In Hindsight: The Demise of the JIM
Six draft resolutions were vetoed in 2017, the most since 1988, and five of them focused on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN was the centerpiece of the Security Council’s efforts to determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It was established through resolution 2235 on 7 August 2015, largely a result of negotiations between the US and Russia. Three consecutive vetoes by Russia led to its termination at the end of 2017, dismantling what had been one of the rare examples of Council action on the Syria file.
The JIM worked on the basis of reports from the OPCW fact-finding mission (FFM), which determined whether chemical weapons had been used in particular incidents. It produced seven reports and assigned responsibility to the Syrian government for four attacks (Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017, Qmenas and Sarmin on 16 March 2015, and Talmenes on 21 April 2014) and to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant for two (Um-Hawsh on 15-16 September 2016 and Marea on 21 August 2015). As the JIM began to assign responsibility in its third and fourth reports in 2016, its working methods were questioned by Russia, which criticised what it considered unsubstantiated conclusions in the reports. Russia also maintained that these findings were not definitive, pending investigations by the Syrian government, and could not be the basis for taking legal decisions regarding accountability.
Since the beginning of the JIM’s mandate, Russia and China advocated for an increased focus on the use of chemical weapons by terrorist groups, and they circulated a draft to that effect in April 2016. Even though the draft was never put to a vote, this was one of the issues that featured prominently in the negotiations regarding the renewal of the JIM’s mandate in October and November 2016. The negotiation process required a technical rollover resolution to buy time for the negotiations because of the divisions in the Council. In the end, language was added to the draft that became resolution 2319, encouraging the JIM to consult with the 1267/1989/2253 Al-Qaida/ISIL Sanctions Committee, as well as to engage with states in the region to identify how non-state actors and terrorist groups were involved in the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The period of uncertainty regarding the JIM’s future in late 2016 created difficulties in the planning and hiring of staff, which disrupted the JIM’s work for several months. The negotiation process also reflected the fundamental divergences of Russia and China with the P3 regarding the JIM and the extent of its mandate. This was further demonstrated by a P3 initiative to seek accountability for chemical weapons attacks. On 28 February 2017, China and Russia vetoed a P3-drafted resolution that would have imposed sanctions on perpetrators identified by the JIM reports.
The 4 April attack in Khan Shaykhun resulted in heightened visibility for the Council’s consideration of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. A P3 draft resolution condemning the attack and emphasising Syria’s obligation to provide the JIM and the FFM with information on air operations, was vetoed by Russia on 12 April. In the following months, through several letters and statements, Russia questioned key aspects of, first, the FFM investigations and, then, the JIM’s methodology on Khan Shaykhun.
The US tabled a draft to renew the JIM’s mandate, which was due to expire on 17 November 2017, on 24 October, two days before the release of the JIM’s final report, in order to delink the JIM’s conclusions from its continuation. However, this move was blocked by a Russian veto. In explaining its vote, Russia stated that it considered the JIM needed to continue. However, when the report was released, Russia made it clear that it would not accept the result of the investigations on the Khan Shaykhun attack. It raised the lack of on-site visits and criticised the non-observance of the chain of custody, the failure to use all available methods and methodologies of investigation, and the questionable credibility of sources.
On 2 November, the US and Russia circulated competing draft resolutions on the renewal of the mandate of the JIM. The initial US draft characterised 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”, while the Russian text expressed its methodological concerns. Even though the head of the JIM’s leadership panel, Edmond Mulet, addressed some of the issues raised by Russia in a public briefing on 7 November, Russia made clear its opposition to the working methods of the JIM and refused to engage on the US draft. However, there were several rounds of negotiations on that draft with other members. The US opposed including language from the Russian draft that it considered discredited the previous work of the JIM and questioned the independence and professionalism of its staff. Both drafts were put to a vote on 16 November, but neither was adopted. The US draft was vetoed by Russia, and the Russian draft received only four favourable votes (Bolivia, China, Kazakhstan and Russia)..
Immediately after the failed votes on 16 November 2017, Japan circulated a draft that would have extended the JIM’s mandate for one month while requestingdraft resolution on 17 November, but Russia, which had already signaled that it did not support this draft in a meeting in consultations earlier that day, cast its 11th Syria veto. the UN Secretary-General, in coordination with the OPCW, to submit proposals to the Council for the structure and methodology of the JIM “reflecting views of Security Council members”. Twelve members voted for the
Council members met after the veto in an attempt to find a compromise before the expiration of the JIM’s mandate by midnight, but no further action was taken that day. In a last-ditch attempt, Italy as President circulated a draft letter to the Secretary-General requesting that the JIM’s organisational and administrative arrangements be maintained until 31 December 2017 pending a final decision on the renewal of its mandate. Sweden and Uruguay circulated a draft resolution to extend the JIM’s mandate for a year, adding language on investigation standards and aiming to reach a compromise among the competing perspectives in the Council.
Russia ultimately opposed both initiatives and the JIM’s mandate ended; however, the dynamism shown by some elected Council members in the last stretch of the negotiations on a file traditionally monopolised by permanent members is worth noting. An earlier example had been the discussions regarding the Khan Shaykhun attack, when the E10 proposed a compromise draft on 6 April in an effort to bridge the divide between the P3 and Russia. On that occasion, China was the only permanent member to praise the merits of the compromise draft. However, the initiative was soon overtaken by events, with the US striking the Shayrat airbase that evening.
Even though elected members met regularly on the JIM renewal for weeks, divergent views prevented them from forming a unified front. While some felt that the E10 were well-positioned to break the impasse, others thought that tabling a third draft would undermine the then-ongoing negotiations on the US draft. Sweden discussed elements of an alternative draft with the E10 but found most members reluctant to pursue the idea. Eventually, Sweden decided to circulate a draft jointly with Uruguay at the very last minute, even though it would face opposition from both Russia and the US. While acceptance by Russia and the US was a requirement for the JIM’s renewal, it is impossible to know whether a draft from an elected member could have bridged the widening gap between the P3 and Russia if there had been solid engagement by all Council members earlier.
This, however, assumes that the permanent members would have acted differently if presented with other options. Russia’s rush to put its drafts in blue with no negotiation, even though it was well aware that the drafts would not be acceptable to most Council members, has led some Council members to question whether it was ever serious about retaining the JIM.