posted on Mon 6 Nov 2017 5:59 PM
Briefing on the Final Report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism

Tomorrow (7 November), the Security Council is expected to be briefed on the final report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN by the Head of the JIM, Edmond Mulet. Although the JIM report is expected to be the focus of the briefing, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu is also expected to brief the Council on progress in the destruction of Syria’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons.

This briefing follows the release of the seventh report of the OPCW-UN JIM on 26 October. The report includes the JIM’s assessment, findings and conclusions regarding the attacks in Umm Hawsh (15-16 September 2016) and Khan Shaykhun (4 April 2017). In the report, the JIM’s Leadership Panel said that it was confident that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was responsible for the use of sulfur mustard in Umm Hawsh and that the Syrian government was responsible for the release of sarin in Khan Shaykhun.

Council members are expected to provide their assessment of the report and its conclusions. The public nature of the briefing is likely to encourage the reiteration of well-known positions rather than allow for a more interactive discussion with the JIM leadership on questions arising from the content of the JIM’s report. (The original request to hold the meeting in public came from the US, but no Council member has proposed that the meeting be followed by consultations.)

The existing divisions in the Council are expected to be on full display during the meeting. While the P3 and other Council members have publicly supported the conclusions of the report, Russia has questioned its findings. In a 31 October letter to the President of the Council, Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia criticised the JIM for falling short of the standards of the Chemical Weapons Convention. In particular, the letter raises questions about the JIM’s conduct of investigations of incidents of alleged chemical use without on-site visits and criticises the non-observance of the chain of custody, the failure to use all available methods and methodologies of investigation, and the questionable credibility of the JIM’s sources. Russia had previously articulated some of these criticisms regarding the OPCW’s Fact Finding Mission in a 6 October letter (S/2017/848). The 31 October letter calls the report “amateurish in nature” and “based primarily on assumptions and a selective use of facts.” It criticises the findings, methodology and underpinning assumptions of the JIM on both attacks. Mulet may take advantage of the meeting to address some of Russia’s criticisms of the JIM’s work.

The briefing is expected to have an impact on the negotiations of the renewal of the JIM, whose mandate ends on 17 November. (A 24 October attempt to renew the JIM before the release of the report was blocked by Russia who stressed the need to evaluate the effectiveness of the JIM by assessing the final report before discussing its renewal.) On 2 November, the US and Russia circulated competing drafts addressing the renewal of the JIM. The US draft characterises the information obtained by the JIM as constituting “sufficient, credible and reliable evidence to reach conclusions on those responsible for the use of chemical weapons” in Umm Hawsh and Khan Shaykhun, and would extend the JIM’s mandate for 24 months. The Russian draft would renew the JIM for only six months, while addressing the methodological concerns noted in Nebenzia’s 31 October letter. In particular, the Russian draft requests the JIM to dispatch another investigative team to Khan Shaykhyn and the Sha’yrat airbase. While the JIM visited the latter, it did not take samples, arguing that there was little chance of finding any trace of sarin or its degradation products at an airbase of that size. The draft also requests the UN Secretary-General, in coordination with the Director-General of the OPCW Technical Secretariat, to submit to the Council, for its authorisation, recommendations on possible additional measures to strengthen the JIM. With only ten days left of the JIM’s current mandate, the Council may be poised to repeat last year’s delayed renewal, which required a technical rollover resolution in order to allow for more time to negotiate the terms of the renewal. The uncertainty regarding the JIM’s future created difficulties in the planning and hiring of staff, which disrupted the JIM’s work for several months.

A related development is that the P3 have stated their intention to follow-up on the JIM findings with an accountability resolution. The sequencing for such an initiative remains uncertain, as Council members are expected to prioritise discussions to renew the JIM before engaging on negotiations on such a draft. On 28 February 2017, the P3 tabled an accountability draft resolution after the JIM concluded that the Syrian government was involved in the use of toxic chemicals as weapons against its own population in three cases (Talmenes, 21 April 2014; Qmenas, 16 March 2015; and Sarmin, 16 March 2015). The draft would have imposed an assets freeze on designated individuals and entities, a travel ban on designated individuals, and an embargo on arms as well as on chlorine and other chemicals intended to be used as weapons. It would also have restricted the sale of helicopters to the Syrian government, and included an annex designating eleven individuals and ten entities involved in the use and production of chemical weapons in Syria. The draft was vetoed by Russia and China (Bolivia also voted against and Egypt, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan abstained).