What's In Blue

Arria-formula Meeting on “Risks Stemming from the Politicization of the Activities of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons”

Tomorrow morning (24 March), there will be an Arria-formula meeting organised by Russia, titled “Risks Stemming from the Politicization of the activities of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW]”.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the President of the Vienna International Institute for Middle East Studies and former Permanent Representative of Iran to the UN and other International Organizations in Vienna, and Aaron Maté, a journalist at Grayzone, are the expected briefers.

The meeting will be held at 10 am in Conference Room 7 of the UN Secretariat. It will be webcast and is open to all UN member states, permanent observers, UN entities, civil society organisations and press representatives.

The concept note circulated by Russia notes that tomorrow’s meeting is aimed at having an open discussion “to address the issue of diminishing authority of the OPCW due to its increasing politicization and misuse for promoting politically motivated narratives”. It cites the Syria chemical weapons file as an example and calls upon member states to share their ideas on how to address this issue.

The concept note also suggests a number of areas of focus for the discussion, including how to restore the credibility of the OPCW technical secretariat’s findings, ways of improving the transparency and accountability of the OPCW, lessons learnt from how the OPCW implemented its mandate, and how to ensure that UN and international organisations focus on issues on their agenda.

The findings of the third report of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), dated 27 January, is likely to be the most contentious issue at tomorrow’s meeting.  The IIT was established to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria following a June 2018 decision of the Conference of States Parties (CSP) to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The IIT was formed after the Council failed to renew the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) that it had established through resolution 2235 of 7 August 2015 “to identify those responsible” for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Three consecutive vetoes by Russia—which questioned the working methods of the JIM and the independence and professionalism of its staff—led to the mechanism’s termination in late 2017.

The IIT report covers the findings of the investigations conducted between January 2021 and December 2022 on the 7 April 2018 incident in Douma. It concludes that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that the Syrian Arab Air Forces were the perpetrators of the chemical weapons attack that took place that day. The report says that at least one Mi-8/17 helicopter of the Syrian Arab Air Forces, departing from Dumayr air base, “dropped two yellow cylinders which hit two residential buildings” in a central area of the city, killing at least 43 people, including 17 women, nine boys, and ten girls. It further says that the IIT “thoroughly pursued” scenarios and lines of inquiry suggested by the Syrian authorities and other States Parties—including allegations by Syria and Russia that the incident had been “staged by terrorist armed groups”—but was unable to obtain concrete information supporting those allegations.

On 27 January, the foreign ministers of France, the UK, the US and Germany released a joint statement on the IIT’s third report. The statement condemned the “Syrian regime’s repeated use of these horrific weapons” and called on the Syrian authorities to comply with its obligations under the CWC and relevant Security Council resolutions. It further asserted that the Russian military police helped the Syrian government obstruct the OPCW’s access to the site of the incident and attempted to “sanitize the site”. The statement’s signatories commended the “independent, unbiased, and expert work of the OPCW staff” and reaffirmed their commitment to hold accountable perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria and elsewhere.

In his remarks at the 7 February Council briefing on the Syria chemical weapons track, Director-General of the OPCW Fernando Arias noted that the evidence collected and analysed in the investigations of the 7 April 2018 Douma incident corroborated the conclusions of the 27 January report, and rejected other scenarios. (For more, see our What’s in Blue story of 6 February.)

On 13 March, representatives of Russia and Syria held a joint briefing at the Russian embassy in Netherlands, calling into question the veracity of the OPCW’s 27 January report. According to the press release circulated following the briefing, the representatives provided their detailed assessments on the report, calling it “politically charged” and being compiled in an “an openly anti-Syria and anti-Russia spirit”.

Member states’ long-standing divisions on the OPCW are likely to be reflected in their interventions tomorrow. Over the years, Council members have displayed starkly different views on the credibility of the OPCW’s work. While several members, including the P3 (France, the UK and the US), have consistently expressed support for the OPCW’s work, maintaining that it is credible and essential, other members, such as China and Russia, argue that the organisation is biased and politicised.

The Council’s divergent views with regard to the OPCW were apparent in the 7 February Council briefing. Calling into question the working principles of the OPCW technical secretariat, Russia noted that it does not recognise the IIT as its “establishment was pushed through the Executive Council of the OPCW in violation of the principle of consensus”. China expressed a similar view regarding the establishment of the IIT and further noted that the IIT’s “working methods and procedures do not meet the requirements of the CWC”. Several Council members, including Ghana speaking on behalf of the A3 (Gabon, Ghana and Mozambique), Japan, Malta, the UK and the US expressed support for the work of the OPCW. Members including Albania, Ecuador, France, Japan, Malta, Switzerland, the UK, and the US issued a joint statement following the Council briefing, expressing support for the “impartial, independent and professional work of the OPCW”.

At tomorrow’s meeting some members may use the findings of the 27 January report to emphasise the question of responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria and also express their support for the work of the OPCW. Others may raise doubts about the report’s findings and methodology, and question the transparency and accountability of the OPCW.

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