5 January 2021

Syria’s Initial Declaration on Chemical Weapons Stockpiles Not ‘Accurate and Complete’, Top Disarmament Official Tells Security Council

Western States ‘Blackmailing Damascus’, Representative Says, as Members Differ over Compliance with Resolution 2118 (2013)

Outstanding issues related to Syria’s initial declaration of its chemical weapons stockpile and programme still cannot be considered “accurate and complete”, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs told the Security Council today via video‑teleconference, during her regular monthly briefing on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013).

High Representative Izumi Nakamitsu said the assessment by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is due to “identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved”, in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.  The international community cannot yet have full confidence that Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been eliminated, she added.

The outcome of the seventh round of inspections by the OPCW Technical Secretariat at the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, she said, will be reported to the OPCW Executive Council in due course.  Syria has yet to provide sufficient technical explanations or information that would allow the Technical Secretariat to close the issue related to the finding of a Schedule 2 chemical detected at the Barzah facilities during the third round of inspections held in 2018.

Meanwhile, she continued, the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team is working to clarify all outstanding issues related to Syria’s initial declaration, recalling that the OPCW Director-General noted on 11 December 2020 that, while some progress was made during the last round of consultations with Syria’s National Authority, 19 issues remain outstanding.

One of them pertains to a chemical weapons production facility declared as never having been used for production, she continued.  However, a review of all materials gathered by the Declaration Assessment Team since 2014, including samples, indicates that production and/or weaponization of chemical warfare nerve agents took place there.  Syria also has yet to respond to a request by the Technical Secretariat to declare the exact types and quantities of chemical agents produced and/or weaponized at the site in question.

She said the OPCW fact-finding mission is studying all available information related to the use of chemical weapons in Syria and continues to engage with Damascus and other States parties to the Convention on “a variety of incidents”.  Similarly, the Investigation and Identification Team continues to investigate incidents in which the fact-finding mission determined use or likely use of weapons, and will issue further reports in due course.

Regarding inspections mandated by Executive Council decision EC-94/DEC.2 — “Addressing the Possession and Use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic” — she said the Technical Secretariat is monitoring the situation and will inform Syria when it is prepared to deploy for that purpose.

“It cannot be repeated often enough,” she emphasized.  “There is no justification for the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances.”  She underscored the imperative of holding accountable all those who have used chemical weapons, expressing hope that the Council will “unite on this issue”.

In the ensuing discussion, delegates differed over the impartiality and objectivity of the OPCW’s actions, and whether or not Syria had indeed cooperated fully with the watchdog.

The representative of the United States said that, while there is no disagreement that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, Council members are still fighting to uphold the century-old global norm to never use them again.  Citing the Council’s obligation to uphold its commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention and its own resolution 2118 (2013) to hold Syria accountable, he said that, in the seven years since Syria’s accession to the Convention, it has failed to fulfil its obligations and sought to make a mockery of the structures in place to create a world free of chemical weapons.  The Council is obliged to ensure that there are serious consequences for those who use or have used these arms, he emphasized, declaring:  “We cannot remain silent.”

He went on to condemn in the strongest terms the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, often in civilian areas, stressing that it is not a matter of opinion.  “It is a matter of fact, confirmed by the OPCW,” and it is incumbent upon the Council to hold Syria accountable under resolution 2118 (2013), he said, expressing support for all efforts towards accountability, which are long overdue to bring justice to the regime’s victims.  Accountability is also a confidence‑building measure as part of the broad political process called for in resolution 2254 (2015).  The United States firmly supports the impartial and independent work of OPCW, he said, applauding its leadership and Technical Secretariat for the credible, objective and professional manner in which it carries out its mission, he added.

In response to the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team findings of Syria’s chemical weapons use, he recalled, the OPCW Executive Council adopted a decision in July 2020 requesting that Syria take measures to redress the situation.  In October and December 2020, the OPCW Director-General informed that Syria failed to complete any of the measures set forth in the July 2020 decision, he noted.  “The world is still waiting for Syria to complete these measures,” he stressed, calling upon OPCW to take appropriate action when it reconvenes later in the year and to send a strong message to Syria about the consequences of violating the Convention.

Recalling that the United States and 45 others submitted a draft decision at the Conference of States Parties in response to Syria’s failure to fulfil the measures requested, he declared:  “We, as the Council, must call on all countries to support this decision,” aiming to promote accountability for the Assad regime’s actions.  The Russian Federation is carrying out an accelerated public campaign to discredit OPCW, he said, stressing that “the world is not fooled”.  What is true is that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people, and OPCW demonstrated that credibly and objectively, corroborating information offered by non-governmental groups, he said.  The Russian Federation should encourage Syria to “come clean” about its use of chemical weapons and its current stocks, he said.  “It is time for the Assad regime to uphold its commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

The representative of the Russian Federation welcomed the absence of opposition among Council members to holding today’s meeting on the Syria chemical weapons dossier, while underscoring his delegation’s approach to transparency and facts.  Recalling remarks by independent experts during an Arria-formula meeting in September 2020 and a closed briefing by former OPCW Director‑General in October 2020, he noted that their statements provided objective assessments.  The current Director‑General, however, finally addressing the Council in December 2020, repeated what was already known to all and avoided answering questions raised during the meeting, he said.  He should appear in the Council again to answer those questions.  He went on to state that Syria voluntarily joined OPCW at the Russian Federation’s suggestion and destroyed all its stocks of chemical weapons.

He recalled that, in 2014, the Syrian military’s chemical programme was completely closed, its chemical weapons stockpiles liquidated and chemical weapons production facilities destroyed, pointing out that OPCW has repeatedly confirmed that.  All these years, several States continue to use a “chemical card” to increase pressure on the Government of Syria.  Western countries have repeatedly put forward extremely serious accusations against Damascus, citing such inconclusive evidence as videos from social media and “testimonies” provided by knowingly biased witnesses from the anti-Government opposition or the notorious “White Helmets”.  Evidence to the contrary presented by Syria, the Russian Federation and some independent experts and organizations was ignored, he said, adding that the number of frauds, manipulations and internal violations within OPCW reached a critical mass by the beginning of 2021.

The most striking examples are egregious irregularities in the investigation of the incidents in Khan Shaykhun in April 2017 and Douma in April 2018, he continued.  Calling attention to the testimony of a former OPCW inspector that the conclusions about the use of chemical weapons in Douma were falsified under direct pressure from Western countries, he said the Investigation and Identification Team’s 2017 report about Ltamenah was the culmination of all bad-faith efforts by the Technical Secretariat.  The OPCW Executive Council’s decision in July 2020 to declare alleged remaining chemical weapons and related objects, which simply do not exist, imposed obviously impossible conditions on Syria.  Naturally, Syria cannot fulfil such an ultimatum, he emphasized, warning that Western colleagues are trying to initiate the process of denying Syria’s rights in OPCW.  He expressed hope that most delegations to the Conference of States Parties in April will refuse to participate in that attempt initiated by a group of Western countries.

Many countries have similar problems in their initial declarations, but for some, they were “minor flaws”, he said, noting that additional declarations of certain stocks happen all the time and are not extraordinary.  The United States regularly updates its declaration, joining the ranks of Canada, Belgium, France and Germany, he continued, pointing out that about 500 undeclared munitions were found in Libya in 2021.  In Iraq, the initial declaration was not confirmed at all, as it was done only on the basis of available United Nations documents, he noted.  Reiterating that Syria’s initial declaration is not exceptional, he called upon the OPCW Director‑General to explain why the Technical Secretariat openly resorts to the practice of double standards, “forgiving” minor flaws in one country while fanning accusations against others.  OPCW’s problem is broad and systemic in nature, he said, calling it a crisis of trust in what was once one of the most authoritative international organizations.  Unfortunately, it has turned into an instrument of political manipulation and punishment, he added, describing OPCW as seriously ill with politicization.

The representative of Estonia noted that, despite consistent, science-based evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own people on seven occasions, all attempts to take action have been blocked by the Russian Federation, which rejects OPCW reports.  He denounced as “a concerted disinformation campaign” claims that the OPCW Technical Secretariat exercises double standards, engages in political smear campaigns and falsifies reports.  Seven years and 87 reports after the passage of resolution 2118 (2013), there are 19 outstanding issues related to Syria’s initial declaration, he said.  Damascus has also ignored the July 2020 decision of the OPCW Executive Council, yet the Security Council, rather than condemn such behaviour, hears encouragements to non‑compliance.  He went on to decry the 2018 use of Novichok in the United Kingdom and in the Russian Federation in 2020 as threats to international peace and security, pressing the Council to uphold its resolutions, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the United Nations Charter.

The representative of Mexico described the Convention as an example of effective multilateralism, emphasizing that its States parties are obliged to demand compliance, including with decisions emanating from its governing bodies.  Mexico fully trusts the professionalism of OPCW and has collaborated with it, he said, noting that his country will assume the presidency of the twenty-fifth Conference of States Parties.  Mexico also trusts that Syria will clarify outstanding inaccuracies in its initial declaration and facilitate access for the fact-finding mission and the investigation team to carry out their work on the presumed use of chemical weapons, he added.  Mexico calls upon Member States not to let Syria’s chemical weapons issue polarize deliberations and decisions in other United Nations bodies, including the First Committee, he emphasized.

The representative of Ireland expressed regret that the Technical Secretariat has spared no effort over seven long years to assess Syria’s initial declaration, yet it is still not possible to assess that declaration as either accurate or complete.  Such problems are not a minor issue, she emphasized.  There have been 17 amendments to the declaration, including the addition of a production facility, four research and development centres, and a doubling of the amount of declared agents and chemicals, she noted.  The Joint Investigative Mechanism, and now the Investigation and Identification Team, have attributed responsibility for using chemical weapons in some instances to the Syrian authorities, she recalled.  In April, the Conference of States Parties to the Convention will meet in The Hague and will have to decide on the necessary course of action, she said, stressing that Dublin will support all measures available under the Convention to ensure Syria’s compliance, as well as the European Union’s chemical weapons sanctions regime.

The representative of Niger noted that, seven years after the adoption of resolution 2118 (2013), the elimination of Syria’s chemical stockpiles and accountability for its use of chemical weapons is struggling to find resolution due to the lack of agreement among the parties, the influence of external actors and management of the Syria chemical weapons dossier.  As such, Niger calls for “a true unity of purpose” to ensure the verifiable disposal of these chemical weapons, he said, emphasizing:  “This is essential.”  He went on to take note of Syria’s allegations that armed groups have brought material into the country that could be used for a chemical weapons attack “under a false flag”, underlining that “these reports should not be ignored” and calling upon OPCW to grant the attention those allegations require.

The representative of Viet Nam emphasized his country’s policy to categorically condemn the use of chemical weapons in any form, by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances or for any reason.  Investigations must be conducted into any alleged use to ensure implementation of the Convention, he said.  He called for continued cooperation between OPCW and Syria, encouraging both to step up their efforts.  Stressing the fundamental importance of that unity and cooperation in the Council and OPCW, he urged all sides to engage in a constructive and non-politicized manner, focusing on the common goal of full implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The representative of Norway, noting that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is well documented and confirmed by the former Joint Investigative Mechanism and the Investigation and Identification Team, recalled that Norway and Denmark, as part of the joint OPCW-United Nations mission, conducted a naval operation to ensure the transportation of chemical weapons and components out of Syria in 2014.  That was a contribution to the destruction of that country’s chemical weapons to prevent further atrocities against the civilian population, she said.  Norway has full confidence in OPCW and its Technical Secretariat, including the findings of the Investigation and Identification Team concerning the use of chemical weapons in Ltamenah, she added.  Oslo is co-sponsoring a draft decision of the Conference of States Parties to suspend certain rights and privileges of Syria under the Convention, she stated, emphasizing her delegation’s firm rejection of attempts to discredit or bring into disrepute OPCW and the work of the Technical Secretariat.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, reiterating her delegation’s position that any chemical weapons use constitutes a reprehensible violation of international law, emphasized that perpetrators of such atrocities must be held accountable.  She expressed support for efforts to strengthen OPCW’s capacity, and the need to ensure that both that agency and its subsidiary bodies are beyond reproach.  “The important work of the OPCW must therefore remain impartial, transparent and should never be politicized,” she stressed, adding that its findings must be able to withstand rigorous scrutiny.   Calling for consensus‑based decisions to prevent further polarization, she said the Council, meanwhile, should not overlook the Syrian Government’s many notifications regarding preparations by armed groups to use or stage chemical weapons attacks.

The representative of Kenya said that, from the ravages of terrorism to the politicization of counter-terrorism by multiple actors, as well numerous claims of chemical weapons use, Syria is both a victim and a symbol of a global order under immense strain from unilateralism, power politics and wars without limit.  As entrenched as the positions of the major parties to the conflict have been, however, it is still possible for the Council to pull together, he emphasized.  “The basis of renewing our appetite for collaboration is that it is in the interest of all members, permanent and elected, to show the world that the Security Council can still deliver in the most difficult circumstances.”  Such a fulfilment of its core mandate would lead to Council support for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned dialogue incorporating all actors committed to security and opposed to terrorist violence as a means to promote political aims, he added.

The representative of China said that alleged uses of chemical weapons must be investigated in an objective, transparent manner and on the basis of factual evidence.  Syria’s expressed willingness to cooperate with the Technical Secretariat deserves recognition by the Council, he said, emphasizing that the detailed reports presented to the Council by that country’s representative also deserve its full attention.  He went on to emphasize that Syria is a legitimate United Nations Member State, deserving of respect, warning Council members against calling that country’s Government a “regime”.  Stressing that investigations should not be unduly hasty, he urged OPCW to present complete evidence with no loose ends.  The Technical Secretariat’s work must be science-based, he said.  Noting the prevailing challenges and sharp divisions, he urged States parties to the Convention to avoid forced voting and requested that the OPCW Director‑General respond publicly to answer the questions raised.

The representative of India encouraged engagement and cooperation between Syria and the OPCW Technical Secretariat towards early resolution of all outstanding issues, noting that his country provided $1 million to the OPCW Trust Fund for activities relating to the destruction of chemical stockpiles in Syria.  Strongly condemning the use of chemical weapons, he called for an impartial, objective investigation into any alleged use in Syria, and expressed concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists, who have taken advantage of the decade-long conflict in the country.  “The world cannot afford to give these terrorists any sanctuary,” he emphasized.  Noting that India has consistently called for a comprehensive and peaceful resolution of the conflict through a Syrian-led dialogue, he said India remains supportive of both the Geneva and Astana processes for an expeditious resolution of the conflict.

The representative of France noted that no progress has been registered, yet simple gestures could be made and it is incumbent upon the Syrian regime to make them, firstly to shed light on its initial declaration.  Asking how it could be explained that 19 issues remain open seven years after resolution 2118 (2013), or that new questions “continue to add to the old ones”, he called for clarity around the production sites evidenced by OPCW.  The fact-finding mission, meanwhile, has evidence gathered in 2019, including witness statements and samples related to events in Douma, which it presented with clear conclusions.  He went on to recall that the first OPCW report stated that responsibility for three chemical weapons attacks in March 2017 falls to the regime, yet the authorities have taken no measures to come into compliance.  That is why France submitted to the OPCW secretariat a draft decision on behalf of 46 delegations in November 2020, to be forwarded to the Conference of Parties in April.  He went on to lament the “mendacious accusations of those trying discredit the OPCW”, emphasizing that “there is no conspiracy”.  There are simply facts, he said.  “The regime has used weapons of war banned under international law against its own population.”  The fight against impunity and against the use of chemical weapons remains the rationale behind France’s partnerships and actions, he added.

The representative of the United Kingdom expressed regret that, seven years in, Syria’s declaration can still not be considered “accurate and complete”.  Its unresolved issues — including the unaccounted-for whereabouts of thousands of munitions and hundreds of tons of chemical agents — are both serious and substantive, she said, also citing OPCW evidence that a facility previously declared by Syria as not having been used to produce chemical weapons, was indeed used to produce or weaponize chemical warfare nerve agents.  “The ongoing threat posed to international peace and security by these unresolved issues is not hypothetical,” especially for the thousands of Syrian civilians who have suffered the horrifying effects of such agents, she said, emphasizing that the recent closure of three unresolved issues demonstrates that, contrary to some assertions, resolution is possible if Syria chooses to engage genuinely and constructively.

The representative of Tunisia, Council President for January, spoke in his national capacity, emphasizing that those who used chemical weapons must be held accountable, whatever their justifications.  Expressing his delegation’s full support for the OPCW’s technical work, he highlighted the importance of constructive cooperation between Syria and that agency to resolve pending issues.  Tunisia looks forward to the Conference of States Parties in April, he said, emphasizing the need for the international community and the Council to work collectively and in solidarity to close the file.

The representative of Syria said Western Governments have attempted for years to use the chemical weapons file as a way to blackmail his country.  Recalling that resolution 2118 (2013) stipulates that all chemical weapons in Syria must be eliminated, he said the Head of the Joint Investigative Mechanism confirmed seven years ago that Damascus had implemented the resolution, pointing out that chemical material was destroyed aboard the United States vessel MV Cape Ray.  Citing seven years of cooperation with the [former] Joint Investigative Mechanism and the Declaration Assessment Team, he took issue with the word “outstanding”, saying that, if Syria were to close 18 of the 19 issues, 40 more would be opened.  “The aim is to keep this file open, to blackmail Syria,” he reiterated asserted.

Underlining his country’s strong commitment to disarmament and non‑proliferation, he pointed to its 1968 accession to the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare; its 1969 accession to the Treaty on the Non‑Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; and its 1972 signing of the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction.  “We did practise what we preached,” he emphasized.  Syria even tabled a resolution on the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, but the United States threatened to wield its veto in seeking to protect Israel’s arsenals, he recalled, noting that, as a result, the draft “remains in blue” in the Security Council archives.

He went on to condemn the use of chemical and other weapons of mass destruction, anywhere, at any time, by any party, under any circumstance, citing their use by terrorists and their sponsors in campaigns intended to demonize Syria.  He called attention to a letter (document S/2012/917) informing the Council and the Secretary-General about Al-Qaida operatives manufacturing chemical weapons near the Turkish city of Gaziantep and threatening to use them against Syrian civilians.  Damascus sent related footage from Turkish media to the bodies entrusted with implementing counter-terrorism resolutions and requested that the [former] United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) inspect and conduct an inventory of chlorine at a private laboratory east of Aleppo, he recalled.  However, that request it was not honoured, as terrorists opened fire on its members and took control of the lab.

Moreover, he continued, Syria sent a letter to then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about a March 2013 chemical missile attack in Khan al-Assal in Aleppo Governorate — on the day of the incident — and requested an investigation.  Instead, France and the United Kingdom sent their own joint letter, requesting an inquiry into chemical weapons incidents in Damascus and Homs.  Other Governments that sponsor terrorism followed suit, sending 44 letters, he said, adding that, rather than helping Syria, the file was politicized and used to cover up crimes by terrorist groups and their sponsors — actions that continue today.  He also described as a scandal the dispatch of an investigation team to Khan al-Assal in August 2013, five months after chemical weapons were used there, and its subsequent diversion to the Damascus countryside.  “This incident was never investigated,” he stressed, citing other events in Khan Shaykhun in 2017, and Douma in April 2018.  He went on to characterize OPCW as a tool for those opposed to Syria and whose reports lack objectivity.  Instead, the reports are based on information furnished by terrorists and their mouthpiece, the so-called White Helmets, as well as false witnesses.

He went on to underline that OPCW denied information provided by Syria and the Russian Federation on the 2018 events in Aleppo, he said, adding that despite inquiries into incidents in October 2017, 7 July 2017, 4 August 2017, 9 August 2017 and 8 November 2017, the fact-finding mission issued no reports.  Syria has proven scientifically that the allegations against it are false, having repeatedly presented testimonies by the former OPCW Director‑General, he said, pointing out that Western countries obstructed the latter’s attendance in the Security Council in October 2020.  The same month, Damascus sent its monthly report to OPCW on the destruction of production facilities, he said, adding that his country is ready to continue consultations with the OPCW Technical Secretariat and coordinate dialogue on closing all outstanding issues.  He went on to condemn actions intended to force OPCW to adopt the French-Western draft decision that falsely alleges Syria’s non-compliance with the Convention.  Any decision based on the decision emanating from the Executive Council’s ninety-fourth session would be one-sided, aimed at framing Damascus for the use of chemical weapons and exonerating the terrorists, he stressed, while renewing Syria’s call for OPCW to address its politicization and its own flaws in order to regain its credibility.

The representative of Turkey said his delegation has analysed the OPCW Director‑General’s eighty-seventh monthly report on Syria’s chemical weapons programme and its findings deepen its concerns regarding the outstanding issues in relation to the Assad regime’s initial declaration.  Of the 19 outstanding issues, one is particularly alarming, he said, emphasizing that a chemical weapons production facility obviously exists, in stark contradiction with the regime’s claim to the contrary.  This is yet further proof of the declaration’s fraudulent nature, he added, stressing that the regime must immediately declare the full extent of its chemical weapons programme.  The OPCW Executive Council’s decision of 9 July 2020 remains particularly important, he said, noting that it set clear and verifiable parameters for action and required the Syrian regime to return to full compliance with the Convention in 90 days.  Turkey co-sponsored that decision, he noted, adding that it is also co-sponsoring, alongside 45 other States parties, another draft decision, which will be considered during the second part of the twenty-fifth Conference of States Parties.  It is high time to take concrete action to ensure accountability in Syria, he said, declaring: “We have enough evidence for the culpability of the regime.”  He went on to underline the special responsibility of those with influence over the regime in that regard.  He added that he would not respond to statements by the speaker from Syria, saying the delegate is not the legitimate representative of that country and its people.

For information media. Not an official record.