Battles loom at OPCW over use of chemical weapons by Russia and Syria

The OPCW, the international body that monitors compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, is facing an unprecedented situation where Russia and Syria — two of its member states, far from upholding the ban on chemical weapons, stand accused of using them. While their flouting of the Convention is clear, what can be done about it is far less clear.

Last year a report by OPCW investigators blamed the Assad regime for two sarin attacks on Ltamenah in northern Syria. The attacks took place in 2017 — four years after the regime signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and three years after its entire stockpile had supposedly been destroyed.

The obvious conclusion was that the regime had either failed to declare some of its sarin or had since resumed production. That prompted a resolution from the OPCW’s governing body — the Conference of the States Parties — setting a 90-day deadline for Syria to provide an explanation.

Syria responded by ignoring the deadline and stepping up its non-cooperation with OPCW investigators. In April this year the OPCW suspended Syria’s voting rights and banned it from holding any office within the organisation. It was the first time in the organisation’s history that it had taken such action against a member state, though in practice its consequences are minimal.

Meanwhile, there are problems with Syria’s ally, Russia. It’s generally accepted that Russia was responsible for attacks on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018 and Alexey Navalny in 2020, using a Novichok-type nerve agent. That puts Russia in breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention too.

Navalny, a prominent opposition figure, was poisoned on Russian territory. He became seriously ill during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow in August last year. The aircraft made an emergency landing and he was taken to a Russian state hospital in Omsk. Two days later Russia allowed him to be flown to Germany for further treatment and he eventually recovered.

Alexey Navalny

Blood and urine samples taken from Navalny in the German hospital and analysed at two OPCW-designated laboratories showed he had been exposed to “a toxic chemical acting as a cholinesterase inhibitor”. The substance was found to have “similar structural characteristics” to toxic chemicals in the Novichok group of nerve agents.

A joint investigation between Bellingcat and The Insider, in cooperation with Der Spiegel and CNN, later revealed that Navalny had been under surveillance by a team from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). In a recorded phone conversation one of the FSB operatives spoke of Russian efforts to decontaminate Navalny’s clothing after he was hospitalised, paying particular attention to his underpants. It appeared from this that the chemical had most likely been applied to his underpants — to be absorbed by his skin when he wore them.

As a party to the Convention, Russia has a duty to take action against any chemical weapons activity on its territory or by its citizens elsewhere, and last week a group of 45 countries, headed by Britain, submitted a series of questions to Russia about the Navalny poisoning. They were acting under
Article IX of the Chemical Weapons Convention which says that if members that have “doubt or concern” about another member’s compliance with the Convention they should initially try to “clarify and resolve” the situation “through exchange of information and consultations among themselves”.

The group’s letter asked Russia what actions it has taken in connection with the Navalny affair “in light of its obligations” under the Convention, what the outcome of such actions was, and what further steps are planned.

The letter gave Russia 10 days to respond (as specified by the Convention) but it took Russia only two days to come back with a 235-page reply. This consisted mostly of copies of previous diplomatic correspondence regarding Navalny, plus a chronology.

The short answer to the 45 countries’ questions, given in an introductory note, was that there is nothing for Russia to investigate, because other countries have not provided evidence of their “far-fetched” claims that Navalny was poisoned.

The Russian documents offer two conflicting explanations for Navalny’s illness. The Omsk hospital is said to have diagnosed chronic pancreatitis [page 179], while an alternative claim is that he overdosed on an antidepressant medication containing lithium [page 223].

The 45 countries are unlikely to be satisfied by Russia’s response and Article IX of the Convention sets out a procedure for that eventuality. The next step would be to ask the OPCW’s Executive Council to obtain “further clarification” from Russia. That could include setting up a panel of experts “to examine all available information” and produce report. “Available information” would presumably include the evidence of the FSB’s surveillance of Navalny and the efforts to decontaminate his clothing.

Article IX also says the matter could be considered in a special session of the Executive Council which “may recommend any measure it deems appropriate to resolve the situation”. If it is not resolved by the Executive Council within 60 days any member state can request a special session of the OPCW’s ultimate governing body, the Conference of the States Parties, which may also “recommend any measure it deems appropriate to resolve the situation”.

How far the 45 countries will be able to pursue this remains to be seen. A lot hinges on the voting arithmetic. Decisions by the Executive Council need to be approved by 28 countries (two-thirds of its 41 members) but among the 45 countries actively seeking clarification from Russia, only 15 are council members — 13 short of the necessary majority.

Any member state can request a special session of the Conference of the States Parties but it can only go ahead if supported by 65 countries (one-third of the total membership) and any decision at the meeting needs approval from two-thirds of those present and voting.

The most recent special session was held in 2018 after Russia used its Security Council veto to shut down the UN/OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism which had issued a report blaming the Syrian government for a sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun. The purpose of the special session was to consider the creation of a replacement mechanism under OPCW auspices — later known as the Investigation and Identification Team.

The outcome of that meeting, with 82 countries in favour and 24 against, comfortably met the Convention’s requirement of a two-thirds majority among those present and voting but it was a rather hollow victory. As Russia pointed out, the large number of absentees and abstentions meant the decision had been supported by less than half the total membership. One interpretation of this was that while Russia had little support many countries viewed the issue as a quarrel between western powers and Russia, and did not want to take sides. Of the 193 member states, 41 stayed away from the special session and among those that did attend 46 took no part in the vote.

Complicating the Navalny situation further, in its response to the questions from the 45 countries, Russia retaliated with questions for Germany, France, Sweden, Britain and the OPCW itself [pages 15–16]. In doing so it also cited Article IX and demanded answers within 10 days — potentially triggering a similar process involving the Executive Council and the Conference of the States Parties.

Based on previous voting patterns, Russia does not have the international support to take this very far but will no doubt use it to muddy the water as much as possible.