Russia presents UN measure in move to 'strangle' chemical weapons watchdog



A protection mask is pictured at the OPCW headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands, on April 20, 2017. Tucked away in the Dutch suburb of Rijswijk, the two-storey building, with about 20 staff, has been key to two decades of painstaking work to eliminate the world's toxic arms stockpiles. [John Thys/AFP]

NEW YORK -- Russia presented a draft resolution to the United Nations (UN) Security Council that accuses the UN's chemical weapons watchdog of "politicisation" just before a new probe of chemical attacks in Syria begins.

The move on May 16 is Moscow's latest aimed at protecting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has long been accused of using chemical weapons against rebels.

The draft text, seen by AFP, states that the council -- where Russia holds veto power -- is the only international body that may impose measures on countries that violate the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The chemical weapons regulator, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), agreed last year to set up a mechanism that would identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks, a move bitterly opposed by Russia and Syria.


Entire families were found "gassed to death" in shelters and in their homes in Douma on April 7, 2018, according to the Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets. [White Helmets]

'Trying to strangle the OPCW'

The proposed resolution notes "with concern the continuing politicisation of the work of the OPCW and growing deviation from the established practice of taking consensus-based decisions".

The Russian proposal is aimed at keeping the OPCW in check as it pushes ahead with the investigation to uncover those behind chemical weapon use in Syria, said UN diplomats.

"What it's really about of course is the Russians trying to strangle the OPCW," said a diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The West pushed through the new investigative mechanism after OPCW reports confirmed chemical weapons use in Syria, as well as the use of a nerve agent in an attempt to assassinate Russian defector Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in March 2018.

"The Russian rationale is to weaken the OPCW and the Chemical Weapons Convention, with an eye on Syria but also Salisbury," said another diplomat.

It remained unclear when the council will vote on the draft resolution. Passage of UN resolutions requires nine votes and no vetoes in the council.

The proposed resolution has China's backing, diplomats said.

"This looks like a desperate bid to prevent further confirmation that the Syrian government, like ISIS, repeatedly used chemical weapons in violation of international law," said Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch.

The Russian mission to the UN did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment.

Identifying those responsible

The new investigation of chemical attacks in Syria will begin in the coming weeks, said OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias, in March.

Western countries are calling on the team to start work on identifying the culprits behind a deadly attack in the Syrian town of Douma in April 2018.

The United States, Britain and France launched a one-off missile strike on Syria in April last year in response to the use of chemical weapons in Douma, and they remain alert to any new incidents.

The OPCW said in a report that chlorine was likely used against Douma, where more than 40 Syrians died, while Russia and Syria have rejected those findings.

The report did not specify who was behind the Douma episode as doing so was not in the OPCW's mandate at the time.

In 2015, the council unanimously agreed to establish the OPCW-UN joint investigative mechanism (JIM) to identify those responsible for chemical weapon use in Syria.

In late 2017, Russia vetoed a bid to renew the mandate of the JIM after the panel blamed the Syrian government for chlorine attacks and for using sarin in a deadly assault on the town of Khan Sheikhun that same year.

Russia has used its veto 12 times at the council to shield its Syrian ally from international action.

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Russia is muddying the waters, as always.