BTWC 8th RevCon Final Document

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

The 8th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) ended today, 25 November, in great disappointment. While during the preparatory meetings in April and August it was already clear that the exercise would be difficult, nobody really anticipated that so much would be lost in two days. There is even less than in the previous final documents: the meetings of experts (MX) held during the summer have been stopped; the meetings of states parties (MSP) have been preserved, but without a sense of purpose. Except as a way to preserve the Implementation Support Unit (ISU).

The number of staff of the ISU was not increased. The still incomprehensible Spanish veto against the expansion of the ISU in the final two hours of the 7th Review Conference in 2011 (despite EU consensus to support such increase of staff) is having lasting consequences of ever greater impact. I guess that we can be grateful that nobody raised the flag to argue that with the elimination of the MX the ISU would have a reduced workload (not exactly true, but then politics are about perceptions, not truths).

In their final declarations many countries, especially from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), put the blame squarely on Iran (without naming the country). This country’s obsession with returning to a negotiation format like the Ad Hoc Group to achieve the higher goal of a legally binding instrument—possibly with the sole goal of antagonising the USA—led it to exploit to the fullest to principle of consensus decision-making to torpedo any effort at compromise. Many NAM countries—often developing nations—lost out on concrete opportunities for international cooperation and assistance. They were acutely aware of what they were losing. Having participated in four review conferences, I cannot remember so much direct criticism directed against one of their own.

More was on offer, and for a moment in the late morning and early afternoon expectations rose that a meaningful outcome might still be possible. By 4pm those hopes were dashed; even the continued existence of the ISU was in doubt. Fortunately, that danger was averted.

I will write up some personal recollections and impressions over the next week or so. There were more dynamics driving the negotiations that prevented useful compromises during the endgame.

Meanwhile, I have scanned the final document and the budget assessment (BTWC 8th RevCon – Final doc (Scan)) as it was distributed to delegates. These documents contain typographical and grammatical errors. A clean version will soon be published by the ISU.

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Panel on the Iran nuclear deal

Our followers in London and the UK will be interested in this panel on the Iran nuclear deal that will take place at the University of Westminster in London on 17 November. As you know, on 14 July 2015 the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed by Iran, the P5+1 and the European Union was announced. Under the framework, Iran will substantially reduce its stockpiles of nuclear material, limit its future production of nuclear materials, and accept the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. In return, the P5+1 and the UN Security Council will lift all nuclear-related economic sanctions against Iran. But what legal obligations does the deal contain? How will we ensure that Iran is complying with them? Does the deal strengthen international peace and security or is it rather a threat to it? And why have other nations not faced as much scrutiny as Iran? The panel discussion will address these and other important questions from a legal, political and diplomatic perspective.

Speakers include, in addition to our own Dan Joyner, Sir Richard Dalton (British Ambassador to Iran 2002-2006; Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House; President, British Iranian Chamber of Commerce) and Ambassador Peter Jenkins, CMG (Partner, the Ambassador Partnership).

To register, please click here.

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Talking disarmament for the Middle East

Last month Noha Tarek from Egypt commented on my reflection that neither members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), with the exception of India, nor Arab League members have contributed financially or in kind to the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons (CW). Syria participates in both groupings. She linked disarmament elements to a host of intra-regional and external politics and considered the relationship between Syria’s (read: Arab) CW and Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

It has taken me a while to reply. I could have easily registered my disagreement with several elements, but that does not open new perspectives for disarmament in the Middle East. Moreover, any ‘correctness’ of a viewpoint would depend entirely on whether Noha and I share a common taxonomy of issue interrelatedness, which we do not. On the contrary, I am absolutely convinced that the public discourse on disarmament in the region must change if any progress is to be made. By governments, to make negotiated solutions acceptable to their respective citizens. By the public to allow politicians and diplomats the space to back out of entrenched positions held for so many decades. Security, of course, remains paramount. However, it can be organised differently. Disarmament is after all the continuation of security policies by alternative means.

Can we move beyond the endless, anaemic exercises to describe every conceivable obstacle in their minutest detail? Is it possible for issue experts from international civil society to design from a purely technical viewpoint some first practical steps to offer substance to the disarmament debate ? This blog posting sketches a few possibilities. I am far from certain that I have the right answers (or even the right analysis for that matter), but the thoughts can hopefully foster a problem-solving discourse.

Read the rest of this entry »


Getting by with a little help from my friends

Ridding Syria of its chemical weapons (CW) is a costly undertaking. It is projected to cost many tens of millions of Euros. To this end both the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have set up trust funds in support of the Syrian CW disarmament project. The OPCW has already managed to collect close to €60 million. International financial and in-kind support were required as Syria had notified the organisation upon its accession to the CWC that it was not in a position to pay for the CW destruction operations. Despite the international community’s assumption of responsibility for the disarmament project via the decisions taken by the OPCW Executive Council and the UN Security Council on 27 September, analysis of the list of donors reveals that neither Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) members (barring a single exception) nor Arab League states have come to the assistance of its fellow member state. Yet both bodies do repeatedly declare their full commitment to General and Complete Disarmament or a region free of non-conventional weapons for the Middle East.

Sponsoring CW Disarmament

In line with Security Council Resolution 2118 (2013) the money in the UN trust fund pays for the purchase and transport of  non-military logistical equipment, water transportation, power generators, port shipping fees, drivers, food, fuel expenses, and other related services. According to a fact sheet released by the Joint Mission earlier this month, $7.014 million (€5.1 million) has been received from Denmark, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Russia and the United States. Japan has pledged an additional $9 million (€6.55 million).

The OPCW operates two trust funds, one to cover operations in Syria and one to pay for the destruction of Syria’s CW. The fact sheet reports that they total €8.66 million ($9.049 million) and €42.4 million ($58.5 million) respectively in actual contributions and pledges. Last Tuesday the OPCW announced that Japan has donated €13.25 million ($18,2 million)—almost doubling the €7.1 million ($9.7 million) the country had initially pledged to both OPCW trust funds—to support operations related to the destruction of Syria’s CW programme. The grand total of funds available to the OPCW now stands at around €57.3 million ($78.74 million). As important are the in-kind contributions offered by several states and the European Union to both the UN and the OPCW. These include a variety of services and logistical support or the making available of special equipment.

The combined totals of funds entrusted to the OPCW represent the equivalent of over two-thirds of the organisation’s annual regular budget, a clear indicator of the magnitude of the undertaking. Adding the in-kind donations, the total value of contributions may actually exceed the OPCW’s annual regular budget. In addition, the OPCW is to recoup the verification costs from Syria. To this end the Council of the European Union decided to unfreeze funds from the assets blocked under EU sanctions against the Assad regime.

Those figures undeniably testify to the sizeable international support for eliminating Syria’s chemical warfare capacity. Closer examination, however, shows that the burden is carried mainly by the Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and Turkey. Russia, Byelorussia, China and three other Asian states—India, Japan and South Korea—make up the remainder. In other words, not a single country from Africa and Central and South America, and a majority of CWC parties from the Asia–Pacific region do not contribute in any way to the project. Even tiny Andorra has managed to transfer €15,000.

The friend of my friend is my . . . frenemy?

Of the 120 members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which always calls for general and complete disarmament, the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, and international cooperation and development, only India has pledged €736,000 in support of the destruction of CW from fellow NAM member Syria. Iran, a close ally of the Syrian government, currently chairs the group.

Even more striking is the total lack of any form of contribution from the Middle East. (Turkey belongs to the Western Europe and Other States Group of parties to the CWC.) Iran, for instance, actively promotes chemical disarmament. Each year during the Conference of the States Parties it organises an event commemorating the chemical warfare victims of the 1980–88 war with Iraq. Since November 2012 a memorial sponsored by Iran adorns the garden of the OPCW headquarter building. The statue represents a victim gradually losing his/her life from the effects of chemical weapons whose body is simultaneously converted into peace doves. Without concrete action today to safeguard the Syrian people from the consequences of the chemical attacks (irrespective of who might be the perpetrator), Ypres, Sardasht and Halabja are reduced to mere incidents in the history of warfare and denied meaningful commemoration. Being close, Iran may want to press the Syrian government to speed up the removal of the precursor chemicals and intervene to offer its expert medical assistance in the field. Chairing the NAM, it may wish to press members to actively contribute to the international CW removal effort in Syria. For a government trying to reconnect with all constituencies of the global community, active and demonstrable participation might send many positive signals about its political commitment to disarmament in all its national and international dimensions.

None of Syria’s Arab League partners (all of whom except Egypt are parties to the CWC) have even made a token contribution. Some members may have deep-rooted issues with President Bashar al-Assad, but the money does not actually go to him. It contributes to eliminating the possibility that civilians do not have to face another Ghouta amid all the ongoing carnage. Yet, the regional organisation will undoubtedly profess its absolute commitment to a Middle East free from non-conventional weapons at the Preparatory Committee of the NPT Review Conference starting in New York next April. Particularly, it will express its profound frustration with the fact that no meeting to rid the region from biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and missiles has yet been convened as requested by the final document of the 2010 Review Conference. And for sure it will blame precisely those countries that contribute the most to the elimination of Syria’s CW.

Will somebody point out that by supporting the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, Middle Eastern states may actually change the security calculations in their region (including those by Israel), and that therefore they, rather than outsiders, could contribute greatly to their desired goal of regional disarmament?

[Cross-posted from The Trench blog]


Thinking of Halabja Today – 25 Years Later

16 March marks the 25th anniversary of the chemical warfare attacks against the Kurdish town of Halabja. Since the First World War it was one of the few cases wherein chemical weapons (CW) were deliberately used against a civilian target. Human Rights Watch documented over 3,200 deaths and many times that number of other casualties. Since then, thousands more of people have succumbed to their injuries or preventable infections affecting organs damaged by exposure to gas. Many women also suffered extensive genetic damage, thus passing the consequences of the gas attacks down the generations.

The town of Halabja in northeast Iraq has become a modern-age symbol condemning chemical warfare. Together with Ieper, a medieval town in the Belgian province of West Flanders. On 22 April 1915, the day on which scientific research, industrial production and military art finally found each other, German Imperial troops released a chlorine cloud from thousands of canisters buried in the trenches on the northern flank of the Ieper salient. Two years later, in the night of 12–13 July 1917, the town became associated with the first use of a new chemical warfare agent—mustard gas (which the French subsequently called ‘Yperite’). Mustard was also one of Iraq’s agents of choice against both the Iranians and the Iraqi Kurds.

The Iran–Iraq war lasted twice as long as the First World War: from 1980 until 1988. Iraqi use of toxic chemicals against Iranian soldiers was first reported in 1982, but by the end of 1983 press outlets told of widespread usage of mustard gas and tabun, a nerve agent. In April of the next year, a UN team of experts confirmed chemical warfare. From then onwards, Iraqi chemical attacks escalated, reaching a first peak in 1986 in the southern marshes. Two years later Iraqi forces had also assimilated CW for offensive operations and employed them with increasing effectiveness until Iran’s capitulation on 8 August 1988.

Possibly earlier, but definitively from 1987, Saddam Hussein opened a second chemical front against the Iraqi Kurds in the north. Names of towns such as Erbil (Hewlêr in Kurdish) in the north of the country or Penjwin, east of Sulaymaniyah, recurred frequently in interviews I had with Kurdish Peshmergas coming for a break to Belgium. They recounted chemical strikes against agrarian communities in north and east Iraqi Kurdistan. They described how eating the vegetables from their fields poisoned women and children many weeks after a CW attack. Unwittingly, they ingested the mustard agent that had settled on the bottom side of the leaves. The Peshmergas also depicted bombing raids high in the mountains, after which the mustard gas rolled down the mountain sides, penetrating deep into any cave sheltering Kurdish fighters.

About two years later, when listening again to my recordings from 1987, I recognised another town being referred to—Helebce, since then better known in the West as Halabja. The local population had risen up against Saddam Hussein, who brutally crushed the revolt. Half of the city fled to Iran, about 15 kilometres to the east, according to the interview. When Kurdish guerillas fighting alongside Iranian troops ‘liberated’ Halabja on 15 March 1988, supreme vengeance against an insurrectionary town came the next morning in the form of a gas cloud. Attacks were to continue until the 18th. Privately I have always been convinced that the 1987 uprising together with the ‘betrayal’ of the Iraqi Kurds seeking to break Baathist control over northeast Iraq with Iranian help in 1988 provoked the extraordinary escalation of chemical warfare against Kurdish guerillas and civilians alike. From that perspective, Saddam Hussein’s campaigns against the Kurds through August and September 1988 merely systematised the Halabja method on an even grander scale.

Indelible impressions

A few weeks after the attacks against Halabja, members of the Kurdish community in the Leuven area (where many Iraqi Kurds stayed with relatives and local acquaintances for a breather from combat) took me to the Erasmus hospital in Anderlecht, just outside Brussels. It had accepted four or five victims of chemical warfare for treatment. One was an Iranian soldier badly affected by mustard gas; one was a boy aged around five recovering from the chemical attacks on Halabja; the remainder were farmers from a wide area surrounding the town. Iraqi chemical strikes had neither been limited to 16 March, nor to the town of Halabja, it became clear to me. Joost Hiltermann later confirmed this impression in his detailed study ‘A Poisonous Affair’ (2007).

Two things struck me during that visit. The local Kurdish community treated the young boy as one of their own. He was slowly recovering from a low red blood cell count (possibly from a cyanide breakdown product after tabun exposure), and by the time I visited him he was already sitting up surrounded by pretty expensive toys. Most striking was a large replica with moving wings of an F-14 jet, with which the child was playing most of the time I was there. The treating physician told me of his incomprehension of why the boy had been given so many war-related presents. He also remarked on how the boy winced whenever a commercial jetplane flew over, an observation that added to his puzzlement. Three years later, when I was intensely following developments in the war over Kuwait, my son was both restless and agitated. After asking in a supermarket for a small, but accurate metal model of the A-10 close air support aircraft, which he recognised from TV newscasts, he settled down markedly. It seemed as if by holding the object of his anxiety, he was able to control the source of his angst. The Kurdish boy had definitely seen Saddam’s fighter-bombers up close.

The second lasting impression was how my Kurdish hosts tore me away from the Iranian soldier. He was by far the worst victim of gas exposure in the hospital (he was to die not too long after my visit). His skin looked blackened where white ointment did not fully hide it. Lesions from the vesicles covered parts of his body and his difficult, assisted breathing betrayed internal injuries. A faint, but unforgettable smell of decayed flesh penetrated the dominant odour of disinfectants. He had fallen victim to mustard gas outside of Halabja, possibly being one of the soldiers along whose side the Peshmergas were fighting against Saddam Hussein. The Kurds, however, did not spare a thought for him. This somehow offended my unconscious belief that victims of chemical warfare are all equal. At least, I knew of no such distinctions being drawn between Allied and German gas casualties of the First World War. In Belgium, common cause is against chemical warfare, full stop. And 25 years ago, the suffering in the trenches was all still part of national living memory.

The other face of Halabja

This incident was my first concrete exposure to the deep ethnic, cultural and religious cleavages in the Middle East, difficult to bridge and a perennial source of misunderstanding and hostility. It also shows why Halabja can never be a symbol for Iran’s suffering from CW in the way Ieper does for all chemical warfare during the First World War. For a while Halabja stood for all atrocities committed during Saddam’s reign of terror; the new Iraqi regime now commemorates the Halabja attacks as a national tragedy. Iran widely publicised the gassing in the weeks and months after the air raids. Halabja, however, lay in occupied territory. UN experts could not enter the town without Iraq’s authorisation. Although access to the victims transferred to Iranian hospitals was possible, lack of onsite verification diminished the value of the findings. Moreover, most victims were not Iranians, but Kurds—an ethnic group whose members living inside Iran also suffered from violent oppression by the theocratic rulers.

Iran’s own Halabja is called Sardasht, a municipality without much military significance across the border north of Sulaymaniyah. Saddam’s air force hit the town on 28 June 1987, almost nine months before Halabja. Although initial reports of CW victims were low, it soon emerged that almost three quarters of a population of 12,000 had been exposed to the toxicants. Some 130 people died, most of them civilians. The international press barely noticed this strike on a target with hardly any military significance.

Sardasht emblemised Iran’s predicament. The Islamic revolution of 1979 bought the country few friends. With the hostage taking in the US embassy, pent up anger over Washington’s unwavering support for the Shah’s repressive regime exploded into the open. The new leadership also refused rapprochement to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile it called for Islamic uprisings against the corrupt, autocratic leaders in the Gulf and beyond. When Iraq invaded its neighbour, Saddam Hussein presented himself as the bulwark against Persian territorial designs and Islamic revolutionary fervour. Although the United States and the USSR found themselves on the same side of the war; having lost a major regional ally, Washington nevertheless sought to pry Iraq away from the Soviet sphere of influence. The tide soon turned against Iraq, but the international community could not afford to let it lose the war. Such geostrategic calculations were to clash with international law.

When Saddam Hussein ordered the first chemical attacks, he breached the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Both Iran and Iraq had been party to the agreement for many decades. To Iraq, CW were a force multiplier that arrested the incessant Iranian human wave attacks when it was about to lose the war. National governments expressed their outrage, but the UN Security Council, while condemning the chemical attacks, never specified Iraq as the perpetrator for the duration of the war with Iran.

Countries adopted national sanctions and restricted access to certain chemical warfare agents and their precursors, but, absent a specific designation of responsibility under international law, applied them to both belligerents. The Geneva Protocol did not deny Iran the right to retaliate in kind, but international ‘evenhandedness’ certainly precluded it from achieving a CW capacity before the war’s end. The international stance had its moral merit. This, however, did not apply to the refusal to assist Iran with defensive countermeasures, including gasmasks, decontamination equipment, other types of individual and collective protection or prophylaxis. In 1985–86 an Iranian delegate to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva even had to travel to several European countries (including Spain) to procure active charcoal in order to develop chemical warfare defences in Iran. (I have detailed Iran’s defensive and offensive CW efforts in a study published by the Swedish Defence Research Agency in December 2003.) Often the Iranians were conned, leaving no option for the country to start developing its indigenous capacities—for CW defence as well as offense.

Just like Trotsky concluded after Russia’s capitulation to Germany in 1917, those experiences convinced Iran of the need to overcome technological backwardness in order to survive. They also taught the country that international law does not guarantee international justice, and it harbours deep misgivings about international promises for assistance. Adding insult to injury, from 1989 onwards US officials indicated several times that Iran rather than Iraq had gassed Halabja, a claim so preposterous that its motive remains a mystery to me until today. Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, autarky in all security-related matters drives today’s political leadership. Most Iranian politicians of all persuasions, as well as much of the population, belong to the generation that grew up on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war. War is therefore not necessarily a state of affairs they will seek to avoid in the pursuit of national interests. Nor do international confrontation or the threat of war particularly frighten them. Layer upon layer of fresh economic and political sanctions only confirm convictions that had eight long years to take root in the blood-soaked trenches along the Iran-Iraq border.

Halabja therefore also symbolises the long-term fallacy of short-term interests. It is the one lesson the world does not seem to have learned.