There are reasonable grounds to believe that the Syrian Government is responsible for the use of weaponized chlorine gas against residents of the city of Douma in April 2018, the head of the international body responsible for overseeing the global endeavour to eliminate chemical weapons told the Security Council today, as members split on the validity of the investigation on which that conclusion was based.
Briefing first was Izumi Nakamitsu, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, who commended the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for its professional and impartial efforts to uphold the global norm against the use of chemical armaments. Noting that OCPW submitted its third report on “Addressing the Threat from Chemical Weapon Use” on 27 January, she stressed: “There is an urgent need to not only identify, but to hold accountable, all those who would dare to use chemical weapons in violation of international law”.
Fernando Arias, Director-General of the OPCW, then reported that, based on the analysis conducted by the OPCW investigation and identification team and presented in that report, “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that, on 7 April 2018, between 19:10 and 19:40 local time, at least one Syrian air force helicopter departed from Dumayr air base. Operating under the control of the Government’s “Tiger Forces”, it dropped two yellow cylinders, which hit two residential buildings in a civilian-populated area in Douma, located on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, releasing highly concentrated chlorine gas that killed 43 named individuals and affected dozens more.
Underlining that the Syrian people have been suffering from war for almost 12 years, he said that the “grim record of this conflict” includes the use of chemical weapons in that country both before and after its accession to the Convention in September 2013. He stressed that a common thread runs through the international community’s reactions to these well-documented, repeated uses – the need for an absolute prohibition of the use of chemical weapons. “The report is now in your hands,” he said, stating that it will be up to the United Nations, the OPCW and the international community to take any further steps deemed necessary.
Echoing much of the OPCW Director-General’s briefing was Santiago Oñate-Laborde, Coordinator of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team, who added that the Team engaged in several good-faith efforts to allow Syria to discharge its obligations under the Convention and Council resolution 2118 (2013). Pointing out that the country decided not to reply to such requests, he added that the team took note of the positions expressed by Syria and the Russian Federation regarding the Douma incident, including their view that the incident was staged by terrorists with the support of Western States. He then provided a detailed description of the investigation and affirmed that, based on the chemical and analytical data, it is possible to rule out the hypothesis that the incident was staged.
In the ensuing debate, many Council members spotlighted the Syrian Government’s responsibility for repeated chemical-weapons attacks, calling both for accountability and on Damascus to fully comply with its obligations under the Convention. Some questioned the frequency of the Council’s meetings on this subject, alternately suggesting the same be reconsidered or pointing out that OPCW’s third report is a reminder of the need to continue convening them. Members also diverged on the impartiality and objectivity of OPCW’s work, either commending the body’s professionalism or interrogating the legitimacy of its working methods. Speakers, however, were united in offering condolences to the people and Governments of Türkiye and Syria following the earthquake that recently struck both countries.
The representative of the United States, noting her country is supporting rescue and recovery efforts in this regard, pointed out that many of the same aid workers were helping civilians burned and injured by chemical weapons just years ago. Paying tribute to the victims, survivors and families of the horrific Douma attack, she joined other Council members in urging the organ not to overlook the role of Russian Federation forces in the city at the time of the attack.
Similarly, the speaker for France called on Moscow to stop covering for the Syrian regime, noting that Russian military police helped block the OPCW’s access to the site and attempted to clean up the scene of the crime. “No one is fooled,” he stressed, emphasizing that no amount of misinformation can hide the Syrian regime’s guilt. Echoing that, the United Kingdom’s representative noted “Russia’s usual barrage of lies, denials, disinformation and unfounded criticism of the OPCW”.
The representative of the Russian Federation, however, recalled that, on 14 April 2018, the United States, the United Kingdom and France delivered massive missile strikes against Syrian civilian and military facilities. He stressed that, if those States wanted to determine the truth, they would not have possibly destroyed important evidence. Stating that today’s meeting and briefings were “empty”, he said that if the Council should be discussing anything today, it is the decline of OPCW’s Technical Secretariat.
China’s representative also said that many countries – including his own – have objected to the Investigation and Identification Team’s working methods and procedures, which do not meet the standards of the State parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Stressing that dialogue and negotiation are the only ways to tackle Syria’s chemical-weapons programme, he said the Government of Syria and the OPCW Technical Secretariat should engage as soon as possible.
The representative of Ghana, also speaking for Gabon and Mozambique, agreed that enhanced cooperation between OPCW and the Syrian Authority would be useful to progress efforts to rid the world of the production, storage and use of chemical weapons. Urging those parties to expedite actions to prepare an early meeting, he also urged the Council to address these issues more constructively as the speedy elimination of Syria’s chemical-weapons programme is important to the common goal of maintaining international peace and security.
Mr. Arias, taking the floor a second time, in response to comments that today’s briefing was “empty”, pointed out that the Investigation and Identification Team’s report consists of 124 pages and is comprehensive, extensive and accurate. Moreover, the interventions of France, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Ecuador, Switzerland, Ghana, Brazil, China and the United States demonstrated that the meeting was a substantive one.
Meanwhile, the speaker for Syria said that many academics, independent military experts and specialists from OPCW provided a rigorous scientific analysis and professionally refuted the conclusions contained in the report of the fact-finding mission on the alleged incident in Douma. Underscoring his country’s non-recognition of the Investigation and Identification Team, he categorically rejected its reports and erroneous conclusions and said that Syria has cooperated openly and transparently with OPCW.
The representatives of Iran and Türkiye then offered a regional perspective, with the former pointing out that Western countries provided chemical weapons to former President of Iraq Saddam Hussein or supported their use against Iranians and are now manipulating the issue of such weapons in Syria’s case. While Iran’s representative also said that OPCW’s latest report was flawed, the representative of Türkiye emphasized that her country will continue to support United Nations and OPCW efforts to ensure accountability for the repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria. She added that, as a neighbouring country, Türkiye urges the Council to maintain this crucial item on its monthly calendar.
Also speaking were representatives of the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Ecuador, Switzerland, Brazil, Albania and Malta.
The representatives of the Russian Federation and France spoke at the outset of the meeting, as the former raised a point of order and the latter responded.
The Russian Federation took the floor a second time.
The meeting began at 10:04 a.m. and ended at 1:07 p.m.
Point of Order
VASSILY NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), at the outset of the meeting, expressed his country’s categorical disagreement with the presence of the Coordinator of the Investigation and Identification Team of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in today’s meeting. There are no grounds for his participation, given that a group of Council members do not recognize the Team’s legitimacy. OPCW’s Director-General, as the head of a specialized international organization, is duty-bound to have all necessary information about its work – including technical details – and to bear the political responsibility of briefing the Council. The Russian Federation expects that he will do that today, rather than shifting responsibility onto his subordinates. He questioned whether the Coordinator’s presence means that the Director-General is not in a position to answer Member States’ questions himself or, alternatively, whether he is afraid to appear before the Council alone after ignoring invitations to address the organ for the past six months. He also questioned the policy chosen by the Council’s President on this issue – which stands in stark contrast to the Council’s practice of searching for consensus – as the President has taken the side of Western delegations that demanded an invitation for the Coordinator.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France) said that the Coordinator was invited to comment on the details of the report to which he contributed and the Director-General supervised, stressing that France cannot accept that the team – consisting of experts – should be “reduced to silence”. There is clear interest in the Council to hear the Coordinator and to provide him with the opportunity to answer questions. He went on to support the Russian Federation’s view that the Council must only invite individuals who are qualified – and possess true expertise – to brief the organ, stating that his country “counts on the Russian Federation to adhere to that principle in the days to come”.
IZUMI NAKAMITSU, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, commended the OPCW for its professional and impartial efforts to uphold the global norm against the use of chemical armaments and said that her office has been in regular contact with OPCW since her last briefing to the Security Council. Noting that efforts by the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team to clarify outstanding issues regarding Syria’s initial declaration and subsequent declarations have not progressed since that time, she voiced regret that all efforts by the OPCW Technical Secretariat to organize a next round of consultations with the Syrian National Authority continue to be unsuccessful.
As Council members were previously informed, she said, the Technical Secretariat has provided Damascus with the list of pending declarations and other documents requested since 2019, with the aim of assisting Syria in resolving the current 20 outstanding issues. However, OPCW has not yet received that requested information. In response to that situation, a reduced OPCW team was sent to conduct “limited in-country activities” in Syria between 17 and 22 January, and the outcome of that mission will be included in the next report of the Declarations Assessment Team.
With regard to the inspections of the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre, she said the OPCW Technical Secretariat continues to plan the next round of inspections, to be held in 2023. OPCW requested Syria to provide sufficient technical information or explanations that would enable it to close the issue related to the detection of a Schedule 2 chemical at the Barzah facilities of the Research Centre in November 2018. Expressing regret that Damascus has yet to provide that information, she went on to note that the OPCW fact-finding mission remains in the process of studying all available information related to allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The mission deployed to Syria in November 2022 and is currently preparing upcoming deployments.
Meanwhile, she said, on 27 January the Technical Secretariat submitted to the OPCW Executive Council and to the Secretary-General a third report on the subject “Addressing the Threat from Chemical Weapon Use”. Pointing out that the Secretary-General has shared the report with Council members, she said OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias is likely to say more about it in his own remarks. “There is an urgent need to not only identify, but to hold accountable, all those who would dare to use chemical weapons in violation of international law,” she stressed, describing any such use as unacceptable and the absence of accountability as a threat to international peace and security and “a danger to us all”.
FERNANDO ARIAS, Director-General of OPCW, said that the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team’s third report sets out the findings of its investigation that took place between January 2021 and December 2022 and elaborates on the conclusions reached by the OPCW fact-finding mission. The mission determined in its report published on 1 March 2019 that highly concentrated chlorine gas was used in the Syrian city of Douma on 7 April 2018. He reported that, beyond the mission’s work, the Team led its own independent investigations and, based on those, concluded that “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that, on 7 April 2018, between 19:10 and 19:40 local time, at least one Syrian air force helicopter departed from Dumayr airbase. Operating under the control of the Government’s “Tiger Forces”, it dropped two yellow cylinders, which hit two residential buildings in a civilian-populated area, killing 43 named individuals and affecting dozens more.
He went on to note that the Team’s work confirmed that highly concentrated chlorine gas coming from one of the two cylinders killed 43 persons in one building. Some individuals in that building sought refuge in its basement, thinking that this location would offer better protection from the conventional air strike that was occurring at the time. Others were aware that the chemical used was heavier than the air and would sink to the lower parts of the building and, therefore, tried to reach the upper floors. Noting that chlorine gas is two-and-a-half times heavier than air, he said that both the basement, where the gas expanded, and the upper floors, where the cylinder was releasing gas in high concentration, “were lethal places to stay”. The Team’s investigation also proves that the attack could not have been staged with manually placed cylinders, as the craters found at the top of the buildings could not have been caused by dropping cylinders from adjacent buildings, which were hardly 16 metres higher than those on which the cylinders fell.
Underlining that the Syrian people have been suffering from war for almost 12 years, he said that the “grim record of this conflict” includes chemical weapons, which were used in Syria both before and after its accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013. These well-documented, repeated uses took place despite the successful destruction of over 1,300 metric tons of declared Syrian stockpiles under stringent OPCW verification measures. Noting that all 193 State parties to the Convention agreed to completely exclude the possibility of the use of such weapons, he also observed that the Security Council and General Assembly have repeatedly called for those who use chemical weapons to be held accountable, echoed by countless national statements to this effect. Further, several international entities have been created to address alleged crimes in Syria as part of an accountability framework. One common principle underlies these reactions – the need for an absolute prohibition of the use of chemical weapons.
Recalling that every report produced by OPCW follows the highest standards and best practices used by international investigative bodies to reach solid conclusions, he said that the Team’s conclusions were based on analysis of diverse, numerous pieces of evidence – including witness testimony, medical records, chemical and ballistic studies, foreign expertise, computer modelling, satellite imagery and photography, “to name a few” – which, taken together, allowed the Team to reach its incontestable conclusions. He went on to note that the Team is not a judicial body and does not have the authority to assign individual criminal responsibility. Rather, its mandate is to establish the facts and identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons. “The report is now in your hands,” he added, stating that it will be up to the United Nations, OPCW and the international community to take any further steps or actions deemed necessary.
SANTIAGO OÑATE-LABORDE, Coordinator, OPCW Investigation and Identification Team, noting that the team is not a judicial body, said it does not have the authority to assign individual criminal responsibility. The mandate for those essential activities belongs to the policymaking organs of OPCW and to judicial entities. The team’s report presents its findings from the investigation of the incident that took place in the town of Douma in the vicinity of Damascus in Syria on 7 April 2018. Noting that the team conducted its investigation and analysis between January 2021 and December 2022, he said that on the basis of all the information obtained, it concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that on that day, during a major military offensive aimed at regaining control of Douma, at least one helicopter operated by the Tiger Forces dropped two yellow cylinders which hit two residential buildings in a central area of the city.
While one cylinder, he continued, hit the rooftop floor of a three-story residential building, fully penetrating the roof and rapidly releasing toxic chlorine in very high concentrations and killing 43 individuals, the other cylinder hit the roof of a three-story residential building that was uninhabited at the time. These conclusions were reached on the basis of “the degree of certainty of reasonable grounds to believe” which is the standard of proof consistently adopted by international fact-finding bodies and commissions of inquiry, he said. The team analyzed the information received from the OPCW fact-finding mission and requested information from the State parties, including Syria. Noting that the team considered previously recorded witness statements but also conducted its own interviews, he said it looked at videos, documents and other materials from various sources. In addition to requesting the data underlying the fact-finding mission’s report, the team conducted new analysis and technical assessments using a number of forensic institutes and specialists.
Noting that the team relies on the voluntary cooperation of all State parties, he added that they are expected to provide access to relevant locations and information. The team engaged in several good faith efforts to allow Syria to discharge its obligations under the Convention, as well as Council resolution 2118 (2013), he said, pointing out that the country decided not to reply to the Technical Secretariat’s requests. The team took note of the positions expressed by Syria as well as the Russian Federation regarding the Douma incident. Their view that the incident was staged by terrorists with the support of Western States was duly considered, he added. After it studied various hypotheses, the team proceeded to develop concrete scenarios on the basis of available information.
Outlining a reconstructed timeline of events that led to the strike on Douma, he said the data considered by the team came from various sources, including satellite imagery, open-source information, consultations with experts and witness testimonies. Noting the fact-finding mission’s conclusion that there were reasonable grounds to conclude that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place on 7 April 2018 and that the toxic chemical contained reactive chlorine, he provided a detailed description of the investigation, including the collection of extensive samples and their analysis in OPCW-designated laboratories. The team also assessed the analytical data supporting the fact-finding report. On the basis of the chemical data and the analytical data, it is possible to rule out the hypothesis that the incident was staged, he affirmed, stressing that the team did not identify any evidence to corroborate that any staging actions were performed at either location.
BONNIE JENKINS (United States), noting that her country is supporting rescue and recovery efforts in both Türkiye and Syria, said many of the same aid workers were helping civilians burned and injured by chemical weapons just years ago. Paying tribute to the victims, survivors and families of the horrific Douma attack – as well as those of many other chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime – she said the facts of what occurred in Douma are not in dispute. The Syrian regime dropped chlorine gas cylinders on residential apartment buildings, in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Urging the Council not to overlook the role of Russian Federation forces in Douma at the time of the attack, she said the report notes that their forces were co-located at the air base close to Douma and controlled the air space over the town. Meanwhile, Syrian and Russian military police destroyed evidence and sanitized the scene of the crime as part of an attempt to set up their own staged scene, she said. Reiterating her country’s call for accountability, she said Damascus must provide OPCW immediate and unfettered access to continue its investigations. For its part, Moscow must stop shielding the Syrian regime, she stressed, noting that the United States has already imposed sanctions and other measures against some 300 individuals linked to the Syria chemical weapons programme. While the Council might have at times “grown a bit weary” of discussing the Syria chemical weapons issue, today’s report is a reminder that “now is not the time to reduce our oversight of the [Syrian] regime’s compliance”, or turn a blind eye to its serious violations, she said.
VASSILY NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) said that the uselessness of the Council’s many recent, empty meetings on the Syrian chemical-weapons dossier has been “clear to everyone”, but that Western members have consistently blocked any attempt by the Council’s clear-thinking members to use the organ’s time more productively. While the new report issued by the “illegitimate” investigation and identification team on the incident in Douma is – according to Western States – an argument in favour of the Council having substance to discuss, he said that today’s meeting and briefings were “empty”. Rather, if there is anything the Council should be discussing today, it is the decline of the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat which, instead of being a respected, impartial entity, has become a powerless, controllable instrument in the hands of Western States used to cover up outrageous frauds in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. He stressed that, in large part, responsibility for this lies with the OPCW Director-General who today “finally, magnanimously deigned” to address the Council. Rejecting any already issued or future products of the team – an entity which, for Moscow, “does not exist” – he recalled that, on 14 April 2018, the United States, the United Kingdom and France delivered massive missile strikes against Syrian civilian and military facilities. In essence, such States – without waiting for an investigation – determined who was guilty and punished that party. He stressed that if such States wanted to determine the truth, they would not have struck Syria and possibly destroyed important evidence. He went on to pose several questions to the OPCW Director-General – including why the fact-finding mission and team violated the foundational principle of chain of custody – and state his country’s expectation that the Director-General will answer them during the meeting, rather than in closed consultations.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France) said OPCW’s accurate and well-documented report marks the ninth case of chemical weapons use attributed to the Syrian regime by independent mechanisms of the United Nations and OPCW. Condemning the attack in the strongest terms and emphasizing that such an act constitutes both a war crime and a crime against humanity, he urged the regime to comply with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Almost 10 years after the adoption of resolution 2118 (2013), the regime must finally shed light on its stockpiles, which he stressed have not all been destroyed. Damascus must authorize OPCW personnel to deploy to Syria as soon as possible, he added, also spotlighting credible information – corroborated by multiple sources – that Russian Federation forces were co-stationed at Dumayr Airbase and that the airspace above Douma was exclusively controlled by the Syrian Army and Russian Air Defence Forces at the time of the attack. Calling upon Moscow to stop covering up for the Syrian regime, he said Russian military police also helped block OPCW’s access to the site and attempted to clean up the scene of the crime. “No one is fooled,” he stressed, emphasizing that no amount of misinformation can hide the Syrian regime’s guilt.
BARBARA WOODWARD (United Kingdom) said the investigation and identification team’s latest report is undeniable evidence that the Syrian State has used chemical weapons to murder its own citizens. This is the ninth finding of the Syrian regime’s responsibility for chemical weapons attacks, she said, stressing that the international community owes it to the victims of Douma and the thousands of others across Syria to hold the regime to account. The Assad regime has been working actively to rebuild its chemical weapons stockpile since at least 2018, in flagrant violation of its obligations and the commitments 194 States parties have made under the Chemical Weapons Convention in pursuit of a world free from chemical weapons. Noting “Russia’s usual barrage of lies, denials, disinformation and unfounded criticism of the OPCW,” she added that the OPCW’s painstaking report considers the “alternative scenarios” put forward by that country and rejects them on the basis of evidence.
GHASAQ YOUSIF ABDALLA SHAHEEN (United Arab Emirates) reiterated her country’s explicit rejection and condemnation of the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances, noting that such acts constitute flagrant violations of the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention and international law. She reiterated the need to address the gaps and pending issues between the Syrian authorities and OPCW, and to keep those issues at the centre of the Council’s discussions on this file. Welcoming the recent visit to Syria undertaken by members of the Declaration Assessment Team, she voiced her country’s support for the role of OPCW in implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention – including investigations of incidents that involve the alleged use of chemical weapons. She stressed the technical nature of the OPCW’s mandate and the importance of maintaining its independence, apart from political developments, and said it is critical for investigations to follow rigorous methodology so that findings do not leave any room for doubt or uncertainty. She also called for more investigations into the development and use of chemical and biological weapons by Da’esh in Syria and Iraq.
ISHIKANE KIMIHIRO (Japan), stressing that the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere can never be tolerated, expressed regret that OPCW’s recent report again finds a lack of cooperation by the Syrian authorities. Noting the report’s findings and condemning chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Syrian Government, he said Damascus should take seriously the recent decision by the Convention of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention – namely, to suspend certain rights and privileges enjoyed by parties to the treaty – and urgently provide to OPCW all outstanding information requested. Damascus must also immediately declare and fully eliminate its chemical weapons programme and grant full and unhindered access to OPCW personnel on the ground, he added. “No Member State should provide shelter to those responsible for committing these brutal and inhumane acts against their own people,” he stressed. Strongly condemning all attempts to undermine the valuable work of the OPCW, he also voiced support for the work of the investigation and identification team and pledged to work closely with the international community to finally resolve the issues outstanding in the Syria chemical weapons file.
HERNÁN PÉREZ LOOSE (Ecuador), stressing the importance of open dialogue with those who are in charge of the mechanisms that contribute to the work of the Council, expressed regret about Syria’s lack of cooperation and commitment. Over nine years after acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention, that country still has not provided a complete and accurate national declaration, despite the efforts of the OPCW Secretariat and the Declaration Assessment Team. Since February 2021, the Council has been waiting for the organization of a fresh round of consultations between that Team and the Syrian authorities, he said. Expressing alarm regarding the conclusions of the third report that the Syrian air force perpetrated the chemical attack on Douma, he said the Council must not allow criminals of this nature to go unpunished. Commending the objectivity and impartiality of the investigative teams, he said Syria must fully comply with the Convention and all the relevant resolutions.
PASCALE CHRISTINE BAERISWYL (Switzerland) recalled that, on 7 April 2018, 43 civilians in the suburban town of Douma, Syria, died as a result of a chlorine gas attack. “We know from the [OPCW] that this was not an accident, but a deliberate attack using chemical weapons, which are prohibited by international law,” she said. Recalling the facts outlined in the latest report and in the briefings before the Council today – namely the fact that “reasonable grounds” exist to believe that the attack’s perpetrators were members of the air force of the Syrian Arab Republic at the time of the incident – she added that, to date, 9 of the approximately 25 chemical attacks documented by the United Nations and OPCW in Syria have been attributed to the Government of Syria. Voicing support for those findings, she declared: “We have full confidence in the OPCW, including the Investigation and Identification Team […] their professionalism and integrity are not in doubt.” All parties must refrain from using such weapons and respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, she stressed, also calling on Syria to cooperate fully with OPCW, to accept OPCW-designated personnel and to provide immediate and unhindered access to all sites.
HAROLD ADLAI AGYEMAN (Ghana), also speaking on behalf of Gabon and Mozambique, expressed support for the work of the OPCW as the foremost body responsible for ensuring the full elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme. Taking note of the contents of the third report by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team, he also noted the Syrian National Authority’s submission to the Executive Council of its latest monthly report on its activities related to the destruction of its chemical weapons and related production facilities. “The international community and this Council, in particular, must continue to be concerned about the potential re-emergence and increasing threats of chemical warfare and take urgent steps to accelerate action towards a world free of chemical weapons,” he cautioned.
Noting that the organ’s three African members stand committed in support of the established norms against the use of such weapons – and efforts to rid the world of their production, storage or use – he said enhanced cooperation between OPCW and the Syrian Authority would be useful to make progress in that regard. He therefore urged the two parties to expedite actions to prepare an early meeting. In addition, he urged the Council to address those issues more constructively, noting that the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme is an important part of the common goal of maintaining international peace and security.
JOÃO GENÉSIO DE ALMEIDA FILHO (Brazil) said his country took note of the investigation and identification team’s latest report regarding the use of chemical weapons in Douma in April 2018. As with the team’s previous reports, this document was submitted to Brazil’s National Authority, which will carry out a strict technical assessment of its content. He emphasized that, given the serious nature of its conclusions, Brazil is committed to giving the report due consideration. He went on to state that the events described in the report must be addressed with transparency and subjected to thorough, impartial analysis in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. He also underlined the need for close cooperation in cases like this between OPCW and the United Nations – especially the Security Council – recalling that the “ultimate responsibility for attribution” rests with that organ according to the Charter of the United Nations. Expressing hope that the investigations conducted so far will provide the basis for accountability for the perpetrators of illegal acts, he stated his country’s expectation that Syrian authorities and OPCW will cooperate to clarify episodes of chemical-weapons use and address the outstanding questions regarding the destruction of Syria’s declared chemical arsenal.
FERIT HOXHA (Albania), noting that the day’s briefings show what it takes to get to the bottom of an issue impartially, said the Syrian regime’s actions are a user manual for the use of extreme brutality against civilians. The use of the poisonous and deadly chlorine gas by that country’s army has been denounced many times in The Hague and by the Council, he said. Recalling that after the events of 7 April 2018, witnesses as well as human rights groups and Governments pointed the finger at the regime, he said the third report of the Team has clearly concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian Air Force helicopters conducted barbaric attacks on civilians using chlorine. The report is unambiguous in its attribution, he said, adding that this is the ninth case of the use of chemical weapons. “If we want to support Syria we should start by supporting justice and accountability,” he said, calling on the Council to stand united and take action to hold the perpetrators responsible.
SUN ZHIQIANG (China) said his country firmly opposes the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, for any purpose, and continues to urge all countries who possess such weapons to destroy them as soon as possible. Stressing that dialogue and negotiation are the only ways to tackle Syria’s chemical weapons programme, he said the Government of Syria and the OPCW Technical Secretariat should engage together as soon as possible. Noting discrepancies of opinion between those two parties, he said they must respect science and be guided by facts. He welcomed agreement on the deployment of a reduced team of the Technical Secretariat to Syria and called upon OPCW to respond to serious concerns posed about its work as soon as possible. Further, he said, many countries – including China – have objected to the investigation and identification team’s working methods and procedures, which do not meet the standards of the State parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. As such, he expressed concern over today’s choice of briefers and that Council members were not fully consulted on that matter ahead of time.
VANESSA FRAZIER (Malta), Council President for February, spoke in her national capacity, expressing her country’s full support for the independent, unbiased and expert work of OPCW and its Technical Secretariat. Noting the recently released findings, she said: “This latest report is clear in its methodology and findings, adhering to best practices of international fact-finding bodies and commissions of investigation and to applicable OPCW procedures, including on chain of custody.” The investigation and identification team was unable to obtain any concrete information supporting lines of inquiry and scenarios suggested by Syria and its allies, despite thorough investigations. Adding that the report also demonstrates Syria’s continued failure to fully cooperate with OPCW, she regretted that Damascus has failed to grant access to sites of the incident, contrary to its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and Council resolution 2118 (2013). “This follows an unfortunate pattern of behaviour by Syria on this file,” she said, noting that the country’s declaration is still considered “inaccurate and incomplete” and calling on Syria to cooperate fully with OPCW.
Mr. ARIAS, taking the floor a second time in response to comments that today’s briefing was “empty”, pointed out that the Investigation and Identification Team’s report consists of 124 pages and is comprehensive, extensive and accurate. Moreover, the interventions of France, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Ecuador, Switzerland, Ghana, Brazil, China and the United States demonstrated that the meeting was a substantive one. Regarding his presence in the Council, he said that he addresses the organ when there is something new and substantive to add to the High Representative’s monthly presentations. On the Team’s legality and legitimacy, he recalled that the Chemical Weapons Convention provides that OPCW’s Conference of the States Parties may consider any question, matter or issue within the scope of the Convention, and that body adopted a decision in line with the international community’s well-established position the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable.
Regarding the Team’s investigative methodology, he stressed that the Team follows the procedures generally accepted by international organizations and the best practices of fact-finding bodies and commissions of inquiry. The Team works on the basis of “corroboration”, which means the action of confirming if information of different nature and origin supports a finding, theory or statement. Further, it is about adding credibility to ideas previously presented and supporting elements confirmed by other means. As such, the Team has gained access to a great deal of information of diverse nature and origin over the course of its almost-two-year-long investigation and has assessed the credibility and authenticity of the same. Regarding questions on the idea of “reasonable grounds to believe”, he stressed that the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat cannot “bend the facts we find to accommodate certain individuals’ or States’ perceptions of reality”. Rather, the Technical Secretariat works only on the basis of facts and found no reasonable grounds to believe that any other hypothesis put forward so far was credible. He underscored that this approach is the standard used by international investigative bodies, spotlighting a list of at least 20 such entities that use the same method.
Turning to the two yellow cylinders found in Douma, he said that the Team was unable to access the site of the incident because Syria did not issue relevant visas despite its obligations under resolution 2118 (2013). However, the fact-finding mission had access to the site and took more than 100 samples and many photographs and videos. These images were subjected to analysis to extract metadata by several different experts, and a specialized forensic institution was in charge of the study. He went on to point out that similar cylinders were found in the incidents that occurred in Ltamenah on 25 March 2017 and in Saraqib on 4 February 2018 which, as detailed in the Team’s first and second reports, were logistically similar to the one that occurred in Douma.
Detailing the results of the study of the cylinder found at “Location 2” in Douma, he said the same was visibly deformed; blackened by soot; coloured white immediately after the incident and yellow the following day; and corroded. He then provided an explanation for these characteristics: the deformations resulted from a strong impact against the top of the building; the soot from a fire lit after the incident; the white colour from frost forming on the cylinder’s surface following the rapid release of liquified gas; and the corrosion from chlorine’s highly corrosive interaction with metal. He added that the cylinders were specifically designed to facilitate air delivery and that Mi-8/Mi-17 helicopters are particularly suitable for dropping such cylinders, as they possess a large cargo from which such a cylinder can easily be pushed out.
Mr. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) said that Mr. Arias still has not provided a substantive answer to his delegation’s questions, though he made many statements about high standards. The fabrication of the fact-finding mission’s report on Douma and the sanctions against those who weren’t afraid of telling the truth remain a stain on the reputation of OPCW, he added. The Syrian chemical weapons dossier is becoming a very good example of “lies, fabrication and settling of political scores”, he said, adding that the Western States are being served by the Technical Secretariat of OPCW.
BASSAM SABBAGH (Syria), recalling that his country took a strategic decision in 2013 to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and completely destroy its stockpile of these weapons in record time, said the United Nations and OPCW confirmed this. His country has cooperated openly and transparently with OPCW, facilitated the visits of its various teams, and was keen to work with it in order to correct its wrong working methods that affected the credibility of its reports. Syria submitted its report No.110 regarding the activities it conducted on its territory, and also received the reduced team of the Declaration Assessment Team that visited Syria from 7 to 22 January 2023, he said, adding that consultations took place between the two sides and visits were facilitated to some sites for collecting samples and interviewing witnesses.
Turning to the report of the “so-called Investigation and Identification Team on the alleged incident in Douma”, he said that immediately after allegations were made initially, his country took the initiative to request the OPCW Director General to send a fact-finding mission to investigate this incident; however, its arrival to Damascus was delayed for a whole week. On 26 April 2018, Syria and the Russian Federation brought 17 witnesses from the incident site to the OPCW’s headquarter in The Hague to testify. They refuted all the allegations that had been fabricated before. However, the mission did not interview them, and their testimonies were not heard. Many academics, independent military experts and specialists from the OPCW, such as Jose Bustani, the first Director-General, and Inspector Ian Henderson, who led the team that participated in the investigation of the Douma incident, provided a rigorous scientific analysis, and professionally refuted the conclusions contained in the report of the fact-finding mission on the alleged Douma incident, he said.
Recalling media reports about the fabrication of this incident, he said the unprofessional path of the fact-finding mission naturally led to wrong conclusions. It did not adhere to the rules stipulated or the terms of reference document agreed upon with his country, he said, adding that its methodologies included taking samples that lack the legal chain of custody as well as reliance on suspicious open sources and fabricated information provided by terrorist organizations such as the “White Helmets” group, which is sponsored by Western intelligence services. The establishment of the Investigation and Identification Team constituted a dangerous turning point in the history of OPCW, he said, adding that his country does not recognize this illegitimate team or its reports. The Douma incident has been used as a pretext for aggression on several military and civilian sites in Syria and to impose more sanctions and unjust siege on the Syrian people, he said.
Underscoring his country’s non-recognition of the Investigation and Identification Team, he categorially rejected its reports and erroneous conclusions. He recalled that 20 years ago, on 5 February 2003, Colin Powell, the United States Secretary of State at the time, sat before the Council to play a role in a deception prepared in advance to justify his country’s invasion of Iraq under the pretext of its possession of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. It turned out later that all of this was a baseless lie, he pointed out, adding that today’s meeting contains the same theatrics, but this time the target is Syria. To those who get excited about accountability, he said, they should have demanded that the United States be held accountable for its crimes in Iraq. Turning to Mr. Arias, he asked who entrusted him with the task of accountability.
AMIR SAEID IRAVANI (Iran) said that, as the main victim of chemical weapons attacks in contemporary history, Iran condemns the use of such weapons as a crime against humanity and a blatant violation of international law. Western countries provided such weapons to former President of Iraq Saddam Hussein or supported their use against Iranians and are now manipulating the issue of chemical weapons in the case of Syria. Noting that OPCW’s legitimacy and credibility has been eroded by premeditated scenarios concocted against Syria to further narrow political goals, he said the contents of the latest report are based on illegitimate sources and contain other flaws “which must not be overlooked, but must be addressed, to ensure the integrity of OPCW reports”. Technical issues must be resolved collaboratively rather than through political pressure, which has proven to be a failed strategy. It is unfortunate that the credible information provided by Syria to the OPCW regarding the use of chemical weapons by terrorist groups has been ignored, while Israel’s development of a chemical weapons programme is rewarded by Western countries. While OPCW’s primary responsibility is to destroy chemical weapons stockpiles, those efforts are being hindered by delays on the part of the United States, which is the last major possessor State Party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, he said.
CEREN HANDE ÖZGÜR (Türkiye), commending the independence, impartiality and professionalism upheld by OPCW’s Technical Secretariat, said that the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team’s third report – concluding that the Syrian regime perpetrated the chlorine attack in Douma on 7 April 2018 – follows the Team’s two previous reports confirming the regime’s responsibility for other chemical-weapons attacks in March 2017 and February 2018. She condemned the repeated use of such weapons in Syria, emphasizing that her country will continue to support United Nations and OPCW efforts to ensure accountability in this regard. Further, she called on the regime to fully cooperate with OPCW’s Technical Secretariat and provide necessary information pursuant to its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Recalling that her country has repeatedly emphasized the significance of the Council’s continued, regular consideration of the Syrian chemical-weapons programme, she stressed that recent developments – including the Team’s third report – reaffirm this necessity. She added that, as a neighbouring country, Türkiye urges the Council to maintain this crucial item on its monthly calendar.