Building A WMD-Free Zone on Existing Treaties and Conventions Syrian CWC-Adherence and Reactions, Especially in Israel

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

Speaking notes for the side event to the 2017 Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), organised by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East (APOME), Vienna, 8 May 2017.

It builds on and updates an earlier posting of 13 March 2015.

Operation of the CWC in the Middle East

  • As of 1 May 2017, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) comprises 192 states parties. The CWC entered into force 20 years ago, on 29 April 1997. It has the largest number of parties of any weapon control treaty.
  • Four states, including two from the Middle East, are still outside the convention: Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan. (Israel did sign but not ratify the convention.)
  • Given the armed conflicts in different parts of the Middle East, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has intervened in Syria and Libya to secure declared chemical weapons (CW) and have them destroyed in other parties to the CWC so as to prevent their use by any one of the belligerents in either country. The Libyan operation took place in August 2016. It drew on the precedent set by and experience gained from the evacuation of chemicals from Syria.

Situation in Syria

  • Syria acceded to the CWC on 14 September 2013 and formally became a state party on 14 October. This was the outcome of a framework agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capacities between Russia and the United States reached in Geneva on 14 September.
  • Since Syria’s accession to the CWC the OPCW has:
    • verified the destruction of 24 of the 27 CW production and storage facilities. Lack of safe access has prevented inspectors from destroying one final aircraft hangar and confirming the condition of two stationary above-ground facilities.
    • overseen the evacuation and complete destruction of all declared chemical chemicals (precursors to nerve agents and mustard agent) for a total of about 1,300 metric tonnes. It also verified the destruction of declared delivery systems.
  • However, there remain several outstanding issues, including the OPCW’s inability to confirm the destruction of 200 metric tonnes of mustard agent in March 2013 (i.e. about 6 months before Syria’s accession to the CWC), the discovery of nerve agent traces in locations not declared by the Syrian government, and the later discovery of an undeclared ricin production facility.
  • Furthermore, since Syria’s accession there have been multiple incidents involving the use of toxic chemicals as weapons, mostly chlorine. On 4 April an attack with the nerve agent sarin took place against the city of Khan Sheikhoun, the first such use since the sarin strike against Ghouta in August 2013. At the time of writing it is unclear whether the sarin was prepared from undeclared volumes of precursor chemicals or whether Syrian scientists and engineers produced a batch from scratch.
  • The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been responsible for some isolated attacks with chlorine and mustard agent in Syria and Iraq. This has created new challenges for the OPCW in terms of investigating and responding to the alleged events. Indeed, these incidents mostly involved the use by a non-state actor against another non-state actor on the territory of a state party to the CWC that is not under the control of that state party.
  • The Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the OPCW has confirmed repeated CW use in Syria. The UN Security Council established the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) to attribute responsibility for the chemical attacks. JIM has thus far held the Syrian government responsible for three attacks and ISIL for one. Its investigation is ongoing.

Responses from within the Middle East

  • Iran is a strong backer of the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Having been a victim of chemical warfare during the 1980–88 Iran-Iran war, it strongly condemns chemical warfare. However, it denies the Syrian government’s responsibility for the CW attacks since August 2013 and instead blames insurgent factions. It follows the arguments laid out by Russia (and to a lesser extent by China) and plays an active role in the decision-making processes relating to the technical assessments prepared by the FFM in the Executive Council of the OPCW.
  • Some government officials, politicians or commentators both inside and outside the Middle East have made rather wild allegations (without any factual substantiation of these political statements) that other external parties to the civil war supply belligerents with the materials for chemical warfare. Iran has been named as a supplier of the Syrian government; uncontrolled stockpiles in Libya might be transferred to various belligerents in Syria.
  • Attribution of responsibility for the CW attacks has been accompanied by claims that neighbouring states are responsible for supplying or facilitating the transfer of chemicals and equipment to belligerent factions they support. Since with the exception of Israel all neighbouring states are parties to the CWC, the claims are tantamount to an accusation against such states of a material breach of the convention.
  • The current Israeli government has long maintained that Syria has never given up its entire CW capacity since joining the CWC. The difficulties for the OPCW to close the Syrian disarmament dossier tend to reinforce Israel’s deep-rooted pessimism about the ability of international weapon control treaties to guarantee its national security. Israeli attitudes towards Iran, which include conviction of Tehran’s non-compliance with the CWC, appear to be bolstered by Iran’s on-the-ground military support for Syria and Hezbollah in both Lebanon and Syria and its interventions in the OPCW Executive Council.

Concluding thoughts

  • Over the past two decades the CWC has contributed much to the removal of the spectre of chemical warfare, particularly in the Middle East. Addressing specific challenges in Syria and Libya, the states parties to the convention have demonstrated adaptability, flexibility and willingness to support financially or materially the extraordinary disarmament efforts in the field. As a result, the treaty regime has evolved considerably with respect to meeting challenges unforeseen by the CWC negotiators.
  • However, the unrelenting use of toxic chemicals as a weapon of warfare in Syria fundamentally challenges the CWC’s most basic premise to never under any circumstance use CW. Furthermore, backing of belligerents by outside parties (all of whom have joined the CWC) is increasingly tending towards a violation of the prohibition to never under any circumstances to induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any prohibited activity (Article I ‘General Obligations’).
  • Syria’s inability or unwillingness to resolve all outstanding issues with regard to its CW programmes also challenges the integrity of the CWC and the OPCW’s operational procedures. Factual findings are becoming more and more politicised (often driven by ulterior geopolitical motivations), making consensus-based decision-making increasingly difficult.
  • Since the 2nd World War all major occurrences of chemical warfare (with the exception of US use of herbicides and riot control agents in Indochina in the 1960s and early 1970s) have taken and are taking place in the Middle East. All these instances of CW use in the Middle East involved Arab regimes and have targeted fellow Arabs, Muslims or their own population. None were ever launched against Israel.
  • Compared with the question of regional nuclear disarmament, which directly involves Israel, Arab countries have despite the history of chemical warfare in the region remained remarkable indifferent to the many uses of chemical weapons. For instance, not a single member of the Arab League contributed financially or materially to the disarmament operations in Syria or Libya.
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Becoming the largest weapon-control treaty

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has just announced the accession of Angola to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The country deposited its instrument of accession with the UN Secretary-General on 16 September, which means that it will become a party to the CWC 30 days later, that is, 16 October.

Angola will thus be the 192nd state to join the OPCW. No other treaty limiting possession or use of a particular type of weaponry can boast that many parties. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has 191; the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) 173.

Middle East – The hard nut

According to the OPCW statement, only four states now remain outside the treaty: Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan.

North Korea presents the simplest problem. There is no diplomatic interaction at all, so expectations that Pyongyang will join the CWC any time soon are as good as zero.

Some optimism exists about South Sudan. Efforts are underway to secure succession (Sudan has been a party since June 1999) as part of a broader package that includes offers of assistance to rebuild the war-torn state. Having said that, the date of OPCW membership keeps getting pushed back into a less definite future in parallel with the floundering efforts to bring peace to the country.

Egypt remains of course obsessed by Israel’s nuclear weapons, while Israel continues to fail to see any benefits in collective security in its pursuit of a peace-first policy in a region that seems to be descending ever further into violence and instability. The fact of the matter is that neither country would lose an iota of national security by joining the CWC; quite on the contrary. Symbolism can be a powerful demotivator …

And what about Palestine?

Among the NPT’s membership is the State of Palestine, which acceded to the treaty as the 191st party in February 2015. It deposited its instrument of accession in London and Moscow (but not Washington). On 10 September the UN General Assembly voted to fly the Palestinian flag outside the UN building—together with that of another non-member observer state maintaining a permanent observer mission at the UN Headquarters, the Holy See.

OPCW statements do not list this Palestine in its statements on universality. It should be noted that UN membership is not a precondition for becoming a party to the CWC. Article XX speaks about accession of ‘any state’; Article XXIII designates the UN Secretary-General as depository and provides no grounds for rejecting any state. The Vatican joined the CWC in June 1999.

As far as I know, Palestinian authorities have not made any statements about acceding to the CWC. It may be that some low-level contacts are taking place between the OPCW and the Palestinian Mission to the EU in Brussels, but if this is the case, it is definitely not yet causing any ripples.

Is there an abundance of caution as a consequence of US laws that defund UN agencies that accept Palestine as a full member, thereby seemingly legitimising its quest for full statehood? While it is true the the USA is the single biggest contributor to the OPCW budget, reality is that (1) the OPCW is not a UN agency, and (2) as noted above, the CWC is not an invitation-only club. Unlike, for example, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), OPCW members do not get to vote on the accession of another state.

So, for the OPCW, four or five more countries before full universality, that’s the question!


Wow! Did the OPCW really say that?

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

It is true that pressure for Israel to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is steadily mounting. Presently 190 states are party to the treaty. Besides Israel, only Angola, Egypt, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan have not ratified or acceded to it. As participants in the 2014 Jonathan Tucker Conference on Chemical and Biological Arms Control heard yesterday from Dr Peter Sawzcak, Head of Government Relations and Political Affairs Branch of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Myanmar is expected to ratify the CWC in its forthcoming parliamentary session in January. The Council of Ministers of Angola, which will take up a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council next year, is to decide on joining the Arms Trade Treaty, Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and CWC really soon. South Sudan may also become a party to the CWC in the near future as part of a broader package deal under development. As was pointed out by some other speakers at the Jonathan Tucker Conference, being in the company of North Korea is not good for a democracy such as Israel.

However, in an article published on 11 December the Times of Israel quoted an anonymous OPCW official affirming that Israel has a chemical weapon (CW) stockpile. He also stated that he knew the size of the chemical arsenal, but refused to go into details. According to a second article in Arutz Sheva Israel Radio quoted the official as saying that the UN needed to begin an investigation of Israel on its chemical weapons stores, as it did with Syria.

According to the Times of Israel, he also said that Egypt has thousands of tonnes of CW.

Israel is a CWC signatory state. Under Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties a signatory state is obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty. In other words, if Israel were indeed to have a CW stockpile, it would be in a clear breach of its international obligations. This is not a light accusation to make. Particularly if it is made in the name of the multilateral organisation that is responsible for ridding the world of these heinous weapons.

Striking too is the lack of nuance in the claims. Egypt and Israel have had past CW programmes. But in the absence of reports of troop training and testing of munitions, how useful is it to retain aging stockpiles? Would the agents be subject to degradation? Are stocks being replenished (which implies active CW production facilities)? Egypt’s ‘thousands of tonnes’ puts the country in the same league as Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North Korea (according to South Korean assessments) and well ahead of what has been removed from Syria over the past eighteen months. Mohamed Heikal, an Egyptian journalist and commentator on Arab affairs, described in his excellent book Illusions of Triumph: Arab View of the Gulf War (London: Fontana, 1993, pp. 91–93) how then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat closed down Egypt’s CW production plant after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and in 1981 refused to reopen it to supply Saddam Hussein with CW. To the best of my knowledge, this passage has not yet been seriously challenged.

Considering the culture of confidentiality at the OPCW and the organisation’s systematic refusal to comment on individual states—just take the many anodyne press statements on the CW disarmament project in Syria—the incident is remarkable to say the least. One would hope that those specific assertions were intended to be wholly off the record, but even so…

 Update

OPCW Statement Regarding Israeli Media Reports on a Recent OPCW Briefing
Thursday, 11 December 2014

OPCW officials met with a group of journalists from Israel on Monday of this week and briefed them on the OPCW’s work, achievements and future challenges. On the issue of achieving universality of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), it was mentioned to the journalists that there are six non-States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, including Israel.

In regard to the capacities of those six countries, it was clearly stated that the CWC verification regime functions on the basis of declarations, and that the OPCW would be able to ascertain possession of chemical weapons by any non-State Party only after it joined the Convention and made a formal declaration to the Organisation.


Engaging Israel on CWC Ratification – Part 1: Outsider Perspectives

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

The Israeli Disarmament Movement together with the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition (CWCC) and Green Cross convened two days of roundtable discussions on Chemical Weapons, Israel and the Middle East in Tel Aviv. The third day, 12 November, a briefing was held in the Knesset. In a region where (existential) security and the nuclear weapons stand central to any debate on arms control strategies, the exclusive focus on chemical weapons (CW) was a rare occurrence.

The meeting goals were twofold: promote ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) by Israel and to have Israel take a more positive stance in the diplomatic engagements to establish a zone free of non-conventional weaponry in the Middle East. The conveners viewed CWC ratification as a potential significant step towards achieving the latter goal.

Each day had different ambitions. Day 1 sought to broaden knowledge of CW issues and the functioning of the CWC among a diverse group of Israeli civil society constituencies and  reporters. Day 2 followed Track II approach, engaging representatives from Israeli academic institutions and think tanks, and other policy shapers. On the final day the invited speakers briefed parliamentarians in the Knesset.

This report summarises external arguments why Israel should ratify the CWC. The next posting will focus on Israeli views.

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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.

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