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OPCW chief warns threat of chemical terrorism very real

October 18, 16:20 UTC+3

Tackling this threat will require using all means available, OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu told TASS

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Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

© AP Photo/Peter Dejong

- How does the OPCW assess the completion of the chemical weapons destruction program by Russia? How do you see the future of cooperation between the OPCW and Russia in light of this achievement?

The completion of the chemical weapons destruction program by Russia is a milestone in the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The facts speak for themselves. At the time of joining the CWC, the Russian Federation had the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world – 39,966.558 metric tonnes – consisting of sarin, soman, VX, mustard, and lewisite – some of the deadliest warfare agents known to mankind.

Russia had an obligation, under the Convention, to destroy hundreds of thousands of filled and unfilled munitions, everything from aerial bombs to spray tanks, as well as destroy or convert all its chemical weapons production facilities. The entire weapons-destruction operation took place under the OPCW’s watchful eye. To reach this remarkable milestone in 15 years and ahead of schedule is a testament to Russia’s dedication, to the professionalism of its experts, the sustained financial and practical support from OPCW Member States, and the depth and breadth of OPCW’s technical expertise.

I see the future of cooperation between Russia and the OPCW in positive light. The Russian Federation is one of the original CWC signatory states. The OPCW has had a constructive and cooperative relationship with Russia throughout the full demilitarisation process. Moreover, Russia is active within the OPCW across all pillars of the Convention as a member of the Executive Council. 

Going forward, Russia’s contributions to the OPCW are essential as the Organization shifts its focus from disarmament to preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons. In particular, the Organisation is concerned about the rise of chemical terrorism. We are addressing this within the framework of the CWC. We understand that this is also an area of concern for the Russian Federation, and the OPCW has benefited from its participation in the Open-Ended Working Group on Terrorism and the Sub-Working Group on Non-State Actors. 

- How is the process of chemical weapons destruction coming along elsewhere in the world? Which countries are destroying their stockpiles? How many chemical weapons are left to be destroyed?

The progress made in verifiably eliminating chemical weapons under the Chemical Weapons Convention over the past 20 years is impressive. More than 96 per cent of 72,000 metric tonnes of declared chemical warfare agents have been destroyed under the OPCW’s verification. The world can only have confidence that all chemical weapons have been eliminated once the four remaining nations – Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan - take on the responsibilities of the Convention. Destruction efforts continue for not only the chemical weapons declared largely as a legacy of the Cold War, but also for old chemical weapons from WWI and abandoned chemical weapons from WWII.

The United States has destroyed over 90 percent of its stockpile under the OPCW's verification, and is on track to meeting its destruction obligation by the scheduled completion date of 2023. After Russia, the United States had the second largest declared chemical weapon stockpile. The Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant is making steady progress since it became operational in September 2016 and the Blue Grass Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant will soon be operational.

The remnants of Libya’s defunct chemical weapons program - which was removed from Libya by an OPCW-led international mission – is now being destroyed in a specialised facility in Germany. This process is expected to end this year. Because of the determination of Libya and the international community supported by OPCW verification, the world can have confidence that these chemicals will never become weapons.

- How do you see the organization's future? What are the most important issues the OPCW should deal with after all the chemical weapons in the world are destroyed?

The destruction of the last of the declared chemical weapons will mark a new era for the organization and a shift in our focus towards preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons. In an age of rapid scientific and technological advances and a shifting security landscape, the OPCW must tackle preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons on multiple fronts.

The threat of chemical terrorism is real. Terrorists have the ability to build or acquire chemical weapons. They have demonstrated their willingness to use them. The usual approaches to non-proliferation are not enough. Countering this threat will require using all available tools, including multilateral coordination among various national and international actors. Equally important is the national legal framework providing the foundation for preventing non-State actors from gaining access to materials that could aid in the development of chemical weapons, and penalizing those individuals responsible.

The OPCW seeks to ensure that chemistry is used for peace, prosperity and progress. The Convention provides for the promotion of international cooperation and the exchange of scientific and technological information for peaceful chemical activities. In this context, the organization has established a wide range of capacity-building programs.

The OPCW itself must be a center of excellence in chemistry. We plan to expand and upgrade the existing OPCW Laboratory to a Center for Chemistry and Technology. With this we will be able to augment and obtain a range of analytical and research capabilities for the benefit of our States Parties.

- The possible use of chemical weapons in Syria is widely discussed in the media nowadays. What is the latest progress in investigating these incidents? How do you assess the cooperation with the UN in this process?

The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) continues to assess all allegations chemical weapons use in Syria. The mission is conducting the investigations in an impartial and professional manner, while following all established scientific-based procedures. In May 2017, the FFM submitted a report on the use of sulfur mustard in September 2016 in Um-Housh, Aleppo and another report in June 2017 on the use of sarin this past April in Khan Shaykhun. In both cases, the FFM confirmed the use of chemical weapons. These assessments have been forwarded to the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which is mandated by the UN Security Council to determine responsibility for these attacks.  The OPCW is supporting the JIM by providing all relevant information that it requires in connection with their investigations.

- A new OPCW Director-General is supposed to be elected during the Conference of the State Parties in November. As the outgoing DG, who was in charge of the organization for almost eight years, what would you like to wish to your successor?  

Serving as the Director-General of the OPCW has been a great honor and a privilege. As an organization, we have made tremendous progress toward achieving a world without chemical weapons. To acknowledge that the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2013.

When I began my term in 2010, the organization was facing questions about its future and its relevance not only in the post-destruction phase, but even in the shorter term as destruction-related activity had been declining substantially. I have spent my tenure re-focusing our work on other aspects of the OPCW’s mission, and I am fully confident that the OPCW is ready to successfully meet the challenges of the post-destruction age and navigate an increasingly complex international security arena. The organization is now more agile and robust than ever before to tackle the challenges ahead.

The challenges facing the new Director General are formidable, and I mentioned some of them earlier. But from a wider perspective, what I would wish for my successor is that he continues the absolutely critical task of preserving the international norm against chemical weapons.

The OPCW has confirmed the use of such weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, there are reports of use in Iraq by non-state actors, and a trial regarding the alleged use of VX in an assassination is now ongoing in Malaysia. These reports are of concern to all of us. Preserving the norm is crucial because when it is breached without accountability, impunity is born. It is also vital to preserve the system that offers assurances of compliance because a loss of confidence in the effectiveness or relevance of the mechanism will inevitably lead to the erosion of the entire framework.

A significant factor is non-adherence by a handful of states that remain outside the convention. I continue to use every opportunity to stress the importance of Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan joining the Convention.

Ultimately, the OPCW is and will be what its States Parties want it to be. Yet, they all agree that stopping the spread and use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances remains a crucial objective.

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