posted on Mon 23 Oct 2017 6:12 PM
Vote on the Syria Joint Investigative Mechanism*

Tomorrow (24 October), the Security Council is scheduled to vote on a draft resolution that would renew the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for an additional year. The draft was circulated to all Council members last Wednesday (18 October) and was put into blue following one negotiating session on Friday (20 October).

Most Council members strongly support the work of the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the OPCW, which determines whether chemical weapons have been used, and of the Council-mandated JIM, which assigns attribution for the use of chemical weapons. However, Russia has expressed strong reservations about the methodology employed by both the FFM and the JIM and has argued that a vote should not occur before the release of the JIM’s report regarding responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Um Housh and Khan Shaykhun, expected on 26 October. In private, it has said that it would veto the draft.

In August, the US suggested an early renewal of the JIM (whose mandate expires on 17 November) in order to delink the negotiations on its renewal from the final conclusions of the JIM’s investigation of the incidents mentioned above. Regarding the 16 September 2016 attack in Um Housh, the FFM has concluded that two victims had been exposed to sulfur mustard. Although unable to ascertain the dispersion mechanism used in the Khan Shaykhun attack of 4 April 2017, the FFM has stated that there is “incontrovertible evidence” that a large number of people, some of whom died, were exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance used as a chemical weapon. According to its report, the FFM did not conduct an on-site visit because “the security risks associated with a deployment to Khan Shaykhun far outweighed any additional corroboration of the facts that have already been established”(S/2017/400).

The US appears to be wary of what it views as the potential for increased politicisation of the work of the JIM with anticipated criticisms of the report’s findings by Russia. As Ambassador Nikki Haley said at the press stakeout on 19 October, “the Russians have made it very clear that should the report blame the Syrians, suddenly they won’t have faith in [the] JIM. If the report doesn’t blame the Syrians, then they say that they will. It would be a shame if Russia chose to have an investigative mechanism based on who was to blame in Khan Shaykhun.”

Russia’s concerns about the methodology of the FFM and the JIM were outlined in a letter to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council on 7 October (S/2017/848) with regard to Khan Shaykhun. It questioned why the FFM visited neither the site of the Khan Shaykhun attack, nor the Sha’irat airbase, where it has been alleged the aircraft that perpetrated the attack came from. In the letter, Russia said that the JIM should “make all possible efforts to visit the site of the incident in Khan Shaykhun…” while expressing the “hope that the JIM will be able to strictly adhere to appropriate methodology, [and] avoid hasty and groundless conclusions…”. In a non-paper affixed to the letter, Russia maintained that the crater resulting from the explosion that released chemical weapons at Khan Shaykhun was consistent with an improvised explosive device and not with an aerial bombardment.

Several Council members emphasise the importance of maintaining the unity of the Council in renewing the JIM. Most Council members appear to take the view that the contents of the JIM’s report should not be linked to a decision to renew the JIM’s mandate and have faith in the mechanism’s independence, impartiality and professionalism. In addition to Russia, there is a minority of members who believe that the methodology of the JIM could be improved, maintaining in particular that it should visit Khan Shaykhun, but who nonetheless emphasise the importance of unity in renewing the mechanism.

Secretary-General António Guterres has registered his support for the work of the JIM, including in a public readout of a meeting he had with the JIM’s leadership team in July. According to that 12 July readout, Guterres “expressed utmost confidence in the Mechanism and urged all member states in a position to do so to support its activities.” This came after Edmond Mulet, the Head of the JIM, stated at the Council stakeout after consultations on 6 July that the JIM had been under political pressure from “many sides” regarding how it conducts its work, with threats of not accepting its conclusions.

It appears that an additional motivation for attempting to renew the mandate of the JIM early, albeit not necessarily prior to the release of the JIM report, is to avoid a scenario akin to what happened last year. In late October 2016, when the US circulated a draft resolution to reauthorise the JIM for one year, Russia expressed significant reservations, maintaining that the JIM’s conclusions—which implicated the Syria government in two chemical attacks and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in another one—were not substantiated and pushing to give the JIM a broader, regional mandate to monitor and investigate the use of chemical weapons by non-state actors and terrorist groups. A brief, technical roll-over resolution was adopted to allow for more time for negotiations before the Council finally renewed the mandate for one year on 17 November (S/RES/2319), including as a compromise language encouraging the JIM to consult, as appropriate, with the Council’s 1540 Non-Proliferation Committee and the 1267/1989/2253 Al-Qaida/ISIL Sanctions Committee. The brief uncertainty regarding the JIM’s future, prior to the adoption of resolution 2319, created difficulties in the planning and hiring of staff, which disrupted the JIM’s work for several months. Members are keen to avoid such a disruption in the JIM’s work. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu, in response to a question during consultations on 4 October, confirmed the utility of an early renewal to ensure continuity in the JIM’s capacity to deliver on its mandate.

Even if the draft were not to be adopted tomorrow, several weeks remain for an effort to renew the JIM’s mandate prior to its 17 November expiration.

*Post-script: Russia registered its ninth veto on a draft resolution on Syria in the vote on the JIM renewal. The draft received eleven affirmative votes. Bolivia voted against the draft and China and Kazakhstan abstained.This is the third time that China has abstained on a draft resolution vetoed by Russia on Syria; it has jointly vetoed six drafts on Syria with Russia.

Before the vote, Russia proposed postponing the meeting until 7 November under rule 33.3 of the provisional rules of procedure. A procedural vote was held, but the proposal failed to gain nine votes required for adoption (4-8-3).