Second Briefer Excluded as Procedural Vote Fails to Win Support of Most Members
Despite some of its work remaining curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is pressing forward with efforts to verify the destruction of Syria’s stockpiles and production facilities, the senior United Nations disarmament official told the Security Council today, as members diverged sharply over procedural matters.
Izumi Nakamitsu, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said that, since she last briefed the Council, her Office has maintained regular contact with OPCW and has not received any further information from the Syrian authorities on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013) — which first mandated the scheduled destruction of the country’s chemical weapons programme. COVID-19 continues to impact the organization’s ability to deploy to Syria, but its staff continues its technical work, including a new deployment by the Declaration Assessment Team to Damascus. She noted that Syria recently relayed more information about its initial declaration, adding two amendments.
Outlining other elements of OPCW’s recent work, she said that, on 2 October, it issued reports related to its investigation of alleged toxic substance use in Aleppo in 2018, and in Saraqib in 2016. Investigations also continue into incidents where the organization’s fact‑finding mission has decided that chemical weapons were used or likely used. It is still awaiting a reply from Syria in response to its offer to assist the country in fulfilling its obligations within the mandated period of 90 days. Underlining the urgent need not only to identify but to hold accountable all those who have used chemical weapons, she urged the Council to demonstrate leadership in that arena.
Prior to Ms. Nakamitsu’s briefing, the representative of the United Kingdom, speaking for a group of delegations, objected to a proposal by the Russian Federation, Council President for October, to invite former OPCW Director-General José Bustani to serve as a second briefer on the grounds that Mr. Bustani stepped down from the organization in 2002 and is therefore not relevant to today’s discussion. He urged the Council to be cautious about any briefers that will only serve to politized its discussions and distract from the real issues. A procedural vote was held and members rejected Mr. Bustani’s participation with 6 votes against (Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, United Kingdom, United States) to 3 in favour (China, Russian Federation, South Africa), with 6 abstentions (Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia, Viet Nam)
During the meeting, Council members explained their positions on that matter, as well as on the broader issue of Syria’s chemical weapons programme. Several said they were worried that a number of issues related to the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013) remain outstanding, while others raised concerns about OPCW’s impartiality. Still other speakers sounded alarms over the Council’s disunity on such a critical issue, calling for an end to politicization and infighting.
Estonia’s representative, highlighting lingering questions about Damascus’ compliance, said that, after six years, “we still lack the assurance that Syria has declared and destroyed all of its chemical weapons and their production facilities”. Indeed, the Syrian regime's non-compliance with its international obligations continues to pose a threat to the population and to international peace and security. Noting that the Council has an obligation to act amid such circumstances, he said the organ now faces another challenge — a systematic and targeted disinformation campaign to discredit and undermine OPCW and its investigative mechanisms.
The representative of the United States said that, while her country wants open discussions in the Council, that was not the goal in inviting the former OPCW director-general to brief. OPCW, through its impartial investigations, reports continued non-compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, as well as Syria’s disregard for human life and humanitarian concerns. The Council must not stay silent, she said, calling upon the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to come into compliance with the Convention and avert further tragedies.
South Africa’s representative underlined his delegation’s support for multilateralism and international norms against the use of weapons of mass destruction — including chemical weapons. As the alleged use of such weapons is a very serious matter, it is imperative that all parties are able to maintain full confidence in OPCW as the only competent authority to investigate them. “External interference in its work must not be tolerated,” he stressed, advocating for a more holistic, impartial approach to the issue.
However, the representative of the Russian Federation said today’s events show that Western countries only want to hear confirmations of their allegations and not the truth. He read out the statement that would have been presented by former OPCW Director-General José Bustani, had the Council not voted to reject his briefing. Speaking in his national capacity, he warned that OPCW is becoming a conduit for certain countries’ interests. Noting that Syria’s chemical weapons cannot be accounted for today because they have been destroyed and simply do not exist, he expressed concern that the Syrian Government’s accounts of chemical weapons use by opposition groups has been repeatedly dismissed.
China’s representative also expressed regret over the results of the procedural vote, describing the views expressed by the representative of the United Kingdom and others as an example of bare-boned hypocrisy. Calling on members to show more consistency in their positions — as well as more inclusiveness and openness regarding briefers — he welcomed Syria’s continued cooperation with OPCW, while underlining his hope that full, fair and impartial investigations will be undertaken based on established facts. In that vein, he cautioned against jumping to any conclusions when sufficient evidence does not exist, and when there is a plethora of doubts.
Syria’s representative said his delegation has nothing to hide before the Council. Citing a high degree of politicization on the part of some States — the same ones that support terrorists in his country and impose sanctions — he said they do not want to admit that Syria has fully abided by its commitments. OPCW, which received the Nobel Peace Prize for its work, has now become a mere tool for those Governments. He pointed out that, in the cases of Iraq and Libya, similar lies permitted States to “bury truths in the United Nations cellars”, only to be opened and understood many years later. Countries should raise their voices against OPCW’s politicization and the organization itself should stand firm against outside interference, he stressed.
Also speaking were representatives of Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Germany, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Dominican Republic, Belgium, Tunisia, France, Turkey and Iran.
The meeting began at 3:10 p.m. and ended at 5:45 p.m.
At the meeting’s outset, JONATHAN GUY ALLEN (United Kingdom), also speaking on behalf of several other delegations, voiced an objection to the invitation of José Bustani, former Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to brief the Security Council. Emphasizing that the purpose of the meeting is to review the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013), he said the briefers should be relevant to that topic, which is not the case with Mr. Bustani, due to his departure from OPCW many years ago. Against that backdrop, he requested a procedural vote on the briefer’s participation.
GENG SHUANG (China) pointed out that Mr. Bustani’s experience and insights into the work of OPCW makes him well-suited to serve as a briefer at today’s meeting. Many briefers with similar profiles have addressed the Council in the past and not been blocked. Expressing regret that such an action is being attempted today, he stressed that some delegations simply do not wish to listen to differing points of view.
NICOLAS DE RIVIERE (France) said that each month, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs briefs the Council in a standing meeting on the Syria chemical weapons issue. Arria formula meetings are also sometimes arranged with other guests present, as was done several days ago. He expressed support for the objection raised by the United Kingdom’s representative, underlining the need to adhere to the Council’s standard format and adding that any deviation should be voted upon.
CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany) reminded members that a similar situation occurred in 2018, when the representative of the Netherlands — then President of the Council — wished to invite the High Representative for Human Rights to serve as a briefer. However, a procedural vote was taken and that invitation was rejected. The same type of vote should take place now, he said.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), Council President for October, emphasized that rejecting briefers through a procedural vote has happened only very rarely in the organ’s history. Disagreeing with that tactic, he nevertheless said he will succumb to the wishes of those delegations calling for a vote.
The Council then rejected Mr. Bustani’s invitation to brief, by a vote of 6 against (Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, United Kingdom, United States) to 3 in favour (China, Russian Federation, South Africa), with 6 abstentions (Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia, Viet Nam).
IZUMI NAKAMITSU, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said that, since she last briefed the Council, her Office has maintained regular contact with OPCW on its various activities and has not received any further information from the Syrian delegation related to the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013). The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the Organization’s ability to deploy to Syria, but its staff continues all mandated technical activities. That includes a new deployment by the Declaration Assessment Team to Damascus. In response to a letter sent by OPCW on 21 April, Syria provided information about eight outstanding issues related to its initial declaration.
She recalled that, during its October 2019 deployment, the Declaration Assessment Team collected samples related to the initial declaration, which were subsequently observed to be experiencing degradation. Actions were taken to seal and preserve the samples, and a representative of Syria visited the laboratory to observe the seals. The OPCW technical secretariat is now planning technical observations of Syria Scientific and Research Centre, but those inspections remain subject to the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic. The OPCW technical secretariat continues to engage with the Syrian authorities on a range of matters, and its fact-finding mission is still in the process of studying allegations of chemical weapons use in several incidents. On 2 October, it issued two reports related to its investigation of alleged toxic substance use in Aleppo in 2018, and in Saraqib in 2016.
Meanwhile, investigations also continue into incidents where the fact‑finding mission has decided that chemical weapons were used or likely used, she continued. Reports on those will be issued in due course. A response has yet to be received from Syria in response to a July letter from OPCW, offering to assist the country in fulfilling its obligations outlined in the Executive Council’s decisions. Reiterating the urgent need not only to identify but to hold accountable all those who have used chemical weapons in violation of international law, she underscored that it is imperative that the Security Council show leadership in that regard.
Mr. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), speaking his national capacity, said that today’s events showed how Western countries only want to hear confirmations of their allegations and not the truth. He then read the statement that would have been presented by Mr. Bustani, who said he was removed from the directorship of OPCW because he was trying to uphold the Chemical Weapons Convention with the even-handedness it required.
He quoted Mr. Bustani as saying that serious questions are now being raised about compromise of OPCW’S work, particularly as regards the Douma allegations. Mr. Bustani was so disturbed about appearance of bias in that work that he joined a panel on the issue and made a statement urging the restoration of transparency and impartiality in order to regain public trust. Almost one year later, OPCW has not responded to requests by eminent people to address such concerns. The work of OPCW must be transparent for it to be trusted as a watchdog for chemical weapons, a trust that is now waning. As individual inspectors are among the most important staff members, they should be able to express their concerns over possible irregular behaviour. Citing Mr. Bustani, he said that their varied views have not been listened to.
He then continued in his national capacity, saying that OPCW is becoming a conduit for certain countries’ interests. The objective of today’s meeting was to bring the issue out of the impasse, through an objective conversation. Following a recent Arria formula meeting, much new information was brought out. Western colleagues, however, rejected that information out of hand. A critical mass of questions over “chicanery” that seems to have occurred, including possible forgeries in the reports on Douma and other incidents, showed that there was no need for even the hypothetical use of chemical weapons by the Syrian national forces.
Syria’s chemical weapons cannot be accounted for because they have been destroyed and simply don’t exist, he continued. All material requested had been produced by the Government. Accounts of chemical weapons use by the opposition groups had been dismissed. The declarations process has also revealed a biased approach on the part of the Executive Council, which is becoming a pure tool of the West in its desire to suppress certain countries. The allegations regarding Alexander Novalny follow the same problem. His country has met requests on that issue because it has nothing to hide. It also wants to restore the good name of OPCW. His country supports impartial investigations by not machinations and lies.
KELLY CRAFT (United States) said that, while her country wants open discussions in the Council, that was not what was involved in the invitation to the former OPCW director. The Arria formula meeting was nothing but an attack on OPCW and a blatant attempt to shield the Assad regime, which has continued to attack its own people with chemical weapons, causing horrific suffering. OPCW, through its impartial investigations reports continued non-compliance with the Convention and Syria’s disregard for human life and humanitarian concerns. The latest timeline for response will expire in two days; she called on Syria to cooperate. Condemning any use of chemical weapons in the strongest possible terms, she said that the members of the Council must not remain silent and called on the Assad regime to come into compliance with the Convention as quickly as possible to avert further tragedies.
ABDOU ABARRY (Niger) expressed regret that the Council’s work on the current agenda item has not yielded any accountability. More so, a lack of consensus remains among Council members on which types of weapons were used in Syria and by whom. The discourse this afternoon attests to this, he said, describing the use of any chemical weapons by anyone as categorically unacceptable. Also rejecting any politization of the issue, he warned against attempts to misuse the expert report. Differences of opinion among Council members should give way to a technical analysis to preserve the integrity of OPCW and the makeup of any investigative team should be inclusive. Calling on the Council to overcome doubts and divergences, he described allegations that armed terrorist groups possess chemical weapons, stressing that this threat must not be overlooked. He added that full respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity remains fundamental.
Mr. ALLEN (United Kingdom) said the representative of the Russian Federation, in his conduct as President today, showed contempt for the Council by choosing to ignore its clear procedural vote. The discussion should focus on the topic at hand. Any briefers should be relevant to the matter. He recalled that, when the Russian Federation proposed briefers in 2019 during a special discrete event, they were permitted to do so, even though many Council members were less than enthusiastic about their participation. However, today’s meeting is a monthly one on a highly sensitive topic. The Council should be cautious about any briefers that will only serve to politized its discussions and distract from the real issues, he warned, adding that while Mr. Bustani is an accomplished diplomat, he had left OPCW long ago, thus rendering his input irrelevant to today’s discussion.
Turning to the topic at hand, he recalled that Syria provided two additional amendments to its initial declaration to the Declaration Assessment Team, indicating that its initial statement was inaccurate. Encouraging Damascus to continue to cooperate closely with OPCW, he said that, until all outstanding issues are resolved, the Council cannot be sure of the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme. Chemical weapons have been found to be used on at least seven occasions since 2013. He welcomed the robust and proportional decision of the Executive Council, which gave Syria 90 days to come into compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. He also welcomed the OPCW fact-finding mission which did not jump to hasty conclusions, but, instead, carried out thorough investigations of various specific incidents. He urged all the parties to cooperate with the fact-finding mission in good faith.
Mr. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), clarifying the requests for a vote on the briefing, said that the United Kingdom’s representative should be content that the vote was put forward in the way he requested.
INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) affirmed her country’s position condemning all use of chemical weapons and holding all violators of the Chemical Weapons Convention accountable. However, investigations must be impartial. For progress to be made, trust, unity and dialogue to prevent divisiveness are critical. She commended the determination of OPCW to conduct its investigations as quickly and thoroughly as possible under the restraints posed by COVID-19. She also welcomed recent agreements, stating that she looked for further substantive discussions. Science must be applied to preserve the norm against the use of reprehensible forms of warfare.
Mr. HEUSGEN (Germany) asked the representative of the Russian Federation to clarify who was bringing shame on the Security Council — the 12 Council members who rejected today’s speaker or China and the Russian Federation for preventing descriptions of humanitarian suffering in Syria and accountability for crimes committed by the Assad regime that caused such suffering.
HO THE NAM PHAN (Viet Nam), reiterating his support for OPCW, said the organization and its mechanisms must also strictly abide by the Convention. Investigations into any possible use of chemical weapons are to establish facts, determine possible violations and deter future ones. Therefore, investigations need to be comprehensive, objective, impartial and non-politicized. Further cooperation between OPCW and Syria should be a matter of priority. Taking note of steps taken by the Syrian Government in addressing the outstanding issues relating to its initial declaration, he said that declaration was a first step towards implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention and more must now be taken. Calling for unity among Council members on the matter, he underlined the need for a more constructive, impartial and non-politicized approach to pave the way for future progress.
Mr. GENG (China) expressed regret over the results of the procedural vote, describing the views expressed by the representative of the United Kingdom and others as an example of bare-boned hypocrisy. The representative of the Russian Federation, as Council President, has the authority on whom to invite to brief the Council. Calling on members to show more consistency in their positions — as well as more inclusiveness and openness regarding briefers — he said the representative of Germany barely touched on the chemical weapons issue in his statement and only used the Council as a platform to express his grievances. Turning to the meeting’s topic, he welcomed Syria’s cooperation with OPCW, as well as the recent extension of the tripartite agreement for six more months. Acknowledging Syria’s concerns over the degradation of collected samples, he underlined his hope that full, fair and impartial investigations will be undertaken based on established facts — not on biased interpretations. He also warned against jumping to any conclusions when sufficient evidence does not exist, and when there is a plethora of doubts.
DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia), voicing regret for the need to take a procedural vote today, said that there should have been previous discussion among Council members on the issue. That said, it is critical to have a variety of views presented; the most important thing is the substance of the issue. He added that the Council needs to support the efforts of OPCW and the Government to close the dossier. After seven years, more progress needs to be made. Aside from the technical aspects, concrete steps and constructive work is needed in the diplomatic arena. It is crucial for all investigations to be comprehensive and impartial. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, it is also necessary to ensure the health of staff on the ground, he said, adding that he condemned any use of chemical weapons in any situation.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) called for Council members to take a few deep breaths and strive to regain unity in order to make progress on the Syrian chemical weapons issue. He voiced his full support for the activities of OPCW, stressing the importance of Syria’s cooperation in line with resolution 2118 (2013). In that light, he welcomed recent exchanges of information between the Government and OPCW. He also encouraged Syria to obtain the assistance of OPCW’S secretariat in order to meet its concerns. The international community must ensure accountability for any chemical-weapons use. The unity of the Council is critical for that effort. The Syrian people have been suffering many serious violations of human rights, including the horrific results of chemical weapons. It is worth smoothing over Council members’ difference so that not one more person falls victim to such heinous crimes.
MARTHINUS VAN SCHALKWYK (South Africa) said that, because his delegation would be the last to stifle any view that might be relevant to the Council’s work, he could not object to Mr. Bustani’s participation today. Expressing his support for multilateralism and for international norms against the use of weapons of mass destruction — including chemical weapons — he reiterated his country’s long‑standing position against the use of the latter by any actor, under any circumstances. The alleged use of such weapons by a State is a very serious matter. Therefore, it is imperative that all parties are able to maintain full confidence in the work of OPCW as the only competent authority to investigate such allegations. “External interference in its work must not be tolerated,” he stressed, vowing to continue supporting a holistic, impartial approach to the issue. The only sustainable solution to the conflict in Syria is a political one, negotiated through a Syrian‑led dialogue which reflects the will of the Syrian people, he said.
KAREN VAN VLIERBERGE (Belgium) said her delegation did not vote in favour of Mr. Bustani serving as a briefer as he lacks the required experience to address the subject on the Council’s agenda today. Indeed, it would have made more sense to invite the current OPCW head — or members of the investigations teams — rather than Mr. Bustani. The Syrian authorities should provide explanations of inaccuracies in their initial declaration, which may leave open the possibility that non-State actors could gain access to chemical weapons. They should also immediately provide free and unhindered access to OPCW staff. Justice is required to prevent a repetition of chemical weapons use in the future — an act that would constitute a war crime regardless of whether it occurred in an international or a national conflict. In addition, she stressed, the Council should not accept any misinformation campaigns waged by certain States.
ADEL BEN LAGHA (Tunisia), expressing his regret for the need to hold a procedural vote today, urged greater efforts to reach consensus in the Council. Affirming that his country unreservedly condemned any use of chemical weapons, as well as its support for the activities of OPCW, he welcomed cooperation between the Syrian Government and that organization. He urged further dialogue between Syria and OPCW, and comprehensive, impartial and transparent investigations into any incident in which chemical weapons are alleged to have been used. Allegations of the use of such weapons by terrorists must also be thoroughly be investigated. It is incumbent on the Council to work in unity to ensure the continuation of the non-proliferation regime and to close the dossier on Syria. He added that ending the crisis in Syria must be accomplished by a Syrian-led process that respects the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Mr. DE RIVIERE (France) stressed that, while closing the dossier on Syria and chemical weapons remained a priority for his country, it is by no means near that point at this time. The Syrian Government has not kept its word to become transparent about its chemical stockpiles. If the regime has nothing to hide, why is it withholding information, he asked. He added that it is unacceptable to denigrate OPCW; the use of chemical weapons is a crime that threatens all of humanity. There cannot be impunity where that kind of crime is involved. Restoring the credibility to the chemical weapons regime is also critical to ending the crisis in Syria. Regarding Mr. Bustani, he said the mask is now off in regard to his appearance at the Arria formula meeting.
GERT AUVAART (Estonia) expressed support for the United Kingdom’s position on today’s procedural vote, while noting that once again outstanding issues related to Syria's chemical weapons declaration remain unresolved. “This means that after six years, we still lack the assurance that Syria has declared and destroyed all of its chemical weapons and their production facilities,” he said, adding that it is unknown if new attacks are going to occur. In fact, the risk remains high and the Syrian regime's non-compliance with its international obligations continues to pose a threat to the Syrian people and to international peace and security. Noting that the Council has an obligation to act amid such circumstances, he said the organ now faces another challenge – namely, a systematic and targeted disinformation campaign to discredit and undermine the OPCW technical secretariat and its investigative mechanisms. He also noted that it is regrettable the Russian Federation is making the effort to steer focus away from accountability measures, as was the case in the recent Arria formula meeting. Asking who benefits from such misinformation, he said the answer is clear: Those who seek to cover up their crimes and those of their allies.
Mr. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) took the floor briefly in response to several statements directed at him. Speaking in his presidential capacity, he rejected the accusation by France’s delegate that he has exceeded his authority as Council President. In his national capacity, he said that delegation’s refusal to hear the briefer reveals fears of hearing the truth. Turning to the representative of Estonia, he said he would be very happy to meet with the current head of OPCW, and hopes to do so next month.
BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) said his delegation has nothing to hide before the Council. Recalling the Arria formula meeting recently convened on the matter, he said the event revealed the high level of politicization on the part of some Governments that seek to use OPCW reports against Syria. Those same States — which support terrorists in his country and continue to impose sanctions that suffocate the population — do not want to hear the truth. They refuse to recognize the facts, corroborated by Sigrid Kaag in her 2014 report, that Syria has fully abided by its commitment to destroy its chemical weapons production facilities. Syria has sent over 200 letters to the United Nations, containing detailed lists of parties that continue to send chemical and other weapons into the country.
Stressing that some countries seek to exploit misinformation, he said OPCW — which received the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to rid Syria of chemical weapons — has become a mere tool for those Governments. Casting doubt over OPCW’s laboratory work, he recalled that similar lies have previously been permitted to “bury truths in the United Nations cellars” in such situations as Iraq and Libya, only to be opened and understood many years later. Countries should raise their voices against OPCW’s politicization and the organization itself should stand firm against outside interference. Syria has not, and will not, use chemical weapons. His Government continues to submit reports to the OPCW technical secretariat and engage with it through the tripartite agreement, even going so far as to extend its terms for another six months.
FERIDUN HADI SINIRLIOĞLU (Turkey) said it was high time to ensure accountability for Syria’s crimes, which is well-documented. Such accountability was critical in order to prevent the country from using such weapons again. Affirming confidence in OPCW, he stressed that the organization’s efforts need to be fully supported and not hindered. Any use of chemical weapons must be seen as a crime against humanity. Recounting previous investigations of allegations and the resulting reports that indicate Syrian responsibility for chemical attacks, he called for coordination between all investigating bodies active on the Syrian crisis. The Council must strongly urge the Syrian regime to fulfil its obligations, including meeting the latest 90-day deadline. The Council cannot continue to shirk its responsibility to help end the suffering of the Syrian people.
MAJID TAKHT RAVANCHI (Iran) said that, as a major victim of chemical weapons, the Iranian Government continued to call for an end to their use and their eradication. Supporting comprehensive investigations into any allegations of attacks with those weapons, he cautioned, however, that such investigations must be impartial and avoid the taint of politics. Syria has cooperated with OPCW. Rejection of that fact has divided the Council and weakened the efficacy of OPCW. Politically motivated activity must stop, in order to reverse that situation.