Russia fails in its bid to block investigations into chemical attacks
THE HAGUE, the Netherlands -- Russia on Tuesday (November 20) failed in its bid to stall the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)'s controversial new power to apportion blame for attacks like those in Syria.
After a bitter war of words, member states approved the 2019 budget for the global chemical warfare watchdog, which includes funding for the new role.
In June, the OPCW approved a British-backed move to allow the body to attribute blame for chemical attacks. Previously it could only confirm whether toxic arms had been used.
Britain and the United States had accused Russia and China of trying to effectively reverse the earlier change to the watchdog's rules.
Applause broke out at the meeting in The Hague after member states voted 99 to 27 in favour of the 2019 budget.
It was the first time the OPCW had ever voted on the budget, after Russia and Iran, which both oppose the new attribution powers, insisted on a vote.
The OPCW also voted 82-30 against Russia's joint plan with China to set up an "open ended" group to scrutinise how the new powers would work.
"A clear majority against an attempt to wreck the historic June decision," British Ambassador to the OPCW Peter Wilson said on Twitter. "An overwhelming result, which clearly says #NoToChemicalWeapons."
France's embassy to the Netherlands also hailed the "overwhelming majority" of Tuesday's vote.
Pointing a finger at perpetrators
OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias said he aims to set up a "very small but strong" investigative team early next year that could attribute blame for all chemical attacks in Syria since 2013.
It will also be allowed to point the finger for attacks elsewhere upon request by the country where the incident happened.
In April, the Russian-backed Syrian regime was accused of using chemical weapons on civilians in Douma, close to Damascus, killing at least 40 people and hospitalising more than 500.
In an attempt to cover up the crime, Russia and its Syrian ally blocked international inspectors to the area for two weeks while they sanitised the area. However, those attempts failed.
Russia has even gone so far as to accuse volunteer humanitarian organisation Syria Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, of faking videos of chemical weapons attacks.
Tuesday's vote also took place under the shadow of the expulsion of four Russians accused by Dutch authorities of trying to hack into the OPCW's computer system in April.
The alleged Russian agents from the GU (formerly GRU) military intelligence agency used electronic equipment hidden in a car parked outside a nearby hotel, the Netherlands said.
At the time, the OPCW was investigating the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March in Salisbury, United Kingdom, as well as a major chemical attack in Syria. The spying incident was not on this meeting's agenda, however.
Later on Tuesday, Russia called a vote on plans to set up a special cybersecurity fund for the OPCW in the wake of the spy scandal -- which it also lost.
Russia and the West traded accusations of lying and hypocrisy Monday (November 19) before the vote.
US Ambassador to the OPCW Kenneth Ward accused Russia of "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," he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"And as if that wasn't bad enough, Salisbury comes along," Ward said.
British envoy to the OPCW Peter Wilson called any attempt to limit the watchdog's power to attribute blame for chemical attacks "unacceptable".
The OPCW was set up by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention under which almost every country in the world pledged to give up toxic arms.
The body says it has overseen the destruction of 96.5% of the world's chemical arms stocks.
But it has since been dragged into more politically sensitive territory with its investigations in Syria and Salisbury.
The OPCW chief 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," Arias said.