Chemical Weapons Watchdog OPCW Gains Crucial Power To Assign Blame For Weapons Use

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the world body responsible for investigating cases of banned chemical weapons use, has finally gained an additional and crucial power that allows it to assign blame for attacks involving chemical weapons. Wednesday saw a vote take place between members of the OPCW in the Hague to expand its mandate, reported the New York Times.

The desire to expand the mandate beyond investigating the existence of an attack had been borne of repeated chemical weapons usage in Syria, as well as the employment of a nerve agent in Britain on a former Russian spy and his daughter.

Members voted 82 to 24 in favour of this move, giving it the necessary two-thirds majority. Strong opposition had been mounted by Russia and its ally, Syria, who have both been accused of recurrently using these weapons, said the New York Times. This additional power given to the OPCW serves as a vital tool, not only for attributing responsibility for chemical weapons attacks, but also deterring its usage in the future.

The mandate expansion was led by Britain, who had been unsatisfied with the lack of accountability placed on the Kremlin, who they saw as responsible for the illegal use of a nerve agent on British soil back in March. The allegation had been strongly derided and denied by Moscow. However, the push to enhance culpability measures was sponsored by more than 20 of Britain’s allies, including the United States and the European Union. British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, declared that the ability to assign blame is “… crucial, if we are to deter the use of these vile weapons”.

Opponents of the motion, including Russia, Iran, and Syria, warned that it risks politicizing the organisation’s work. Along these lines, the Syrian ambassador, Bassam al-Sabbagh, accused the U.S. of distorting the operation of international bodies – including the OPCW – and conducting a “campaign of false allegations” against his country, and further blamed Americans for the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The deployment of chemical weapons in the Syrian state, reportedly used frequently by the Assad regime and its army to drive out opposition forces, occurred recently in Douma, a suburb of Damascus. This event had spurred greater discussions about the international community’s ability to respond to chemical weapons usage. While the desire to enhance accountability measures is not unprecedented, it has failed to progress extensively in the UNSC in the past, as a result of continuous vetoes – particularly by Russia.

In 2015, the Joint Investigative Mechanism was established by the United Nations and supported by the OPCW, which operated as an investigative body that had the power to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks. However, its mandate expired in late 2017, and its renewal was vetoed by Russia, who mounted strong criticism for the mechanism’s decision to blame the Syrian government for the sarin gas attack in Douma, April 2017 – an attack that killed dozens of people. The OPCW’s vote was thus seen as an important step in avoiding another Russian veto, as noted by Human Rights Watch’s UN director, who remarked that, “The days of Russia using its Security Council vote to suppress the truth about chemical attacks in Syria are over.”

More recently, following the attack in Douma on April 7 of this year, inspectors from the OPCW were only able to visit the site two weeks after the actual attack took place. The Syrian regime swiftly seized control of Douma and the crime scene, initially allowing only Russian police and reporters onto the site. Conveying their own analysis without an impartial body present, the Russian reports stated that the building showed no evidence of a chemical attack, and that the bomb on the rooftop had been placed there with the intention of framing the Syrian government. The pending OPCW report that will be based on their own investigation may be impeded by delay, as some have commented that it would have likely been obstructed.

The primary success of the OPCW has been achieved through its prominent role in supervising the Chemical Weapons Convention, which has resulted in the elimination of 96% of the world’s declared chemical weapons stocks. This extended mandate is crucial for dismantling the ‘secret’ weapons programs that states or groups may possess. The taboo on chemical weapons use is slowly being eroded by repeated use, not only within Syria, but also states like Iraq, Malaysia, and Britain since 2012. An extended mandate is necessary to solidify this interdiction and deter further use of chemical weapons before casualties grow greater in number. However, beyond attributing blame, further elaboration is needed on how repercussions will follow non-compliance to the prohibition.