posted on Sun 30 Oct 2016 1:39 AM
Syria: Draft Resolution on the Renewal of the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism

Tomorrow (31 October), the mandate of the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), the body mandated to determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, expires. The Council will vote on a resolution to extend the JIM for a further two weeks, with a view to a further vote on a renewal of the mechanism at the end of this extension period.

Last Friday (28 October), the US put a draft resolution to extend the JIM for a further year under silence. Russia broke silence almost immediately, saying that it had made clear during the previous day’s consultations on chemical weapons in Syria that it would not be able to support the renewal of the JIM’s current mandate.

On 27 October, Virginia Gamba, the head of the JIM, presented the mechanism’s findings. Of the nine cases the JIM investigated, Gamba reported that the Syrian regime used chlorine gas against its own population in three cases and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant used mustard gas in one case. In the remaining five cases, the JIM investigated allegations that the government dropped chlorine bombs in rebel-held areas. While the JIM could not make a conclusive determination in three of these five cases, it was able to establish that government airstrikes had occurred and the presence of a toxic substance, but it was unable to fully determine the link between the two, or the actors responsible. In two of the five cases, the JIM detected no flight movement at the time of the allegations nor was it able to establish the presence of toxic substances.

In public remarks following the 27 October consultations, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin expressed doubt about the JIM’s findings, while Gamba said the JIM stood firmly behind its work.

Russia remains unconvinced that the JIM’s work has provided sufficient evidence to pursue punitive measures in the Council, such as sanctions. Russia’s preferred next step would be for the Syrian government to carry out its own investigations where the JIM “found fault”, as per Article 7 of the Chemical Weapons Convention on national implementation measures. Other Council members note that the JIM was created for the precise reason that the Chemical Weapons Convention is not sufficient where a state party is implicated in the use of chemical weapons.

France and the UK have been vocal about the need to impose sanctions for the use of chemical weapons, and the US has said it will seek “appropriate accountability”. It seems, however, that the P3’s immediate priority is getting the JIM renewed, rather than tabling a sanctions resolution that would most likely be vetoed.

Nonetheless, even negotiations on the JIM’s renewal have proved difficult. Russia has apparently indicated to some Council members in private that it would veto a straightforward renewal of the JIM mandate, leaving the P3 in a difficult position in their attempt to try to salvage one of the few accountability mechanisms the Council has established regarding Syria. After Russia broke silence on the draft resolution put under silence by the US last Friday, it submitted extensive amendments seeking to broaden the JIM to include a regional mandate to monitor and investigate the use of chemical weapons by non-state actors and terrorist groups. Russia has previously sought to expand the JIM’s mandate along similar lines, most recently in April. At that time, all Council members agreed that the use of chemical weapons by non-state actors was a serious issue that needed to be addressed, even suggesting a role for the Council’s 1540 Non-Proliferation Committee. However, the P3 and many other members believed that this was too broad a task to be tied to the JIM’s mandate, which is specific to determining responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria where the OPCW Fact Finding Mission has already confirmed their usage. Consequently, the Russian amendments to the draft were not acceptable to many member states, in particular the P3.

During the 27 October consultations, it seems that Russia’s preference for any JIM renewal to include a regional focus was supported by Angola, China and Venezuela. However, Russia was apparently isolated in its position that the JIM’s conclusions were not substantiated.

While other Council members, such as Malaysia and New Zealand, supported the JIM’s work and its renewal, they expressed the desire to have a substantive discussion of what the JIM’s work would be under a renewed mandate. This was apparently in response to the fact that the draft resolution does not explicitly recall the JIM’s terms of reference as set out in resolution 2235.

Over the weekend, there have been bilateral contacts between Russia and the US to try to find a way forward. The two-week extension of the JIM appears to be the result of these efforts. While the extension offers a short-term solution and would provide more time for negotiations, it is unclear to many Council members whether and how positions on the Council could shift in the next two weeks, either regarding the JIM’s work or in bridging the differences on the renewal.