posted on Mon 5 Jan 2015 11:47 AM
Syria: Chemical Weapons & OPCW Fact-Finding Report

Tomorrow morning (6 January), UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane will brief Security Council members on the fifteenth monthly report (S/2014/948) on the implementation of resolution 2118, which required the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Tomorrow will be Kane’s first briefing in the Secretary-General’s good offices role regarding implementation of resolution 2118, a role previously filled by Sigrid Kaag who is now the Special Coordinator for Lebanon.

Kane is expected to brief on the remaining tasks in the implementation of resolution 2118, such as the verification of the ongoing destruction of chemicals outside Syria, plans to complete the destruction of chemical weapons production facilities in Syria by the summer of 2015, and clarification of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile.

However, Council members expect the major focus of tomorrow’s consultations will be the 18 December 2014 report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on Syria’s use of chlorine bombs. This report concludes with “a high degree of confidence that chlorine has been used as a weapon”. It also exhaustively details the OPCW fact-finding mission’s work and supports the conclusions of the September 2014 OPCW report that there was evidence that chlorine had been consistently and repeatedly used in barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. While the fact-finding mission does not attribute blame, only the government has aerial capacity and only rebel-held areas were targeted.

Since the September 2014 report was publicly released, there have been months of institutional haggling between the UN and the OPCW in order to bring the findings of the OPCW fact-finding mission formally to the Security Council’s attention. This throws into sharp relief the continuing deep divisions within the Council over the Syrian government’s use of chlorine bombs. The US has said such allegations raise serious questions about Syria’s obligations under resolution 2118 and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Whereas, Russia has argued that the OPCW, not the Security Council, would be the appropriate arena to address any alleged breaches of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The OPCW fact-finding mission was mandated by the OPCW, not the Security Council, meaning there is no direct reporting line back to the Security Council. However, several Council members, in particular the P3, have been keen to ensure that its findings were transmitted to the Council. The fact-finding mission’s work provides objective analysis indicating that resolution 2118, which determined that the use of chemical weapons anywhere constitutes a threat to international peace and security, was breached. Furthermore, the Director-General of the OPCW is obligated to report non-compliance with resolution 2118 to the Security Council. Such information could set the stage for further action by the Security Council on the chemical weapons track. However, to date, the Director-General has never formally sent the OPCW fact-finding reports on the issue of chlorine bombs to the Security Council.

Shortly after the release of the December 2014 OPCW fact-finding report—which, unlike the September 2014 report, was not public—Australia, France, Jordan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Republic of Korea, the UK and the US asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to submit the fact-finding mission’s reports to the Security Council. The Secretary-General, who had not formally received the reports, requested the OPCW Director-General to submit them to him. The Director-General declined, saying that only a consensus decision by the OPCW Executive Council—which also includes China and Russia—would allow him to do so. The P3 countries are also represented on the OPCW Executive Council and had received the reports in that capacity. Since both the UN Secretary-General and the OPCW Director-General were reluctant to submit the reports, the P3, along with the five elected Council members mentioned above, transmitted the reports to the Security Council in a 30 December 2014 letter (S/2014/955).

Despite strong indications in the OPCW fact-finding mission’s reports that the Syrian government has not complied with some aspects of resolution 2118 and is responsible for ongoing chemical weapons use, there still does not seem to be appetite among Council members to push for stronger measures against the Syrian regime, such as targeted sanctions, due to the assumption that Russia, backed by China, would veto any attempt.

Furthermore, it is unclear to many Council members whether tomorrow’s discussion will lead to deeper engagement on the chemical weapons track or if the OPCW fact-finding report will be discussed and shelved, as happened to the December 2013 Sellström report on the government’s use of chemical weapons in Ghouta on 21 August 2013 (S/2013/735). (The Ghouta attack was the incident that crossed the US’s “red line” and led to the agreement between Moscow and Washington that was enshrined in resolution 2118 five weeks after the attack.)

Russia, since June 2014, has expressed a strong preference to move the chemical weapons issue out of the Security Council and allow the OPCW to deal with remaining issues on a purely technical level. Meanwhile, those Council members who are concerned about the use of chlorine bombs want to continue to send strong signals to the Syrian government that the chemical weapons file is not closed at the Council.

Looking forward, Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is likely to brief on the political track on 22 January and Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-wha Kang is expected to brief on the humanitarian track on 28 January.