Libya Case Provides Lessons for OPCW Inspectors in Syria

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OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü speaks to reporters after announcement that the organisation had won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize (photo/opcw)

Oct 11, 2013 – When Libya joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in January 2004, Muammar Gaddafi declared to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that the country possessed some 1,400 tonnes of chemical agents and precursor chemicals, more than 3,500 chemical weapons munitions, as well as three production facilities.

Almost ten years later, two of the production facilities have been demolished, the third one converted to produce pharmaceuticals, while the declared munitions have been flattened by bulldozers – but only about half the stockpile of chemical agents and precursor chemicals have been destroyed, according to the OPCW.  

That makes the proposed mid-2014 deadline for the newly minted Nobel Peace Prize winners to verify the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal seem ambitious at the very least – the Assad regime is reported to possess about 1,000 tonnes of agents and precursor chemicals.

And something else that the Hague-based organization is sure to keep in mind as it tackles the Syria operation is that Gaddafi lied to the OPCW in 2004 and it was only after his downfall that the new government in Tripoli in November 2011 discovered previously undeclared stockpiles. 

There’s little reason to trust Assad’s declarations at this stage – just days before admitting his regime possessed chemical weapons, he denied that it possessed those same weapons.

But the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) includes a mechanism whereby any state party can initiate a challenge inspection if it suspects non-compliance by another member. This is where the UN Security Council comes into play. Resolution 2118, adopted on Sept. 27, states that OPCW inspectors must have “unfettered access to and the right to inspect, in discharging their functions, any and all sites, and by allowing immediate and unfettered access to individuals that the OPCW has grounds to believe to be of importance for the purpose of its mandate.

Failure to do so calls for a Chapter VII resolution. It would be beyond credibility for Russia or China to veto a resolution that would call on a state party to honor its treaty commitments.

The OPCW has now given Libya until the end of 2016 to complete destruction of its chemical weapons program, after it missed the original April 29, 2012 deadline. CWC members Iraq, Russia and the US have also not yet completed destruction of their chemical arsenal while Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan have not joined the treaty.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Getting Rid of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Stockpile Could Take Years

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A UN inspector takes a sample of a nerve agent in Iraq, 1991 (photo/UN photo)

Sept. 9, 2013 – Verifying, inspecting and destroying Syria’s chemicals weapons stockpile could take years if the past is any indication.

Of the seven countries that have declared they possess these weapons, only Albania, India and a third country said to be South Koreahave completed destruction of their stockpile of prohibited chemical agents and chemical munitions.

The OPCW, which oversees compliance with the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention – which Syria has neither signed nor ratified – reported in July that 81 percent of the  71,196 metric tons of declared prohibited chemical agents and 57 percent of the 8.6 million declared chemical munitions have been destroyed.

It would also seem that inspecting and verifying Syria’s stockpile would require a ceasefire to come into effect so investigators can safely visit Damascus or other locations where chemical weapons are produced and stored.

Four other countries besides Syria have not signed the CWC – Angola, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan – while two, Israel and Myanmar, have signed but not ratified.

The four other countries that have yet to complete destruction of their declared chemical weapons stockpiles are Iraq, Libya, Russia and the US.

– Denis Fitzgerald

Will Ban Ki-moon’s words be used to bolster US case for strike against Assad?

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For many months, it has been evident that President Assad and his Government have lost all legitimacy.” – Ban Ki-moon, June 7, 2012

Sept. 5, 2013 – These words from the UN secretary-general could be used in arguments to justify a US strike against targets inside Syria by the United States in the coming weeks.

The UN charter prohibits military action against another member state unless authorized by the Security Council or in self-defense. 

But the US has argued that the Assad government has lost legitimacy, and they have the words of Ban Ki-moon to back them up.

The secretary-general is appointed by the General Assembly at the recommendation of the Security Council and the question of whether he is a secretary or a general is open to interpretation, that’s to say how much weight do his words carry. Here is the UN charter’s vague description of the role of the secretary-general.

As this ASIL article by Kenneth Anderson points out, saying a government has lost legitimacy is a political statement not a legal statement but the US “might go a step further and say that the Assad government is no longer the legitimate, lawful government of Syria, and argue that it uses force not against UN member state ‘Syria,’ but rather against the illegitimate Assad regime and in collective self-defense of the Syrian people.”

While such a claim will be contested, not least by Russia, who could argue that “the Assad government meets essentially all the formal requirements of international law to be the legal government,” a number of countries including the six countries comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council have recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and the 22-nation Arab League has given Syria’s seat to the SOC, against the objections of Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon. Britain, France, Italy and Spain have also recognized the group as a legitimate representative.

One way around the legitimacy question would be a General Assembly vote on who should represent Syria at the UN, though the US is thought to be unwilling to establish such a precedent should countries unfriendly to Israel consider a similar move in the future with regard to Palestinian representation.

Ban said today in Russia that he has taken “note of the ongoing debate over what course of action should be taken by the international community” regarding the allegations of chemical weapons use and that “all those actions should be taken within the framework of the UN Charter, as a matter of principle.”

– Denis Fitzgerald

photo: UN photo/Eskinder Debebe