Palestine: From a ‘will-be’ party to the CWC to a ‘would-have-been’?

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Something really remarkable happened in the first two weeks of 2018. On 2 January, quite out of the blue came the notification by UN Secretary-General António Guterres that the State of Palestine had deposited its instrument of accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It was to become the 193rd state party on 28 January, thirty days after having submitted the document (29 December). Indeed, ‘was’. Guterres formally informed UN members on 11 January that Palestine had withdrawn its instrument of accession three days earlier.

States withdrawing from a disarmament or arms control treaty is extremely rare. But it does happen. North Korea, for example, left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003. However, I do not recall having come across an instrument of accession being withdrawn after its formal deposit. (Internet searches did not yield any results either, although poor selection of search terms might be responsible for that.) The closest is the ‘unsigning’ of treaties (as the USA did with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court). In those cases the agreement had not yet entered into force for the country concerned.

Palestine’s initial action on the CWC did not come in isolation. Today, 16 January 2018, the Implementation Support Unit announced that Palestine had become the 180th state party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC).

Out of the blue

I have been expecting Palestine’s accession to the CWC since it attempted to attend 2014 CWC Conference of States Parties (CSP) as a non-State Party observer. I do not recollect similar efforts since then, certainly not at last November’s CSP. The attendance request caused some unease among certain participating states. However, it was denied because the Palestinian delegation had not registered before the formal deadline and the CSP had already formally approved the list of attending observers.

Palestine became eligible to join treaties on 29 November 2012 when the UN General Assembly granted it status of ‘non-member observer state’ (Resolution A/RES/67/19). According to the UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, the upgrade from ‘observer entity’ is significant because ‘Palestine may participate in multilateral treaties to which the Secretary-General is the depositary and in international conferences convened under the auspices of the UN that are open to “all States” (the “all States” formula)’. In reality the impact is broader, as is evidenced by Palestine’s accession to the NPT in February 2015 (instrument deposited with Moscow) and the BTWC (deposit with Russia and the United Kingdom). The Holy See is the only other sovereign entity with similar status. It joined the NPT in February 1971, the BTWC in January 2002, and the CWC in June 1999.

Since the upgrade Palestine has gone trough three waves of treaty adhesion: April 2014 (15 documents), December 2014 (18 documents), and December 2017 (22 documents). The treaties in question are listed in annex below. They fall in four major areas, namely diplomatic relations; human, economic and social rights; environmental law; and humanitarian/arms control law.

Of the 22 Palestinian applications in December, the UN Secretary-General issued Depositary Notifications for 19 treaties on 2 and 3 January. The notifications included several weapon control treaties. Only the instrument of accession to the CWC was subsequently withdrawn.

Why the retraction?

Since achieving UN Observer State status in 2012 Palestine has pursued a deliberate policy of becoming a respected member of the international community by unreservedly adhering to international law. In his Master of Laws dissertation entitled Palestine’s Ratification of International Treaties – A Back Door to Independence? (Lund University, 2016), Victor Persson argued that ‘ratifying international treaties strengthens Palestine’s claim for statehood through recognition, which in turn increases pressure for independence on its occupier, Israel’.

However, the latest wave of applications may have been more impulsive than considered. On the day of the deposit of the instruments of accession the Israeli daily Haaretz claimed that US President Donald Trump’s announcement on 6 December to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem prompted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision. The article further noted that Israel’s ambassador to the UN was holding meetings with his US counterpart to formulate a joint response to the Palestinian move. Meanwhile, the rhetoric between Washington and Ramallah has grown increasingly strident.

Focussing on the escalating conflict, three explanations for the retraction of the instrument of accession seemed possible.

Power politics

First, the USA (and through it, Israel) exerted great pressure on UN Secretary-General Guterres to force Palestine to reconsider its action. However, while nobody should be surprised about consultations with him, in his role as depositary he is just an executioner. As Article 77 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties states, one of the functions of a treaty depositary is ‘Receiving any signatures to the treaty and receiving and keeping custody of any instruments, notifications and communications relating to it’. The USA could also have leaned on some of its Arab partners in the region, but given his mood and escalating anger with Washington it appears unlikely that President Abbas would have been persuaded.

Financial coercion

Second, as noted earlier, the CWC is the only treaty for which Palestine rescinded its accession. Of all the treaties it applied to join, the CWC is the only one with a dedicated international organisation. (The International Atomic Energy Agency, which supports aspects of NPT implementation, is founded in a different document.) The USA is not loath to exercising the power of the purse to try and compel international organisations to more or less toe its line. For example, in October 2011 the board of UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to admit Palestine as a state, which prompted Washington to cut in its annual contributions to the organisation. In April 2016 the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) accepted the Palestinian Authority as a state party, prompting a group of US Senators to demand that the UN agency be denied any further US funding.

The root of such actions lies in US Federal Law. As explained by the American Center for Law and Justice, US Public Law 101-246 (1990) provides:

No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.

Moreover, Public Law 103-236, enacted in 1994, prohibits

voluntary or assessed contribution to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.

According to this line of reasoning, pressure would have been exerted on Palestine to rescind its accession because of fears that the OPCW might otherwise lose over 25% of its budget.

This scenario also seems problematic. First, while the UN Secretary-General may be the CWC’s depositary, the OPCW is an independent treaty implementation organisation rather than a specialised UN agency. Second, contrary to UNESCO or UNFCCC, it is not the OPCW that invites in Palestine (or any other entity). A state automatically becomes an OPCW member as soon as the CWC enters into force for it. No single entity—another state party, the OPCW Technical Secretariat, or the UN Secretary-General—can halt or block that dynamic. Third, no US official has hinted in conversations since the Palestinian delegation attempted to officially participate in an OPCW meeting in 2014 that withholding contributions to the annual budget was an option. On the contrary, the USA has too great stakes in the successful global implementation of the CWC.

Avoidance to internationalise the Israeli–Palestinian conflict

Finally, a third possible explanation was suggested by several people from the Middle East whom I contacted: all parties involved tend to avoid internationalising the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Palestine’s joining the CWC could indeed have risked the opposite effect because of Israel’s widespread use of riot control agents and other irritants in the occupied territories. Any request to the OPCW to investigate such use would require clarification of the legal status of the occupied territories under international law. Only if Israel exerts full legal jurisdiction over those areas in which it uses riot control agents, it could be argued that such use is domestic and therefore part of legitimate law enforcement. Given Israel’s settlement policies, Palestine will continue to contest Israel’s jurisdiction over large swaths of land. OPCW investigators require authorisation by the state party concerned to access the site of an alleged incident. Israel, of course, is not a party to the CWC and questions would arise whether OPCW personnel can access all parts of the Palestinian territory without requiring transit approval by Israeli authorities (see also below). In addition, given the rawness of international feeling about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, political and ideological divisions similar to the ones exposed by the debates on Syria’s CW use might split decision-making in the OPCW even further.

This hypothesis leaves open who might be the instigator of the pressure to have Palestine withdraw its instrument of accession and which diplomatic channels might have been used. It also ignores the various options—many of which could and would be devised within the treaty framework once issues are formally raised—available under the CWC to address any specific threats posed by CW to a state party. Indeed, similar legal and political questions have already been considered in connection with Palestine’s accession in January 2015 to the Rome Statute founding the International Criminal Court (ICC). Even while some key players are not party to the Statute, Beti Hohler concluded her analysis of Palestinian accession as follows:

By assessing admissibility of a case, the ICC would effectively be called to assess Israel’s justice system and its capability to genuinely deal with war crimes allegations. Whilst the actual determination would be made on the basis of a specific case and the individual concerned, it cannot be overlooked that Israel in general has a well functioning legal system headed by a respected supreme court.

What is then the likelihood of an intervention by the ICC following Palestine’s accession? Besides the aforementioned legal issues, policy and political realities should also be considered. The reality is that the ICC is heavily dependent on the support of its states parties, including for any type of enforcement as well as for actually ensuring the attendance of suspected perpetrators at The Hague.

In conclusion, the impact of Palestine’s accession to the ICC and what will be its political implications for the Middle East peace process remains to be seen. There are at the moment far more questions than there are clear-cut answers.

One thing however is certain: with Palestine’s accession to the Statute, the legal framework has changed and the parties to the conflict would be wise to accept and respect that.

A more benign explanation for the retraction of accession?

Did you know that the CWC contains 42 instances of situations that will legally affect states parties or require actions that they must complete within 30 days? One example is that the treaty enters into force for a new state party 30 days after the deposit of the instrument of ratification or accession (Article XXI, 2). Another one is that a new state party must submit a series of detailed declarations not later than 30 days after the CWC enters into force for it.

Given that President Abbas seems to have decided to take action on accession in retaliation for the announced move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, did the Palestinian government fully appreciate the level of preparations joining the CWC requires? The country may lie in an active conflict zone, but it is hardly a Syria that would justify consideration of exceptional measures.

Other countries with internal or cross-border conflicts have become member of the OPCW. However, the process takes time. It often involves regional organisations and other states parties facilitating or supporting interactions, providing concrete assistance with legal and practical preparations, teaching and training officials as well as reaching out to key stakeholder communities (including parliamentarians, industry, academia, or any other constituency whose activities could be affected by the treaty) to build political support and capacity. Expert staff from the OPCW Technical Secretariat may already be involved in the concrete preparations to meet the treaty requirements within the set deadlines well before a state becomes a party. In fact, the deposit of the instrument of accession may be timed in function of milestones achieved.

Palestine would face an additional major legal and practical problem: how and where would inspectors enter or exit its territory? First, the Palestinian territories are non-contiguous. Second, the Palestinian Authority does not control all of the Palestinian territory, which means that it would have to special arrangements with Hamas who controls the Gaza strip. However, while a border crossing with Jordan could conceivably be designated as the CWC-required Point of Entry/Point of Exit (Verification Annex, Part I ‘Definitions’, para. 24), the Gaza strip is completely surrounded by Egypt and Israel, two non-states parties. Reaching it over land from the West Bank, by air or via a sea port would likely involve Israel one way or another.

So, a benign explanation might hold that the OPCW alerted the UN Secretary-General or regional states parties to the host of practical problems the unexpected application would pose for Palestine.

Perhaps persuasion might not have been all that difficult. In the afore-cited dissertation, Victor Persson points to the possible role of another significant domestic factor in the process:

due to the current suspension of the parliament, Palestine must choose either to postpone the implementation process or implement the treaties by presidential decree. Postponing the implementation would raise doubts on Palestine’s commitment to follow its new international obligations. Implementing international law by presidential decree on the other hand is an undemocratic legislative procedure.

That dilemma does not even begin to address the complexity of CWC implementation.

In summary

At present it is not at all clear why Palestine retracted its accession to the CWC. The immediate explanations—different types of diplomatic pressure by different actors or prevention of internationalising the conflict with Israel—do not answer why the CWC is the only one out of more than 50 treaties that suffered this fate. The observation that the convention is the only international agreement to be served by its own international organisation offers few grounds to assume that the OPCW would be exposed to financial coercion.

An alternative explanation is that the Palestinian authorities have withdrawn the instrument of accession after having been informed of the complex ramifications of becoming a party to the CWC. The impulsiveness of the initial decision in the wake of the US announcement to move the embassy to Jerusalem seems to support this hypothesis. However, this line of thought still requires confirmation on the ground, whether in the Middle East, New York or The Hague.

Annex: Palestine’s waves of treaty adhesion

The first wave (April 2014)

  • Vienna Convention on Consular Services
  • Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
  • The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (on the involvement of children in armed conflict)
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • UN Convention against Corruption
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
  • Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and Additional Protocols
  • Hague Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land

The second wave (December 2014)

  • Convention on the Political Rights of Women
  • Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards
  • Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal
  • Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity
  • Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II)
  • Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem (Protocol III)
  • Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses
  • Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, including Diplomatic Agents
  • United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime
  • Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel
  • United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
  • Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity
  • Agreement on the Privileges and Immunities of the International Criminal Court
  • Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court
  • Declaration in accordance with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court
  • The Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons
  • The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
  • Convention on Cluster Munitions

The third wave (December 2017)

  • International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism
  • Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material
  • Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides International Trade
  • Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants
  • The Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea Against Pollution
  • The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Modification Techniques (Environmental Modification Convention or ENMOD)
  • Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • Chemical Weapons Convention
  • Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare (Geneva Protocol)
  • Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention
  • Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention
  • Remnants of War additional protocol one (CCW APV 2006)
  • Arms Trade treaty
  • United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods
  • Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 as amended by the 1972 Protocol
  • Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971
  • United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988
  • United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
  • The Convention on International Transport of Goods Under Cover of TIR Carnets
  • Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography
  • Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime
  • The Amendment to article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

(As an aside, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons intriguingly does not figure in the latter list, even though Palestine signed it when it was opened for signature on 20 September 2017.)

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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.

CWC 20th anniversary: Speeches and impressions

Commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Entry into Force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (The Hague, 26 April 2017)

Invitation to the Commemoration

The Programme

Collection of speeches

  • Welcome address by Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the OPCW
  • Video message by Mr António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
  • Address by Mr Bert Koenders, Minister of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands
  • Address by Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden
  • Address by Mrs Pauline Krikke, Mayor of The Hague
  • Address by Ambassador Dr Christoph Israng, Chairperson of the Conference of the States Parties

Some photographic impressions

The guests gather in the Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights)

OPCW Director-General Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü welcomes delegates and guests

Video message by UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Netherlands Foreign Minister Bert Koenders

Mrs Pauline Krikke, Mayor of The Hague

Unveiling of the Commemorative Plaque by King Willem-Alexander of The Netherlands and OPCW Director-General Üzümcü

Ambassador Christoph Israng, Chairperson of the Conference of the States Parties


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]


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.


CW incidents alleged by the Syrian government: an industrial chemical as likely cause?

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

My previous posting (16 November) presented the findings by the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concerning allegations of the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in Syria’s Idlib Governorate. The FFM concluded that the incidents likely involved the use of a toxic chemical containing the element chlorine as a weapon.

This report was one of three that the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW transmitted to states party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) for consideration at a special session of the Executive Council on 23 November. The other two reports address allegations of mustard agent use at Marea in northern Syria and chlorine attacks against Syrian government forces around Damascus.

This contribution focusses on the latter investigation. Syria submitted four Notes Verbales alleging a total of 26 chemical weapon (CW) events resulting in 432 casualties. The first reported incident dates back as far as 19 March 2013; the most recent ones took place in May 2015.

The investigative team deployed to Syria on 1 June, 1 August and 13 October. It has not yet finalised its investigation and the interim report circulating among CWC states parties focusses primarily on one incident at Jobar (‘Jober’ as spellt in the report), a municipality northeast of the old town of Damascus, on 29 August 2014. Although the investigation is ongoing, the FFM

is of the view that those affected in the alleged incident may have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating airborne substance, following the surface impact of two launched objects.

However, based on the evidence presented by the Syrian National Authority, the medical records that were reviewed, and the prevailing narrative of all of the interviews, the FFM cannot confidently determine whether or not a chemical was used as a weapon.

The FFM was unable to identify a specific irritant, but believes an industrial chemical may offer the most plausible explanation for the reviewed symptoms. It as good as ruled out use of chlorine or nerve agents in Jobar on 29 August 2014.

Conclusions about some other incidents reported by the Syrian government will be part of the final report.

Allegations by the Syrian government

The Syrian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, who also heads the Syrian CWC National Authority, submitted Note Verbale 150 to the Technical Secretariat on 15 December 2014. The document alleges 10 separate CW incidents in four Damascus neighbourhoods between April and September 2014 that resulted in 92 casualties, all among military personnel.

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 150

Syria’s Permanent Mission to the OPCW delivered Note Verbale 41 to the Technical Secretariat on 29 May 2015. It lists 13 separate incidents, five of which preceded Syria’s accession to the CWC, four whose dates fall within the date range of Note Verbale 150 and an additional four that took place early in 2015. These attacks allegedly occurred in the areas surrounding Aleppo and Damascus. Although this note is less explicit about the nature of the victims, it lists a minimum of 317 casualties, including at least five civilians. The document offers details on suspected chlorine use. The Syrian authorities requested members of the advance team (who deployed to Syria from 25 to 29 May 2015) that these events be included in the scope of the FFM. That, however, proved impossible without a new mandate covering additional events.

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 41

It is interesting to note that some of the incidents predating Syria’s accession to the CWC had already been examined by the UN investigative team in August and September 2013. That investigation corroborated allegations of CW use at Khan Al Asal and described the incident as ‘a rapidly onsetting [sic] mass intoxication by an organophosphorous compound in the morning of the 19 March 2013’, but added that ‘the release of chemical weapons at the alleged site could not be independently verified in the absence of primary information on delivery systems and of environmental and biomedical samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody’.

The two other incidents alleged in Note Verbale 41 took place immediately after the infamous Ghouta attack of 21 August 2013 and had also been investigated by the UN team. Of the one at Al-Bahriya (spelt as Bahhariyeh in the UN report) on 22 August 2013, the UN team could not corroborate the allegation. Blood samples all tested negative for any known signatures of chemical warfare agents.

With respect to the incident at Jobar on 24 August 2013 the UN report confirmed a ‘relatively small scale’ use of sarin against soldiers. However, again ‘in the absence of primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody, the United Nations Mission could not establish the link between the victims, the alleged event and the alleged site’.

Note Verbale 41 is equally intriguing for the absence of several other alleged incidents between March and September 2013 investigated by the UN team. These presumably concerned the investigation requests by France, the UK and the USA included in the mandate of the investigators by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Note Verbale 41 also lists some incidents not addressed by the UN team.

It is clear that the OPCW has all but ignored the allegations prior to Syria’s accession to the CWC.

Note Verbale 43 dated 3 June 2015 reports three additional incidents in May 2015.

NV43

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 43

Note Verbale 47 dated 15 June 2015 comprises six incidents that had already been mentioned in Note Verbale 41, but offers more background information, including greater detail on events, greater precision of sites of alleged attacks, and references to symptoms suffered by the exposed victims.

NV47

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 47

Based on Notes Verbales 41, 43 and 47, the FFM was dispatched for a second investigative deployment.

Assessment of the alleged incidents

In view of the large number of allegations, the FFM was unable to investigate each one or had to sequence investigations based on the severity of allegations. Thus it was agreed with the Syrians that the FFM would focus initially on the Jobar event of 29 August 2014 because it involved the highest number of reported casualties in Note Verbale 150.

After receipt of the additional Notes Verbales, the FFM proposed additional investigation of two allegations in 2014 and one in 2015. Based on additional data supplied by the Syrian government, the investigative team eventually looked into five reported events during its second deployment: 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.

The report of 29 October indicates that the FFM completed its mandate for the Jobar investigation. It expresses considerable frustration about the dearth of additional evidence to support the allegation:

The FFM is of the opinion that it would have been able to be more precise in its findings if further objective evidence, complementing what was provided by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic, had been made available to the team. The FFM was not able to obtain hard evidence related to this incident, either because it was unavailable or because it was not generated in the first place. The lack of hard evidence precluded the FFM from gathering further facts in a definitive way.

While interviews with soldiers point to the possibility ‘of exposure to some type of non-persistent, airborne irritant secondary to the surface impact of two launched objects’, the FFM could not confidently determine whether such exposure might have resulted from the payload of the projectiles or from another source (propellant, a chemical stored in the area of impact, detonation products, etc.) because of insufficient evidence presented by Syria, insufficient details in reviewed medical records, and inconsistencies in the narratives of interviewees. So, the FFM concluded that:

while the general clinical presentation of those affected in the incident is consistent with brief exposure to any number of chemicals or environmental insults, the visual and olfactory description of the potential irritant does not clearly implicate any specific chemical.

This particular investigation was also hampered by the delay of some nine months between the alleged incident and the start of the mission. Notwithstanding, the FFM all but ruled out chlorine and organophosphorous compounds (e.g., sarin) as agents responsible for the described symptoms. High on the list of probabilities figures diBorane, which besides use as a rocket propellant also has application in electronic industries and the vulcanisation of rubber. As the report notes, these uses make it ‘relevant to the interests of a militarized non-state actor [and it is] also readily available in the region’. Many of the reviewed symptoms appear consistent with exposure to this non-persistent and volatile chemical.

FFM Jobar chemicals probability

Jobar: Likelyhood of toxic chemicals to which victims might have been exposed (Source: OPCW)

The report on the allegations raised by the Syrian government is preliminary. The Jobar investigation is in the process of finalisation. The other mentioned incidents also remain under investigation pending final analysis. The interim report only contains an overview of activities undertaken until October 2015. These findings will also be included in the final report.