Syria’s Failure to Remedy Pending Issues of Chemical Weapons Use Is ‘Wake Up Call’ for International Community, Disarmament Chief Tells Security Council
Syria’s continued failure to remedy outstanding issues prevents the international community from confirming the elimination of its chemical-weapons programme, the top United Nations disarmament official told the Security Council today as members traded allegations that the work of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is being politicized to suit national interests.
Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, recalled the historical lead-up to the Chemical Weapons Convention and past victims of chemical warfare, emphasizing that “it is obvious that not only has the Convention made the world a safer place, but also a more humane one”. However, she said that it is unfortunate that, today, many of that treaty’s historic accomplishments have been overshadowed by the continued use of chemical weapons. No example showcases that better than the numerous instances of such use in Syria, which OPCW continues to document despite that country’s accession to the Convention.
“These reports are a wake-up call to the international community about the continuing threat posed by these inhumane weapons,” she urged, expressing regret that there has been little to no change in the past month on issues related to the Syrian chemical-weapons file. OPCW has yet to receive certain requested information from Syria, and the deployment of its Declaration Assessment Team has been delayed due to that country’s continued refusal to issue an entry visa for one of the Team’s experts. She underscored that, until these outstanding issues are closed, the international community cannot have full confidence that Syria’s chemical-weapons programme has been eliminated.
In the ensuing debate, many Council members expressed regret over the limited progress made on the Syrian chemical-weapons file and called on Syria to cease its obstruction of OPCW’s work, including by providing necessary visas to the Declaration Assessment Team and by responding to OPCW’s requests for certain information. Others expressed concern over the politicization of OPCW’s work, stressing that any investigations must strictly adhere to the principles of independence, impartiality and objectivity. Some also called for campaigns of misinformation, designed to undermine OPCW’s professional credibility, to cease.
On that point, Ireland’s representative joined others in spotlighting continued efforts by Syria and the Russian Federation to undermine OPCW’s work in order to deflect attention from Syria’s culpability. She called on Damascus to stop its policy of equivocation and delay and to engage in meaningful cooperation with OPCW, including by providing the necessary clarity on all outstanding matters.
The representative of the Russian Federation, however, said that OPCW’s reports on Syria have long been built on the “presumption of guilt” for that country. OPCW — the independent and unbiased “guardian” of the Chemical Weapons Convention — has turned into a tool to punish those who do not suit Western countries and, if the situation is not rectified, OPCW will completely lose its authority, he stressed.
Ghana’s delegate, also speaking for Gabon and Kenya, reiterated the need for OPCW’s fact-finding mission in Syria and Investigation and Identification Team to remain independent, transparent and impartial as they carry out their respective mandates. He stressed that “the unaddressed gaps, inconsistencies and outstanding issues in Syria’s initial and subsequent declarations must be addressed”, encouraging that country to enhance cooperation with OPCW’s Secretariat.
The representative of the United Arab Emirates, echoing that point, encouraged a constructive, meaningful dialogue between OPCW and Syria, also joining other members in spotlighting the risk posed by the acquisition of chemical weapons by terrorist groups.
Syria’s delegate, noting that the Convention has been manipulated and politicized in recent years by certain Western countries to target Governments that refuse to capitulate to their instructions, stressed that accountability must be based on professional, objective investigations. Syria has fully cooperated with OPCW and fulfilled its obligations under the Convention, and he rejected certain countries’ allegations that attempt to discredit Syria’s seriousness in complying with the same.
Also speaking were representatives of the United States, Mexico, France, Albania, Norway, India, China, United Kingdom, Turkey and Iran.
The representatives of the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom took the floor a second time.
The meeting began at 10:39 a.m. and ended at 12:09 p.m.
IZUMI NAKAMITSU, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, briefing the Council, said that the Chemical Weapons Convention “is one of the most important achievements in the history of disarmament”. Recalling the historical lead-up to the treaty and past victims of chemical warfare, she emphasized that “it is obvious that not only has the Convention made the world a safer place, but also a more humane one”. Thanks to the hard work of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and its staff, 99 per cent of the chemical-weapons stockpiles declared by possessor States have been verifiably destroyed. However, it is unfortunate that, today, many of the Convention’s historic accomplishments have been overshadowed by the continued use of chemical weapons. No example showcases that better than the numerous documented instances of chemical-weapons use in Syria, she said.
While noting that the OPCW confirmed the complete destruction of all chemical weapons declared by Syria on 4 January 2016, she pointed out that OPCW continues to document instances of the use of such weapons in Syria despite that country’s accession to the Convention. “These reports are a wake-up call to the international community about the continuing threat posed by these inhumane weapons,” she urged, adding that the images of victims “should haunt us all”. Against that backdrop, she stressed that the OPCW Technical Secretariat’s objective, professional nature must be respected, as its work is crucial to reinforcing the Convention. “This Council has not fulfilled its responsibility to hold accountable the perpetrators of these heinous acts,” she said, calling for collective action to bolster the norm against the use of chemical weapons and to strengthen the Convention.
She went on to express regret that there has been little or no change in the past month on issues related to the Syrian chemical-weapons file. The OPCW Secretariat has not yet received certain requested information from Syria pertaining to the production of nerve agents, damage to a military facility housing a declared former chemical-weapons production facility and the movement of the remains of two destroyed cylinders relating to the incident that took place in Douma on 7 April 2018. Further, the deployment of the Declaration Assessment Team has been delayed due to Syria’s continued refusal to issue an entry visa for one of the Team’s experts. She underscored that until these outstanding issues are closed, the international community cannot have full confidence that Syria’s chemical-weapons programme has been eliminated.
RICHARD M. MILLS, JR. (United States) noted today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Convention’s entry into force. For a quarter of a century, the United States, and other nations who share commitment to a safer world, have endeavored to rid it of chemical weapons and deter their use. In that time, the OPCW has achieved great success, with the Convention having reached near-universality, he said, noting that the OPCW oversaw the speedy destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile. Unfortunately, Syria’s declaration was incomplete. As a State party to the Convention, Syria agreed to never under any circumstances use chemical weapons, yet the Assad regime has used such weapons against its own people on at least eight occasions since joining the Convention. The United States assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons at least 50 times since the conflict in Syria began. The Russian Federation — which has repeatedly used chemical weapons in violation of its Convention obligations and which lacks even the most remedial semblance of credibility when it comes to international peace and security — continues to peddle falsehoods in an effort to undermine the OPCW. It has repeatedly used its veto to shield Syria from accountability for its atrocities, he said, calling on Syria to cooperate fully with the OPCW and on the Russian Federation to act responsibly and cease its efforts to undermine the Convention by protecting Syria from accountability.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) said the OPCW Director-General’s report on the implementation of Council resolution 2118 (2013) is unfortunately a “carbon copy” of the previous ones. These have long been built on the “presumption of guilt” for Syria. Whatever Damascus does in fulfilling its obligations, it’s never enough. The Security Council does not suffer from discussing Syria’s chemical file less frequently. Syria’s “incooperability” in these reports is based on a single argument, which is the non-issuance of a visa to one member of the Declaration Assessment Team. Russian experts have constantly been denied visas by the host country when seeking to participate in events at United Nations Headquarters in New York. This is a double standard. It is not normal for the top leader of a United Nations entity, who has been in office for more than four years, to avoid coming to Syria. The leader has never visited a country and knows about the situation exclusively from staff reports. Such a political choice has negatively affected the effectiveness of the OPCW in fulfilling its mandate, he stressed.
In 2017, his country fully fulfilled its obligations to destroy chemical weapons, ahead of schedule and under strict international control. This was confirmed in the OPCW Director-General’s 5 October 2017 report, he said, urging other countries to follow his country’s example. By joining the Convention, Syria fulfilled all its obligations, which the Secretary-General reported to the Security Council in June 2014. OPCW, the independent and unbiased “guardian” of the Convention, has turned into a tool to punish those who do not suit Western countries. Its governing bodies made illegitimate decisions on giving the Technical Secretariat prosecutorial functions. Turning to the report of the fact-finding mission on the incident in Douma in 2018, he said that due to pressure from some delegations the final version was radically edited in favour of the anti-Syrian side. These reports are prepared based on information collected remotely from biased sources, including the White Helmets. If the situation is not rectified, the OPCW will completely lose its authority soon and become a tool for advancing geopolitical interests of a narrow group of countries. The Russian Federation unconditionally supports the Convention and is committed to its letter and spirit, he said, calling on the other Council members to do the same.
GERALDINE BYRNE NASON (Ireland), noting that the Convention has been successful in its establishment of OPCW to ensure a credible, transparent verification regime, said the Council has a crucial role in supporting its ongoing work. Stressing that thousands of Syrian civilians have experienced the devastating effects of chemical weapons, she pointed to continued efforts by Syria and the Russian Federation to undermine and politicize OPCW’s work in order to deflect attention from Syria’s culpability. She called on Syria to stop its policy of equivocation and delay, and to engage in serious and meaningful cooperation with the OPCW, including providing the necessary clarity on all outstanding matters. It is unacceptable that Syria has prevented the deployment of the Declaration Assessment Team for the last year. Arrangements should be settled quickly for the proposed high-level meeting between Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekhdad and OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias, which has been outstanding for one year, with the meeting focusing on achieving concrete outcomes.
ALICIA GUADALUPE BUENROSTRO MASSIEU (Mexico) stressed the need to support the work and professionalism of OPCW and its Technical Secretariat amidst worrying reports confirming the use of chemical weapons in recent years. It is regrettable that each monthly Council discussion of the Syria chemical-weapons file faces limited progress. There are still discrepancies on 20 outstanding items in Syria’s initial declaration. That country continues to deny a visa to a member of the Declaration Assessment Team and, although Syria agreed to limited consultations in Lebanon, it imposed conditions on the same. These are some of the obstacles that have led to the months-long postponement of consultations between the Declaration Assessment Team and national authorities, she said, also calling on Syria to explain the unauthorized transfer of two chlorine cylinders relating to the April 2018 incident in Douma.
SHERAZ GASRI (France), spotlighting the taboo broken by the Syrian regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons against its own people, said that the absence of progress in the eight years following the unanimous adoption of resolution 2118 (2013) is “deplorable”. The regime continues to obstruct OPCW’s work by refusing to issue visas necessary for the deployment of the Declaration Assessment Team, interfering in the choice of inspectors and seeking to hinder the Technical Secretariat’s mission. She called on Syria to provide information regarding its stockpiles, reply to questions asked and uphold its international obligations. For its part, the Technical Secretariat is demonstrating its professionalism, and campaigns of disinformation against it must cease. Stressing the importance of identifying and holding accountable those responsible for chemical-weapons attacks, she said there can be no respite for war criminals who use these weapons that have been prohibited under international law for so many years.
FERIT HOXHA (Albania) expressed deep regret over the deliberate lack of cooperation by Syria with OPCW. Since the Council’s most recent meeting on the topic on 10 March, another seven weeks have been lost in advancing the Syria file. Such a stalemate prevents the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013) and Syria's chemical weapons programme remains outside the control of the international community, he said, stressing that Syria's refusal to cooperate with OPCW Technical Secretariat is irresponsible and unacceptable. Albania continues to fully support the professionalism, independence and impartiality of OPCW and its Technical Secretariat. The Security Council has a responsibility to protect the international non-proliferation regime, which underpins collective security, he said, pointing out that it is one of the most successful disarmament regimes in the world, ensuring the destruction of more than 98 per cent of declared chemical weapons stockpiles. He rejected any attempt to discredit OPCW to hide the horrific crimes committed by the Syrian regime.
TRINE SKARBOEVIK HEIMERBACK (Norway) said it is particularly regrettable that the deployment of the Declaration Assessment Team to Syria, which had been proposed for earlier in the month, did not occur. She noted the plans for a limited round of consultations in Lebanon, urging positive progress to be made towards cooperation and discussions on the way forward. Recalling that Council resolution 2118 (2013) explicitly mentions Syria’s obligations to accept personnel designated by OPCW, provide them immediate and unfettered access and accept their right to inspect any and all sites, she said it is vital to return to regular deployment of the Declaration Assessment Team, with entry visas issued to all experts. She also urged the Government to fully cooperate with OPCW, and to provide sufficient technical information and explanations to close the 20 outstanding issues. It is critical that Syria completes the necessary measures to lift the suspension of its rights and privileges as a State party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, she said.
HAROLD ADLAI AGYEMAN (Ghana), also speaking on behalf of Gabon and Kenya, noted the verification of the destruction of all 27 chemical weapons production facilities declared by Syria, yet expressed concern about the OPCW Technical Secretariat’s assessment that the declarations submitted still cannot be considered as accurate and complete under the Chemical Weapons Convention, resolution 2118 (2013) and the decisions of the Executive Council. “The unaddressed gaps, inconsistencies and outstanding issues in Syria’s initial and subsequent declarations must be addressed,” he said, encouraging the country to grant the necessary entry visas to the Declaration Assessment Team and to enhance cooperation with the OPCW Secretariat.
He went on to note that the Secretariat’s October 2020 request relating to all undeclared types and quantities of nerve agents produced and/or weaponized at a former chemical weapons production facility as never having been used as such, as well as requests for information regarding the damage caused to a military facility that housed a declared former facility reportedly attacked last June, remains outstanding. Looking forward to receiving further information on subsequent rounds of inspections of the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre, he also encouraged the extension of the Tripartite Agreement and reiterated the need for the fact-finding mission in Syria and the Investigation and Identification Team to remain independent, transparent and impartial as they carry out their respective mandates.
MOHAMED ISSA ABUSHAHAB (United Arab Emirates) reiterated his principled position of rejecting and condemning the use of chemical weapons, he said making tangible progress on the Syria file requires addressing existing gaps. He encouraged a constructive and meaningful dialogue between OPCW and Syria and looked forward to the meeting between the Syrian Foreign Minister and OPCW Director-General, as well as limited consultations between the Syrian Government and OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team. Despite the progress made towards the complete elimination of chemical weapons, the threats they pose are still present, he said, pointing to the risks of being acquired by terrorist groups, such as Da’esh. Recalling recent attacks seen in Al-Hasakah, he noted that terrorist groups continue to develop their methods of attacks and seek to obtain advanced weapons, such as chemical weapons, to achieve their nefarious goals, and stressed the importance of continuing the fight against Da’esh in Syria and elsewhere to prevent it from rearranging its ranks or acquiring chemical weapons.
PRATIK MATHUR (India) noted the recent submission by Syria detailing measures undertaken to implement its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Encouraging continued engagement between Syria and the OPCW Technical Secretariat to resolve outstanding issues, he expressed hope that the twenty-fifth round of consultations between the Declaration Assessment Team and the Syrian Government will be held at the earliest, as will the next round of inspections of the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre. Any investigation into the use of chemical weapons must be impartial, credible and objective. He pointed to the possibility of terrorist entities and individuals gaining access to such weapons, including in the region, citing reports of the Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) referring to the repeated deployments of chemical weapons by United Nations proscribed terrorist groups and those affiliated with ISIL against civilian populations between 2014 and 2016. In that regard, India has contributed $200,000 to support UNITAD’s investigations, he said.
XING JISHENG (China) said that for 25 years, the Convention has played an important role in maintaining international peace and security. Mankind has been moving towards a vision of a world free of chemical weapons. China is a founding State party to the Convention and stands for the comprehensive and balanced implementation of the instrument, he said, calling on countries to fulfil their obligations and destroy stockpiles completely. China has always called for dialogue to solve the outstanding issues regarding Syria’s initial declaration. He welcomed the active preparation towards a meeting of the OPCW Director-General and Syria’s Foreign Minister to forge closer cooperation. Regarding the issue of visas, he urged the Technical Secretariat to respect the State party’s concerns. The mechanisms of investigation and attributions must strictly adhere to the principles of independence, impartiality and objectivity. OPCW has been severely politicized, he said, expressing hope that its Director-General can facilitate a return to consensus decision-making by State parties.
BARBARA WOODWARD (United Kingdom), Council President for April, spoke in her national capacity to state that the Syrian regime continues to flout the terms of resolution 2118 (2013) by ignoring its obligation to fully cooperate with OPCW to make progress on outstanding issues pertaining to its chemical-weapons declaration. Noting that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was both preceded and followed by disinformation, she expressed concern over a similar pattern in Russian disinformation about chemical weapons in Ukraine. Such use would be a callous escalation, and the United Kingdom will hold any State using weapons of mass destruction to account. There must be no impunity, she stressed, for any State that develops, acquires or deploys chemical weapons anywhere, under any circumstances.
BASSAM SABBAGH (Syria) said that the Convention’s implementation has faced serious challenges resulting from the United States’ reluctance to comply with the obligation to destroy its stockpiles of chemical weapons within the set deadline. Further, the Convention has been manipulated and politicized in recent years by certain Western countries as a tool to target and blackmail Governments that refuse to capitulate to their instructions. Accountability must be based on professional, objective investigations and on conclusive, concrete evidence. It cannot be achieved through manipulating the provisions of conventions or violating the Charter of the United Nations, nor by following unprofessional modus operandi.
He went on to state that Syria has fully cooperated with OPCW and fulfilled its obligations under the Convention. Further, it is keen to hold the high-level meeting between the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the OPCW’s Director-General as soon as possible and is ready to receive the Declaration Assessment Team, except for one member who lacks objectivity and professionalism. On this, he rejected certain countries’ allegations that attempt to discredit Syria’s seriousness in complying with its obligations. Noting the Convention’s twenty-fifth anniversary, he said that the same is an opportunity to renew calls to depoliticize OPCW, preserve the technical nature of its work and address the wrongful practices of its various teams.
ÖNCÜ KEÇELI (Turkey) pointed out that OPCW’s report demonstrates that outstanding issues relating to the Syrian regime’s initial declaration persist, and that OPCW is still awaiting responses to inquiries sent in October 2020 and July 2021 regarding chemical weapons production facilities and chlorine cylinders used in the attack on Douma in 2018. Additionally, the regime is using delaying tactics to avoid meeting with the Declaration Assessment Team, and he called on the Council to ensure that the regime fully cooperates with the Team and immediately declares the full extent of its chemical-weapons programme to OPCW. Council members must leave their political differences behind and act according to international law to ensure the regime cooperates with OCPW without further delay. This is important to prevent the recurring use of chemical weapons in Syria or anywhere else in the world, he stressed.
ZAHRA ERSHADI (Iran) noted that as a major victim of chemical weapons, her country strongly condemns the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, and under any circumstances. She went on to stress that politicizing implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and exploiting OPCW for politically motivated agendas endangers the Convention's credibility and OPCW’s authority. Syria has made genuine efforts to meet its Convention’s obligations and has proven its willingness to collaborate with the OPCW Technical Secretariat, she said, expressing disappointment that certain States have politicized the Syrian chemical weapons file, preventing OPCW from confirming Syria’s compliance with its obligations. Recognizing the critical importance of the Syrian Government’s efforts to fulfil its obligations under the Convention, she welcomed Syria’s recent submission regarding measures related to the destruction of its chemical weapons and production facilities. She also suggested that the Security Council's deliberations on the Syria file be less repetitive and less frequent.
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation), making a comment about the United Kingdom’s Council presidency for April, said the British are generally described as considerate and polite and as being concerned about traditions and keeping the words in any situation. However, directing his words to the President, he said: “you managed to, if not completely destroyed, seriously undermined the stereotype as you led the Council”, adding that there is no doubt that the United Kingdom’s presidency will be studied in the textbook of diplomacy as a counter example of how the President should behave.
Ms. WOODWARD assured Council members that the United Kingdom will continue to uphold the United Nations Charter and the Council’s rules of procedure.