Libya Case Provides Lessons for OPCW Inspectors in Syria


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

UN Chemical Weapons Report Will Confirm Sarin Gas Used in Aug. 21 Attack


EXCLUSIVE: Sept. 16, 2013 – The report of the UN chemical weapons investigators due to be released Monday morning in New York will confirm that sarin gas was used in the August 21st attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

The report will say that that there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the nerve agent sarin was fired from rockets into the area.

On Sunday evening in New York, the UN photo Twitter feed released an
image that showed the first page of the report that was handed to Ban Ki-moon by the head of the UN investigation team, Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom.

A close-up of the photo reveals that the inspectors’ report that “the environmental and medical samples we have collected, provide clear and convincing evidence that…rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used.”

The report will be presented to the UN Security Council as well as the UN General Assembly on Monday. While the US and Russia has agreed on a deal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, the admission by Syria that it possesses these weapons and the report of their use is bound to further calls for the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. 

A 1988 resolution following confirmation that chemical weapons were used by Iraq in its war against Iran compels the Security Council to act if there was any future confirmation of the use of these weapons ‘wherever and by whomever committed.’

– Denis Fitzgerald

Photo: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

UN: Devastating Effect of Assault on Medical Care in Syria


Sept. 13, 2013 –  Almost 40 percent of public hospitals in Syria have been forced to close and up to up to 15 percent of the country’s doctors have left the country, according to a report released Friday from the UN Commission of Inquiry investigating human rights abuses in the country.

The report states that “since the beginning of Syria’s unrest, Government forces have strategically assaulted hospitals and medical units to deprive persons perceived to be affiliated with the opposition of medical care.”

It also says that opposition forces have attacked medical facilities, including the National Hospital in Dara’a.

The report says that anti-terrorism laws enacted by the Assad government in July 2012 have “effectively criminalized medical aid to the opposition.”

“Ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors and medical volunteers have been attacked, arrested, unlawfully detained, and disappeared,” in contravention of international humanitarian law, the report states.

The full report is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald


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


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?


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

Energy Rich Qatar Lags in UN Aid Appeal for Syria


Syrian children inside a classroom at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan (photo: UN photo/Mark Garten)

Sept. 4, 2013 – Qatar, the richest country in the world, has given less than $3 million to the UN aid appeal for Syria, according to figures from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Of the more than $2.9 billion donated to the UN’s emergency relief fund for Syrians, energy-rich Qatar has contributed $2.7 million – less than 0.1 percent of the overall total. Countries such as Belgium, Finland, Iraq and Ireland have all given more.

The United States is the top donor, at $818 million, followed by the European Commission – the EU’s legislative arm – which has provided $619 million. Of the 28 EU member states, Britain, $196 million, and Germany $73 million are among the top ten donors.

Kuwait, $324 million, is the top Gulf donor, coming in third overall, according to OCHA’s figures as of Sept 4th, 2013, while Saudi Arabia, at $51 million, is the tenth biggest contributor.

Outside of the EU, US and Gulf, Japan, $82 million, and Australia, $64 million, are also among the top ten donors.

Of the remaining permanent five Security Council members, Russia has given $17 million, France, $15 million and China, $1 million.

The UN has requested a total of $4.4 billion to assist Syrians, with $1.4 billion designated to assist those inside the country – more than 4 million of whom are displaced – and $3 billion to assist neighboring countries that are now home to more than 2 million Syrian refugees.

– Denis Fitzgerald

Syria Intervention Could Spell End of UN Golan Force


August 29, 2013 – The future of the UN force monitoring the line of separation between Israel and Syria following the end of the 1973 war will be further jeopardized by threatened military intervention.

UNDOF has already been hit by the loss of troops from Austria, Croatia and Japan because of repeated attacks and abductions of blue-helmeted forces.

Departing peacekeepers are being replaced by promised contributions from Fiji and Ireland, with the initial contingent of Irish troops set to deploy Sept. 4.

But the threat of intervention is likely to lead the Irish government to delay the deployment, while a western strike inside Syria will see the UN face calls to withdraw its troops by those countries whose forces are currently deployed, leaving behind a dangerous security vacuum on the Israel-Syria border.

– Denis Fitzgerald

Photo: Austrian peacekeepers raise the UN flag on Pitulim Peak on Mt. Hermon following the withdrawal of Israeli Armed Forces, June 1974. UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata

Arab League Backing This Time Around Not Enough to Sway China and Russia


August 28, 2013 – When the 22-nation Arab League on March 12, 2011 endorsed calls for a no-fly zone over Libya, it cleared the way for the UN Security Council to authorize military intervention five days later.

The endorsement by the regional group was enough for China and Russia to withhold using their veto. Both countries abstained in the March 17 vote, along with Brazil, Germany and India. China’s envoy Li Baodong specifically mentioned the endorsement of the Arab League as reason why Beijing had not blocked the action.

Similar calls are being made to the Arab League these days to back military action against the Syrian regime, but an endorsement by the League this time around will not get the same response from China and Russia.

Notwithstanding Russia’s diplomatic and military support for Assad, Beijing and Moscow have both expressed concerns that the Security Council mandate in Libya – the protection of civilians using all necessary means – was used as cover for regime change.

Some months after the Libya vote, Baodong distanced himself from his stance on March 17, telling reporters that the Security Council should not be influenced by the decisions of regional groups. 

While Syria’s Arab League seat has been given to the opposition Syrian National Coalition, there is opposition against military intervention by other Arab League members, particularly Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon. Egypt too has spoken against intervention.

The League meet next week in Cairo and reports are that  the group will pass a resolution blaming Assad for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack and call for referral to the ICC, but not back military intervention.

– Denis Fitzgerald

photo: UN Photo/Marco Castro

UN Security Council in Emergency Meeting over Alleged Chemical Weapon Attack Near Damascus

August 21, 2013 – The UN Security Council are meeting in an emergency session 3pm ET Wednesday over allegations that chemical weapons have been used in an attack near Damascus early this morning local time. 

The reports of a chemical weapons attack come as UN inspectors probing the use of such weapons begin their first week of work in Syria. 

The inspectors are mandated to investigate whether chemical weapons have been used, not who may have used them. But if they confirm that proscribed chemical weapons have been used in a targeted and large-scale attack, as the opposition are reporting, suspicion will immediately fall on Assad forces who are known to have these weapons and the means to deliver them.

– Denis Fitzgerald

Ireland Sending Peacekeepers to Golan


Ireland currently has troops serving in the region with the UN force in Lebanon
(above) and with UNTSO. (photo: courtesy of Irish Dept. of Defence)

Update: The resolution to deploy 114 peacekeepers to UNDOF was approved by the Irish parliament by a vote of 95-17.

July 18, 2013 – The Irish parliament will vote Thursday on a motion to send a contingent of peacekeepers to beef up the depleted UNDOF force monitoring the line of separation between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights that was established following the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

The withdrawal of Japanese, Croatian and Austrian troops in recent months has cast doubts on the future of the mission, one of the UN’s oldest, and a proposal to send a Nordic contingent to replace the withdrawing troops has yet to come to fruition.

Fiji and Nepal have agreed to send contingents to bolster the force which currently stands at 933 troops. That figure includes Austrian troops as Vienna has agreed to gradually withdraw its 377 peacekeepers to allow time for reinforcements.

The Irish cabinet has already approved sending peacekeepers to the Golan Heights but parliamentary approval is needed for deployment, which would take place in September.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently appointed Irish Major General Michael Finn as head of the UN Truce Supervision Organization, the UN’s oldest peacekeeping mission, an unarmed force comprised of military observers that works alongside UNDOF.

– Denis Fitzgerald