Impunity in Use of Chemical Weapons Must Not Be Tolerated, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Underlines, Briefing Security Council on Syria
The senior United Nations disarmament official urged the Security Council to unite and ensure that the use of chemical weapons shall never be tolerated, as she briefed the 15-member organ during a videoconference today on efforts by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to verify the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities.
Izumi Nakamitsu, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hamper the ability of OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team — tasked with identifying the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in Syria — to deploy in that country.
She also urged Syria to fully cooperate with the OPCW Technical Secretariat to address 19 issues still outstanding from its initial declaration on its chemical weapons programme, submitted to OPCW in The Hague in 2013. One of those issues is at the heart of a request by the OPCW Technical Secretariat for details about chemical agents produced or weaponized at a facility which, according to Damascus, has never been used for chemical weapons.
“I say this every month because it bears consistent repeating: There is an urgent need to not only identify but hold accountable all those who have used chemical weapons in violation of international law,” the High Representative said, introducing the eighty-eighth monthly report of the OPCW Director-General, pursuant to Council resolution 2118 (2013), on the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons programme (see document S/2021/84).
“Without such action, we are allowing the use of chemical weapons to take place with impunity. It is imperative that this Council show leadership in demonstrating that impunity in the use of these weapons will not be tolerated,” she said, adding that the Secretary-General, in his address to Member States on 28 January, had underscored the need for Council unity to address today’s roiling threats to peace and security.
She urged Damascus to cooperate fully with the OPCW Technical Secretariat, which stands by its assessment that — due to unresolved gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies — Syria’s initial declaration cannot be considered accurate and complete, as it is required to be under the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and of Their Destruction.
She added, as she has said in the past, that international confidence in the full elimination of Syria’s weapons programme hinges upon OPCW being able to resolve the outstanding issues. “I hope that during the next round of consultations between the [OPCW] Declaration Assessment Team and the Syrian National Authority, to be held later this month, further progress will be made to resolve these issues,” she added.
The ensuing debate laid bare once again sharp divisions within the Council on the Syrian chemical weapons dossier.
The representative of the Russian Federation called Syria a “responsible partner” that is in dialogue with OPCW and the United Nations. Despite pressure, it does its best to reiterate its commitment to the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, the more concessions it makes, the more accusations it encounters, he said, warning that “this stance, aimed at squeezing Syria, can take away all its motivation to cooperate with the OPCW”. Critics base their position on a knowingly impossible ultimatum enshrined in a July 2020 OPCW decision that Syria declare chemical weapons it simply does not have, and the Russian Federation has repeatedly expressed criticism about the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team. Highlighting other facts, he said Shayrat air base was first declared as a Syrian chemical weapons facility. OPCW visited several times and proved that it was destroyed, per the Convention, “long before” the events of 2017. After Western air forces bombed the base, claiming it remained a production site, Damascus on 11 April 2017 requested OPCW send experts to carry out an investigation. The previous OPCW leadership declined that request. Western countries also blocked a Russian Federation proposal to authorize the Director-General to inspect Shayrat. Had those inspections taken place, they could have provided an “exhaustive” answer to all questions.
He went on to denounce the OPCW Director-General’s report as an effort in “manifest slyness”, urging the Council to examine the situation objectively. The facts say that Syria has not evaded its cooperation with OPCW, but rather, faithfully accommodated investigations and provided materials. He pointed to the twenty-third round of discussions between the Declaration Assessment Team and Damascus, which led to the lifting of three outstanding issues, as well as Syria’s submission of its regular report on implementation of resolution 2118 (2013), as evidence of progress, stressing that New York is not a specialized platform for discussing issues related to initial declarations. That expertise instead lies with The Hague. Calling the initial declaration a dynamic instrument, he said States add to them “all the time”, including the United States, Canada, Belgium, France and Germany, whose declared stockpiles are “growing”, as well as Iraq and Libya, where the Technical Secretariat for some reason “was easy on the drawbacks”. He questioned why the Technical Secretariat upholds such double standards, condemning in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons by whomever, for whatever purposes. If Syria is deprived of its right to participate in OPCW decision-making, he asked what the point would be for Damascus to continue cooperating with the organization.
The representative of the United States said any use of chemical weapons is a clear thereat to international peace and security, and his country is committed to holding perpetrators to account. The Assad regime has repeatedly used chemical weapons against Syria’s people, seeking to avoid accountability by obstructing independent investigations and undermining the work of OPCW. Its allies, including the Russian Federation, have sought to block all efforts to promote accountability, shielding it from responsibility, notably by spreading disinformation, attacking OPCW and seeking to undermine efforts by responsible nations to hold the Assad regime accountable. He hailed OPCW leadership, its Technical Secretariat and its professionalism in carrying out its mandate, and said the United States looks forward to the future reports of the Investigation and Identification Team. Noting that the Team’s first report, in April 2020, concluded that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, he said the decision by OPCW in July 2020 requested that Syria take steps to redress the situation. But Damascus has failed to complete any measures outlined in that decision, as communicated by the OPCW Director General in October 2020. Recalling that the United States, along with 45 co-sponsors, submitted a draft decision to the OPCW Conference of the States Parties in response, he called on the Conference to take appropriate action when it reconvenes this spring so as to send a strong message to the Syrian regime. The Security Council likewise must ensure there are serious consequences for Syria’s use of chemical weapons, he said, recalling it had decided that the regime must cooperate fully with OPCW and the United Nations, efforts which the United States supports. “Accountability is needed to bring long-overdue justice to the victims,” he stressed, as is a broader political process, as called for in resolution 2254 (2015). The Assad regime must uphold its Convention obligations, while the Council must call out atrocities and hold those who use chemical weapons accountable.
The representative of Mexico said that the Council should discuss the use of chemical weapons in Syria in a frank and non-politicized manner. Commending OPCW for its professionalism, he appealed to Syria, as a State party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, to fully cooperate with that organization. Pointing to 19 outstanding issues related to Syria’s declaration to OPCW, he urged the Syrian authorities to comply with their international obligations and work with the OPCW fact-finding mission and the Investigation and Identification Team. He went on to emphasize that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict.
The representative of China said that OPCW’s monthly reports often do not contain new information. That Organization’s investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria should be conducted strictly within the framework of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Noting that some Council members show little interest in technical details, but would rather discuss the presumption of guilt, he said that Council deliberations must be based on scientific analysis, which should not be rushed. He acknowledged Syria’s constructive attitude and encouraged both sides to resolve outstanding issues.
The representative of Viet Nam, spotlighting continued engagement between Syria and OPCW, said there is no alternative to encouraging further cooperation between the two sides. “The initial declaration is the first step, but a very important one in implementing the Chemical Weapon Convention,” he said, noting that Viet Nam also experienced initial difficulties when it first joined the Convention. With assistance from OPCW’s Technical Secretariat, all issues were resolved. Voicing concern over the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria — which he condemned, in any form and under any circumstances — he also expressed concern about information relating to the possession of chemical weapons by armed groups. States parties and OPCW itself must adhere to all obligations to fully implement the Chemical Weapon Convention, he stressed, adding: “Tangible results can only be achieved through promoting unity and cooperation in a most constructive and non-politicized manner.”
The representative of Niger expressed his country’s determination to fight for the full prohibition of chemical weapons, recalling that their use is a threat to international peace and security and constitutes a violation of international law. He urged the Council to avoid politicization of the topic, and rather, to create the conditions that would allow results of investigation to emerge. Such efforts would facilitate truth and accountability. He hailed Syria’s efforts to make “its version of the facts” known, as well as its dialogue with OPCW, expressing hope that this will allow for resolving the outstanding issues around the initial declaration. It is important that any alleged use of chemical weapons receive due attention by the fact-finding mission and the Investigation and Identification Team, he added, expressing hope that OPCW deployments will resume once the COVID-19 restrictions have ended.
The representative of Tunisia reiterated his country’s commitment to the prohibition of chemical weapons, as embodied by the Convention and its executive body, the OPCW. Efforts must be made to protect the authority and mandate of OPCW, which monitors compliance of the Convention and offers a platform for consultation and cooperation among State parties. He commended the OPCW Technical Secretariat and Syria for their cooperation despite the challenges induced by COVID-19, pointing to the twenty-fourth round of discussions between the Declaration Assessment Team and Syria’s Government — to be held at the end of February — as proof of such efforts. He urged Syria to continue its cooperation with the OPCW Technical Secretariat to quickly conclude the outstanding issues, stressing the need to subject all claims about the use of toxic weapons to objective, neutral, transparent and independent, investigation. Condemning the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by whomever, under any circumstances, he called for holding perpetrators to account and drew attention to the Council’s responsibility to work collectively. “This is the best way to close this chemical file in a way that would contribute to resolving the Syrian crisis,” he assured.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines echoed support for OPCW’s mandate, stressing that the successful implementation of both the Chemical Weapons Convention and resolution 2118 (2013) require sustained international cooperation. “This becomes severely strained where trust deficits exist,” she said, calling upon OPCW to continuously strive to ensure that its structure and activities are characterized by integrity, transparency and non-politicization. Further, States parties to the Convention should engage constructively, set aside quarrels and pursue consensus-based decisions to thwart polarization and divisiveness. While movement on the Syria file has been slow, the country is cooperating with OPCW, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She voiced her hope that such collaboration will assist in swiftly resolving all identified gaps and inconsistencies in Syria’s original declaration. Allegations of chemical weapons use must always be investigated and never be dismissed, and findings must be able to withstand rigorous scrutiny to ensure accountability and prevent impunity, she said.
The representative of India welcomed that the Declaration Assessment Team intends to deploy in the coming weeks for the next round of consultations, expressing hope that the OPCW Technical Secretariat will also report the outcomes of the inspections at the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre. Noting that India has consistently underlined the need for an impartial, objective investigation into any alleged use of chemical weapons, he attached “high importance” to the Chemical Weapons Convention, under which India became the first State party to have been declared “chemical weapon free”. Terrorist groups have taken advantage of the conflict in Syria to entrench themselves, posing a threat to the entire region, and he thus called for a comprehensive, peaceful resolution of the conflict through a Syrian-led dialogue.
The representative of Estonia said the Assad regime has used chemical weapons throughout the conflict, calling them “an important part of the regime’s war strategy”, and noting that the best experts in the field have established its responsibility for such use on seven occasions. He cited findings by the Joint Investigative Mechanism that Syria’s armed forces had used chemical weapons in 2014 in Talmenes, 2015 in Sarmin and Qmenas and in 2017 in Khan Shaykhun in that context, stressing that all such attacks occurred after Syria had declared that its stockpiles and production facilities had been destroyed. He welcomed the OPCW decision in July 2020 to respond to findings by the Investigation and Identification Team, stressing that accountability for these heinous crimes is an “essential pillar” for a political solution that will allow lasting peace. “By tolerating impunity, without providing an effective response to these crimes, the global norm against the use of chemical weapons erodes,” he stressed, asking Ms. Nakamitsu to elaborate on the obstacles to resolving the 19 outstanding issues.
The representative of Kenya reaffirmed his country’s support for OPCW, while welcoming that the organization was able to ensure work continuity despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. He also welcomed the submission of Syria’s most recent report to the Council and agreed with other speakers on the need to clear up the 19 identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved. Expressing hope that the envisaged consultations between the Declaration Assessment Team and the Government of Syria will materialize and yield positive outcomes, he called on the Council to support all efforts to strengthen OPCW and ensure that its investigations are concluded without unnecessary delays and with the utmost professionalism and transparency. “The expeditious closure of the investigations will allow the Council to direct its energies to helping the Syrian people arrive at a much-desired political solution to the conflict that has impoverished millions of innocent lives,” he said.
The representative of Norway stated her country’s concern about reasons, identified by OPCW, to doubt Syria’s declaration that a particular facility had never been used for the production of chemical weapons. Urging Damascus to comply fully with the organization’s request for information about that site, she aligned her country with the European Union’s restrictive measures on persons and entities involved in the development and use of chemical weapons. Both the former OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism and the first report of the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team concluded, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Syrian Arab Armed Forces were responsible for the use of such weapons on three separate occasions in 2017. Describing it as unacceptable that no one has yet been held accountable for those atrocious acts, she went on to firmly reject all attempts to discredit or bring into disrepute OPCW and its Technical Secretariat.
The representative of France, pointing to Syria’s removal of itself from its international obligations, drew attention to the Council’s numerous repetitions that Damascus “must shed light on this declaration”. He questioned how Syria could explain that 19 outstanding issues remain, several years after the adoption of resolution 2118 (2013). Among them is an issue around an undeclared production site, about which Syria has not provided an explanation. He called on Syria to cooperate with the Declaration Assessment Team, stressing that “the regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons against its own people is an incontrovertible fact.” Citing events in Ghouta, Khan Sheihoun and elsewhere, he asked “how many more will there be?” For its part, France will pay “very close attention” to the upcoming reports of the Investigation and Identification Team, recalling that in November 2020, France submitted a draft decision to the Technical Secretariat, on behalf of 46 delegations, to encourage necessary measures. “It is high time for Syria to align itself with its international obligations,” he stressed, hailing OPCW’s work undertaken with impartiality and professionalism, using robust and transparent methodologies, including regular reporting by the Director General to the Council on any developments. “There is no plot, no manipulation” he said. To discredit OPCW because “it does its work well” is “shameful and irresponsible”, he said, emphasizing that ensuring a complete ban on chemical weapons use is a priority for France.
The representative of Ireland, reiterating her country’s full confidence in OPCW, asked when that organization would be able to return to full capacity on the ground in Syria, and questioned whether the pandemic might be used as a pretext for a lack of political will. The Council should act urgently, and in a united manner, to address the problems that it faces in Syria regarding the chemical weapons dossier. She added that the Syrian authorities must cooperate actively, openly and in good faith with OPCW. Should it fail to do so, Ireland will support action by the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention to address Syria’s non-compliance, she stated.
The representative of the United Kingdom, Council president for February, underlined in her national capacity that, despite decisions by OCPW and the Security Council, Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons programme cannot be considered complete. She called the 19 unresolved issues “substantive” and “serious” in nature, among them, issues pertaining to a production facility which Syria claims has never been used. However, a review of all information and materials collected by the Declaration Assessment Team indicates the production of chemical nerve agents did take place there. That four outstanding issues have been closed demonstrates that such questions can be concluded if Damascus chooses to engage. She pressed Syria to provide complete access to documents and witnesses, stressing that the “cat-and-mouse game” of explanations and excuses cannot continue. Noting the Declaration Assessment Team’s intention to deploy for consultations in February, she outlined the United Kingdom’s expectation that Syria provide full responses during those meetings.
The High Representative for Disarmament, taking the floor a second time to respond to delegate’s questions, recalled that the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mission had determined that non-State actors were responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria in two instances. She added that she would answer other questions in detail during closed consultations.
The representative of Syria, welcoming today’s public videoconference, said that his country no longer has any chemical weapons, as the Head of the Joint Investigative Mission told the Council in June 2014. However, some Western countries, denying that reality, continue to use the chemical weapons issue as a weapon of war and blackmail. For its part, OPCW is forced to produce reports — based on conjecture and information from terrorist groups such as the White Helmets — which fail to meet even the basic criteria for objectivity. He added that OPCW and the High Representative for Disarmament are trying to serve the Western agenda by denying information provided by the Governments of Syria and the Russian Federation. Despite the hostile Western approach, Damascus is continuing to cooperate with OPCW and its Technical Secretariat, he said, adding that discussions on an OPCW visit took place last week, although no agreement was finalized.
He emphasized that Damascus rejects any attempt to undermine its initial declaration to OPCW or its efforts to cooperate with that organization. A draft resolution before the Conference of the Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, if adopted, would represent “a hostile act par excellence” by levelling false accusations against the Government of Syria while exonerating terrorists and their co-sponsors for the use of chemical weapons, he said. Such a text would also lay the groundwork for hostile unilateral or trilateral acts not unlike the United States attack on the Shayrat airfield in April 2017. He went on to say that Western Governments have seized upon the chemical weapons issues to provide cover for Israel’s development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
The representative of Turkey said that of the 19 outstanding issues, one requires urgent attention, and that the Syrian regime must be forced to declare the types and quantities of chemical weapons produced at a facility which Syria says was never used for such a purpose. Underscoring the importance of Council unity, he said that his country is a co-sponsor of a draft resolution before the Conference of the Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention on the Syrian chemical weapons dossier. Going forward, investigations by the fact-finding mission and the Investigation and Identification Team must continue, he said, adding that the Syrian regime’s denial of visas to members of the latter is a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. He concluded by saying that ending impunity is indispensable for peace in Syria and that those with influence on the regime bear a special responsibility.