11 December 2020

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Declaration Cannot Be Considered Accurate, Complete, Director-General Tells Security Council

Syria’s initial declaration of chemical weapons on its territory cannot be considered accurate and complete, the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said during a Security Council videoconference meeting on 11 December, while Damascus and its allies insisted that those stockpiles had been confirmed all destroyed by 2014.

“To date, considering the gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved, the declaration submitted by Syria still cannot be considered accurate and complete,” said OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias during the regular monthly briefing on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013), which called for the full implementation of the Organisation’s 27 September 2013 decision containing special procedures for the expeditious and verifiable destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.

He reported that the twenty-third round of consultations between the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team and Syria took place in Damascus, from 22 September to 3 October.  The Team collected samples, verified the destruction of items previously observed as undestroyed, and discussed the current status of all outstanding issues.

During a recent round of consultations, 3 issues related to the initial declaration were closed, while 19 issues remained outstanding, he continued.  One of them pertains to a chemical weapons production facility declared by Syria’s national authority as “never having been used for the production of chemical weapons”.  The review of all the information and other materials gathered by the Declaration Assessment Team since 2014, including samples, indicates that production and/or weaponization of chemical warfare nerve agents took place at this facility.  The OPCW Technical Secretariat therefore requested Syria to declare the exact types and quantities of chemical agents produced and/or weaponized at the site in question, in line with the relevant provisions of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and of Their Destruction.

He said that the Technical Secretariat released the first report of the Investigation and Identification Team on 8 April.  The report concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that individuals belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force used chemical weapons in Ltamenah on three occasions in March 2017.  Sarin was used twice and chlorine in one of the attacks.  Following the issuance of the Team’s report, the OPCW Executive Council adopted a decision in July, requesting Syria to declare, within 90 days, the chemical weapons used in the attacks in Ltamenah.

Under that decision, he said Damascus was also requested to declare all the chemical weapons it currently possesses, and to resolve all outstanding issues regarding its initial declaration.  On 14 October, he reported to the Executive Council and to all States Parties, that Syria has not completed any of the requirements mentioned, he said.  A draft decision has been put forward by France, on behalf of 46 States parties, to address this issue further.

Aside from the Syria-related work, Mr. Arias said, the Technical Secretariat was called upon to assist with an incident involving chemical weapons use.  On 20 August, a Russian Federation citizen and political activist, Alexei Navalny, fell seriously ill while travelling by plane in his country.  Two days later, Mr. Navalny was brought to Germany for medical treatment.  In September, the Technical Secretariat conducted a visit in response to a request from Germany.  During the visit, a team of experts directly collected biomedical samples from Mr. Navalny, with his consent, for analysis by OPCW-designated laboratories.  The results confirmed that traces of a toxic chemical of the Novichok family was found in Mr. Navalny’s blood.  On 6 October, his organization received a request from the Russian Federation for a technical assistance visit concerning the same incident.  The Technical Secretariat has since engaged with the Russian Federation to resolve the outstanding legal, technical and operational matters that are necessary for such a visit to take place.

Also addressing the Council was Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, who said that since her last briefing on 5 November, the Office for Disarmament Affairs has continued to maintain regular contact with OPCW counterparts on its activities.  On 2 December, the Office received information from Syria’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations concerning chemical issues for this period.  This information was studied carefully and forwarded to the OPCW Technical Secretariat.  “Let us renew our unequivocal commitment to the Chemical Weapons Convention and our support to OPCW,” she said.

Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact OPCW’s ability to deploy to Syria, she said that the Technical Secretariat has continued with its mandated activities while Declaration Assessment Team has also continued its efforts to clarify all outstanding issues with Syria’s initial declaration to OPCW.

In accordance with the Executive Council decision, the Technical Secretariat deployed to Syria between 15 and 18 November to conduct its final visit to the underground structures and to observe the removal of the monitoring equipment.  Syria was informed by the Technical Secretariat that the underground structures should remain sealed as part of the destruction plan agreed to by the Executive Council.

The OPCW fact-finding mission remains in the process of studying all available information related to allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria and continues its engagement with its Government and other States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention regarding “a variety of incidents”.

In the ensuing discussion, several Council members expressed their staunch support for OPCW and its work while other delegations argued that the organization has been used to impose the views of Western countries.

The Russian Federation’s representative reminded the Council members that Syria joined OPCW, made its initial declaration of chemical weapons stockpiles and subsequently got rid of them — a fact confirmed by OPCW on numerous occasions.  Such a development brought about hope that allegations of Damascus using chemical weapons against its own population have become a thing of the past.  Gradually, things changed, he said.  Western Council members consistently stepped up pressure on Damascus and made serious accusations against the Government mostly based on the video footage from social media and questionable accounts of witnesses on the ground relayed through abroad-based Syrian opposition and non-governmental organizations like “White Helmets”.  There is no doubt that OPCW plays an important role, but it is widely used by Western colleagues to support claims that Syria has used chemical weapons on several occasions.

There were several episodes where OPCW conclusions were seriously challenged not only by external experts, but also by those from inside the organization who participated in investigative activities, he said, urging the OPCW Director‑General to address the Council regularly.  Rejecting speculations and political smear campaigns, he went on to pose numerous questions to Mr. Arias as to why the recent report by the fact-finding mission on a 2018 incident in Aleppo claims that the available evidence, which clearly shows that the opposition is responsible for this attack, “is not enough” and why evidence provided by the notorious non-governmental organizations like the “White Helmets” for the cases in Douma and Khan Shaykhun was accepted by the OPCW Technical Secretariat.  He also pointed out that, instead of collecting samples onsite, the Technical Secretariat is carrying out investigations remotely, relying on the external information providers, as well as open sources, asking Mr. Arias whether he is taking any measures to bring those working methods into compliance with the Convention.

Citing claims by a former team leader of the Technical Secretariat that many States had issues with their initial declarations, but had never amounted to that level of criticism that Syria is faced with, he reported that this official described the organ’s approach as “Keep the file open” and “Keep pressure on”.  Also, the Technical Secretariat is attempting to turn a blind eye to the missing 200 tons of chemical weapons precursors in Libya while pressuring Syria to explain the “disappearance” of even tiny amounts of chemical substances, he added.  Though technical by nature, its conclusions have far-reaching political consequences that affect the daily lives of people.  The campaign led by the Western countries to push forward a decision of the Conference of States Parties to disqualify Syria in OPCW is another destabilizing step, and its implications may be very grave and irreversible, he declared.

The representative of the United States expressed its strong support for the leadership of OPCW and applauded the organization for the professional conduct of its work.  Although the COVID-19 pandemic has raised additional hurdles, it continues to carry out its work.  Washington, D.C., condemns the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, including the barbaric attacks against its own people, including women and children.  In its decision in July, the OPCW Executive Council requested Syria to take required measures, receiving support from with more than two thirds of State parties voting in favour.  Mr. Arias shared a report informing that Damascus failed to comply with the Executive Council decision.  The Security Council must not remain silent when such weapons are used.  Unfortunately, Syria’s friends continue to shield the country from responsibility, he said.  The United States, along with 45 co-sponsors with broad geographic representation, submitted a draft decision to the OPCW Conference of the States Parties in response to Syria’s brazen violation of its obligations under the Convention and its failure to fulfil the measures set forth in the July decision, he said, calling on all countries to support the draft and urging the Assad regime’s enablers, particularly the Russian Federation, to encourage Damascus to come clean about its chemical weapons use and current chemical weapons stocks.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines reiterated full support for OPCW, given the need to ensure that applied science is only used for the welfare of all humanity.  She also underscored the necessity for the organization’s work to be impartial in all areas.  Recognizing the efforts undertaken in Syria by the Government and OPCW despite the pandemic, she said it remained imperative that all gaps and inconsistencies be clarified through cooperation between the parties.  In that regard, the Security Council should give due attention to notifications by Damascus that armed groups operating in Syria are possibly preparing to use chemical weapons, in the interest of safeguarding civilians.  The use of chemical weapons must never be tolerated, she affirmed, as impunity will only embolden future action.

The representative of Belgium said that, over the two years her country has been on the Council, OPCW has performed its mandated activities openly and transparently in Syria, but the Government has not complied with its obligations.  There is no excuse for this, she stressed.  The confirmation of the use of chemical weapons laid bare a pattern in Syria’s conduct of this during the conflict.  Syria is not complying with Council resolutions and remains a threat to international peace and security and the 15-member organ cannot avoid that fact.  Her country will always seek consensus and understanding, but it will also uphold its values and obligations.  False conspiracy theories have polarized the Council and threatened its legitimacy.  Calling for an end to impunity in the use of chemical weapons anywhere, she urged all countries to accede to the Rome Statute and its amendment that makes the use of chemical weapons in both cross-border and domestic conflicts a war crime.  She lastly affirmed her country’s commitment to OPCW and its goals.

The representative of Tunisia stressed the importance of an organization based on multilateralism to end chemical weapons and their disastrous effects, adding that her country opposed their use anywhere under any circumstances.  The use of toxic chemicals threatens international peace and security, he said, commending OPCW for its important technical work in eliminating the chemical stockpile.  He looks forward to reconvening of the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention in the spring of 2021, which will review Syria’s treaty obligations.  Urging Damascus to resolve outstanding issues and observe its obligations according to the Convention, he said it must open itself to transparency and independent investigations.

The representative of France expressed support for OPCW, stressing its essential role due to the re-emergence and continued threat of such hazards.  The organization has been able to maintain its required air of impartiality and professionalism, he noted, publishing reports on the actions of the Syrian regime, which continues to ignore its cooperation obligations, stockpiling chemical weapons in contradiction to Security Council resolutions.  With Syria continuing to flout OPCW, France has submitted a draft decision to its Technical Secretariat to take necessary collective measures, which will be included in the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention in April 2021.

The representative of Niger, strongly condemning any use of chemical weapons, expressed support to OPCW for its work in that regard but also emphasized that all its investigative activities must be inclusive and transparent.  In that context, he urged the organization and the Government and Syria to continue to increase their cooperation to resolve all outstanding issues regarding the use and stockpiling of chemical weapons in Syria, and he welcomed recent meetings to that end.  He also affirmed the critical importance of addressing all terrorist threats in Syria and the region.

Germany’s representative, referring to reports that Russians had been hacking the headquarters of OPCW, said that the country was using intimidation in addition to its other efforts to undermine the organization and its investigations.  OPCW, however, remains effective in upholding the Chemical Weapons Convention.  However, after 86 progress reports, little progress has been made, as Syria continues to refuse to cooperate with fact-finding and investigative missions.  It has also continued to use chemical weapons against its people.  He urged the Council to perform its duty in upholding international law in this context.  His country, he pledged, will continue to support the organization’s essential attribution efforts, as impunity must not be tolerated.  For that reason, German investigative mechanisms have joined others in bolstering efforts to fill the gaps in knowledge of the situation.

Estonia’s representative said his delegation has full confidence in the technical expertise and independence of OPCW’s investigative mechanisms.  It is most regretful that there are countries deliberately working towards undermining OPCW and thereby risking weakening the international architecture against the use of chemical weapons.  “This is deeply concerning and unacceptable,” he said.  “We cannot allow the norm against the chemical weapons to erode and the use of these weapons to become a normality.”  The use of Novichok in 2018 against the Skripals, and against Russian Federation opposition politician Aleksei Navalny in 2020 are very concerning developments, he said, urging Moscow to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation and conclude with OPCW necessary agreements for the swift deployment of the technical assistance mission.

The Dominican Republic’s representative expressed his delegation’s unwavering commitment to non-proliferation and complete, irreversible destruction of chemical weapons.  Noting the closure of three outstanding issues related to Syria’s initial declaration to OPCW, he encouraged Damascus to continue technical consultations and cooperation with OPCW to resolve the remaining issues.  He strongly condemned the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances, as it constitutes a threat to international peace and security, a flagrant violation of international law and the Convention.  Efforts must be made to ensure that actions in total contempt for international law are not left in impunity, he said, reiterating his call for unity in this Council.

The representative of the United Kingdom, noting that Declaration Assessment Team and Damascus were able to close three outstanding issues related to Syria’s initial declaration, said this shows that, contrary to assertions that the outstanding issues are artificial, they are, in fact, eminently capable of resolution.  The report highlights evidence that indicates the production and/or weaponization of chemical warfare nerve agents at a production facility that the Syrian regime declared never to have been used for such production, she said. Given that the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism and the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team have established that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on at least seven occasions since 2013, it is undebatable that the situation represents an ongoing threat to international peace and security, she said.  Also welcoming the resolve shown by the OPCW Executive Council in adopting its July decision in response to the findings of the Team on the 2017 chemical weapons attacks in Ltamenah carried out by the Syrian Arab Air Force, she reiterated her delegation’s trust and confidence in the OPCW and its staff.

The representative of China stressed that any alleged use of chemical weapons should be investigated objectively and addressed based on facts, guided by the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Noting the Syrian Government’s readiness to maintain communication and cooperation with OPCW — as evidenced by the twenty‑third round of technical consultations — he called on all parties to encourage OPCW to take an objective view of these efforts and recognize this constructive attitude.  He also said that independent experts have pointed out contradictions in OPCW’s reports and that it should issue professional, convincing and science-based responses thereto.  As some have sought to weaponize OPCW to substitute voting for dialogue — resulting in deep divisions — he urged the Director-General to safeguard the Convention’s authority and integrity to counter unconstructive approaches and the politicization of the organization’s work.  He added an appeal to return to the tradition of consensus-based decision-making to protect the Convention and OPCW’s long-term interests.

The representative of Viet Nam said that there has been continued engagement between OPCW and Syria in past years.  After a period with little progress, he welcomed the fact that three outstanding issues related to the initial declaration were closed following the twenty-third round of consultations between Declaration Assessment Team and the Syrian National Authority.  It is Viet Nam’s hope that the two sides will be able to settle the remaining 19 issues in the most constructive spirit.  He called on all relevant parties to step up their efforts and enhance dialogue and cooperation in a constructive and non-politicized manner.  Regarding the matter of the alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria, Viet Nam shares the concerns of the international community and strongly believes that investigations into their possible use should focus on the goal of establishing irrefutable facts and evidence.

The representative of Indonesia said that the early resolution of all outstanding issues is needed, and that this is only possible with continued and enhanced cooperation between the OPCW Technical Secretariat and Syria, with necessary support from all relevant parties, including the Security Council.  Indonesia is pleased to note that three outstanding issues related to Syria’s initial declaration were closed during the recent round of consultations.  The Investigation and Identification Team is continuing its work and must function in a balanced, impartial and transparent manner, in accordance with the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Any divergences on this particular topic should be discussed in a comprehensive and constructive manner and must be free from any kind of politicization.  This also applies to the process of the OPCW fact-finding mission.

The representative of South Africa, President of the Security Council, speaking in his national capacity, said no cause can ever justify the use of chemical weapons.  Moreover, OPCW is the only technically competent international authority in the field.  States must have full faith and confidence in the organization’s work without external interference or manipulation of its work.  South Africa will continue to work for the depoliticization of the relevant management and decision-making structures established under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and also towards ensuring that States parties are held accountable for any violations of their obligations, based on credible, impartial and incontrovertible evidence.  As such, he encouraged Damascus to cooperate with OPCW in order for the international community to have confidence in the peaceful nature of Syria’s chemical activities.  Welcoming progress made by the Declaration Assessment Team during its recent visit to Syria, he looked forward to further progress on outstanding issues.  He also urged a political solution to the issue through an inclusive Syrian-led dialogue that is reflective of the will of its people with guaranteed protection for all groups.

The representative of Syria said that OPCW is being transformed from a technical organization with a noble cause to a politicized weapon of the United States that targets his country.  That threatens the organization’s future.  Since 2013, his county has asked the United Nations for help in identifying those who used chemical weapons in Syria in specific areas, but the Western nations blocked investigations because they knew which terrorists had brought them into his country.  It has been already certified that all of Syria’s chemical weapons have been destroyed.  In addition, his country has sent 210 letters with evidence on terrorists’ use of chemical weapons that have been ignored.  Instead, continuing accusations against Syria add to the lies promulgated by the United States to justify invading countries from Viet Nam to Iraq to Libya.  Syria has implemented all its obligations and cooperated fully with OPCW, as recognized by the organization’s Technical Secretariat already in 2014.  The country has not used chemical weapons, has welcomed many investigative teams, has submitted all required reports and has otherwise fully cooperated with the technical teams, as they have recognized.  Unfounded accusations continue nevertheless, even as intelligence has revealed information on terrorist activity exported from the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe to Syria.  He appealed to OPCW to urgently address the politicization that is undermining it.

Iran’s representative said his country has been the main victim of the large‑scale, most systematic and frequent use of chemical weapons during the eight-year war with Iraq.  “Such bitter experiences have taught us that no one should possess such inhumane weapons,” he said, stressing that the legal regime to prohibit their development and use must not allow any sort of politicization.  Warning against a group of Member States systematically abusing the processes of this Council and OPCW, he said they disregard the fact that the OPCW-United Nations joint mission confirmed that Damascus has fulfilled all its commitments and destroyed its entire chemical stockpiles.  They also overlook Syria’s commitment to continue to work with the Technical Secretariat to resolve all outstanding issues.  Their politically motivated approach continues to endanger the tradition of consensual decision-making in OPWC, with the organization’s programme and budget for 2021 adopted by voting.  A recent draft decision, proposed by a group of countries to remove a State from the Convention will set a dangerous precedent.

The representative of Turkey said the most recent OPCW report draws attention to outstanding chemical weapons issues in Syria, including the existence of a facility to produce them.  Stressing that Syria´s non-compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention cannot be condoned, she said this action requires a firm response from the international community, especially the Security Council.  OPCW’s decision in July was perfectly clear in instructing the regime to eliminate its chemical weapons within 90 days, which it failed to do.  She looked forward to seeing the results of OPCW’s current fact-finding mission, which plays a valuable role in identifying perpetrators.  Syria must be urged to supply results-oriented cooperation, ensuring implementation of the relevant Security Council resolution, and the international community must act decisively to honour the victims of chemical attacks.

For information media. Not an official record.