or plainly false allegations would inevitably undermine the country’s standing and the international community will tend to brush off any future accusations as a figment of a desperate government’s imagination.

Investigating false accusations also drains the OPCW’s limited budget resources. Unfortunately, no arms control or disarmament treaty currently in force envisages specific penalties for false allegations. Before entry into force of the CWC the Preparatory Commission (PrepCom) of the OPCW held consultations on the ‘costs of abuse’ detailing what direct and indirect costs should be covered by the State Party requesting a challenge inspection should the Executive Council rule that the requesting state party abused its right to request such an inspection. However, the PrepCom transferred the question as one of the outstanding issues to the OPCW and 18 years after the entry into force of the CWC this particular question remains unresolved. [Per Runn, Verification Annex, Part X, in W. Krutzsch, E. Myjer, and R. Trapp (eds.), The Chemical Weapons Convention: A Commentary (2014), p. 618.] Whichever way, since Syria claims that it cannot pay for verification and other operations for which a state party should cover the costs, the international community must cough up the money.

What Syrian objectives may lie behind the accusations? First, the government may genuinely believe that it has been the victim of chemical attacks. In that case, one would expect government officials forthcoming with evidence. Even lacking experience in dealing with such a situation, the questions and requests for further evidence they could address in such a way that either it complements initial information with supplementary evidence or demonstrates that the desired data are genuinely not available, for instance, as a consequence of war circumstances.

Second, the accusations could be part of a broader scheme to deflect responsibility for the Syrian regime’s own chemical attacks or to deny the international community evidence that later might inculpate Syrian officials for war crimes. If the allegations are indeed part of a plan to deflect responsibility for CW use, an outside observer’s impressions can only vacillate between sloppiness and sheer incompetence, on the one hand, and unwillingness to provide relevant documentation (which many or may not have been deliberately destroyed or hidden), on the other hand. Alas, the latter concern is one I have also often heard mentioned in connection with Syria’s declarations as part of its disarmament obligations.

There is a third possibility, but here one can only hope that the request for an investigation was not part of an exercise to learn how to better disguise chemical warfare attacks or to manufacture evidence in support of alleged insurgent use of toxicants.