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OPCW split: Experts comment on plan to allow identifying chemical attacks perpetrators

The 23rd conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention member-states in The Hague adopted a new budget for 2019

THE HAGUE, November 21. /TASS/. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) supported on Tuesday a US and British-backed initiative to delegate the right to identify the sides they consider perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks. However, the project sow discord in the organization.

The 23rd conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) member-states in The Hague adopted a new budget for 2019 that envisions allocation of 2.4 mln euro for setting up a so-called attributive mechanism as it attributes blame for chemical weapons use.

The support was mainly backed by the votes of EU and NATO nations, as well as third world countries aligning with them and island countries, the overwhelming majority of which sent their delegations this time to vote for the US project despite the fact that they often miss sessions of the organization. Russia, China, India, Kazakhstan, Iran and a number of other countries opposed the initiative, noting that a mechanism like that, firstly, overlaps with the functions of the UN Security Council, and secondly, undermines the essence of the activity of the OPCW that has always been focused on the expert, purely technical activity. Russia together with partnering countries put forth a number of initiatives at the conference to prevent a split in the organization, though neither of them enjoyed required two thirds of votes.

"It is safe to say that the initiative (to vest the OPCW with powers to identify those responsible for chemical attacks - TASS) stems from the US’ desire to dominate the world, bringing everything, including international organizations, under their control," Russian Permanent Representative to the OPCW Alexander Shulgin said. "They are clearly upset by Russia’s veto power in the Security Council and have long hoped to bypass it. With this end in view, they resorted to such a reckless step as creating a mini-Security Council here where Russia will have no veto power," he said, adding that he considers it "a costly operation solely aimed at serving one's own vested interests."

"In the run-up to this conference, the Americans and their allies were creating the image of Russia as a country that stifles the organization, stripping it of an opportunity to work fruitfully. However, just the opposite is happening, with the Americans themselves sending the organization to the bottom," the envoy emphasized.

According to Shulgin, "Russia, on the contrary, would like the OPCW awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a reputable organization and one of the most successful disarmament forums, to continue to exist." "It is relevant and necessary not only in terms of destroying chemical weapons arsenals - that process is nearing completion - but also in terms of preventing the development of chemical weapons," the diplomat noted.

"The organization is facing a growing split. Politicization is soaring. Many urge to turn over the challenging page and return to a normal full-fledged collaboration," he added.

The Russian side has been strongly against turning the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons into a "punitive body", noting that if it receives the right to identify perpetrators of chemical attacks the issue of the organization’s encroachment into the sphere of exclusive prerogatives of the US Security Council will become particularly relevant. Russia also emphasizes that the Chemical Weapons Convention does not stipulate attribution, while the decision to create an attributive mechanism was adopted by a minority in June due to specifications of the voting (only 82 out of 193 countries voted for, though it was enough as abstaining votes were not taken into account).

"At this stage, the OPCW secretariat is taking efforts to create an attributive mechanism, first of all for Syria," Russia’s OPCW Permanent Representative Alexander Shulgin said. "They are hiring specialists, buying equipment. Things are to get started quite soon, according to the secretariat’s plans," he said.

"As a matter of fact, that is what the Americans want. They want the mechanism to be set up as soon as possible as they pursue their own agenda," Shulgin explained.

"The second stage, which is planned for next year, envisions an increased outer expertise and new skills of the secretariat employees," he said, adding that at the second stage the mechanism of universal attribution is to be established. "There is an alarming aspect here as theoretically as soon as the attributive team on Syria begins to work, its specialists may be commissioned to work on inquiries from any other state to render assistance in case of a presumable chemical attack," Shulgin noted.

So far, none of diplomats interviewed by TASS has been able to project how many time it will take to create such a mechanism within the OPCW framework. However, Russian Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Georgy Kalamanov, who heads the country’s delegation, has assured that the US and Britain would put the most efforts to speed up the work.

Several experts and diplomatic sources at OPCW delegations told TASS that at the first stage the specialists of the OPCW attributive group on Syria would actively cooperate with the OPCW Fact Finding Mission in Syria that was set up in 2014 and particularly use the results of its work.

The group’s timeframe will also be linked to the Fact Finding Mission. That means that experts will investigate possible crimes in Syria committed since 2014, while particular emphasis would be put on the incidents investigated by the Fact Finding Mission, and those on which the joint mechanism of the US and OPCW on Syrian chemical attacks investigation that was liquidated in 2017 provided no reports.

Said otherwise, at the first stage the OPCW attribute group will particularly focus on incidents in Al-Lataminah in March 2017, Saraqib in February and in Douma this year.

At this stage, the issue is only about Syria, though further on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons may be given universal attributive functions, meaning investigate accidents anywhere in the world, which will allow the organization to make up a declaration, for example, about the side that it considers responsible for the Salisbury incident.

Russia plans to hand over to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) materials on western Novichok-related research, director of the Russian Industry and Trade Ministry’s department on implementation of convention liabilities Viktor Kholstov said.

"Russia has prepared relevant supplements that will be submitted to the OPCW secretariat later this week. They include the entire background on that matter, including on Novichok-related research in Western countries," he said.

Russian experts have analyzed "everything that have been developed in that area to find a wide range of chemicals that were patented as nerve poisonous substances in the United States back in the 1980s," Kholstov said. "Those patents existed before the late 1990s, i.e. before the Chemical Weapons Convention was signed and the list of banned chemicals was drawn." "The Americans held back those chemicals, despite the fact that they already knew that those were highly toxic substances," he said.

"There are about 400 such toxic agents," Kholstov said, adding that Russia suggests they should be added to the Convention, along with 600 other substances. "About 1,000 toxic agents are to be added to the Convention’s lists," he stressed.

He also criticized the United States’ and the Netherlands’ recent proposal to supplement the list of prohibited substances with only two agents. "We think it is an ostrich policy to show only two agents and hold back the rest," he said.

After the Salisbury incident in the spring of 2018, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the Novichok-type agents most probably originated from the United Kingdom, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Sweden and, possibly, the United States.

What occurred at the conference in The Hague will not make Russia leave the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and so far will not cause an automatic reduction of contributions to the organization’s budget. Russia intends to thoroughly analyze the situation and prepare a comprehensive response. According to head of the Russian delegation, Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Georgy Kalamanov, "it is too early to raise the issue (of Russia’s withdrawal from the OPCW - TASS)." "We will analyze the current situation. Naturally, Russia will draw certain conclusions," he added.

"We have fulfilled our liabilities to the organization and the entire world. Everybody knows and attests that," Kalamanov stressed.

Asked whether the current situation could tell on Russia’s financial participation in the organization, he said that those decisions are yet to be taken. "Certain conclusions will be drawn because we do not want to sponsor that," he emphasized. "That will be a comprehensive decision. We plan to thoroughly analyze the situation to prepare our conclusions to be reported to the country’s leadership," deputy minister noted.

According to Shulgin, the current task is "to minimize the damage from the adopted decision (to increase the OPCW’s budget for 2019 and set up an attributive mechanism vested with the right to identify those responsible for chemical attacks)."

He pledged that the Russian side would try to level down the negative impact of the decision. "Our opponents should not be rejoicing. It may turn out to be a hollow victory for them - a great damage is being done to the organization (OPCW - TASS). And we must now think how to constrain this damage, to minimize it at the first stage," he added.

Georgy Kalamanov also expects the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to cooperate with the UN Security Council, if it wants to name those responsible for chemical attacks. Now the OPCW director general should develop an algorithm for assigning blame for chemical attacks based on the decisions that have been made and present it to the member-countries, he said.