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