Analysis: Impartial investigation of breaches of the Chemical Weapons Convention needs to remain the core mission of OPCW
21 September 2020

The use of the Novichok poison in the attempt on the life of Alexei Navalny has once more put the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons into the spotlight. In this analysis for Anton Macfadyen looks at the history of the efforts to eliminate chemical warfare, and the challenges ahead.

The assassination attempt on Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny last month has brought renewed attention to the use of chemical weapons and thrust the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) - responsible for overseeing the global endeavour to eliminate chemical weapons - back into the spotlight.

Navalny, an outspoken critic of the Russian government is believed to have been poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. Having been flown to Germany for medical treatment, the German government announced that its test showed 'unequivocal proof' that Novichok was used in Navalny's poisoning, and this has been confirmed by independent French and Swedish laboratories. The same agent was used in the assassination attempt of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, UK, in 2018.

 The use of Novichok, which is considered a chemical weapon, has drawn international criticism and led to calls for Russia to reveal details of its chemical weapons programme. The incident has also raised questions around the prevalence of chemical weapons in today's world, and the role of the OPCW in curtailing their use. 

Whilst the Navalny poisoning marks the most recent use of a chemical weapon, modern chemical warfare is considered to have begun during the first World War. In 1915 German forces released 160 metric tonnes of deadly chlorine gas in Ypres, Belgium, in an attempt to the gain the upper hand over the allied troops. The next three years of the war would see the continued use of chemical weapons by both sides on an unprecedented scale. After the end of WW1, the 1925 Geneva Protocol attempted to ban the use of chemical weapons with limited success. Chemical weapons continued to be employed intermittently throughout the following decades: by the United States in Vietnam in the late 1960's and during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988. While the world would not see the widespread use of chemical weapons on the scale of WW1, countries (particularly the US and the Soviet Union) continued to develop and stockpile immense quantities of these weapons. 

After 1945, the threat of chemical warfare was largely overshadowed by the existential threat posed by nuclear war, but a consensus slowly emerged in the ensuing decades that something had to be done to prevent further chemical attacks. However, in large part due to disagreements surrounding the precise form of a treaty to address the issue, no international agreement was established until 1993, when the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was opened for signature. One hundred and thirty countries signed the treaty within two days and four years later, in 1997, the CWC finally entered into force. With it, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body in charge of enforcing it, came into existence. The CWC is not the first treaty aimed at limiting the use of chemical weapons but it is by far the most comprehensive and widely accepted arms control treaty limiting the use of chemical weapons, and would prove to be a turning point in the fight against chemical warfare.

While the recent Navalny incident has brought the OPCW and the CWC back into focus, chemical weapons have continued to be used post-1997, albeit less frequently than before, with two major breaches of the CWC in the past decade. Perhaps the most infamous of these was the use of poisonous gas in 2012-13 in Syria. Over a 12-month period there were multiple reports that poisonous gases, were being used on civilians during the civil conflict. The Assad regime initially denied these accusations but after mounting evidence and international pressure, the Syrian government acknowledged that it had chemical weapons and agreed to let the joint OPCW-UN team remove and destroy its stockpiles.

The second major violation of the CWC was in 2018, when a Novichok nerve-agent was used in Salisbury, UK. Once again, the OPCW was tasked with analysing the samples and providing a report on the incident. While the OPCW did not impose any penalties for the use of this nerve-agent, its report on the Skripal poisoning led to the UK and 29 other countries expelling Russian diplomats, with the US imposing economic sanctions.

The OPCW has come under fire multiple times in the past few years, and breaches of the CWC have invariably led to criticism of the organisation, specifically for its lack of enforcing power and alleged lack of impartiality. In the years following the 2012 use of sarin gas in Syria, reports of CW use by the Assad regime continued to surface, with the OPCW fact-finding mission confirming multiple times that sarin and chlorine gases had been used in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018. This led to a general outcry that the diplomatic measures taken against the Syrian regime in 2012-13 during its first uses of chemical weapons were too soft and had failed to hold the Assad regime accountable for perpetrating a war crime. Specifically, a general sense of frustration has emerged at the lack of enforcing power that the OPCW has, and calls were made for its reform to enable it to have more 'teeth'.

On the other hand some countries have taken to accusing the OPCW of not being impartial. In 2018, it published a report showing that chlorine gas had been used in the Syrian city of Douma, earlier in the year. This resulted in massive air-strikes against Syrian targets by the UK, the US and France. However, a leaked report later showed that the OPCW had misrepresented the evidence that poisonous gas had unequivocally been used by the Assad regime. The whistle blower alleged that the 2018 final report had 'unintended bias' and that it simplified conclusions.

That same year however, the member countries of the OPCW voted to give it the ability to assign blame for a Chemical Weapons attack, meaning that it could not only establish that CWs had been used, but also designate the culpable parties.

Both of these incidents raised questions about the integrity of the organisation, and calls were made for it to be depoliticised.

Like many other multilateral institutions the OPCW is currently under pressure as a result of a weakening of the rules-based international system, and being caught in a quandary between those countries expecting it to do more, and others wary that it may be manipulated.

Criticism has been placed at the door of the OPCW that not enough is being done to combat the use of chemical weapons and that the reaction to breaches of the CWC have been too soft, creating a sense of impunity which enabled the likes of the Assad regime to feel confident about repeatedly using chemical weapons. While this reaction may be understandable, blame should not be directed at the OPCW itself because its enforcement jurisdiction is very limited by its mandate. It is tempting to want an organisation like the OPCW to be able to hold perpetrators accountable and to have greater enforcing power. Any changes to its mandate would however require the Security Council's approval, and both Russia and China have vetoed any such attempts multiple times. Additionally, as shown by the claims made against it since it has been given the power to assign blame, new powers risk politicising the OPCW resulting in the undermining of its integrity, and the credibility of its reports. Ultimately, the OPCW may work best as an independent watchdog whose main role is investigative and informational, tasks that it needs to perform with the utmost impartiality.

The responsibility to respond to breaches of the CWC does not lie with the OPCW itself. The impetus to hold those who break the convention to account is on countries and multinational organisations like the EU. This is exactly what we have seen in the Navalny case; while the OPCW analysed the samples to determine if Novichok was used, the potential of imposing economic sanctions on Russia is being led by Germany which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

There remains a considerable way to go in ensuring that we live in a world free of chemical warfare, and the OPCW has an important role to play in this. Firstly, it must focus on universality - convincing the remaining countries (North Korea, South Sudan, Israel and Egypt) to sign and ratify the treaty. It should also put pressure on state parties to the CWC like the US, Iraq and India who have pledged to destroy their stockpiles of chemical weapons but have yet to do so completely to ensure that they finish the job. Finally, the success that the OPCW has achieved thus far in reducing the amount of chemical weapons in existence means it will need a gradual shift in focus to work more on preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons rather than simply the destruction of existing stockpiles.

source: Anton Macfadyen studies politics, philosophy and economics at Warwick University in the UK,  and is a member of LINKS Europe "Next Generation Thinkers Panel".

photo: The headquarters of the OPCW in The Hague.

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