MIDDLE EAST DOSSIER: Syria Starts Abandoning Chemical Weapons

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By Richard JohnsoPhoto: Pallets of 155 mm artillery shells containing "HD" (distilled sulfur mustard agent) at Pueblo Depot Activity (PUDA) chemical weapons storage facility | Credit: Wikimedia Commonsn

THE HAGUE (IDN) – When the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) enters into force for Syria on October 14, 2013, the country will become the 190th Member State of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), according to the Hague-based global watchdog.

The CWC – or the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction – is the most recent arms control agreement with the force of International law. This agreement outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. It is administered by the OPCW, an independent organization.

Of the stockpiles, 44,131 of the 71,194 tonnes declared (61.99%) have been destroyed. The OPCW has conducted 4,167 inspections at 195 chemical weapon-related and 1,103 industrial sites. These inspections have affected the sovereign territory of 81 States Parties since April 1997. Worldwide, 4,913 industrial facilities are subject to inspection provisions.

The OPCW pointed out on September 16 that Syria was joining the Convention against the backdrop of unusual circumstances. Therefore it envisaged that the programme to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria will be initiated “in a matter of days”.

The global watchdog said: “Syria will provide, on an expeditious basis, a complete inventory of its chemical weapons, production facilities, and related materials to the OPCW. Our experts will verify the accuracy of this disclosure with on-site inspections, and will also assist in putting into place arrangements to keep the warfare materials and the relevant facilities secure until their destruction.”

Syria submitted September 20 “an initial declaration” on the chemical weapons it possesses, meeting the first deadline set down by the framework agreement Russia and the United States concluded in Geneva to deter Western military strikes.

According to the OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü, the confirmation by the UN Mission’s report that chemical weapons were indeed used in Syria “clearly makes it all the more important to ensure that the programme for chemical demilitarisation in Syria succeeds”.

Nine OPCW inspectors participated in the UN investigation of alleged us in Syria, and OPCW experts are already at work preparing a roadmap that anticipates the various challenges involved in verifying Syria’s declared stockpiles.

Üzümcü, said: “I am aware of the onerous responsibility that the international community is placing on our shoulders. I and my team approach this with a sense of destiny because so much is at stake. We will bring to bear on this mission our full energies and commitment, and I have every confidence that the international community will support us fully.”

The Chemical Weapons Convention represents the sole multilateral mechanism to rid the world of these terrible weapons of mass destruction. As its implementing body, the OPCW, with over 16 years of experience, possesses the necessary skills and capacities to undertake such missions.

Under the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993), there is a legally binding worldwide ban on the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors. Notwithstanding, large stockpiles thereof continue to exist, usually only as a precaution against putative use by an aggressor.

But international law has prohibited the use of chemical weapons since 1899, under the Hague Convention: Article 23 of the Regulations Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land adopted by the First Hague Conference "especially" prohibited employing "poison and poisoned arms"; also, a separate Declaration stated that in any war between signatory powers, the parties would abstain from using projectiles "the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases”.

The Washington Naval Treaty, signed February 6, 1922, also known as the Five-Power Treaty, aimed at banning CW – but did not succeed because the French rejected it. The subsequent failure to include CW has contributed to the resultant increase in stockpiles.

The Geneva Protocol, officially known as the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, is an International treaty prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons. It was signed at Geneva June 17, 1925 and entered into force on February 8, 1928. 133 nations are listed as state parties to the treaty – Ukraine acceded August 7, 2003 and is the most recent member nation.

This treaty states that chemical and biological weapons are "justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world." While the treaty prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons, it does not address the production, storage, or transfer of these weapons. Later treaties would address these omissions and have been enacted.

Framework

In the September 14 Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons that would lead to the elimination of Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles by mid-2014 the United States and Russia express their “joint determination to ensure the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons program (CW) in the soonest and safest manner”.

According to media reports, the Framework was welcomed by France, Germany, Britain, the European Union, China, and the Arab League. Israel expressed cautious optimism, but was sceptical that Syria would comply.

Ali Haidar, Syrian Minister of National Reconciliation, praised the agreement as "a victory for Syria that was achieved thanks to our Russian friends." He described the agreement as removing a pretext for a U.S. attack on the country. Iran also stated that the agreement had deprived the U.S. of a pretext for attacking Syria.

‘Free Syrian Army’ General Salim Idris denounced the initiative. Referencing the August 2013 Ghouta chemical attacks, he stated that "a crime against humanity has been committed, and there is not any mention [in the agreement] of accountability”.

The Syrian government blamed rebels for that attack and for all other chemical weapons attacks in Syria. In response to the Ghouta events, a coalition of countries led by the U.S. and France threatened air strikes on Syria.

In the Framework accord USA and Russia concur that a UN Security Council resolution should provide for review on a regular basis the implementation in Syria of the decision of the Executive Council of the OPCW, and in the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

The proposed joint US-Russian OPCW draft decision supports the application of Article VIII of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which provides for the referral of any cases of non- compliance to the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.

The Framework states that in furtherance of the objective to eliminate the Syrian chemical weapons program, USA and Russia have reached a shared assessment of the amount and type of chemical weapons involved, and are committed to the immediate international control over chemical weapons and their components in Syria.

“We set ambitious goals for the removal and destruction of all categories of CW related materials and equipment with the objective of completing such removal and destruction in the first half of 2014. In addition to chemical weapons, stocks of chemical weapons agents, their precursors, specialized CW equipment, and CW munitions themselves, the elimination process must include the facilities for the development and production of these weapons.” [IDN-InDepthNews – September 20, 2013]

Photo: Pallets of 155 mm artillery shells containing "HD" (distilled sulfur mustard agent) at Pueblo Depot Activity (PUDA) chemical weapons storage facility | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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