10 September 2020

Debating Syria’s Chemical Weapons Programme, Delegates in Security Council Roundly Condemn Use of Such Armaments by ‘Any Actor under Any Circumstances’

Until the outstanding issues related to Syria’s initial declaration of its chemical weapons stockpile and programme are closed, the international community cannot have full confidence that its activities have ended, the United Nations top disarmament expert told the Security Council in a 10 September videoconference meeting*.

Updating members on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013) — covering the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme — High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu said that, as is established practice, her office has maintained regular contact over the last month with counterparts at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

“I understand that the Syrian Arab Republic has not yet provided sufficient technical information or explanations that would enable the OPCW Technical Secretariat to close the issue related to the finding of a Schedule 2 chemical detected at the Barzah facilities of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre,” she reported.

The OPCW Technical Secretariat still plans to conduct two rounds of inspections of the Centre’s Barzah and Jamrayah facilities, she said, noting however, that the visits are subject to the evolution of COVID-19.  It will continue to engage with Syrian authorities and inform the OPCW Executive Council of any progress, she explained.

The OPCW fact-finding mission, meanwhile, is studying all available information related to alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, she said, engaging with the Government and other States parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention on a number of incidents.  As for the Investigation and Identification Team, she said that, following its first report on 8 April, it continues to investigate incidents in which the fact-finding mission determined that chemical weapons were used or likely used in Syria.  It will issue further reports in due course, she said.

More broadly, Ms. Nakamitsu said the OPCW Technical Secretariat has yet to receive a response to the 20 July letter sent by the OPCW Director-General to Syria’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, outlining the country’s obligations under OPCW Executive Council decision EC-94/DEC.2, “Addressing the Possession and Use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic”.  As conveyed in the letter, the Technical Secretariat is ready to assist the Government in the fulfilment of these obligations within the required 90-day period.

“The use of chemical weapons is unacceptable,” Ms. Nakamitsu stressed.  The requirement for those responsible to be identified and held accountable is paramount.  “Ensuring accountability for chemical weapons use is our responsibility, not least to the victims of such attacks,” she assured, expressing hope that the Security Council will unite around this issue.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates roundly condemned the use of chemical weapons by any actor under any circumstances, with several calling for the Council’s unity on efforts to resolve all outstanding issues relating to Syria’s initial declaration on its stockpiles and programme.

The representative of the United States said that, in 2013, the Council welcomed the Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons.  While the Framework set 2014 as the target completion date, the Bashar al-Assad regime has used chemical weapons indiscriminately to instil fear, most recently confirmed by the OPCW Identification and Investigation Team.  The regime’s failure to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention poses direct threat to Syria’s people and the political resolution of the conflict.  She unequivocally condemned chemical weapons use in Syria or elsewhere, pressing the Council to enforce resolution 2118 (2013) and noting that this is the third time the Council has discussed the regime’s use of chemical weapons since OPCW adopted its decision to hold Damascus accountable.  Some of the atrocities suffered by Syrians rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity.  The Council must ensure that perpetrators face serious consequences.

Consistent with the OPCW July decision, she said the Assad regime must cease its use of these weapons and fully cooperate with the Organisation.  Recalling the regime’s sarin attack on opposition-controlled Ghouta on 21 August 2013, she described what the nerve agent does to a human body.  “The nose runs, the eyes cry, the mouth drools and vomits, and bowels and bladder evacuate themselves,” she said.  Since then, the regime has repeatedly carried out chemical attacks, with the 8 April report finding that the Syrian Arab Air Force was behind three attacks in March 2017, involving both sarin and chlorine.  These events took place days before the April attack on Khan Shaykhun, which the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism found Assad was also behind.  The United States will not stop pressing for Iran to leave Syria, one of many countries where Iran proliferates weapons, and has triggered the re-imposition of United Nations sanctions on Tehran.  Her country is also “deeply troubled” by findings on 2 September by Germany, calling Alexei Navalny’s poisoning “completely reprehensible”.  Stressing that the Russian Federation has used chemical nerve agents from the “Novichok” group in the past, she said the United States will work with the international community to hold the perpetrators accountable.

The Russian Federation’s delegate said his country requested today’s meeting because “the Council has nothing to hide from the world, nor has Syria”, stressing that the topic is among the most politicized on the agenda.  In 2014, Syria’s chemical weapons programme was shut down, and its stockpiles and production facilities destroyed.  “Damascus has no capacity, nor any intent or, most importantly, any clear or explicable reason to use chemical weapons,” he insisted.  Yet, Western countries base their claims to the contrary on “doubtful selected episodes”, he said, citing fact-finding mission allegations around chemical weapons use in Sarmin on 16 March 2015, former Joint Investigative Mechanism claims about sarin use in Khan Shaykhun on 7 April 2017 and other claims by the White Helmets in Douma on 7 April 2018 that an expert investigation subsequently revealed were staged.

He said inquiries conducted by these bodies violated the Chemical Weapons Convention, disregarding the so-called “chain of custody” requiring evidence to be collected on site and exclusively by OPCW experts.  He called for a professional dialogue on the findings by the Investigation and Identification Team, something which is being regularly denied.  Yet, evidence about chemical weapons use by non‑State actors has been deliberately neglected.  Moscow would like to see an unbiased and fully accountable investigative body, rather than a “political tool to back somebody’s geopolitical adventures”.  This seven-year-old strategy of fake evidence culminated in July, with OPCW Executive Council decision EC-94/DEC.2, which is based on the Team’s unsubstantiated assumptions and which was passed by a one-vote margin.  It demands that Syria “do the impossible”:  declare within 90 days additional chemical weapons and allegedly related facilities.

In two subsequent interventions, he contested comments made about the Alexey Navalny case, insisting that “we are the most interested party to know what happened” and that Russian Federation doctors did not find any chemical substances in their analyses, contrasting with claims that a German laboratory did.  Despite Moscow’s request, Berlin has not shared information about the sample analysis at the Bundeswehr Institute.  “How should we interpret this?”, he asked, noting that Germany has shared the findings with its allies and that the incident cannot but raise questions.  He also cited a 9 September Russian Foreign Ministry statement outlining his country’s request for data from Germany on 27 August.  “If these materials are not provided by the German side, this will be regarded by the Russian side as a refusal by the federal Government of Germany to establish the truth in the context of an objective investigation,” he quoted, and a “blatant and hostile” provocation.

The representative of the Dominican Republic encouraged Syria, as a State party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, to actively collaborate in good faith with OPCW to resolve pending matters, calling on Damascus to fulfill obligations emanating from the 9 July Executive Council decision.  Normalizing of the use of chemical weapons in Syria must come to an end along with the culture of impunity.  He urged the Council’s unity on the issue alongside a fostering of dialogue among all parties to find a viable political solution.  Expressing support and full confidence in the professional, objective and impartial work of OPCW and the Investigation and Identification Team, he reiterated his delegation’s firm condemnation of the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone and under any circumstances, as its deployment is unjustifiable and constitutes a flagrant violation of international law, of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a threat to international peace and security.

China’s delegate objected to hasty conclusions on alleged chemical weapons use in the absence of evidence.  “Rushing to conclusions is not conducive to closing the Syrian chemical weapon dossier,” he assured, stressing that it damages trust among Syrian parties, and thus, harms the political process.  Syria has submitted several letters to the Council President, offering information and expressing concern, and he called on OPCW to respond.  Further, the organization should strengthen trust among States parties and maintain the tradition of making decisions based on consensus.  Pushing for a vote while there are significant differences only causes confrontation and harms OPCW’s authority, operations and long-term interests.  China’s position on the Executive Council meeting is clear, he said, pressing OPCW to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention, rather than be used as a geopolitical tool by certain parties.  He asked the High Representative about the 20 July technical meeting and about how the Technical Secretariat and the Director‑General can help OPCW return to its consensus-based decision-making.

France’s delegate deplored the lack of progress on the Syria chemical file.  If Syria has nothing to hide and if the chemical weapons file is closed, as some claim, why does Damascus not cooperate fully with OPCW.  The responsibility of Syria’s regime in the use of chemical weapons against its own people leaves no doubt, and the conclusions of international investigation mechanisms are without appeal.  Recalling that the first OPCW report independently and impartially established that sarin and chlorine had been used by Syria’s air force units in chemical attacks in Ltamenah in March 2017, she said it is a collective responsibility to reaffirm the founding principles of global security.  Welcoming the OPCW Executive Council’s adoption in July of a decision condemning violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention and enjoining Damascus to comply with its obligations or expose itself to collective measures, she said the Conference of States Parties in November will consider the OPCW Director‑General’s report on responses provided by the Syrian regime and may take action accordingly.  France will continue to support the accountability mechanisms and work collaboratively through the international partnership against impunity for the use of chemical weapons.

The United Kingdom’s representative, recalling that, when the Council passed resolution 2118 (2013), it endorsed the procedure for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons programme, said some of the organ’s members today would have the world believe that “this was the end of it” and maintain that Damascus is complying with OPCW.  “Unfortunately, their interpretation is not borne out by the facts,” he said, stressing that independent and OPCW missions found chemical weapons to have been used in more than 40 incidents since 2014.  Due to such unresolved discrepancies, Syria's declaration under the Chemical Weapons Convention cannot be considered accurate and complete.  Since 2014, the number of chemical agents identified by the Declaration and Assessment Team as having been in Syria's possession has more than doubled as compared to the country’s initial declaration in 2013.

Noting that Syria has admitted to having produced chemical weapons not in the original declaration, including ricin, soman and nitrogen mustard, he said the Joint Investigative Mechanism and OPCW Investigation and Identification Team both found that Damascus used chemical weapons on seven occasions — a conclusion that is inconsistent with Government’s claims it has no such capability.  The Council has a clear obligation to address the repeated breaches of resolution 2118 (2013) and he expressed great regret that some have sought to politicize what should be a non‑partisan issue.  “Mud is thrown everywhere in the hope that some will stick somewhere,” he said, recalling instances, since 2016, when the Russian Federation used its veto to block the Council’s action.  He expressed grave concern over the Novichok poisoning of Alexey Navalny, noting that a similar nerve agent was used with lethal effect in the United Kingdom.  “It is difficult not to conclude that Russia’s attacks on the international architecture to prevent the use of chemical weapons are not only designed to protect its Syrian clients, but to protect itself,” he observed.

In a second intervention, the United Kingdom’s representative underscored her country’s support for the White Helmets who have saved an estimated 115,000 lives and provided essential services to more than 4 million Syrians.  Claims that they are linked to terrorist groups are baseless, and part of a disinformation campaign being waged by both Syria’s regime and the Russian Federation.

Viet Nam’s representative underscored his categorical condemnation of chemical weapons use in any form, by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances.  The obligations to respect and fully implement the Chemical Weapons Convention are of utmost importance.  Expressing support for OPCW, he said all States parties must abide by its bodies and mechanisms, and that investigations into any possible chemical weapons use should establish irrefutable facts and evidence.  All such inquiries must be carried out in a comprehensive, conclusive, objective and impartial manner, he said, expressing concern over alleged chemical weapons use in Syria and calling for non-politicized engagement between Syria and OPCW.  As an OPCW member, Viet Nam will closely follow developments around the Executive Council 9 July decision — “Addressing the Possession and Use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic” — he said, noting that divergent views about that decision remain.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said the use of chemical weapons anywhere by anyone is an “abominable” violation of international law.  Perpetrators must be held accountable, she insisted, reiterating that OPCW must ensure all its activities are impartial, transparent and not politicized.  The Council must work to strengthen its capacity to ensure that the quality of its work remains of the highest standard.  “The OPCW must be above reproach,” she asserted.  The Council also must consider Syria’s perspective, respecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and thus facilitate dialogue in efforts to build trust.  In that context, she welcomed that technical consultations between OPCW and Syria will continue, despite circumstances brought about by the coronavirus.

South Africa’s representative condemned any chemical weapons use by any actor under any circumstances, underscoring his country’s commitment to its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and as an OPCW member.  Any alleged use by a State party is a serious matter that would constitute a material breach of its obligations.  States parties must have full confidence in OPCW processes.  “As the only technically competent international authority in this area, there can be no political interference in its work,” he insisted.  South Africa will continue to work for the depoliticization of the management and decision-making structures established under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and ensuring that States parties are held accountable for any violations.  He called the decision by the OPCW Executive Council premature, as it “blurs the important distinction” between the Identification and Investigation Team process and decision-making by the Executive Council on the finding of the report.  It thus represents a missed opportunity to ensure both procedural and substantive fairness.

Indonesia’s representative said that, while there are diverging views on Syria’s chemical weapons dossier, the Council must support efforts by OPCW and Syria to address outstanding issues.  A substantive, result-oriented engagement is essential for this issue to move forward.  Welcoming that both parties are able to maintain cooperation despite COVID-19, he took note of Syria’s position welcoming the visit of the Declaration Assessment Team for the twenty-third consultation, once travel allows, and encouraged Damascus to provide the requested information, as part of its preparations.  He underscored the importance of comprehensive, impartial and transparent investigations into alleged chemical weapons incidents, stressing that the Council’s unity on such issues cannot be overemphasized.  All efforts to close the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons programme should go hand in hand with political and humanitarian aspects.

Estonia’s delegate regretted to note that, so far, chemical weapons attacks in Syria have been largely committed with impunity, and the Council has failed to uphold its own decisions, to discuss seriously how to move forward with accountability measures and put an end to these horrific crimes.  Instead, systematic efforts from the Russian Federation attempt to discredit and undermine OPCW’s competence and authority and question the validity of the reports of its investigative bodies, whenever their conclusions do not fit with Moscow’s political agenda and interests.  These actions have serious consequences, he said, adding that:  “We are allowing the norm against the use of chemical weapons to erode; we are allowing setting in a new normality where chemical weapons are used to eliminate political rivals and punish the opposition.  An alarming increase in their use have already taken place over the past years,” he said, citing the use of Novichok to poison Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny recently, and to attack Sergey and Yulia Skripal on British soil in 2018.  Similarly, in 2017, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea regime used the nerve agent VX to assassinate Kim Jong Un’s brother in a Malaysian airport.  A robust international response is essential to hold those responsible to account, seek justice for the victims and prevent such attacks from happening again.  The Security Council has a responsibility to protect the international non-proliferation regime, which underpins the world’s collective security, and the use of a weapon of mass destruction by anyone and anywhere, under any circumstances, is not and cannot become acceptable.

The representative of Niger, Council President for September, spoke in his national capacity to call on Syria — and all other actors in the conflict — to cooperate in good faith with OPCW investigation teams.  The composition of any such team — and the investigations themselves — must be inclusive to ensure that the findings are not contested.  Indeed, the lack of consensus on how to deal with the issue of chemical weapons use in Syria hinders accountability by the real perpetrators and leaves victims with no recourse.  Differences within the Council must give way to a “calm and technical” analysis of the investigation results, so as to guarantee the integrity of OPCW reports.  Continued engagement between the OPCW Secretariat and Damascus will help to resolve issues around the initial declaration, he said, adding that claims that terrorist groups possess chemicals and are preparing to mount an attack under a “false flag” should not be overlooked.

Turkey’s representative said 21 August marked the seventh anniversary of the Ghouta sarin attack by the Assad regime, another crime against humanity, whose perpetrators are yet to be held accountable.  Recalling that the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism confirmed Syria’s use of toxic substances in Talmenes in 2014, Sarmin and Qmenas in 2015 and Khan Shaykhun in 2017, he strongly condemned these acts and said Turkey will hold Damascus accountable.  Turkey looks forward to the conclusion of investigations by the fact-finding mission and the Investigation and Identification Team on other cases, pointing to discrepancies stemming from Syria’s initial declaration.  The pandemic is no excuse for the delay in addressing this problem.  Syria’s regime says it has no chemical weapon stockpiles.  It must be forced to cooperate with OPCW on a results-oriented basis.  The decision taken at the ninety-fourth Executive Council sets clear parameters for action that the regime must take.  “If we fail to act urgently and decisively, there is no guarantee that the regime will not use chemical weapons again,” he warned, pressing parties with influence on Syria to uphold their responsibility in this regard.

Also participating in the meeting were representatives of Belgium, Germany, Tunisia and Syria.


* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.