Syria Still Avoiding Full Cooperation with OPCW on Chemical Weapons Question, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Tells Security Council
Delegates, Seeing Little Progress, Dispute Need to Debate Topic Every Month
Syria continues to avoid full cooperation with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to urgently address information missing from its submitted declarations, including providing details on the unauthorized movement of two cylinders related to the 2018 chemical weapon incident in Douma, the top United Nations official for disarmament told the Security Council today.
Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, briefing the Council on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013), said efforts by the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team to clarify all outstanding issues on initial and subsequent declarations by Syria have made no progress since the Council last met on the issue. Full cooperation by Syria with the Secretariat is essential to closing all outstanding issues, but due to the identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies, its submitted declaration cannot be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and of Their Destruction (Chemical Weapons Convention), she said.
Inspections of the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, scheduled for December, were postponed due to operational reasons, she noted. Further, the Technical Secretariat has not received requested information about the unauthorized movement of two cylinders related to the chemical weapon incident in Douma on 7 April 2018 which were destroyed in an attack on a chemical weapons production facility. She called upon Syria to respond with urgency to all Technical Secretariat requests.
She noted that OPCW, United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and the Government of Syria have all agreed to a six-month extension of their Tripartite Agreement. Meanwhile, the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission is studying all available information related to allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, having deployed inside the country from 6 to 12 November to interview witnesses. Unfortunately, Syria has not yet completed any of the measures stipulated in paragraph 5 of OPCW Executive Council decision EC-94/DEC.2, she said, adding that the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, under any circumstances, is intolerable and a serious violation of international law.
In the ensuing debate, delegates sparred over whether to continue regular monthly meetings on the Syria file, with some calling them a waste of Council time and resources. Similarly, while some representatives praised the High Representative’s report, others pushed back against its value, further citing the politicization of the OPCW and the entire Syria file.
The United States’ representative said that obfuscation and delay are still the only words that can describe the way that President Bashar al-Assad and his Government are dealing with the issue. He stressed that OPCW will need to corroborate any further Syrian declarations with on-the-ground follow-up to resume its verification of the destruction of the chemical weapons programme. The Syrian regime continues to enjoy the full support of the Russian Federation as it openly flouts its international obligations, he added.
France’s delegate also cited the frustrating lack of progress, with the Syrian regime stubbornly refusing to cooperate. Independent investigations by the United Nations and the OPCW have revealed eight instances of Syria using weapons of mass destruction against its own population, he said. Recalling that resolution 2118 (2013) was adopted unanimously, and that the reality of the heinous attack on Ghouta in 2013 was never contested, he urged Syria to respond in writing to the questions sent in by the Technical Secretariat.
The Russian Federation’s representative said that the High Representative’s report offers no added value and reflected “a stubborn unwillingness of the OPCW Technical Secretariat to rectify its partisan anti-Syrian line”. Its only purpose is to reflect the political order of the United States and its allies, he said, adding that the Council’s discussions on resolution 2118 (2013) are arguably its least productive meetings, with two hours being spent every month repeating the same points verbatim.
Syria’s representative said that, once again, no developments warranted today’s Council meeting, as certain Western countries insist on flouting its resources and time instead of discussing pressing issues. Calling on OPCW to stop politicizing its technical role, he said that Syria has voluntarily acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, destroyed all stockpiles of chemical weapons and their production facilities in record time and agreed to extend the Tripartite Agreement for six months. Describing the Investigation and Identification Team as illegitimate, he said that its mandate was the result of certain States’ flagrant attempts to pursue ulterior motives in Syria.
The representatives of Ghana (also on behalf of Ghana and Kenya), Albania, Brazil, China, United Kingdom, Ireland, United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Norway, India, Türkiye and Iran also spoke.
The meeting began at 3:01 p.m. and ended at 4:18 p.m.
IZUMI NAKAMITSU, High Representative of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, briefing the Security Council on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013), said that efforts by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Declaration Assessment Team to clarify all outstanding issues on initial and subsequent declarations by Syria have made no progress since the Council last met on this issue. Further, efforts by the OPCW Technical Secretariat to organize the next round of consultations between the Declaration Assessment Team and Syria continue to be unsuccessful, as were efforts to hold a meeting in Beirut in November 2022 to identify limited in-country activities, receive requested declarations or documents and provide the Syrian National Authority with results of analysis of samples collected in April 2019.
Full cooperation by Syria with the Technical Secretariat is essential to closing all outstanding issues, she said, adding that due to the identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies, the declaration submitted by the Syria cannot be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and of Their Destruction (Chemical Weapons Convention). Inspections of the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, scheduled for December 2022, were postponed due to operational reasons. In addition, Syria has not yet provided sufficient technical information or explanations that would enable the Technical Secretariat to close the issue related to the detection of a Schedule 2 chemical at the Barzah facilities of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in November 2018, she said. Nor has the Technical Secretariat received requested information about the unauthorized movement of two cylinders related to the chemical weapon incident in Douma on 7 April 2018 which were destroyed in an attack on a chemical weapons production facility. She called upon Syria to respond with urgency to all Technical Secretariat requests.
Citing an invitation extended by the OPCW Director-General to the Syria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of Syria to an in-person meeting, she said noted that Syria had suggested a preliminary meeting in Beirut. Since then, communication between the focal points in charge of the preparations for the meeting have been reinitiated and Syria has responded. She noted that OPCW, United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and Syria have all agreed to a six-month extension of the Tripartite Agreement. Meanwhile, the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission is studying all available information related to allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, having deployed inside the country from 6 to 12 November 2022 to interview witnesses regarding several of the incidents under review. Further, the Investigation and Identification Team is continuing its investigations into incidents in which the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission has determined that chemical weapons were used or likely used in Syria. Unfortunately, she noted, Syria has not yet completed any of the measures stipulated in paragraph 5 of OPCW Executive Council decision EC-94/DEC.2.
Going forward, the Technical Secretariat will continue to engage with Syria to report to the OPCW Executive Council as mandated, she said. Stressing that the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, under any circumstances, is intolerable and a serious violation of international law, she recalled that the Secretary-General urged, on the Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare, commemorated on 30 November, that all victims must be honoured with a reaffirmed commitment to achieve a world free from this threat.
JOHN KELLEY (United States) said that obfuscation and delay are still the only terms to describe the Assad regime’s effort to address its chemical weapons stockpiles. Recalling that Syria amended its declaration of chemical weapons 17 times at the behest of the Declaration Assessment Team, he said that OPCW will need to corroborate any further Syrian declarations with on-the-ground follow‑up. He reiterated a call for the regime to allow Declaration Assessment Team back into Syria to resume its verification of the complete declaration and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons programme. The Syrian regime continues to enjoy the full support of the Russian Federation as it openly flouts its international obligations, he added. Recalling that the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism and OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team have independently confirmed the regime’s use of chemical weapons on eight occasions, he called on Syria to end its intransigence and to comply with its obligations under Council resolution 2118 (2013) and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) said that the High Representative’s report has no added value, which is unsurprising, given that there have been no developments on the ground due to the “stubborn unwillingness of the OPCW Technical Secretariat to rectify its partisan anti-Syrian line”. Every new report replicates the same clichés and politicized accusations, he said, adding that the only purpose of their conclusion is to make Damascus look bad and reflect the political order of the United States and its allies. This blatant unsightly situation is further stalled by the fact that the Director-General of OPCW stubbornly avoids appearing before the Council and refuses to speak directly with its members. The Council's regular mechanical discussions on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013) are arguably its least productive meetings, with two hours being spent every month repeating the same points verbatim. Such an approach devalues the debate on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013) and undermines the Council’s authority, he said.
CAROLYN OPPONG-NTIRI (Ghana), speaking also on behalf of Gabon and Kenya, said that Syria’s full cooperation with OPCW and compliance with all aspects of the decision of its Executive Council on 27 September 2013 is critical to break the current impasse. Voicing regret that the meeting in Beirut between the OPCW Secretariat and Syria in Beirut did not take place, she called once again on Syria to engage constructively with the OPCW Secretariat to resolve all outstanding issues and to hold a twenty‑fifth round of consultations with the Declaration Assessment Team. The prompt resolution of this investigation will allow both Syria and the Council the opportunity to rededicate precious time and resources to the other challenges facing the Syrian people, she said.
FERIT HOXHA (Albania) said that normally, the Council would take a firm, united position. However, this issue continues to divide its members and it is deplorable that the Council is unable to hold to account those who have repeatedly crossed the red line, thus shielding despicable behaviour, tolerating the intolerable and potentially inciting other rogue regimes to conduct themselves in a similar manner. “Council inaction always has deadly consequences,” he said, adding that Syria’s future cannot be built on impunity, nor can the country rebuild on the graves of innocent victims. If the Council wishes to help Syria design its future, it must stop supporting tactics of delays and evasions, take appropriate action and not side with those responsible for crimes, he said.
TAINÃ LEITE NOVAES (Brazil) said that as in previous months, little has changed in the situation on the ground or in the relationship between Syria and OPCW. The Council should pay close attention to progress in the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria, but holding monthly meetings when there are little or no developments on the ground does not seem an efficient use of time and resources. He expressed regret that a meeting in Beirut between OPCW representatives and Syrian authorities could not take place, but also looked forward to the circulation of a document submitted by Syria titled “The General National Document Regarding the Cooperation of the Syrian Arab Republic with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) between 2013 and 2022”. Chemical weapons are incompatible with international humanitarian law, he emphasized, adding that incidents must be addressed with transparency and with thorough and impartial investigations, in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.
LIANG HENGZHU (China), noting that China firmly opposes the use of chemical weapons, reiterated that dialogue and consultation are the only way to resolve the problem. He welcomed the extension of the Tripartite Agreement between OPCW, UNOPS and the Government of Syria on the destruction of chemical weapons. Turning to the meeting of the Director-General of OPCW and the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Syria, he encouraged stronger coordination through liaison channels to facilitate preparations. The Technical Secretariat should also remove obstacles concerning a twenty-fifth round of technical consultations. The OPCW investigation and attribution of the alleged use of chemical weapons should be limited to the framework of the Chemical Weapons Convention, he said, also suggesting that, given the Council’s limited resources, it should reduce or consolidate its meetings on the Syria chemical weapons file.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France), acknowledging that the lack of progress was frustrating, underscored that the exclusive responsibility for this situation is with the Syrian regime, which stubbornly refuses to cooperate. The Syrian regime used weapons of mass destruction against its own population. Independent investigations by the United Nations and OPCW have shown that this is true eight different times. Recalling that resolution 2118 (2013) was adopted unanimously and that the reality of the heinous attack on Ghouta in 2013 was never contested, he noted that the Syrian regime initially agreed to a bilateral meeting, only to then put conditions that could not be met by the Secretariat. In the face of such bad faith, the Technical Secretariat had to once again give up. He urged Syria to respond in writing to the questions sent in by the Technical Secretariat and to share some lights on all of its stock.
THOMAS PATRICK PHIPPS (United Kingdom) pointed out that Syria’s initial chemical weapons declaration, upon which the destruction of its chemical weapons stocks depended, was and remains inaccurate and incomplete. At least one chemical weapons production facility, four laboratories, five previously undeclared chemical warfare agents, hundreds of tons of chemicals and thousands of munitions were omitted from its initial declaration. Independent investigations have shown that the Syrian regime went on to use chemical weapons in further attacks against the Syrian people, even after they claimed to have given up all their chemical weapons. These attacks are all a matter of record, established by detailed and thorough investigations of the OPCW and the Joint Investigative Mechanism. OPCW has found Syria responsible for multiple chemical weapons attacks and other serious failures to meet its obligations as a State party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. During last week’s Conference of States Parties, 57 countries joined a statement unequivocally condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons and refusal to live up to its obligations. The scale of support for this statement speaks to the overwhelming desire of the international community to uphold the collective progress that have been made in recent decades towards a world free of chemical weapons, he emphasized.
CONLETH BRADY (Ireland), voicing regret at the lack of progress on the issue of Syrian chemical weapons, said that most worryingly, OPCW has come under sustained attack from Syria and the Russian Federation, as they actively seek to undermine the organization’s authority and independence, to mask Syria’s culpability. The Council’s reaction in the face of this should not be to reduce the attention it pays to this issue, he stressed, urging its regular discussion of the matter to show Syria that its lack of cooperation will not go unanswered. The Council must hold Syria to its obligations under Council resolution 2118 (2013) and the Chemical Weapons Convention, and push that country to engage in a serious, urgent and meaningful way with the Technical Secretariat to resolve outstanding issues. Moreover, the Council must give its unequivocal backing to OPCW and Syria must end its prevarication and commit to genuine engagement. “Only this will allow OPCW to provide the necessary assurance that Syria’s chemical weapons programme is verifiably and definitively a thing of the past,” he stressed.
MOHAMED ESSA SAIF BOAUSAIBAH AL-ALI (United Arab Emirates), reaffirming the importance of constructive dialogue between OPCW and Syria to address unresolved issues, emphasized that communication through written correspondence alone will not achieve this objective. In this regard, the meeting proposed by OPCW to be held in Beirut is a compromise, on which he expressed hope that the Syrian authorities and OPCW will reach consensus. He said he also looked forward to the meeting between Syria’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and the OPCW’s Director-General. He went on to reiterate the need to use the Council’s time and resources wisely, which means holding meaningful meetings that go beyond the mere repetition of well-known positions. “It is our collective responsibility to reconsider the effectiveness of the Council’s meetings,” he added.
ALICIA GUADALUPE BUENROSTRO MASSIEU (Mexico) noted that in August 2013, Ghouta was the scene of one of the deadliest chemical weapons attacks on record in Syria, with an estimated 1,400 people killed, including a significant number of minors. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic collected evidence of 38 attacks with chemical weapons that occurred between March 2011 and December 2020 ‑ many carried out indiscriminately against civilians and essential infrastructure such as hospitals. Almost 10 years after the first incident, it has still not been possible to bring those responsible for such atrocities to justice or offer reparations to the victims and their families. Further, in the two years in which Mexico has participated in discussions on the file, there has been practically no progress. In some cases. even ground has been lost, including 19 discrepancies identified in December 2020, with 20 pending questions, she observed. Despite numerous requests since November 2018, the origin of the remains of chemical substances detected in the Barzah facilities of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre has not been clarified. Further, since July 2021, there have been no explanations on the unauthorized transfer of chlorine cylinders related to the 2018 Douma incident. The lack of substantive progress is evident, she pointed out, stressing that the Council should focus on substantively advancing the application of resolution 2118 (2013).
MEENA ASIYA SYED (Norway) reiterated her support for OPCW’s investigative efforts, including the continued engagement of the Investigation and Identification Team and the Fact-Finding Mission with the Syrian authorities. She welcomed the recent decisions of OPCW, UNOPS and the Syrian authorities to extend the Tripartite Agreement. Highlighting the disappointing trend of the breakdown in engagement between the Declaration Assessment Team and the Syrian authorities due to visa delays, she urged Syria to cooperate with OPCW and provide sufficient technical information pertaining to the outstanding issues. She also urged Syria to provide sufficient technical information or explanations to close the 20 outstanding issues and to lift the suspension of its rights and privileges as a State party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, among others. As well, she voiced support to the work of the OPCW Director-General, its Technical Secretariat and their commitment to ensure the international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons.
RAVINDRA RAGUTTAHALLI (India), Council President for December, spoke in his national capacity, noting with regret that the recent communication between the focal points of Syria and the OPCW Technical Secretariat regarding a possible meeting has not come to fruition. He encouraged sustained engagement to resolve all outstanding issues. Discussions on chemical weapons should reflect progress on the ground. However, there has been no forward movement on the issue for several months. Underlining the importance of the Chemical Weapons Convention, he called for its full, effective, and non‑discriminatory implementation. Any investigation into the use of chemical weapons must be impartial, credible and objective. However, he also cautioned against the possibility of terrorist entities and individuals gaining access to chemical weapons, including in the region. Therefore, any allegation of use of chemical weapons needs to be dealt with utmost attention. Progress on other tracks would help in facilitating the overall political peace process in Syria, as advocated in resolution 2254 (2015), he added.
ALHAKAM DANDY (Syria) said that once again, no developments warrant today’s Council meeting. Certain Western countries insist on flouting the Council’s resources and time instead of discussing pressing issues, he said, refuting their false accusations against Syria. He called on OPCW to stop politicizing its technical role and instead uphold professionalism and impartiality in its work. Condemning the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances, he said that Syria has voluntarily acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and honoured its obligations thereunder. It also destroyed all stockpiles of chemical weapons and their production facilities in record time. Detailing its continued cooperation with the OPCW and Technical Secretariat, he said that Syria presented its latest report to the OPCW Director-General on 15 November. It also agreed to extend the Tripartite Agreement with OPCW and UNOPS for six months until 30 June 2023.
Support was provided to the fact-finding mission that visited Syria on 6 to 12 November, contributing to its success, he continued. Voicing regret that that cooperation was not reflected in the Technical Secretariat’s report, he said that reports submitted by Syria since 2017 have been delayed under a groundless pretext. As well, Syria is keen on holding a high-level meeting between its Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates and the OPCW Director-General as soon as possible. Noting that Syria has responded to the Technical Secretariat’s proposed agenda and has put forward certain substantial proposals, he voiced regret that the Technical Secretariat refused to cover the Syrian delegation’s expenses for the planned Beirut meeting. As such, the meeting was not held, he said, pointing out that the Technical Secretariat has covered such expenses before and that it disagreed with Syria’s proposal to hold the meeting in Damascus.
He went on to underscore the illegitimacy of the Investigation and Identification Team, stating that its mandate was the result of certain States’ flagrant attempts to pursue their own ulterior motives in Syria. He called on the Council to reconsider its approach, address all relevant developments objectively, and avoid politicization or exerting pressure on the OPCW Technical Secretariat.
ÖNCÜ KEÇELI (Türkiye) said that ongoing work of the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission and the Investigation and Identification Team are critical for establishing the truth about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It is the international community’s collective responsibility not only to remember the victims of chemical weapon attacks, but also to know how many victims there are. A lack of progress on this file underlines the Council’s failure to fulfil its mandate, he said, adding however that questioning the cycle of meetings will not bring justice or accountability. Every month, these meetings send a message to the families of the victims that the United Nations has not forgotten them. Therefore, the Council must keep regular consideration of this issue on its monthly calendar, he said.
AMIR SAEID JALIL IRAVANI (Iran) said the use of chemical weapons is a flagrant violation of international law. Having been the victim of weapons of mass destruction, Iran condemns their use by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances. Voicing support for dialogue between Syria and OPCW, he said any investigation must be professional, credible and objective. Moreover, the Chemical Weapons Convention must be applied fully and without discrimination, as any politicization will only endanger its credibility. Commending Syria for its positive engagement with OPCW, he noted that Damascus has regularly submitted monthly report which discuss its efforts to destroy chemical weapons and their manufacturing facilities. Syria also facilitated a visit by the Fact-Finding Mission from 6 to 12 November and consented to the six-month extension of the Tripartite Agreement. It is essential to address the Government of Syria’s legitimate concerns, including as regards the Investigation Identification and Team, which was given an unlawful mandate. He expressed hope that the high-level meeting between the OPCW Director-General and Syria’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates will take place and resolve concerns. He went on to agree that Council meetings on Syria are costly in terms of time and resources, adding that while Syria has complied with Convention on Chemical Weapons requirements, politicization can only detract from the technical character of discussions.