As Security Council Hotly Debates New Report on Salisbury Nerve Agent Attack, Some Members Call for Action to Identify, Apprehend Perpetrators
A technical team deployed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the United Kingdom had identified toxic agents consistent with that Government’s initial investigation, said the United Nations top disarmament official in a briefing to the Security Council today.
Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, summarized new information about the 4 March incident in the city of Salisbury, which she had received from OPCW. Blood samples taken from the victims — including the Russian nationals Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia — and environmental samples from the site had confirmed the United Kingdom’s findings regarding the identity of the toxic chemicals. Adding that they had been found to be of “high purity”, she said the OPCW team’s blood sample tests, as well as its on-site sampling, had been conducted under full chain of custody.
Council members speaking after the short briefing universally condemned the use of chemical agents in targeted attacks. However, opinions diverged widely on the implications of the OPCW report with regard to the identity of the Salisbury incident’s perpetrators. Several delegates said the “high purity” finding meant that only a State-sponsored laboratory could have produced it, with some pointing to the Russian Federation as likely being involved. Others emphasized that OPCW had assigned no responsibility for the incident and cautioned against casting blame without concrete evidence.
The representative of the United Kingdom said the report had supported her Government’s own findings that a nerve agent had been identified, with the highest concentration located on the front door of Mr. Skripal’s home. While the United Kingdom had used the term “Novichok” to describe the nerve agent — which differed from the term used by the Russian Federation and OPCW — it was clear they were all talking about the same substance. The report had not identified the country nor the laboratory of origin, but only the Russian Federation had the means, technical experience and the motive to target the Skripals, she said.
Rejecting those allegations as “completely baseless”, the Russian Federation’s delegate emphasized that the OPCW report revealed that the toxic substances could have been produced in the Russian Federation, United States or a host of other countries. The United Kingdom had continued to use such words as “suspected”, “possible” and “may have” in all its statements about the Salisbury incident, he said, outlining various inconsistencies in its position. Describing today’s findings as a “red herring”, he said: “We will not step away from this.”
Joining other speakers in welcoming the transparent handling of the Salisbury incident, Sweden’s representative echoed the assessment that the Russian Federation was likely responsible for the attack. Expressing full confidence in the OPCW findings, he called on the Russian Federation to urgently answer all relevant questions the United Kingdom had posed.
Raising concerns that no perpetrators had been identified, Kazakhstan’s delegate said chemical weapons were rapidly becoming the Council’s Achilles heel. It was also becoming increasingly difficult to discuss the issue due to escalating tensions, divisions and even hateful rhetoric. Expressing regret that those weapons had not yet been eliminated completely, he urged all parties to exercise restraint and avoid taking action before establishing concrete proof of events on the ground. Moreover, the Council should not allow divergent positions on the issue of weapons of mass destruction to escalate any further.
Also speaking were the representatives of Bolivia, United States, France, China, Poland, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Netherlands, Kuwait and Peru.
The meeting began at 3:05 p.m. and ended at 4:39 p.m.
IZUMI NAKAMITSU, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, briefed the Council on new information about the 4 March incident in Salisbury, United Kingdom, which she had received from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Recalling that the Council had met following the hospitalization of three individuals who had allegedly been exposed to a toxic nerve agent, she said the United Kingdom had requested technical assistance from the OPCW technical secretariat under article 8 of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and of Their Destruction, known as the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Summarizing an OPCW technical assistance visit to the United Kingdom from 21 to 23 March, she said the team had received information on the medical conditions of the affected individuals and collected blood samples from them, under full chain of custody, for delivery to the OPCW laboratory for analysis. The team also had conducted on-site sampling of environmental samples, under full chain of custody, and received splits of samples taken by United Kingdom authorities for comparative purposes. The team had been briefed on the toxic chemical that had been identified by the United Kingdom and had reviewed analytical results and data from chemical analysis of biomedical samples collected by local authorities from affected individuals and environmental samples collected on site.
Since then, she said, OPCW had said results of its biomedical samples analysis had demonstrated exposure to toxic chemicals and environmental samples had also shown the presence of the toxic chemicals. Those results confirmed the United Kingdom’s findings regarding the identity of the toxic chemicals, and found that they had been of “high purity”. Based on the analyses’ results, the OPCW technical secretariat had prepared a report containing and elaborating on the information she had just shared and had been given to the United Kingdom on 12 April.
She said that, at a meeting today of the OPCW Executive Council, the Director-General had underscored the designated laboratories’ reliability and technical capabilities and their work’s credibility and integrity. Noting that the Secretary-General had expressed a deep concern over the assessment that a nerve agent had been employed in a targeted manner, she said he had also welcomed the United Kingdom’s request to independently verify the toxic chemical that had been used in the incident.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) said the OPCW report had supported findings that a military-grade nerve agent had been identified, with the highest concentration located on the handle of the front door of Sergei Skripal, one of the victims. Even though the United Kingdom had used the term “Novichok” to describe the nerve agent, which differed from the one used by the Russian Federation and OPCW, it was clear they were all talking about the same substance. The “high purity” of the substance identified by OPCW suggested that the nerve agent had been produced at a highly sophisticated laboratory, namely a State laboratory.
While the OPCW report did not identify the country nor the laboratory of origin, she said only the Russian Federation had the means, technical experience and the motive to target Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. The Soviet Union had developed Novichok agents in the 1980s and the Russian Federation had, in last decade, continued to produce and stockpile small quantities of it. In the mid‑2000s, President Vladimir Putin had been closely involved in the production of chemical weapons, she said, doubting that another former Soviet State, or a non‑State actor, had the capabilities to produce such a nerve agent. Findings of a 2016 investigation into the death of Aleksandr Litvinenko had shown the use of a nerve agent, likely with the knowledge of the Russian Federation.
In the situation under discussion today, she said Mr. Skripal was a former intelligence officer convicted of espionage in 2006, likely making him a target of the Russian Federation, with evidence showing that the Skripals had been under Russian surveillance for some time. None of the chemical weapons that had been used in the incident had been declared to OPCW, therefore making it likely that the Russian Federation had violated the Chemical Weapons Convention.
While the Russian Federation had offered to provide consular services to Yulia Skripal, she had declined, she continued. An update from the Salisbury Hospital medical director said the Skripals had received treatment and around‑the‑clock care. Outlining the course of treatment and specialized decontamination techniques, she said both patients had responded well, but were at different stages of recovery. Regarding the decontamination of affected sites, she said nine sites had been identified as requiring special decontamination, a process that would soon begin and take several months to complete.
She then addressed several allegations that had been levied against the United Kingdom and its investigation, including one suggesting that Ms. Skripal had not been attacked with a nerve agent, but had first been drugged, put into a coma and finally injected with the toxic substances by the United Kingdom. That sort of thing might happen in the Russian Federation, but it did not and will not happen in the United Kingdom, she said. Voicing alarm that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had alluded to the presence of a substance known as “BZ” in the Salisbury samples, she said no such information had been published in OPCW reports and the Organisation’s Director-General had said it was present only in a separate “control” sample, sent alongside those taken from the victims in order to ensure their accuracy. No presence of BZ had been identified in the Salisbury samples, she said, wondering what Mr. Lavrov’s motive might be for such an obfuscation.
Questioning the Russian Federation’s credibility was like “an arsonist investigating his own fire”, she said, recalling that the United Kingdom had directly asked that country if the incident had resulted from a rogue attack by one of its agents, and if so, requested its help to investigate it. However, the Russian Federation had refused to cooperate or even taken that possibility seriously, she said, emphasizing that many of her Government’s questions still remained unanswered.
JUAN MARCELO ZAMBRANA TORRELIO (Bolivia) said the use of chemical weapons by any actor, under any circumstance, was a heinous act that undermined international peace and security. As a multilateral instrument, the Chemical Weapons Convention must maintain its integrity and independence. The instrument’s credibility must also be maintained in all investigations on the use of chemical weapons or agents, he said, calling for a broad, impartial and objective investigation of the Salisbury attack. More generally, countries concerned must use corresponding diplomatic channels to resolve the matter through as much dialogue as possible, with a view to strengthening the non-proliferation regime.
NIKKI R. HALEY (United States) said the international community was rapidly confronting a frightening new reality. If such weapons could appear in a small British town, she wondered where else they could be used. The OPCW report had confirmed the United Kingdom’s lab analysis. The United States agreed with the United Kingdom that the Russian Federation was responsible for that act, whether deliberately or by the loss of control of such chemicals, which were weapons of terror that had no place in the civilized world. The Council must condemn the use of a nerve agent in a Member State. If the international community did not take a firm, unequivocal stance, the next attack would come. The issue was a matter of basic morality and the Council could not, in good conscience, allow such acts to continue.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) renewed its solidarity with the United Kingdom, welcoming its desire for transparency in line with the provision of the Chemical Weapon Convention, which called for States to conduct an investigation of attacks occurred on its soil. The results of OPCW spoke for themselves, he said, adding that only a State actor possessed the knowledge to create such a nerve agent. Noting that the Russian Federation had not responded to United Kingdom questions for more than a month, he called on it to respond. Those who violated their obligations and deliberately distorted the facts assumed the responsibility of the normalization of the use of chemical weapons and undermined the non-proliferation regime. France would never tolerate the use of chemical weapons. Given the threat on the world’s collective security, there could be no room for impunity.
MA ZHAOXU (China) said the Salisbury issue should be addressed in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. His Government was firmly opposed to the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances. The OPCW technical secretariat had yet to reach conclusions acceptable to all and further comprehensive and impartial investigations were needed to draw conclusions that could withstand the test of time and history. With the international community facing numerous challenges, parties must reject a cold war mentality and join hands to maintain global peace and stability. Indeed, Council members must remain united to jointly fulfil their duties in maintaining international peace and stability.
PAWEL RADOMSKI (Poland) said the OPCW’s report had revealed that the international community’s support for the United Kingdom’s initial investigation had been appropriate. The European Council had also agreed that the Russian Federation was likely responsible for the incident, he said, reiterating his call on that country to respond and provide immediate, full disclosure to OPCW of any programme relevant to the case. Perpetrators of such violations of international law must be held accountable, he said, adding that “no such act can be left unanswered” as it would lead to the erosion of the global non-proliferation and disarmament regimes and put the world’s people at risk.
THÉODORE DAH (Côte d’Ivoire) expressed full support for the United Kingdom’s follow-up investigation, which should now proceed, and called on all parties to exercise restraint. Côte d’Ivoire condemned the use of any chemical weapons by any party, and supported the attempts to set up an investigative mechanism to identify perpetrators of all such incidents.
KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan), noting that no perpetrators had yet been identified in the case of the chemical agents found in Salisbury by OPCW, expressed concern that such weapons were rapidly becoming the Council’s Achilles heel. It was also becoming increasingly difficult to discuss the issue due to escalating tensions, divisions and even hateful rhetoric. Leading countries could reach a compromise to establish a mechanism charged with investigating allegations of chemical weapons use, he said, expressing regret that those weapons had not yet been eliminated completely. All parties should exercise restraint and avoid taking action before establishing concrete proof of events on the ground, he said, adding that the Council should not allow divergent positions on the issue of weapons of mass destruction to escalate any further.
CARL ORRENIUS SKAU (Sweden), voicing support for the common European Union position and the assessment that Russian Federation was likely responsible for the incident, welcomed the transparent manner in which the United Kingdom had handled the investigation. Expressing full confidence in OPCW findings, he said “this is a matter of utmost concern”, calling on the Russian Federation to urgently answer all relevant questions the United Kingdom had posed.
ANATOLIO NDONG MBA (Equatorial Guinea) condemned the use of chemical weapons, calling for a way to identify and hold accountable the “authors” of the use of such nerve agents. Conclusive proof was needed to confirm the chemical agent to which the victims were exposed. At the same time, he congratulated OPCW for its professionalism. He requested Governments to use moderation and find a way of managing the situation through direct dialogue and expressed hope that the diplomatic crisis would come to an end. In conclusion, he underlined the need for a transparent mechanism to monitor and identify the perpetrators.
DAWIT YIRGA WOLDEGERIMA (Ethiopia) said OPCW was the appropriate body to deal with the incident and should use its Executive Council meetings to clarify relevant points. Indeed, the issue was so sensitive that it was crucial to preserve the credibility of the international regime addressing chemical weapons. Noting that the report had not identified the country responsible for using the nerve agent, he called for a thorough investigation to get to the truth and bring those responsible to justice. He warned that the use of chemical weapons was being normalized, which should be worrying to all. Consequently, the challenge presented by the use of chemical weapons could only be addressed with cooperation and transparency.
LISE GREGOIRE VAN HAAREN (Netherlands), reaffirming her Government’s solidarity with the United Kingdom, noted that, at the United Kingdom’s request, the OPCW report had been shared with Member States on 12 April. Expressing appreciation for their transparency in that process, she said the United Kingdom had acted in full accordance with OPCW procedures. The OPCW report had made it more evident that it was highly likely that the Russian Federation was responsible for the Salisbury attack. It was not helpful that the Russian Federation continued to present alternate theories on the attack. In that vein, she urged that country to cooperate fully with the investigation and provide all information to the United Kingdom in order to bring those responsible to justice. Any use of chemical weapons was unacceptable, she said, calling for full accountability.
MANSOUR AYYAD SH. A. ALOTAIBI (Kuwait) wished the victims of the Salisbury attack a speedy recovery. He condemned the use of chemical weapons and expressed solidarity with the United Kingdom before calling on all parties concerned to cooperate with OPCW investigations.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) expressed concern that his Western colleagues were uninterested in the truth, either in the current issue or a number of others before the Council. The United Kingdom had repeated the same lie and its allies had obstinately followed, echoing the same baseless allegations, which were now allegedly underpinned by the OPCW report despite the fact that nothing in those findings had pointed to the Russian Federation’s involvement. Instead, the OPCW report had shown that the identified toxic substances could have been produced in the Russian Federation, United States or a host of other countries, he said, citing the existence of more than 140 United States-issued patents related to the nerve agent Novichok.
Meanwhile, he said, London’s investigation and subsequent conduct had been far from transparent. Allegations that the Russian Federation had a history of State-sponsored assassinations were completely baseless, including the use of such words as “suspected”, “possible” and “may have” in all its statements about the Salisbury incident and the OPCW report. Indeed, the United Kingdom also continued to conceal any and all information that could help piece together a holistic picture of the Salisbury events, including by classifying information and including significant findings only in the “confidential” part of the report, rather than in the public section.
Describing those actions as blatant attempts to distract from the fact that zero evidence of the Russian Federation’s involvement had been found, he also questioned how the toxic chemical — highly unstable in a liquid form — could be discovered in high concentrations nearly three weeks after the incident. Citing several other inconsistent elements of the findings, he said it was likely that the substance had been injected into the blood of the victims after they had entered an artificial coma.
Urging the United Kingdom to share with the world the information identified in its “self-protective” investigation, he expressed regret that it continued to spread information based only on its subjective interpretation of the OPCW report. The situation must be settled in line with article 9 of the Chemical Weapons Convention, he said, noting that the Russian Federation’s repeated requests for information had been ignored. In that regard, he said OPCW should introduce, at its next Executive Council meeting, a draft resolution providing amendments to the chemicals annexed to its list.
“The rules of international law are being flouted,” he said, adding that basic diplomacy and courtesies were also being undermined. London did not even attempt to refute the inconsistencies that continued to surface. “We see the red herring,” he said, noting that a list of 47 questions posed by his delegation to the United Kingdom had also gone unanswered.
“We will not step away from this,” he said, warning that the United Kingdom continued to attempt to destroy evidence in Salisbury in an effort to prevent a full investigation and smear the Russian Federation. His country would never accept the results of any national or international investigation without first familiarizing itself with the full body of information, exercising its consular right to its citizens and ensuring the full participation of its own experts. Today, the United Kingdom had directly and baselessly alleged that President Putin had been involved in a chemical weapons programme, he said. “You have crossed the threshold of what is acceptable”, as well as all basic decency, he added. He agreed with only one statement by the United Kingdom — that there would be no impunity for the Salisbury incident and that those responsible would be held accountable.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru), thanking the United Kingdom for the information it had provided, condemned all use of chemical weapons, which was a threat to international security and a flagrant violation of the non-proliferation regime. As the Chemical Weapons Convention banned the use of any chemical substance, he called on all parties to cooperate with investigations, with a view to holding perpetrators accountable.
Ms. PIERCE (United Kingdom), taking the floor for a second time, emphasized that the investigation had been conducted independently from her Government and that the United Kingdom was a party in good standing of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Porton Down research centre had provided technical support to her Government with respect to protection from chemical weapons and was subject to regular OPCW inspections. Concerning the 16 questions her Government had received from the Russian Federation, she reminded the Russian Federation that the Chemical Weapons Convention made it clear that the United Kingdom had 10 days to respond and that, indeed, it would provide a response within that timeframe. Referring to the case of Litvinenko, she reaffirmed that the polonium trail had led back to the Russian Federation. Although it was not yet Christmas, she would buy them a subscription to the English book club, because what was happening now was an updated version of George Orwell’s novel 1984, with modern-day Russian tactics.