Syria’s Chemical Weapons Declaration Cannot Be Considered ‘Accurate, Complete’, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Tells Security Council

Nearly eight years after the Security Council first mandated the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, the senior United Nations disarmament official today described only limited progress towards declaring that dossier closed, as delegates continued to voice divergent views about the neutrality of the global non-proliferation architecture itself.

“At this stage, the declaration submitted by [Syria] cannot be considered accurate and complete,” said Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, who provided her latest briefing to the 15-member Council in a videoconference meeting this morning.  Outlining developments in advancing the implementation of Council resolution 2118 (2013) regarding the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, she said those included the deployment to Syria of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) Declaration Assessment Team, to conduct a twenty-fourth round of consultations.

Noting that her office maintains contact with both OPCW and Syria’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, she said the former is pressing forward with its mandated activities related to Syria despite the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As reported by OPCW, 19 declaration-related issues remain outstanding.  One of those pertains to a chemical weapons production facility that was declared by the Syrian National Authority as never having been used for the production of chemical weapons.  However, evidence gathered by the Declarations Assessment Team indicates that production and/or weaponization of chemical warfare nerve agents did, in fact, take place at this facility.

Syria has not yet responded to OPCW’s request regarding the exact types and quantities of chemical agents produced or weaponized at that site, she said.  As a result of such gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies, she emphasized that “at this stage, the declaration submitted by [Syria] cannot be considered accurate and complete”.  Efforts to resolve those outstanding issues have now been ongoing since 2014.  Noting that the international community’s confidence in the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme depends upon their finalization, she reiterated her call on the country to cooperate fully with OPCW to that end.

Turning to other developments, she said OPCW conducted its seventh round of inspections at the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, between 8 and 13 November 2020.  The samples collected during these inspections were split at the OPCW laboratory in the presence of a representative of Syria and sent to designated laboratories for analysis.  Looking forward to the release of those findings, which are expected in due course, she noted that Syria has yet to provide sufficient technical information or explanations that would enable OPCW to close the issue.

The OPCW fact-finding mission continues to study all available information related to allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, she continued, citing its engagement with the Syrian Government and other States parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Further deployments of the mission will be subject to the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Meanwhile, the Investigation and Identification Team continues to investigate incidents determined by the fact-finding mission as being likely instances of chemical weapons use.  Concluding, she stressed her full support for OPCW’s integrity, professionalism, impartiality, objectivity and independence.

As Council members took the floor, many underscored their complete rejection of the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances.  Several spotlighted OPCW’s crucial role in holding those who violate that norm to account.  However, while some speakers reiterated their unwavering confidence in OPCW’s work, others expressed concern over growing politicization, noting that the organization’s credibility — as measured by the standards of neutrality, impartiality and professionalism — is of paramount as a deterrent mechanism, and must be preserved at all costs.

The representative of the United States welcomed the Special Representative’s calls for accountability, as she described atrocities committed by the Assad regime, which have left tens of thousands of civilians dead — far too many of them by its use of chemical weapons.  Stressing that the United States remains committed to holding those who use these horrific weapons to account, she rhetorically asked why Damascus has not been held accountable, pointing out that the regime has obstructed independent investigations and undermined OPCW’s work.  Its ally, the Russian Federation, also has blocked efforts to pursue accountability by defending the Assad regime, despite its chemical weapons assaults, and attacked the organization’s professional work.  Reaffirming support for the impartial, independent work of OPCW, she said the April 2020 report by the Investigation and Identification Team found that Syria had used chemical weapons in three separate attacks.  Further, the Executive Council decision of July 2020 requested Syria to address the situation.  “Syria failed to complete any of the measures set forth in the decision,” she said. “Unsurprising, yet unacceptable.”

Recalling that the United States and 45 co-sponsors have submitted a draft decision to the upcoming Conference of States Parties, she urged it to send an unequivocal message to the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons has serious consequences.  “We already agreed as a united Council to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” she insisted, citing resolution 2118 (2013) and underscoring United States support for these and other efforts to ensure accountability.  It is time for Syria to uphold its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and resolution 2118 (2013).  She also pointed to a sacred global responsibility to protect people from the inhumanity of chemical weapons.  “Very few issues would unite all nations,” she said.  “The horror of chemical weapons must remain one of them.  We cannot let that norm disintegrate.”

The representative of the Russian Federation provided an overview of the history of the chemical weapons situation in Syria, recalling that the country voluntarily joined onto the work of OPCW, disposed of all of its chemical weapons and destroyed all of its production facilities.  The fact-finding mission was invited by Syria’s own initiative, and the country has maintained its collaboration with OPCW since 2013.  Despite such cooperation, however, several Council members continue to level extremely serious accusations against Damascus, offering as evidence video taken from social media sites, testimony from biased witnesses and even crudely doctored facts.  For its part, OPCW has regrettably taken on the role of merely repeating the anti-Syrian statements of Western States, citing evidence “that contradicts all laws of physics and logic” and barely makes a show of following standard evidence collection procedures.  When free thinkers within OPCW’s ranks sounded alarms about evidence fabrication and forgery, they were targeted.

Noting that the Investigation and Identification Team itself is illegitimate, as its creation was pushed through OPCW without consensus, he warned that new, “made-to-order” findings may emerge at any moment.  “Those are just the tip of the iceberg,” he said, stressing that the true root of the problem is that the Syrian case has become a tool for Western authorities’ own political aims.  In that vein, he cited the OPCW Executive Council’s July 2020 decision, which required the Syrian Government to make impossible declarations relating to weapons it does not possess.  As a result of Syria’s inability to respond, Western States are now pushing to strip the country of its rights as a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Emphasizing that there is absolutely nothing unusual in the Syrian chemical weapons situation that would merit such steps, he noted that such nuances have been handled by many States parties — including Western States — in the past.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said impunity for the use of chemical weapons should never be an impediment to deterrence.  As such, OPCW plays a critical role and bears a tremendous responsibility and all its activities must be characterized by transparency, impartiality and non-politicization and must be of the highest standards.  Recognizing efforts by the organization and the Syrian Government to resolve outstanding issues related to the latter’s initial declaration, she stressed that cooperation must be fostered and maintained.  OPCW member States should pursue consensus-based decisions, she added, urging them not to overlook Syria’s many notifications regarding the possession and use of chemical weapons by non-State groups.

The representative of Estonia said a defining feature of the conflict in Syria has been the repeated and systematic deployment of chemical weapons against civilians, as seen in Ghouta, Douma, Sarmin and Khanh Shaykhun.  The regime’s responsibility for their use was confirmed by independent United Nations and OPCW investigative mechanisms on seven separate occasions.  The OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism also confirmed their use by ISIL/Da’esh.  Expressing full trust in the work of the OPCW Technical Secretariat, he said there is no justification for the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances, and he expressed regret that the Council’s attempts to move towards accountability have been blocked by a veto.  “Gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies remain in the Syrian declaration,” he assured, and Syria’s lack of cooperation means there is no clarity around its chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities.  He added that it was three years ago today that Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with the Novichok chemical nerve agent in Salisbury, United Kingdom.  The same poison was used again in August 2020 in an attempt on Russian politician Alexei Navalny’s life, he said, condemning in the strongest terms targeted killings of those who speak out against the Government.

The representative of Ireland joined other speakers in calling for the global norm against the use of chemical weapons to be upheld, while stating her country’s unwavering support for OPCW is crucial in addressing the possession and use of chemical weapons.  “It serves to protect all of our interests, including those of the people of Syria,” she stressed, voicing serious concern about ongoing efforts by some Council members to question the organization’s professionalism and impartiality.  In the case of Syria, OPCW has provided factual, evidence-based and impartial conclusions on numerous reported instances of chemical weapon use.  “It has been clear where evidence was insufficient to come to a conclusion, [and] it has also been clear where evidence points to use by terrorist groups,” she said, noting that in some cases the evidence warrants attribution of use to the Syrian authorities.  The Council should not seek to second guess OPCW’s findings.  Also expressing concern about remaining gaps and inconsistencies in Syria’s initial declaration, she said that “paints a picture of evasion” by Damascus.  Syria’s authorities bear the responsibility to fully address and answer those issues, she said, expressing Ireland’s support for the decision put to the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention for its meeting in April regarding non-compliance by Damascus.

The representative of India expressed hope that the twenty-fourth round of consultations between the Declaration Assessment Team and Syrian authorities, held from 7 to 25 February, will help to address the reported gaps and inconsistencies in the declaration.  Recalling that India provided $1 million to the OPCW Trust Fund, he said the continued cooperation between Syria and the Technical Secretariat is critical for the early resolution of all outstanding issues.  Recalling that India has underlined the need for an impartial investigation into any alleged chemical weapons use, following the provisions and procedures laid down in the Convention, he said differences should be addressed through consultations among all concerned parties.  “Politicization of the issue will result in parties taking extreme positions,” he cautioned.  India is willing to work with likeminded delegations to foster unity in the Council.  He also touched on the terrorist threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) in displacement camps and detention facilities in Syria’s north-east, stressing that the role of certain actors in the conflict has re-energized terrorist activities in the region.

The representative of Mexico recognized some progress in Syria’s cooperation, but nonetheless said that given the incomplete or contradictory information on chemical weapons use, impartial determination on this case is a matter for OPCW, along with the mechanisms set up to shine a light on the events.  Such inquiries must continue to advance.  The Convention, and its monitoring body, are among the most robust and effective of all disarmament treaties and regimes, he said, calling the universal international monitoring and verification system “the optimum standard”.  Noting that on 3 March Mexico voted in favour of the General Assembly resolution on cooperation between the United Nations and OPCW, he said the strong support garnered by the resolution reflects the importance of such cooperation.  “This interaction must be further strengthened,” he said, appealing to Syria to continue to cooperate with OPCW and move forward on pending issues.

The representative of France said Syria’s regime is still lying and evading its international obligations.  “The initial declaration is incomplete,” he said, noting that seven years have passed since the adoption of resolution 2118 (2013).  Among the outstanding issues is one related to an undeclared production site, for which the Syrian regime has provided no information.  Noting that France looks forward to the results of the Declaration Assessment Team’s visit and the report by the Investigation and Identification Team, he said “Syria has not carried out any of the actions expected of it.”  France, acting on behalf of 46 delegations, submitted to the Technical Secretariat a draft decision to deprive Syria’s regime of its voting rights.  He deplored the unfounded accusations levelled against OPCW, identifying the re-emergence of chemical weapons in the world as a major threat.  He stressed the need to fight impunity, recalling that this week, the survivors of a chemical weapons attack brought a case against Syria, in France, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  “Criminals will not get away with it,” he assured.

The representative of Norway said the sheer length of the Syrian conflict does not make the issue any less relevant or mean that the Council should stop discussing it.  “On the contrary, the lack of accountability and the deterioration of trust reminds us of the importance and the urgency of the issue,” she said.  Citing little progress in efforts to complete the process of eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons programme, she nevertheless noted the Declaration Assessment Team’s deployment and looked forward to its findings, while urging Syria to cooperate fully and resolve all outstanding issues from its initial declaration.  Norway remains aligned with the European Union’s restrictive measures on persons and entities involved in the development and use of chemical weapons, she said, reiterating her country’s full confidence in OPCW and firmly rejecting attempts to discredit it or bring it into disrepute.

The representative of Tunisia said the use of toxic chemicals as weapons is a threat to all of humanity.  Expressing his country’s support for the global disarmament framework, including the role played by OPCW to prevent the proliferation of such weapons, he noted the challenges and restrictions posed by COVID-19 and welcomed ongoing cooperation between the organization and the Syrian Government.  He urged the latter to continue its dialogue and meet its commitments, while noting that all investigations must be carried out in a transparent, impartial and neutral manner.  “Unity is the best way to address this issue and resolve the Syrian crisis,” he stressed.

The representative of Viet Nam stressed the importance of continued cooperation between Syria and OPCW.  He asked for updates on the results of the twenty-fourth round of consultations between the Declaration Assessment Team and the National Authority of Syria in February.  Calling on the two sides to continue their technical cooperation and consultations constructively, he also called for the full resumption of OPCW activities.  Investigating alleged uses of chemical weapons would help prevent them from being used again, he said, also underscoring the importance of a comprehensive, transparent and impartial probe based on incontestable facts and evidence.  The substantial, longstanding divergence on the matter is evident, he said, but the mutual goal remains the full implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Security Council resolution 2118 (2013).

The representative of Kenya welcomed Syria’s submission of its eighty-seventh monthly report regarding activities related to the destruction of its chemical weapons and production facilities.  Underlining the need for coordination between Syria and OPCW to clear up the 19 remaining gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies and ensure a quick conclusion of the investigations, he went on to welcome the deployment of the Declaration Assessment Team and the extension of the Tripartite Agreement for a period of six months.  “The use of chemical weapons anywhere and by anyone constitutes an abominable violation of international law,” he stressed, adding that it can never be justified.  The Council should support all efforts to strengthen OPCW and ensure full transparency and professionalism in its investigations, as its sensitive work must remain above reproach.  He added that the expeditious closure of the investigation will allow the Council to more meaningfully help the Syrian people in their quest for a political solution.

The representative of the United Kingdom expressed concern that the Council is meeting, yet again, as Syria continues to fail to respond to requests by the OPCW Technical Secretariat regarding issues of a “serious and substantive nature”.  The ongoing threat posed to international peace and security by those outstanding issues is neither academic nor theoretical, she stressed, citing many instances over the course of the Syrian conflict where standards of proof regarding the use of chemical weapons were met.  In another incident three years ago in the town of Salisbury, in the United Kingdom, two former operatives of the Russian Federation’s intelligence service were targeted with a chemical nerve agent.  Noting that OPCW has also identified at least one instance in which ISIL/Da’esh was identified as having used chemical weapons, she emphasized that any credible evidence of their use by such groups must also be fully investigated.

The representative of China opposed chemical weapons’ use by any State or individual for any purpose, expressing hope that OPCW will uphold the principles of impartiality and objectivity, and act strictly within the Chemical Weapons Convention framework.  Efforts to resolve the issues must originate from facts, he said, stressing that the reliability of information and integrity of the evidence chain affect the credibility of the report.  Noting that States parties have the right to question the investigation’s report, he pressed the Technical Secretariat to present conclusive evidence.  “There should be no double standards,” he said.  The Technical Secretariat should not selectively adopt information on alleged weapons use and there should be no political motivations at play, he said, noting that some countries have pushed OPCW to take action despite a lack of evidence and huge differences among the parties.  “We must rely on dialogue and cooperation,” he emphasized.  Pointing out that Syria has collaborated with OPCW, and in principle, agreed to extend the cooperation agreement by six months, he said the international community should acknowledge Syria’s constructive attitude and encourage the parties to work together to resolve outstanding issues.

The representative of Niger, recalling that the United Nations has made efforts to determine accountability for chemical weapons use in Syria since 2013, expressed regret that it has not been possible to determine who was responsible.  The Council must demonstrate unity in addressing the chemical weapons issue, and any divergent views should yield to a technical analysis of the situation.  He cautioned against politicization of reports and conclusions, condemning any use of chemical weapons as a violation of international law.  He called for dialogue between OPCW and Syria to answer pending issues, reiterating Niger’s appeal that OPCW and its technical teams take into account allegations that terrorists in Syria possess chemical products.  “This aspect must not be neglected,” he stressed.

Taking the floor a second time, the representative of the Russian Federation, turning to the “strange case” referenced by Western partners which had deemed it to be closed under such notorious terms as “highly likely”, he clarified that this case is not closed.  The Russian Federation has yet to receive answers to questions posed to its United Kingdom colleagues.  These queries are posted on the Russian Federation’s website in the United Kingdom.  He encouraged colleagues to take note of these questions, stressing that during discussions on chemical weapons, “we will find a way to make these questions public once again” and continue to seek answers.

The representative of the United Kingdom said that as part of its investigation into the Salisbury attacks, 250 detectives trolled through 11,000 hours of CCTV and more than 1,000 witness statements — methodical work to ascertain who was responsible.  The forensic investigation provided sufficient evidence to bring charges against two Russian nationals, she assured.

The representative of Syria, recalling that he served for years as his country’s representative to OPCW following the 2013 initial declaration, said his country has always condemned the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances.  In close consultation with OPCW, Damascus destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile in record time.  As Damascus was forced to draft its initial declaration in a very short time and under pressure, it has since worked to remedy any inconsistencies.  In February, his Government met with the Declaration Assessment Team again to help further that work.  Despite such cooperation, some States continue to attack Syria in bad faith, challenging its intentions with no basis in fact.  Noting that the production installation mentioned in the Director-General’s report does appear in Syria’s initial declaration, he described its status as a “scientific matter that requires in-depth discussion”, for which the Council is not the appropriate forum.

Regarding the team sent to Syria to investigate allegations gleaned from open-source information gathered by Western countries, he said those investigators did not respect the rules laid out in the verification annex of the Chemical Weapons Convention and did not act impartially.  Among other things, they failed to preserve necessary samples, received samples from unknown sources and interviewed anonymous witnesses — including some with known ties to terrorist groups.  Questioning why the OPCW’s fact-finding mission investigated such open-source allegations in record time, while allegations levelled by the Syrian Government have still not been concluded years later, he said such a discrepancy proves a clear methodological inconsistency and puts OPCW’s credibility in question.  While Damascus continues to cooperate, Western States are now putting even more pressure on OPCW, allowing the United States and France to submit a draft resolution to the Executive Council creating new pretexts to attack Syria, fabricate allegations and play into the hands of terrorist groups.  He cautioned the international community not to allow such efforts to succeed, rejecting such a “hostile, politicized” approach and calling for more constructive efforts to move the issue forward.

The representative of Turkey said it is unacceptable that Syria has not made a complete declaration of its chemical weapons programme, a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.  As there are 19 outstanding issues, Syria’s declaration cannot be considered accurate or complete.  Among them is one that deserves the Council’s urgent attention.  Contrary to the regime’s allegations, evidence collected by the Declaration Assessment Team indicates that the production and/or weaponization of chemical nerve agents took place in Syria and he expressed regret that requests by the Technical Secretariat have been denied.  The regime must be forced to declare the materials produced or weaponized at the facility.  Syria must declare the full extent of its programme to OPCW, he said, pressing the Council to “act in unity and determination without delay”.

Recalling that, in response to Syria’s non-compliance, OPCW took a decision in July 2020 that set verifiable parameters for action, he said Damascus failed to fulfil its obligations under this decision, and as a result, further measures became necessary and another decision was submitted to the upcoming Conference of States Parties.  “Establishing the truth is fundamental to our joint efforts to achieve peace in Syria,” he stressed.  Syria’s denial of a visa to the Investigation and Identification Team violates the Convention and constitutes “a clear attempt to hide the truth”.  Expressing support to the Technical Secretariat, and praising its professionalism, he warned against attempts to undermine its credibility, as he welcomed the General Assembly’s 3 March adoption of a related resolution.  Recalling that March marks 10 years since Syrians took to the streets to express their aspirations for freedom and dignity, which were then met with brutality by the regime, including chemical attacks, he said Syria must be held accountable for its violations of international law and crimes against humanity.  The Council must ensure accountability for the regime’s chemical weapons use and press it to cooperate with OPCW.  He underscored the particular responsibility of those with influence on Syria’s regime in this context.

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