The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has rejected Russia’s proposal to set up an international expert group to scrutinize decisions concerning the establishment of an OPCW-attribution mechanism. Thirty out of 112 countries that took part in the vote supported the Russian-Chinese initiative, while 82 opposed it. The watchdog has 193 members but not all of them were accredited to join the conference. The vote was 82-30 — only 112 out of 193 voted, with 81 (or 41% of all OPCW members) sitting it out. The proposal initiated by Russia was rejected in accordance with the very specific voting rules, but an outcome of 82 out of 193 means it was not a majority-approved decision anyway.
According to OPCW Director General Fernando Arias, the organization is forming an attributive mechanism to identify culprits. The team is to begin its activities in February 2019.
An emergency session held in The Hague on June 27 voted to expand the powers of this international chemical-weapons (CW) watchdog, authorizing the OPCW to issue a statement of blame for chemical attacks. Understandably, the idea to expand its powers was supported by the secretariat of the OPCW. The move will expand their clout and salaries, but a host of nations oppose it.
A group of OPCW members, including Russia, which is backed by China and Iran, wanted to review the decision to ensure that this major rule change doesn’t go beyond the OPCW’s mandate. They believe that giving the OPCW Technical Secretariat the authority to assign blame for CW attacks runs counter to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The OPCW would be trying to wield powers it is not legally entitled to, as its mandate does not allow for an attributive function.
The vote led to a serious split among OPCW members. Western countries want the budget increased to provide funds for this new attributive mechanism. Russia does not agree. In October, Russia's envoy to the OPCW, Alexander Shulgin, said the organization was doomed unless it reconsidered this decision that allowed it to act as a prosecutor. In June, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that Russia could withdraw from the watchdog. He believes that if this controversial decision is implemented the OPCW will cease to be a truly international body.
Of course it sounds good to condemn the use of chemical weapons and to call for expanding the OPCW’s authority, but it’s worth trying to get to the bottom of the problem in order to make heads or tails of it. A little insight into the matter will provide some clues.
Obviously, the approved change turns that body into a political tool that can undermine international security, because it encroaches on the exclusive prerogatives of the UN Security Council. The watchdog is simply not fit for the role of policeman and prosecutor. The OPCW has not done its job properly in Syria, often failing to gather evidence on site and using untrustworthy sources of information when preparing its reports. Suffice it to recall the “investigation” of the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack in 2017, when the inspectors did not even make the effort to travel to the site. If that’s not a violation of the core principle of Chain of Custody and the CWC, then what is? The same attitude was evident in the Douma attack in 2018. Each time there were serious disagreements between member states that prevented the watchdog from reaching definitive conclusions. The OPCW’s performance so far has not been up to par. What we observed in Syria offers no reason to believe that the OPCW can ensure transparency and impartiality. So why should its authority be expanded at the expense of the UN?
Are its inspectors qualified to become judges? Definitely not. There is no reason to trust any guilty verdicts when there is no mechanism in place to guarantee that the OPCW does not become politicized and biased. There are OPCW members who stand to gain politically by blaming Russia. They may not care too much about how substantiated their accusations are. Any country could be pronounced guilty, without any hard evidence presented to support that claim.
All these arguments are key to understanding Russia’s stance on the issue. It’s sad that they were largely ignored by those who voted for the new OPCW powers on Nov. 20. An agency of critical importance to the international community has been turned into an instrument for playing political games instead of doing the job it was initially created for. Now it may pass judgments, but what’s the use of handing down decisions that carry little political weight and are unrecognized by key world actors? The OPCW shot itself into the foot and as a result will lose its relevance and place its future into doubt.