Syria’s Chemical Weapons Declaration Questioned: UN Security Council Told

Syria must fully cooperate with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to close all outstanding issues related to its declaration, a senior United Nations official told the Security Council today during its monthly briefing on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013) on the elimination of the country’s chemical weapons programme, highlighting that long-standing gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies remain unresolved.

Adedeji Ebo, Director and Deputy to the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, speaking on behalf of High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu, said efforts by the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team to clarify all outstanding issues regarding Syria’s initial and subsequent declarations have not progressed since the Council last met on the matter.

The OPCW Technical Secretariat has informed the Syrian National Authority of its intention to send a reduced team to conduct limited in-country activities in Syria from 17 to 22 January, he said, stressing that Syria’s full cooperation with the Technical Secretariat is essential to closing all outstanding issues. As has been stressed many times before, due to the identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved, Syria’s declaration cannot be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, he said.

The OPCW Technical Secretariat continues to plan the next round of inspections of the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, to be held in 2023, he continued. While the OPCW Technical Secretariat was awaiting Syria’s response on the latest version of the agenda for the in-person meeting between the OPCW Director-General and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of Syria, Damascus suggested a preliminary meeting in Beirut. Meanwhile, on 8 December, OPCW, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and Syria finalized an extension of the tripartite agreement for a period of six months from 1 January up to and including 30 June.

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, he said. The investigation and identification team also continues its work and will issue further reports in due course. It is imperative to hold accountable all those who would dare to use chemical weapons, he said, voicing hope that members of the Council will unite on the issue.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers welcomed the Council’s new non-permanent members, Ecuador, Japan, Malta, Mozambique and Switzerland, and once again condemned any use of chemical weapons. Several members reiterated their concern about the ongoing lack of progress on the file and called on Syria’s full cooperation with OPCW, while others questioned the utility of the monthly meetings on the matter.

The representative of the Russian Federation said discussing this topic in the Council each month was to “tick the box” for the benefit of a number of Western countries’ domestic political objectives, devalue the debate and undermine the 15-member organ’s authority. The OPCW Director-General has repeatedly come up with excuses as to why he is unable to attend the Council’s meetings for the briefing, while providing a “carbon copy” of the reports. Until the meeting schedule is optimized, he sees no point in engaging in the debate on the substance of the issue, he said.

The representative of the United States, however, pointed out that despite Moscow’s repeated assertions that OPCW’S Director-General has not met with the Assad regime, the regime has stalled the scheduling of such meetings since June 2021. OPCW and the United Nations have independently concluded that the regime has used chemical weapons on eight occasions, he said, calling on Syria to comply with its obligations and immediately cease its obstructions of the OPCW Expert Team so the issue of chemical weapons use by the country is resolved once and for all.

Japan’s representative, Council President for January, speaking in his national capacity, said the use of chemical weapons should never be tolerated anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstance. Syria must engage in good faith with the Technical Secretariat and provide all required documents to solve the outstanding issues related to the initial and subsequent declarations submitted by that country. It should also refrain from making further excuses to impede the entry of the Declaration Assessment Team’s technical expert to its territory.

The representatives of the United Arab Emirates and China underscored the importance of dialogue for tangible progress on the issue. Highlighting that the Syrian chemical file is one of the most politicized of the Council, the delegate of the United Arab Emirates called on the parties to work with a consensus-based and non-politicized approach. China’s representative called for a holistic approach, noting that information provided by Syria’s Government on terrorist organizations possessing and using chemical weapons must be taken into full account.

Syria’s representative, pointing out that his country has never used a prohibited weapon or a toxic chemical matter, said that over the past nine years, Syrian authorities granted more than 500 entrance visas to OPCW Technical Secretariat officials, facilitated 24 rounds of negotiations of the Declaration Assessment Team and nine rounds of inspections of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center. He welcomed the request of the Technical Secretariat to enable a visit of a reduced Declaration Assessment Team to carry out limited activities. Underscoring the illegal nature of the establishment of the investigation and identification team, he reiterated that his country does not recognize any conclusions of the “illegal” team.

Also speaking were representatives of Ghana, Brazil, Malta, Albania, Ecuador, Switzerland, France, United Kingdom, Türkiye and Iran.

The meeting began at 10:01 a.m. and ended at 11:16 a.m.

Briefing

ADEDEJI EBO, Director and Deputy to the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Officer-in-Charge, speaking on behalf of the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu, welcomed the Security Council’s new non-permanent members – Ecuador, Japan, Malta, Mozambique and Switzerland – adding that the High Representative looks forward to working closely with all Council members on this important issue. Since the Council’s last consideration of the matter, and consistent with established practice, the Office for Disarmament Affairs has been in regular contact with its counterparts at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on its activities related to resolution 2118 (2013), he said. “Efforts by the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team to clarify all outstanding issues regarding the initial declaration and subsequent declarations of Syria have not progressed since the Council last met on the matter. Unfortunately, all efforts by the OPCW Technical Secretariat to organize the next round of consultations between the Declaration Assessment Team and the Syrian National Authority continue to be unsuccessful.”

As Council members were previously informed, the OPCW Technical Secretariat has provided Syria with the list of pending declarations and other documents requested by the Declaration Assessment Team since 2019, with the aim of assisting Damascus in resolving the current 20 outstanding issues, he continued. However, the Technical Secretariat has not yet received the requested information from Syria. Due to this situation, and in pursuit of its ongoing efforts to implement its mandate, the Technical Secretariat has informed the Syrian National Authority of its intention to send a reduced team to conduct limited in-country activities in the country from 17 to 22 January. “It is my understanding that the Syrian Arab Republic has welcomed the intention by the OPCW Secretariat to send a reduced team and has requested supplementary information in order to make necessary arrangements,” he added. Full cooperation by Syria with the Technical Secretariat is essential to closing all outstanding issues.

“As has been stressed many times before, due to the identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved, the Technical Secretariat continues to assess that, at this stage, the declaration submitted by the Syrian Arab Republic cannot be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention,” he said. The OPCW Technical Secretariat remains fully committed to ensuring the complete implementation by Syria of all its declaration requirements and to assisting Syria in fulfilling its obligations under the Convention, decisions by OPCW policymaking organs, and Security Council resolution 2118 (2013), he said, reiterating the High Representative’s support for the integrity, professionalism, impartiality, objectivity and independence of the work of OPCW.

Regarding inspections of the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, the OPCW Technical Secretariat continues to plan the next round of inspections, to be held in 2023, he continued. He voiced regret that Syria has not yet provided sufficient technical information or explanations that would enable the Technical Secretariat to close the issue related to the detection of a Schedule 2 chemical at the Barzah facilities of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in November 2018. Nor has it received the requested information from Syria regarding the unauthorized movement of the two cylinders related to the chemical-weapon incident that took place in Douma on 7 April 2018, which were destroyed in an attack on a chemical weapons production facility, he said, calling on Damascus to respond with urgency to all of the Technical Secretariat’s requests.

Concerning the invitation extended by the OPCW Director General to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of Syria to an in-person meeting, he noted that, while the Technical Secretariat was still awaiting a response from Syria on the latest version of the agenda submitted in December 2021, Damascus suggested a preliminary meeting in Beirut. As Council members were previously informed, since then, communication between the focal points in charge of the preparations for the meeting between the OPCW Director General and the Syrian minister has been reinitiated by the OPCW Secretariat and Syria has responded, he said. With regard to the Tripartite Agreement concluded among OPCW, United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and Syria, he said it is his understanding that, on 8 December 2022, all parties finalized an extension for a period of six months, covering from 1 January up to and including 30 June.

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, he said. In this context, the mission was deployed to Syria from 6 to 12 November 2022 to conduct interviews with witnesses regarding several of the incidents under review. The investigation and identification team also continues to look into incidents in which the fact-finding mission has determined that chemical weapons were used or likely used in Syria. The investigation and identification team will issue further reports in due course.

With regard to the decision by the OPCW Conference of States Parties titled “Addressing the Possession and Use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic” adopted on 21 April 2021, he said that, unfortunately, Syria has not yet completed any of the measures stipulated in paragraph 5 of decision. The OPCW Technical Secretariat will continue to engage with Syria with regard to their completion and will continue to report to the OPCW Executive Council as mandated.

In closing, he said: “Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, and the absence of accountability for that use is a threat to international peace and security and a danger to us all. It is, therefore, imperative to hold accountable all those who would dare to use chemical weapons. As we start the new year, I state my sincere hope that members of this Council will unite on this issue. The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs stands ready to provide whatever support and assistance it can.”

Statements

DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) said that yet another meeting on Syrian chemical weapons was bringing no added value to the matter. Rather, he pointed out, discussing this topic in the Council each month was to “tick the box” for the benefit of the domestic political objectives of a number of Western countries, devalue the debate and undermine the Council’s authority. He also observed that the OPCW Director-General has repeatedly come up with excuses as to why he is unable to attend the Council’s meetings for the briefing, while providing a “carbon copy” of the reports. In this regard, the scheduling of the meetings needs to be optimized, he stressed, underscoring that, until then, he sees no point in engaging in the debate on the substance of the issue.

RICHARD M. MILLS, JR. (United States) said it is tragically fitting that the Council starts the new year yet again addressing the Assad’s regime repeated use of chemical weapons and its failure to comply with its obligations under the Convention on Chemical Weapons and resolution 2118 (2013). On a positive note, the Declaration Assessment Team will be in Syria soon, he said, spotlighting that the Assad regime has yet to provide a credible explanation for the two chlorine cylinders, implicated in the chemical weapons attack on Duma. Moreover, the regime has yet to provide documents, requested by the Declaration Assessment Team since 2019, which would shed light on the regime’s chemical weapons programme overall. Despite Moscow’s repeated assertions that OPCW’S Director-General has not met with the Assad regime, he said the regime has stalled the scheduling of such meetings since June 2021. OPCW and the United Nations have independently concluded that the regime has used chemical weapons on eight occasions, he asserted, calling on Syria to comply with its obligations and immediately cease its obstructions of the OPCW Expert Team so the issue of chemical weapons use by the country is resolved once and for all.

HAROLD ADLAI AGYEMAN (Ghana), speaking also for Gabon and Mozambique, said he regretted that there has been no significant development on this matter, which is considered monthly. The lack of progress is concerning and the Council must adopt a pragmatic approach to resolve the matter in accordance with international law. While acknowledging the efforts of the Syrian national authorities, including a six-month extension of the Tripartite Agreement until 30 June, he stated that much more could be done.

He encouraged Syria to elevate constructive cooperation with the OPCW Secretariat, in line with resolution 2118 (2013) and the Convention on Chemical Weapons and to help resolve several lingering issues. These issues included the organization of the next round of consultations with the Declaration Assessment Team; the 20 outstanding issues pending for some time; and the detection of a Schedule 2.B.04 chemical at the Barzah facilities in November 2018. He also underlined the importance of a proposed high-level, in-person meeting between Syrian officials and OPCW, expressing hope that the two sides could expedite actions to prepare an early meeting.

FABIO CUNHA PINTO COELHO (Brazil) said that, as in previous months, there has been little change in the situation on the ground or in the relationship between Syria and the Organization. This reinforced his delegation’s perception that there is a mismatch in the frequency of these meetings. While the Council should pay close attention to progress in the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria, holding monthly meetings when there is little or no relevant development on the ground does not seem an efficient use of time and resources, he said. He also welcomed efforts to hold a meeting between representatives of OPCW and Syrian authorities in Beirut in November 2022, but voiced regret that the meeting could not take place. Noting the impossibility to conduct full rounds of consultations, he expressed support for efforts to send a reduced team to conduct limited in-country activities in Syria later this month. Further, the six-month extension of the Tripartite Agreement among the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), OPCW and Syria was welcomed. More so, chemical weapons are utterly incompatible with international humanitarian law, he stressed, adding that their use violates international agreements and poses serious threats to international peace and security.

VANESSA FRAZIER (Malta) called for the universalization of the global norm on the prohibition of chemical weapons, which is underpinned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. “There can never be a justification for the use of these abhorrent weapons,” she asserted, urging Syria to cooperate with OPCW and resolve all the pending queries related to its initial Declaration. Syria must uphold its obligations under the Convention, she said, voicing regret that the list of pending declarations requested by the Declaration Assessment Team since 2019 have not yet been provided by the country, and that what has been submitted is inaccurate and incomplete. Against this backdrop, she called on Syria to cooperate with the Declaration Assessment Team so that consultations can take place.

ARIAN SPASSE (Albania) said the Assad regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons against civilians is an afront to the most basic rules of international society and should be met by the Council’s decisive action. Syria’s persistent lack of cooperation with OPCW is unacceptable, he added, calling on Syria to cooperate promptly and honestly with the organization. Expressing his full support for the objective, impartial and professional work of the OPCW teams, he welcomed the decision adopted by the twenty-fifth Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention suspending the voting rights and privileges of the Syrian regime due to its non-compliance with the Convention. The use of chemical weapons by the regime in Syria is a horrific event that must unite the international community against these weapons and hold those responsible to account, he said.

GHASAQ YOUSIF ABDALLA SHAHEEN (United Arab Emirates) noted that, while the Convention on Chemical Weapons enjoys a broad consensus in the international community, the Syrian chemical file is, unfortunately, one of the most politicized files on the Council. Condemning the use of chemical weapons, under any circumstances, by anyone, anywhere, she stressed that making tangible progress on this file requires engaging in constructive dialogue. Calling for communication and dialogue, she called on the parties to work in a spirit based on the principles upon which OPCW was established in its technical nature, which includes a consensus-based approach and non-politicization. She also welcomed the agreement to send a reduced team to conduct limited activities in Syria this month.

HERNÁN PÉREZ LOOSE (Ecuador), expressing regret over the lack of progress, said it was unacceptable that nine years after Syria acceded to the Convention on Chemical Weapons, its national declaration cannot be considered accurate and complete. He called on the authorities to remain committed to implementation of their obligations and urged them to cooperate with OPCW and the technical investigation team. Noting that chemical weapons incidents must be addressed transparently, he pointed out that non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is one of Ecuador’s priorities for its 2023-2024 mandate and underscored that the country’s historical commitment to disarmament will guide its contribution to the Council.

PASCALE BAERISWYL (Switzerland) said Syria must fully cooperate with OPCW, as its monitoring activities play a key role in achieving the common goal of States to completely exclude the possible use of chemical weapons. The OPCW fact-finding missions and investigation and identification teams must be able to operate on the ground. Yet, since April 2021, the Organisation’s Declaration Assessment Team has not been able to enter Syria. “This is of great concern to us,” she said, calling on Syria to give the team unhindered access to its territory. The international community still is not certain that chemical weapons stockpiles have been completely eliminated and there are 20 outstanding issues in this regard, yet only four have been resolved in almost 10 years, she pointed out. All these obstacles must be removed without delay. Otherwise, Syria’s initial declaration cannot be verified. Emphasizing her delegation’s stand against the use and proliferation of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances, she said: “Our collective security and the credibility of the instruments of the disarmament and non-proliferation architecture that guarantee it are at stake.”

SUN ZHIQIANE (China) condemned the use of chemical weapons by any country, under any circumstance, for any purposes. There is no alternative to dialogue and negotiation to resolve the Syrian chemical weapons issue, he emphasized, adding that the Syrian Government and the OPCW Technical Secretariat should strengthen engagement and communication to settle any outstanding issues promptly. As for the meeting between the Organisation’s Director General and the Syrian Foreign Minister, he underlined the importance of considering the realities faced by the country. Information provided by the Syrian Government on terrorist organizations possessing and using chemical weapons must be taken into full account, he stressed, calling for a holistic approach towards the Syrian issue, which would make the Council’s work more efficient.

NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France) recalled that resolution 2118 (2013) was passed unanimously and that the reality of the deadly attack in Ghoutta in 2013 has never been contested by anyone. “The lack of progress since then is frustrating, but responsibility lies solely with the Syrian regime,” he underscored, adding that it is the Syrian regime which stubbornly refuses to cooperate, with evident bad faith. Further, it has chosen to scuttle the bilateral meeting scheduled in November with the Technical Secretariat by imposing financial conditions that it knew were impossible to respect. OPCW has informed Syria of its intention to send a reduced team to the field in the near future, he noted, calling on Syria to facilitate the deployment of this team and to finally cooperate. Syria must urgently shed light on its chemical weapons stockpile, not all of which have been destroyed. It is time for Syria to comply with its international obligations. That is the only way it will be able to restore its rights and privileges. There must be no impunity for those responsible for those chemical attacks, he added, underscoring that combating impunity is a priority for France which will continue its efforts to that end.

FERGUS JOHN ECKERSLEY (United Kingdom), stressing the importance of the Convention on Chemical Weapons, as well as resolution 2118 (2013), said that joint investigations by OPCW and the United Nations confirmed that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, including chlorine and sarin, on at least eight occasions. Syria has since done everything possible to deflect and deny legitimate efforts to resolve the many serious gaps in its Chemical Weapons Declaration and continues to show contempt for its obligations under the Convention and the resolution. “It is not too late to turn this around,” he said, welcoming the Technical Secretariat’s latest initiative to send a reduced team to Syria in January. Calling for the full implementation of resolution 2118 (2013), he said this means the complete destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and accountability for their use.

ISHIKANE KIMIHIRO (Japan), Council President for January, speaking in his national capacity, stressed that the use of chemical weapons should never be tolerated anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstance. Those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable, he asserted, urging Syria to fully comply with its obligations under both the Convention on Chemical Weapons and resolution 2118 (2013). Syria must engage in good faith with the OPCW Technical Secretariat and provide all required documents to solve the outstanding issues related to the initial and subsequent declarations submitted by that country. Moreover, Syria should take the necessary steps to facilitate the holding of consultations between the Declaration Assessment Team and the Syrian National Authority, and refrain from making further excuses to impede the entry of the Team’s technical expert to its territory. Commending the investigations of the Investigation and Identification Team – including that on the Douma incident in 2018 – he reiterated that the use of chemical weapons in Syria poses a serious threat to international peace and security, as well as to the global non-proliferation regime.

BASSAM SABBAGH (Syria) pointed out that his country has never used a prohibited weapon or a toxic chemical matter and recalled that the first chemical weapons incident took place in 2013 in Aleppo, expressing regret that no visit by an independent investigation team took place, and no investigation was organized. Having voluntarily acceded to the Convention on Chemical Weapons in 2013, Syria concluded elimination of all its stockpiles in 2014, and therefore, implemented the Convention before it entered into force, he added. Over the past nine years, Syrian authorities granted more than 500 entrance visas to OPCW Technical Secretariat officials, facilitated 24 rounds of negotiations of the Declaration Assessment Team and nine rounds of inspections of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre, he stressed, pointing out that several visits from the fact-finding mission were also conducted.

Furthermore, Syria has accepted the renewal of the tripartite agreement with OPCW and UNOPS and welcomed the organization of high-level negotiations between the Foreign Ministry representative and the OPCW Director General. Underscoring the illegal nature of the establishment of the investigation and identification team, he pointed out the manipulation of the Convention’s text and reiterated that his country does not recognize any conclusions of the “illegal” team. Syria offered facilities to ensure the visit of the fact-finding mission in November and renewed its appeal to the team to publish the report on the five incidents flagged, respecting the working reference document; maintaining the chain of custody for samples; and avoiding using open sources. Turning to the report of the eighth round of inspections of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, he spotlighted the cooperation of the Syrian authorities during the cycle and welcomed the request of the Technical Secretariat to enable a visit of a reduced Declaration Assessment Team to carry out limited activities.

CEREN HANDE ÖZGÜR (Türkiye) said the outstanding issues in relation to the Syrian regime’s initial and subsequent declarations persist, as highlighted by the latest report of the OPCW’s Director General. Due to identified gaps and inconsistencies that remain unresolved, the OPCW Secretariat still cannot consider the Declaration submitted as accurate and complete. Moreover, the Secretariat’s efforts to organize the next round of consultations with the Declaration Assessment Team either in Syria or Lebanon remain unsuccessful. The Secretariat is still waiting for responses to its inquiries regarding the regime’s chemical weapons production facilities and the unauthorized movement of chlorine cylinders related to the 2018 Douma attack. Against this backdrop, the work of the fact-finding mission, as well as the current investigations by the investigation and identification team are critical for establishing the truth about the chemical weapons use in Syria. Calling the use of chemical weapons “unacceptable under any circumstances”, she stressed the importance of accountability for this egregious crime.

AMIR SAEID JALIL IRAVANI (Iran) noted there have been no new developments since the Council’s last meeting and Mr. Ebo’s report made no new points. The absence of progress and development on the issue meant monthly meetings were a waste of United Nations resources and the Council’s time. His delegation supported the resolution of the open issues and supports constructive dialogue between Syria and OPCW. Any investigation must be impartial, credible and objective and comply with the Convention’s requirements and procedures. He rejected all efforts to undermine the Convention and OPCW authority and called for the Convention’s balanced implementation. He commended Syria for its positive engagement with OPCW, and this engagement merited acknowledgement. The legitimate concerns of Syria should be addressed, including its position on the legality of the establishment of the investigation and identification team, which was given unlawful mandate. He noted Syria has regularly submitted its monthly report, including its latest report on 15 December. He hoped high-level meeting between OPCW and Syria will pave the path for parties to settle unresolved issues.

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