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 Guterres formally informed UN members on 11 January that Palestine had withdrawn its instrument of accession three days earlier.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 However, I do not recall having come across an instrument of accession being withdrawn after its formal deposit.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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The future of confidence building in biological arms control

By Gunnar Jeremias

[Presentation at the civil society event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the entry into force of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, 30 March 2015 – Cross-posted from The Trench.]

Distinguished representatives, colleagues, let me first stress that I am very honoured to be invited to contribute to this event. May I thank the organisers and sponsors very much,

In the next 15 minutes I would like to draw a picture of possible developments of confidence building in the BWC. To that end I will briefly introduce the term confidence and its sources, and will then mainly concentrate on transparency as one of these sources. Finally I am going to consider the possible involvement of new actors and mechanisms in confidence building.

Confidence is a term that is used throughout from the level of private arrangements, via societal and economic contexts (contracts), but of course also in the field of international relations. The main function of agreements is, besides the ‘technical’ overcoming of specified problems, the fostering of mutual trust in compliance with treaty obligations. Obviously there is a central role of information, but neither will it be possible to access all relevant information, nor is the judgement of such information—the decision if it is sufficient to build confidence—a scientific exercise. This is even more evident, since many parties will have different understandings of compliance. Accordingly confidence can hardly be measured in a binary system, but will rather be perceived as gradually changing when trust in compliant behaviour is growing or decreasing.

Trying to get an idea about confidence in the BWC regime one would basically have to measure that level in every single member state. On a general level it can be stated that whenever there exists an arrangement, a contract or an international treaty there was obviously a ground level of confidence when it was agreed. On the other hand, the stakeholders must have seen the need for a mutual system to enhance confidence in compliance.

Confidence is, however, not only fostered by knowledge enabling to make qualified guesses on the level of implementation of the prohibitive obligations, but also by factors that have no direct link with the technical requirements of arms control. Among these factors are the perception of parties as being subject to a just treatment and the perception that those parties with the greatest BW-relevant capacities are really committed to the treaty obligations.

20150330 BTWC 40 Jeremias

If the success of a treaty is an indicator for the level of confidence, we might face a satisfactory level of confidence in the BWC. There were offensive BW programmes before the BWC came into force; and we have then seen offensive programmes while it was in force, among them a very large one. But now we have since 25 years not witnessed a BW programme (the ricin-programme in the non-BWC member Syria can be discussed as a case, however).

That BW programmes were seldom developed after the coming into force of the BWC might rather be a result of the limited military value of BW (still we don’t know much about the scenarios in which the Soviet bio weapons could have been used). Today there are reasons to believe that there are no offensive programmes anywhere in the world. It is certainly worth learning about military defence programmes, but it is also true that few states have the means or the interest to run critical programs. Hence, biological arms control is today, as far as we know, preventive arms control. However, the idea that there are no BW programmes is based on the unorganised information gathering we have to rely on.

With the possible absence of illicit military activities, confidence building does in many cases concentrate on civil academic or commercial activities with dual-use potential and will try to identify growing misuse potentials and qualified questions about applications and actors (this touches the debate about dual-use research of concern (DURC) that others have touched upon in more detail earlier today).

The widespread dual-use phenomenon and the involvement of many civil facilities is a characteristic of biological arms control, which is probably more distinctive here than in any other arms control field. At least since a number of years, if not back to the early 1970s, the potential for misuse of civil technology and civil research is in the focus, even if the buzzwords biosafety and biosecurity popped up only in the recent years. The trend that the direction of technology diffusion is nowadays rather from civil innovation systems to the military sphere has been known in the bio field for many years.

Besides the fast development of the ground laying technology, it’s methods and scientific capabilities, the spread of capacities to ever more states is a major change to the early 1970s. Back then only in relatively few states in northern America, Western and Eastern Europe and in the USSR relevant capacities in biotechnology were present. Today biotechnology with its imminent and widely spread dual-use potential is a global multi-billion dollar business, still fast growing in many places – and still not developed in many others. This spread might be reason for concerns from an arms control perspective, but the amalgamation with economic interests can also not be rationalised away.

With a much smaller geographical spread of biotechnology and with the block confrontation of the Cold War one of the obligations of the BWC was possibly less central than it appears today: the obligation for technical cooperation under article X. However, there can’t be confidence without the perception of a just treatment of all members as partners with equal chances in the indigenous development of one of the most important industries of our time. For the development of confidence on this provision information plays again a central role, although the questions raised in this context differ from those concerning articles I and III. But here as well transparency is quintessential in helping to base the debate on empirical data.

That there is a problem with transparency in the BWC on different levels is not a secret, really. Given that transparency is main source for confidence (for both the prohibitive and obligatory provisions of the treaty) the look on confidence mainly deals with the question of how to enhance transparency.

Types and sources of transparency

One can think of transparency in different types and as being fed by different sources.

Types of transparency can be defined by its different ranges, namely greater or smaller groups of actors that have access to the information in a transparency system. Starting with the greatest possible extent, public transparency reaches the public as a whole, while in inter-state transparency systems only the parties of a treaty are provided with information. The CBM mechanism is an example for such a practice (although some states make their CBMs transparent for the public sphere). I don’t want to talk much about CBMs. We all know that the number of states participating in this mechanism is not satisfactory. I hope, however, that during this talk it will become clear why they should play a central role in the BWC’s future. A third type of transparency besides the public and inter-governmental transparency, is the exclusive access to information by just one actor (typically a state) when a phenomenon is being made transparent by (and only for) that single actor.

Since transparency is (or should be) a practical exercise, it is maybe helpful to concentrate on the different technical means that are applied in the three different transparency systems. I propose to differentiate in between national technical means (NTMs), international technical means (ITMs), and public technical means (PTMs).

First, NTMs are technical means under the exclusive ownership of single states, hence also the gathered information is exclusively with that state. Their use leads to the single actor type of transparency.

Second, ITMs (not established in the BWC regime) are those technical means that States Parties allow treaty organisations to use.

Third, PTMs are the technical means that rely on open sources and are used to the end to release the gathered information to the public sphere. Their rage has grown significantly over the past years. The digital revolution allows access to a broad range of information. For example:

  • Real time epidemiologic information
  • Information on biotechnological capacities, products, and research projects
  • Free (including commercial) satellite images – here is also a link to the reconnaissance revolution in the last 20 years
  • Patent databases
  • Trade data (dual-use goods and biotech end-products)
  • Scientific publications (PubMed and other databases)
  • Digital meta information about companies and research facilities
  • Exchanges on social media
  • … This list can be expanded any further;
  • And besides the use of this universe of existing data that can be identified and filtered from Big Data it is also thinkable that innovative ways to measure environmental data with newly developed technology can contribute to transparency.

The use of these PTMs produces no proof, but will enable actors to ask qualified questions.

Just three examples for questions that occured when working on our current project on the identification of compliance relevant parameters that can be accessed via open sources:

  • Why are the security perimeters of a certain facility with known dual-use character being modernised (information accessed by google.earth images)?
  • Why do we see certain relevant research activities at institutes that are linked to the military information accessed by PubMed or turn up in google and twitter?
  • How can the consumption of unusual amounts of biological growth media in a county be explained (information accessed via UN COMTRADE database)?

It is hence no verification, but it is much more than what is actually being done in the regime.

In an ideal world the mentioned information sources would be accesses at the widest possible extent as ITMs to contribute to a verification mechanism. In the BWC, however, we had to realise that ITMs will not be implemented in the foreseeable future. Since confidence building by enhancing transparency is quintessential for the function of the regime other actors will have to play the role that in other cases is allocated to International Organisations.

I would like to briefly come back to a more theoretical reasoning of transparency to answer the question which actors could/should do so. Transparency can also be described by looking at the direction of the distribution of information: Information can be provided actively by states or biotech stakeholders, or they can be extracted out of the (mostly) electronic/digital universe of information. This can be called passive transparency.

Active transparency

As parties, states would be at the forefront of stakeholders who would be asked to actively provide information to enhance confidence. In the BWC the related mechanism are the CBMs. But also other actors can contribute to active transparency building. For a look into the future it might be helpful to look into the roots of the regime: Already back in 1964 the Pugwash CBW-group had initiated a voluntary inspection mechanism. Participating were commercial and academic facilities from eastern and western European facilities (indeed only one larger non-western biotech production facility in Yugoslavia was involved). The project was later continued by the then newly founded Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The aim of the overall project was to prove that on-site verification is possible without endangering commercial secrets. A lesson that was learned but seems to have been forgotten is that commercial actors could get involved in active transparency building, also on a voluntary base.

Passive transparency

The passive extraction of relevant information is also not a new idea—neither in other contexts nor in the BWC. When the BWC was negotiated in the early 1970s the just mentioned SIPRI was also innovative in the development of passive transparency tools, and demonstrated the value of Open Source information already back then. By the application of innovative investigative tools the SIPRI researchers already showed that even non-governmental actors could gather relevant information. In 1971 the mechanism was meant as proof that these methods could contribute to a then debated verification mechanism.

And indeed, when it came to the question which would be the best confidence building mechanism, the development of a formal verification mechanism based on on-site inspections was for many years seen as the silver bullet—possibly, it still is. But there is obviously the need to identify alternatives.

In this context it has to be stated that 40 years after SIPRI’s engagement the possibilities to enhance passive transparency by the use of the above mentioned open source information has grown exponentially. Some states may have the capacities to use these information in Open-source intelligence (OSINT) procedures, but many others will not be able to do so on a global scale. This is the reason why often international organisations are installed for information gathering. This is also not to come here (please surprise me at the Review Conference).

Civil society actors should in a best case scenario be a corrective and/or undertake parallel independent control activities. NGOs could be watchdogs, but not the only actors in the production of transparency. However, there are also cases as in the landmines and cluster munition regimes where in the absence of a formal verification system civil society actors do what has been called “Quasi verification” by a number of States Parties. In biological arms control they might also be able (or be enabled) to play a more central role, as long as no information system becomes institutionalised.

The current development of capacities in applying PTMs in passive transparency building might be a “technical” environment that fosters new formats and civil society monitoring networks. With the idea that relevant information will be recognised in a regime regardless by what type of actor it was gathered, NGOs could play a greater role in confidence building in biological arms control.

However, this also means that states should do as much as they can to proof their commitment with the treaty provisions. And that means first of all, better participation in the CBM mechanism. May I add that I don’t think that any state would lose anything if its CBM submission is being made public.

If every actor—state, private, and civil society—improves confidence by enhancing transparency through the use of the specific means at its disposal and therewith contributes to an open, evidence-based debate about compliance relevant factors, I am optimistic that biological arms control will remain successfully based on the BWC for at least another 40 years.

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Syria’s CW disarmament: spill-over effects for Middle East?

Using the Momentum of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Dismantlement and Identifying Spill-Over Potentials

Discussion note prepared for:  Academic Peace Orchestra – Middle East (APOME), Tackling the Middle East WMD/DVs Arsenals in the Context of Military Asymmetries Towards Zonal Disarmament, Berlin, 11–12 March 2015

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Introduction

  • Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (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. This accord averted military strikes by France, the United Kingdom and the United States as reprisal for the use of chemical weapons (CW) in the Syrian civil war. In particular the attacks against the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August represented a major escalation in the conflict. The sarin nerve agent killed hundreds of people and injured many more. At the time of the attacks a UN team comprising experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) were in Damascus in response to an earlier request by the Syrian government to investigate alleged CW use during the spring of 2013. After modification of its mandate, it investigated the Ghouta attacks and issued their preliminary report on 16 September, two days after the Geneva accord. The findings all but blamed the Syrian government. The team submitted its final report covering all chemical warfare allegations from the original mandate as well as some additional attacks after the Ghouta incident on 12 December.
  • After becoming a party to the CWC the verification activities have consisted of four types of activities:
    • Syrian declarations on CW holdings, CW-relevant infrastructure (production and storage sites), and on the history of its chemical warfare programme since 1 January 1946. Given the special circumstances that have led the country to accede to the convention, Syria was requested and has (or is in the process of ) providing information on the destruction of CW before becoming a CWC party. As illustrated by the cases of France and Iran, a state party is not normally required to declare this type of information. However, in order to ensure that Syria is not hiding secret stashes of CW, the requested data contribute to establishing a baseline for its past capacities.
    • The OPCW verifies those declarations, resolves anomalies and where required requests amendments to those declarations.
    • The OPCW conducted inspections at the declared production and storage sites. It oversaw the removal of chemical warfare and precursor agents from Syrian territory and the destruction of delivery means, relevant equipment and installations, and precursor chemicals. It also oversaw the hydrolysis of mustard agent and the neutralisation of a range of precursor chemicals aboard the US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean and the destruction of the resulting effluents in incinerators in Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. At present the OPCW is also overseeing the destruction of the former Syrian CW production facilities. To date, two out of twelve buildings have been destroyed and completion of this task is envisaged for this summer.
    • The OPCW carried out field investigations into the alleged use of chlorine during the spring and summer of 2014.
  • This background note discusses some unique features of the disarmament regime for Syria and their potential relevancy for the Middle East Zone free from non-conventional weapons.

Adaptation to specific circumstances

  • Nobody anticipated that the OPCW would ever have to evacuate CW from a state party under conditions of war. Such a situation never occurred before. Even the disarmament of Iraq during the 1990s took place after a cease-fire agreement, endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). Syria joined the CWC as a CW possessor state, which was also a first after the treaty-defined destruction deadlines had expired. As a consequence, the responsibility to determine Syria’s interim and final destruction deadlines fell to the Executive Council. Its decision of 27 September 2013 was an adaptation of the US-Russian framework agreement. That same night the UN Security Council endorsed the decision in Resolution 2118 (2013). However, given the virtual impossibility to destroy the CW inside a country at war and the extremely tight deadline to complete destruction operations, the EC adopted several exceptional measures in a second decision of 15 November, none of which are precedent-setting.
  • A first major departure from the standard CWC process concerns the initial declaration. Under Article III this document is due within 30 days after the convention enters into force for a state party and establishes a baseline for the country’s status as CW possessor, plans for the destruction of CW and related installations if so required, a description of any CW-related activities after 1 January 1945, the types of chemical facilities on its territory and the types and quantities of treaty-relevant chemicals they produce. Following that submission OPCW inspectors will verify the accuracy of the initial declaration, upon which the state party can submit amendments if so required. In practice OPCW staff will assist a country preparing to join the CWC with compiling the initial declaration and other measures to be undertaken (e.g., national legislation). In the case of Syria inspectors entered the country even before it had formally become a state party (i.e., 30 days after accession) and such an initial declaration was submitted. The Syrian government had agreed to the accelerated pace. While it enabled the OPCW to quickly secure key CW sites that were accessible (some were in combat zones or under the control of insurgents), prepare inventories and render the delivery systems and special equipment useless, it also created a situation in which the OPCW received a lot of information piecemeal. Combined with the chaos of war, Syrian claims of poor bureaucratic administration of the chemical programmes and quite possibly reluctance to cooperate in full, this led to quite a few corrections of the initial declaration and submission of fresh data. Within the Technical Secretariat a small Declaration Assessment Team was set up to raise questions based on the initial declaration, to identify the gaps, find discrepancies, and so on, in order to correct the declaration. In this way, the OPCW has been able and is still continuing to develop the full picture of Syria’s past CW capacities and programmes.
  • Under the terms of Article IV of the CWC, each state party remains the owner of the CW thatmust be destroyed, destroys those CW on its own territory, and pays for the destruction operations and the OPCW verification activities.Given the inability to destroy the CW inside a country at war and the extremely tight deadline to complete destruction operations, the EC adopted several exceptional measures, none of which are precedent-setting:
    • With the exception of one precursor chemical that had to be destroyed in-country, all warfare agents and other precursors were evacuated by sea from Syria.
    • Once they had left the territory, the international community as represented by the OPCW assumed responsibility for the toxic substances. The legal status of the weapons outside of Syria, and therefore the liability in case of a mishap, was never precisely determined.
    • The toxic substances were neutralised or hydrolysed aboard the specially adapted US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean, and then transferred to commercial incinerators in Finland, the United Kingdom and the United States and a dedicated CW destruction facility in Germany.
    • Both the UN and the OPCW set up special trust funds to finance the operation as Syria claimed to be unable to pay for the destruction and verification costs. Many countries offered funds or contributed in kind.
  • The Executive Council vested the OPCW Director-General with the authority to launch a procedure similar in purpose to the challenge inspection, but without many of the procedural formalities detailed in the in the CWC. His decision was to follow a request by a state party and a personal judgement as to the seriousness of the allegation based on information supplied by the requesting state party. He could redirect inspectors working in Syria to the designated site of alleged treaty violation. Despite the difficulties in implementing the decisions regarding the CW disarmament in Syria and the many accusations of procrastination and incomplete declarations, nobody has so far requested such a special inspection.
  • For the time being Syria remains under a special disarmament regime and it may still take one or two years, depending on the level of cooperation from Damascus, before the country can become a ‘normal’ state party. Nobody can presently affirm the way in which the transition to normalcy will take place, but the assumption is that both the Executive Council and the UN Security Council will have to take decisions to that effect.
  • OPCW decisions were endorsed by the UN Security Council, which had also insisted on a role for the UN. (The OPCW is not one of the UN organisations.) In order to coordinate negotiations and assess various risk factors related to the inspections, preparation of transportation and the movement of the chemical substances across Syria to the northern port of Latakia, the OPCW-UN Joint Mission was established. (It completed its mandate on 30 September 2014.) Its head reported to both the OPCW and the UN Security Council.

The emerging challenge of opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals

  • Opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals occurs when a particular entity resorts to a mode of chemical warfare using toxic chemicals that are readily available at a chemical plant or storage site, but does not undertake steps to develop and produce such weapons. The types of agent thus used can range from extremely common chemical substances, such as chlorine (often used in liquid form for water purification), to compounds such as insecticides and pesticides that, just like sarin or VX, belong to the family organophosphates. A typical characteristic of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals is that the attacks cease as soon as stores have been depleted or access to other sources of supply cut off. Delivery is extremely crude, but some indicators suggest a development process for dissemination devices may take place to enhance the impact of the attacks.
  • Through the spring and summer of 2014 there were several reports of chlorine strikes in Syria. Barrel bombs filled with liquid chlorine were dropped on villages from helicopters, strongly suggesting that government forces were responsible for them. As chlorine (or any other toxic chemical) falls under the General Purpose Criterion (GPC) of the CWC, any use as a method of warfare is prohibited. With Syria a state party to the CWC, the OPCW launched an investigation of alleged use. The fact-finding mission arrived in Damascus on 3 May, five days after its creation by the OPCW Director-General. During an onsite investigation on 27 May the team’s vehicle convoy was hit by an explosive device and came under fire. While this part of the mission had to be discontinued, the investigators were able to collate considerable data by means of other techniques, including victim and witness interviews, analysis of medical records and discussions with medical staff, and the analysis of flight paths of helicopters and correlating them to the precise time and site of the barrel bomb attack. It presented three reports in June, September and December 2014. On 4 February 2015 the OPCW Executive Council’s decision formally determined that chlorine had been used as a method of warfare and condemned the acts as a major breach of the CWC. Even though the conclusion did not identify the culprit, it is clear that as a state party Syria bears responsibility for preventing any violation on its territory.
  • Other allegations of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals attributing responsibility to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) emerged during the second half of 2014. One such claim related to the intense fighting at Avdiko village, 12 km east of Kobani in northern Syria; the other incidents came from Iraq. These occurrences pose a special problem under the CWC. While a state party is responsible for the implementation of the CWC on its territory, the reported events took place in areas not under the control by the government. Moreover the way the alleged use was described in Avdiko, both the perpetrator and the victims were non-state actors, a situation that may potentially create a legal and practical vacuum. Under the terms of the CWC (Verification Annex, Part XI, §27), if use has been alleged on territory not under the control by the government of a state party, then the UN Secretary-General’s mechanism will apply. However, in view of the attacks on the OPCW investigative team in May 2014 and the reliance on the Syrian military for the security and safety of UN and OPCW personnel inside Syria, the question arises how a UN investigation would be able to access an area of intense fighting in which the government military play no role. Thus far no concrete ideas suggestion an international military force to be inserted into a UN member state for the sole purpose of protecting an investigative team have been put forward.

Concluding thoughts

  • The arrangements made to enable the CW elimination in Syria are not precedent-setting. However, the whole process has demonstrated a willingness by the OPCW members to approach difficult and exceptional circumstances in a practical way and they have taken several decisions that deviated significantly from the letter of the CWC. This leads to a cautious optimism that if the international community were to request specific types of assistance in support of a nascent zone free of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East, the OPCW might agree.
  • However, any such optimism would dissipate fast if there were no serious indications that the two countries not yet party to the CWC—Egypt and Israel—were to show no inclination of acceding or ratifying the convention. After all, in Syria’s case inventiveness was also stimulated by the fact that on the same day Russia and the United States announced their joint framework agreement, Damascus deposited its instrument of accession with the UN Secretary-General and agreed to collaborating with the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW even before the treaty became legally binding on it. This fact alone already deviated from the standard process as foreseen in the CWC.
  • If Egypt and Israel were to embark on a range of CBM-types of activities to enhance transparency with regard to past and present CW activities and issues of concern, then the OPCW might be open to assist the process in a discrete fashion.
  • Particularly in view of the many emotional reactions to events in the Middle East, any scenario of OPCW involvement would require strong common purpose between Russia and the US, and at least tacit endorsement of their initiatives by the other P-5 members.
  • Other than that, the Syrian CW disarmament effort may well remain a truly exceptional case of international collaboration under exceptional circumstances with little bearing on other situations in the Middle East.
  • With ISIL moving into Egypt, a scenario of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals in that country cannot be wholly discounted. By staying outside of the CWC, Cairo denies itself certain international tools of assistance and cooperation that could help to counter the threat or mitigate the consequences of such an attack.

Threat posed by Islamic State’s capture of Iraq’s Muthanna CW site

In a letter dated 7 July 2014 Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations Mohamed Ali Alhakim notified UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that ‘armed terrorist groups’ had entered the Muthanna complex on 11 June. The next morning  a project manager observed them looting of some equipment via the camera surveillance system before the ‘terrorists’ disabled it. The document, as cited by the Associated Press, explicitly referred to the capture of bunkers 13 and 41, two locations still holding chemical weapons (CW) so severely damaged during the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait that until today they could not be disposed of in a safe way.

The capture of two CW storage bunkers at Muthanna by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, now shortened to Islamic State) has raised fears of chemical warfare in Iraq as well as Syria. The insurgent grouping’s habitual resort to extreme violence in combat, its strict upholding of Sharia law, and uncompromising attitude towards ‘non-believers’ leave many a commentator convinced that it will stop at nothing in its pursuit of the Islamic state.

Analysis of documents relating to the dismantlement of the Muthanna complex in the 1990s and the subsequent monitoring of the site however demonstrates that it would be all but impossible for ISIL to acquire and use Iraq’s former CW, or for that matter, the toxic residues of warfare agents.

Should the ISIL fighters still find sarin, then the probability of the agent’s degradation below any useful degree of purity is extremely high. An additional 20 years have passed since the UNSCOM Chemical Demolition Group sealed the storage bunkers. Mustard agent is far more stable, but both UNSCOM and UNMOVIC reported significant degradation. 155mm artillery rounds were found to contain hydrogen gas and other breakdown products leading to considerable internal pressure. Moreover, the thick-skinned shells proved particularly difficult to penetrate and drilling risked ignition of the built-up gases.

UNSCOM selected two bunkers at Al Muthanna for their solid structure. After completion of destruction operations, it sealed the structures. They blocked off all entrances with two brick walls and a 5cm layer of tar in between them. A third brick wall was erected at a distance of 1 metre from the second wall and the space in between was filled with reinforced concrete. Together, the overall thickness of the entrance seals amounts to 1.5 metres. The hole at the top of bunker 13 containing the sarin rockets and precursor chemicals from a US bomb in 1991  was closed by filling the whole inner room with soil through that hole and then plugging it with reinforced concrete.

Any penetration of the bunker by ISIL fighters would require major dismantling and rubble removal, all the while not knowing the exact location of the toxic chemicals, propellants and explosives and facing potential exposure to contaminated soil or air. Even the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is still considering how it might proceed to determine the bunker’s exact contents.

More technical details on the state of Iraq’s former CW and tables on the contents of the bunkers are in an article I wrote for the August edition of CBRNe World. Registration may be required, but it is for free.

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]


Days of Future Past

Russia proposed to return to negotiations on a legally binding protocol to strengthen treaty implementation at the Meeting of Experts of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which was held in Geneva from 4–8 August. Its informal note discusses the creation of an international body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (OPBW). It also tackles two frustrations prevalent among states parties: the convention’s institutional deficit and the lack of any progress in the so-called intersessional process—a series of annual Meetings of Experts (MX) during the summer followed by Meetings of States Parties (MSP) in December in between the quinquennial review conferences.

This posting offers an initial assessment of the proposal and reflects on whether returning to a future that existed in the past could actually propel the BTWC forward.

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Gradually making sense of Syria’s CW declarations

Since my last update on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapon (CW) capacities in May, all precursor chemicals have finally left the country. Some have been shipped to facilities in Finland and the USA, where they are in the process of being destroyed. The United Kingdom meanwhile completed the destruction of 190 tonnes of chemicals at an incinerator in Ellesmere Port.

As of 7 August, 74.2% of Syria’s entire stockpile of chemical warfare agent precursors have been destroyed. Other chemicals are meanwhile being neutralised on board of the US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean, and the resulting reaction mass will eventually be commercially incinerated too.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is gradually slipping off the radar screen of international media. The huge pressure of safely evacuating the precursor chemicals from the war-torn country now removed, the organisation can slowly return to its more familiar role in the background of international politics: monitoring compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and resolving any outstanding issues. Syria will increasingly become more integrated as a ‘normal’ member of the OPCW. This, however, does not mean that the OPCW will relax its efforts to achieve full accounting of its chemical warfare programmes, clarification of allegations of CW use, or complete destruction of all relevant declared facilities. Syria’s recurring amendments to its initial declaration of 23 October 2013 demonstrate the grinding, but nonetheless steady progress the OPCW is making.

Two new elements (at least to outsiders) have surfaced over the past couple of weeks: Syria’s presentation of a destruction plan for abandoned chemical weapons (ACW) and the declaration of a CW production facility dedicated to ricin manufacture.

Re-hexamination of Syria’s sarin

The UN Secretary-General’s latest monthly progress report on the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capabilities refers to Syria’s submission on 14 July of a destruction plan for two sarin-filled munitions. Syria denies ownership of these CW and has therefore declared them as ACW.

The two munitions were recovered after the CW attack at Jobar, an eastern suburb of Damascus, on 24 August 2013 (i.e., three days after the Ghouta chemical attacks). Four days later, Syria notified the UN Secretary General of the use of an improvised explosive device (IED) releasing a foul and strange odour. The UN team investigating alleged CW use visited the site on 29 September. It was unable to examine the place of impact or recover munition fragments, because mine clearing operations had completely corrupted the surroundings. Syrian officials handed over IED fragments and contaminated soil samples, which they claimed came from the incident site. For obvious reasons, the UN team could not certify their chain of custody.

According to the Final Report by the UN Mission (p. 65), the investigative team ‘was also presented with two metal canisters discovered by Government soldiers during the offensive operations in Jobar on 25 August 2013 in the immediate aftermath of the incident and in close vicinity of the site of the alleged incident’. These were said to be identical to ones used in the chemical incident the day before. Made of steel sheeting of 1mm thickness, the plates were bent and welded together manually at a sub-industrial standard. The canisters nevertheless revealed a high degree of expertise with the electric welding process. The UN investigators were also able to establish that ‘a detonator and a coiling of the detonating cord, acting as a booster, composed the fire train, electrically initiated’. They had an internal fill capacity of up to approximately 4 litres (see figure below). The two metal canisters are the ACW Syria declared to the OPCW. (This description corrects the suggestion in my posting of 26 May that the two ACW were Volcano rockets. The claim that Syria did not declare any Volcano rockets as CW still stands, however.)

Syria CW IED - UN investigation

Analysis of their contents by the OPCW confirmed sarin as their payload. Moreover, the filling displayed all the characteristics of sarin as produced by the Syrian government, the principal telltale sign being the presence of hexamine (hexamethylenetetramine). Since its presence in samples was first reported by the UN investigative team last September in relation to the Ghouta attack and the OPCW later released that Syria had declared 80 metric tonnes of the chemical in connection with sarin production, there has been furious speculation as to its exact role. In a recent analysis focussing explicitly on the role of hexamine, UK-based CW expert Daniel Kaszeta argued that the Syrians used the compound as an acid scavenger in the final reaction of their rather unique sarin production process. Reacting DF (methylphosphonyl difluoride) with isopropanol yields sarin and hydrofluoric acid, the latter being a toxic and extremely corrosive gas that would have quickly damaged the production and agent filling installations. Hexamine binds this acid, and does so more efficiently than other amino compounds.

However, recent discussions with officials from some Western states indicate two other roles of hexamine, namely as catalyst and stabiliser. The catalyst function is probably closely tied to the acid scrubber role. In an e-mail exchange today, Ralf Trapp, a chemist and consultant to the OPCW, confirmed that hexamine increases the yield of the chemical reaction by pulling the equilibrium between the precursors and reaction product (sarin) in favour of the latter. As a result, the sarin concentration receives a significant boost, possibly up to 60%. This degree of purity is considerably higher than the yields achieved by Iraq in the 1980s.

As a stabiliser, hexamine probably allowed the Syrians to store freshly produced sarin for days, if not several weeks. This understanding is more compatible with views before the civil war that Syria’s CW served strategic deterrence. Munitions declared to the OPCW last autumn also seem to validate those views. Initiating the final reaction shortly before use, as was the case in Iraq, would have undermined this doctrinal role. The insight also raises fresh questions about the curious White House claim last August that the United States had observed Syrian preparations for three days prior to the Ghouta attacks.

Strictly speaking, the chemical analysis of the sarin in the two ACW confirms beyond any doubt that the nerve agent was produced by means of the same process as the one used by the Syrian government. The distinctive signature, however, cannot exclude the possibility that insurgents might have captured some CW. Western officials tend not to give much credence to this hypothesis.

Castor beans: cancer research, castor oil, or ricin?

The latest monthly progress report also reveals that on 14 July Syria submitted yet another amendment to its initial declaration. The document lists a dedicated ricin production plant. As a weapon the toxin is banned under both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the CWC. The CWC requires the verified destruction of CW production facilities, but the amendment claims that it is located in an area not under government control. It also states that the entire quantity of ricin produced was eliminated prior to the entry into force of the CWC for Syria. If correct, then Syria need not declare its past toxin weapon holding. CW disarmament in Syria, however, is hardly a normal operation. As with its claimed destruction of 200 tonnes of mustard agent early in 2013, the OPCW must investigate those statements to ascertain that the country is not hiding any residual CW.

This progress report was the first to publicly mention ricin production. Last April concerns about the toxin had already filtered out of the United Nations, but they have thus far remained a relatively low-level matter at the OPCW. This was in part a consequence of the high-priority preoccupation with getting the precursor chemicals out of Syria, and in part because nothing seems to indicate that the country presently has ricin weapons. Questions remain nonetheless.

Syria apparently cultivated castor oil plants (Ricinus communis) on several tracts the size of football fields. In itself, this is no so unusual as the oil makes for an excellent lubricant for heavy engines, such as those in military lorries. However, Syria’s initial explanation referred to cancer research and treatment, which was wholly implausible in view of the minute quantities of ricin required for research. Castor oil also lacks any medicinal value to cure cancer. It was used to deliver some chemotherapy drugs to tumours, but occasional side effects, such as allergic reactions, have led to the adoption of alternatives. Starting in the 1980s, Texas Tech University and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center conducted long-term research on the oncological application of genetically modified ricin to kill diseased cells. According to a press release of October 1998, ‘just two acres of land, given the right castor seed, could produce enough ricin to meet the world’s pharmaceutical supply need for cancer treatment’. Ricin is also being investigated in relation to neurological degenerative disorders and in the treatment of intractable painful neuropathies.  It is rather hard to think of Syria as a global supplier of medicinal ricin many times over.

This leaves the question of ricin as a weapon. Ricin is an instrument of choice for assassinations, as befell Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov in London in 1978. More recently clumsy attempts to send ricin-filled letters to hated persons, including President Barack Obama, have also put the spotlight on the agent. Since the First World War many states considered ricin as a possible tool of warfare, but they have never incorporated it as a standard agent into their chemical and biological warfare arsenals. Despite the military attractiveness of its toxicity, the toxin poses several serious problems in relation to large-scale production, longer-term storage (unless turned into a solid), and dissemination techniques. While none of these problems are insurmountable, the net effect is that the agent is more cumbersome to weaponise or less effective on the battlefield than alternatives.

Right now the reason behind Syria’s declaration of a CW production facility exclusively dedicated to ricin manufacture remains murky. On the one hand, in view of the many publicly available accounts describing the many difficulties of producing and especially storing the toxin in free state for longer periods of time, it almost seems implausible that Syria would have embarked on a major ricin weapon programme. Interestingly, several Western officials I recently spoke to tend to discount public Israeli reports on Syria’s ricin programme. The annual US State Department report on arms control treaty compliance for 2014 dropped the reference to ricin-based biological weapons in the BTWC section and does not mention the toxin in the separate CWC compliance report. The 2013 treaty compliance document still stated: ‘In 2004, Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said in a report on Syria that the Scientific Studies and Research Center had been developing ricin-based biological weapons’.

On the other hand, if the Syrian factory was indeed dedicated to the production of oil or lubricants, the possibility exists that it used a cold hydraulic pressing technique, in which case 1–5% by weight of ricin might remain in the resulting mash. A fact sheet on ricin by the OPCW Science Advisory Board (SAB) released in February 2014 notes that castor oil production plants are not subject to Schedule 1 inspections under Article VI of the CWC. The SAB therefore recommended that the Director-General encourage National Authorities in producing countries to promote hot pressing and other techniques that ensure inactivation of residual ricin in the waste mash. In other words, the Syrian amendment might reflect a compromise with the OPCW to remove any ambiguity about the purpose of the ricin resulting from a particular production process in view of the need for absolute certainty that all aspects of the country’s CW programme have been eliminated. A future oil-extraction plant using a process that inactivates residual ricin could then be constructed without the need for long-term verification modalities for that installation.

A possible explanation for the ricin factory declaration for sure, but more details are required to confirm the scenario. To be continued.

And the destruction of mustard agent?

As I reported in May, OPCW inspectors were looking into Syria’s claim earlier this year that it had destroyed some 200 tonnes of mustard agent in the spring of 2013. They are still trying to obtain further documentation substantiating these destruction operations. Onsite inspections of the disposal sites are still pending before this particular file can be closed.

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]


Enhancing BTWC Compliance – Workshop Report

Jean Pascal ZANDERS
Senior Research Associate
Fondation pour la recherche stratégique

WORKSHOP REPORT

Enhancing compliance of the BTWC through national implementation and other means

Brussels, 24 April 2014

I.    Participation

The workshop, organised by the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium in cooperation with the European External Action Service (EEAS), was held in Brussels on 24 April 2014. Its purpose was to have an in-depth brainstorming session on the future of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) with officials from EU Member States.

The event was the 1st Ad Hoc Seminar to be organised under the new Council Decision 014/129/CFSP of 10 March 2014 supporting the continued activities of the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium.

Representatives, mostly delegates attending the CODUN working party, participated from Belgium, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and the United Kingdom, as well as the EEAS.

Invited non-governmental expert speakers were nationals from Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy and the United Kingdom.

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