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World powers clash over chemical arms watchdog’s new role

The Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons in The Hague faces difficult talks over a new investigative team that will start work next year to apportion blame for attacks in Syria © AFP / HAMZA AL-AJWEH

The Hague, Netherlands, Nov 19 – World powers traded accusations of hypocrisy in bitter clashes on Monday over the global toxic weapons watchdog’s new ability to attribute blame for attacks like those in Syria and Salisbury.

The United States and Britain went head-to-head with Russia, China and Syria over the boosted powers that members agreed to give the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in June.

At a tense meeting in The Hague, Moscow and Beijing were accused of trying to stall the watchdog’s new role indefinitely by proposing that the changes be subjected to “open ended” scrutiny before going live.

US Ambassador Kenneth Ward said Russia’s claims that the OPCW’s new powers were illegitimate were “pungent hypocrisy”, and warned against allowing a “new era of chemical weapons use to take hold”.

“What have they done for the last few years but to connive with their Syrian ally to bury the truth of what has happened in Syria, along with the dead killed by the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime,” Ward said.

“And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Salisbury comes along.”

The West pushed through the new powers after a string of chemical attacks in Syria, as well as a nerve agent attack on Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal in the British city of Salisbury in March.

Britain accused Russia of carrying out the attack using a Soviet-era chemical called Novichok and the West has since imposed a series of sanctions on Moscow.

British envoy to the OPCW Peter Wilson called any attempt to limit the watchdog’s power to attribute blame for chemical attacks “unacceptable”.

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– ‘Out and out lies’ –

Members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in June agreed to boost powers in pointing the finger for attacks © ANP/AFP/File / Bart Maat

But Russia’s envoy Alexander Shulgin hit back, saying that Western claims of chemical weapons use by Damascus and Moscow were a “scam” and “out and out lies”.

He added that Russia had a “principled position regarding the illegitimacy” of the new investigative powers, adding that they “infringe on the properties of the UN Security Council”, where Russia has a veto.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad meanwhile launched a fierce broadside at the US and Britain.

“You have taught people to use chemical weapons, you have used chemical weapons in the first two world wars. The Syrian government has never used chemical weapons,” he said.

“Where is your morality? This is sheer hypocrisy and sheer lies, I wish to use such undiplomatic language.”

The meeting is also the first since the expulsion of four Russians accused by Dutch authorities in October of trying to hack into the OPCW’s computer system, using electronic equipment hidden in a car parked outside a nearby hotel.

At the time the organisation was investigating the attack on Skripal as well as a major chemical attack in Syria.

The OPCW says the two-week meeting of the 193 member countries is meant to “discuss the future of the organisation”.

– ‘Strong and unified resolve’ –

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New powers would also allow the OPCW to probe incidents like the Salisbury nerve agent attack on a Russian double agent © AFP / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS

New OPCW director-general Fernando Arias warned in his opening address on Monday that the “international norm against the use of chemical weapons has come under strain”.

“Their repeated use poses a challenge that must be met with strong and unified resolve,” he added.

Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, the OPCW is responsible for upholding the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention to end the use of all toxic arms.

So far it says it has overseen the destruction of 96.5 percent of the world’s chemical arms stocks.

But in recent years it has seen its role expand to cover the investigation of a wave of chemicals attacks in the Syrian civil war, as well as the Salisbury attack and the 2017 killing in Malaysia of a half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

A “very small but very strong” investigative team will start work early next year with a mandate to go back and try to attribute blame for all chemical attacks in Syria since 2013, Arias said.

The watchdog will also be able to point the finger for future attacks anywhere in the world, so long as it is asked to by the country on whose territory where the incident happened.

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