Skip to content

Chemical weapons watchdog adds powers

An international organization that investigates chemical weapons attacks expanded its own authority so it can go a step further by assigning blame.

The international organization that investigates chemical weapons attacks has expanded its own authority so that it can go a step further by assigning blame.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, added to its own powers through a 82-24 vote that exceeded the two-thirds majority needed for approval.

The vote was marked by rancorous debate pitting Britain — which proposed the change — against Russia and Syria. It came during a special session among member nations at The Hague, Netherlands, where OPCW is based.

Britain and its Western allies had come to view OPCW's inability to assign responsibility for attacks as a needless obstacle, particularly after a series of chemical attacks that killed hundreds of people in Syria's seven-year civil war.

The British proposal had implications for Syria and its main ally Russia, which have denied accusations of using chemical weapons.

As the international organization created to oversee the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention that banned chemical weapons, OPCW has until now been unable to name those that it found to be responsible for carrying out chemical weapons attacks.

Despite the hindrance, the organization, as the overseer of the chemical weapons treaty, has helped the world move within striking distance of a big milestone, its director-general, Ahmet Üzümcü, told a three-day meeting among OPCW's 193 member nations.

More than 96% of all declared chemical weapons stockpiles have been eliminated, he said, and the world is "just a few steps away" from doing away with an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. The treaty applies to all but 2% of the world's population.

Üzümcü noted, however, that the special session "takes place against a background of serious concerns regarding the use of chemical weapons that has repeatedly occurred since 2013," and the organization's purpose is to uphold the global ban against chemical weapons use.

“I have not hesitated in pointing out that currently there is no mechanism that would ensure that those who use chemical weapons are held fully accountable," Üzümcü told the special session.

"Chemical weapons use, wherever it occurs, is a serious offense requiring resolute action," he said in an OPCW statement. "If accountability is avoided, the potential re-emergence and acceptance of chemicals as weapons of war and terror will not be deterred.”

Filling a crucial gap

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said OPCW would immediately start work on identifying those responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Its expanded authority fills a crucial gap that became obvious when the United Nations Security Council was prevented from renewing its own investigation in November, according to Britain's foreign office.

"Chemical weapons are an affront to human dignity and have no place in the 21st century. The international community has quite rightly come together today to strengthen the ban on chemical weapons and prevent impunity for their use," Johnson said.

The 15-nation U.N. Security Council includes five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — who each wield veto power.

A joint inquiry of the United Nations and OPCW found the Syrian government used nerve agent sarin in an April 2017 attack and chlorine as a weapon several times, and that Islamic State militants used mustard gas.

Russia ended the inquiry last November by preventing the Security Council from renewing its mandate. In response to the alleged chemical attacks, the United States, Britain and France bombed three Syrian government sites in April.

The United States and Britain also registered protest in May when Syria was given a new role of presiding over the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, the international organization that negotiated the 21-year-old chemical weapons treaty.

As Syria took the helm of the month-long rotating presidency, the U.S. delegation called it a "travesty" and staged a protest walkout. American diplomats said Syrian President Bashar Assad's government lacks both the credibility and moral authority to lead the U.N.-hosted international organization.

Britain also said it was well documented that Syria repeatedly used chemical weapons in the war. The United Nations has blamed four chemical weapons attacks on the Syrian government and a fifth on the Islamic State group.