Üzümcü: “After Syria I do not see any country able to use chemical weapons anymore”

The last day of October, a sunny Friday in The Hague, I met with Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü to reflect on the previous year and a half, during which the civil war in Syria suddenly thrust the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into the spotlight.

In March 2013 United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requested technical assistance from the OPCW to investigate alleged chemical weapon (CW) use in the war-torn country. Six months later, after a serious incident in which sarin nerve agent killed and poisoned many hundreds of people in the Ghouta district of Damascus, Syria unexpectedly joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. And so began an urgent and perilous disarmament project. The announcement that the OPCW was to receive the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize just knocked international expectations from the organisation several notches higher.

The Syrian disarmament project has had a clear impact on the OPCW. Not just on its daily operations during the past 18 months, but it will also affect its future. However, the key question is whether the OPCW’s success in trying circumstances can inspire the international community to revive disarmament as a security tool.

Syria’s CW precursors have been evacuated and are almost all destroyed. Destruction of former CW production facilities has now begun. What were you thinking last year when you accepted the tight deadlines in the US–Russian Geneva Framework Agreement?

The Framework Agreement reached in Geneva on 14 September of last year was a significant achievement. The Russians and Americans wrapped up their negotiations in four days, which surprised us as much as the whole international community. We knew that the OPCW could be called on to address the chemical part of the Syrian conflict. In which form and under which conditions, we did not know then. Even so we were prepared to get involved and if necessary, to take the lead, all the while knowing such a project would be very challenging.

We first saw this document on 14 September. On 27 September, the Executive Council decided on OPCW involvement and a few hours later the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) endorsed that decision. Between both dates, we had 13 days to prepare our team for deployment to Damascus, work out the modalities, and so on. Having said that, I should add that the Technical Secretariat had been preparing itself for several contingencies. They included possible investigation of alleged CW use. We were thus ready when in March 2013 the UN Secretary-General called upon our expertise. In September, we had a team of 60 volunteer inspectors ready to go to Syria. They had trained to carry out different tasks.

Still, I was following the Geneva talks from Beijing. The negotiators raised questions whether we would be ready to do this or that. Our responses were all positive. We looked at our gaps. We identified a few areas where we would need some additional support, so we decided to rehire some of our former experts and hire some external experts. Important to us was to act swiftly and diligently. We also had to demonstrate to the international community that after 16 years the OPCW had the necessary capacity and expertise. I think we succeeded.

As I said, on Friday, 27 September, the decision was taken here. The same day the UNSC endorsed it in a resolution. On Monday, our inspectors were on their way. On Tuesday, they arrived in Damascus. The UN clearly had some difficulties to match this pace. The UN mechanism is huge compared to ours. So I called Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday, the day before the UNSC decision. I told him that we were ready to deploy and asked him for logistical and security support, which we received. Despite the magnitude of the challenge and the security situation in Syria, I think the Technical Secretariat was fully prepared to lead. When I say ‘lead’, I of course refer to the technical part of the operation. We relied on the UN for logistical support and security.

The other obvious challenge was the financial dimension. In that respect, having seen the support from the whole international community for this Russian–US initiative, I actually did not have any concerns. It was proven later on that we would have the necessary funds in both the UN and the OPCW Trust Funds. Financial aspects would not be problematic and they never were.

A year ago, I should say, we were both mentally and physically prepared to go to Syria. I personally was involved in setting up a task force, which I chaired every morning on the 7th floor of the OPCW headquarters. This also gave me the opportunity to know better some of our staff members. They were really capable and pleased to be able to help coordinate such a major operational mission.

After the interview

After the interview

What made the Syrian CW disarmament project work, whereas all other efforts to mediate or mitigate the consequences of the civil war were destined to fail?

That is an excellent question. Clearly, we must acknowledge, and I think the Syrians must acknowledge, that accession to the CWC happened in extraordinary circumstances. Following the Ghouta incident in August 2013 and the investigation operations, the Russian initiative and the Geneva framework agreement heightened pressure on Syria. And then Syria decided to join the CWC. This shows, I think, that if the international community can act in a united way, then we may achieve concrete results. In this case, this is what happened.

I also think that the international community showed its determination by upholding the international ban on CW use whether through the OPCW or independently of the OPCW. The reaction to the use of CW in Ghouta was united; everyone strongly condemned it. This enabled the international community to act together to eliminate the Syrian CW programme.

In other areas of international action concerning the Syrian conflict, I see that divergent views or approaches still exist. Geneva II failed, unfortunately achieving nothing tangible. In the autumn of last year I was hoping that success of the mission to eliminate the CW programme could play a catalyst role to resolve other aspects of the Syrian civil war. I was hoping that the international community, and especially the key players could get together to discuss the other problems. This did not happen, unfortunately. I see this as a missed opportunity. I thought that despite all problems, including the Ukraine crisis, the US–Russian leadership functioned well in the disarmament process. Without this joint leadership the mission would not have been successful.

The main difference is the inability of the international community to develop a common position towards the Syrian problem as it did in the case of CW.

In your mind, which things went right? And looking back, which ones would you undertake differently today?

I do not think that we have made mistakes in the overall process. Of course, there were some hiccups. Certain technical issues arose, for instance, in packing and re-packing materials. However, we were able to remedy them easily. But apart from those technical aspects, we did not have a major problem.

In fact, this Syria mission has enabled the Technical Secretariat to gain new capabilities. For instance, our inspectors could not go to certain sites as a consequence of the situation in the country. They therefore applied remote verification methodologies using GPS equipment. In general, I would not say that we have had gaps that adversely affected or delayed the conduct of the mission.

We must also acknowledge the technical expertise and skills of our staff as well as their courage. The CW sites were located in two clusters around Damascus and Homs. The Homs cluster in the north in particular lay in a dangerous area. The staff had to work at remote sites outside of the city; they were moving from one area to another and had to rely on protection by Syrian security forces. Fortunately, we had no major security incident until May this year when an OPCW team investigating alleged use of chlorine was ambushed.

Cooperation between the OPCW and the UN had been agreed in a couple of Memoranda of Understandings before the Syrian crisis erupted. The OPCW’s specific expertise and development of operational procedures, including for investigations of alleged CW use, played key parts in that cooperation. Based on the current experience, in which areas could the structural arrangements with the UN and the OPCW’s own procedures be enhanced or supplemented?

As a matter of fact, the arrangement of the Joint Mission emerged as a compromise between 14 and 27 September 2013. I thought that disarming Syria should be an OPCW mission with the support of the UN as had happened in Iraq and Libya. Furthermore, Syria was to become a party to the CWC on 14 October, which also made it the normal course of action. Several State Parties, however, believed that the Security Council had a role to play and that consequently the Secretary-General, the UN offices, and so on, ought be involved too. The Secretary-General came up with the formula to appoint a Special Coordinator in consultation with me. In fact he did consult with respect to the appointment of Sigrid Kaag as a Special Coordinator while also providing logistic and security support. The Special Coordinator was to report to him as well as to me. She came here several times to inform the Executive Council. This worked quite well.

For both the UN and the OPCW this was the first experience of this kind. I feared that there could be some problems from time to time. If something was to go wrong, who would be responsible? We all know that if all goes well, no-one will question the arrangement. Initially I had some doubts, but today I must say that it worked well. This allowed the OPCW to benefit from capable UN staff and support. When needed we were also able to mobilise some further support from States Parties through New York. So the Secretary-General had meetings a few times, and I was in regular contact with him. He has always been supportive of this mission. He kept saying that this is really the only aspect of the Syrian conflict in which the international community produced something tangible, which is correct.

We concluded a relationship agreement with the United Nations in 2000, which entered into force in 2001. To disarm Syria we have had to develop some other documents to address certain matters not just with the UN, but with the Syrian government too. So I think all functioned very well.


Members of the OPCW-UN Joint Mission team standing in front of the last container, just prior to loading onto the Ark Futura (Source: OPCW)

Some neighbouring countries of Syria have been accused of supplying or facilitating the supply of chemical warfare materials to one of the belligerent sides in the civil war. Such claims are not just in press reports, but have also been voiced by officials from States Parties. How do allegations of this type affect the credibility of the CWC and what options does the OPCW have to respond to them?

There were some allegations of this type, but we have not found or received any evidence to this effect. For instance, the Syrian government and some others accused certain opposition groups of using CW. Yet they never reported that those opposition groups had access to their own stockpiles. This implies that those opposition groups ought to have produced their own CW based on materials others might have delivered.

Frankly, we have not seen any evidence of it. Apart from the chlorine use by ISIL which happened later on, we have not seen any evidence of the use of sarin, mustard gas, or any other CW.

Over the past two months there have been several comments that Syria has been hiding parts of its chemical warfare programme, and that the amendments to its initial declaration prove this. However, contrary to normal practice, OPCW inspectors were already at work inside the country even before it had submitted its initial declaration. There was also no preparatory assistance for accession. What will it take to bring ‘normalcy’ to State Party-hood for Syria?

Again, Syria’s accession to the CWC happened under extraordinary conditions. The Technical Secretariat deployed the inspectors immediately and started to identify CW storage sites and prepare inventories of their contents. So, in fact, we helped the Syrians to produce their initial declaration—a very large document. We also knew that it could not be complete and that there would be amendments later on. Therefore, we have asked the Syrians to be transparent and cooperate in order to finalise this declaration and make it fully accurate. This process is still under way after a year. We have a Declaration Assessment Team—a small team—led by the Head of the Declarations Branch. Its members have travelled five times to Syria, and they will go there soon again. The purpose of this process is to raise questions based on the initial declaration, to identify the gaps, find discrepancies, and so on, in order to correct the declaration.

I also see the process as a confidence-building exercise. We want to assure the rest of the membership of the OPCW that Syria is fully compliant with its obligations. The Syrian government did accept to cooperate with this Declaration Assessment Team and be engaged in this exercise.

You may also recall paragraph 2(d) in the Executive Council decision of 27 September 2013. It authorises the Technical Secretariat, or more precisely the Director-General, to undertake upon the request of any State Party some kind of challenge inspection—although we do not call it ‘challenge inspection’—to verify certain allegations of non-declaration, hidden assets, and so on. States Parties have not yet invoked this mechanism, but they have supported the Declaration Assessment Team approach, which is a rather informal process. You are right, it has no precedent, but it functions quite well. We were able, for instance, to identify one gap. Syria produced ricin at one point, but later destroyed the agent. There are a few other issues, like the mustard agent the Syrians destroyed before acceding to the Convention. There is the problem of unfilled munitions they later converted for conventional purposes. We try to have the Syrian authorities document all this because our major problem is lack of documentation. In view of the circumstances in the country and in view of the lack of documentation, we have undertaken some interviews with pertinent Syrian officials.

To respond to your question when Syria will become a normal State Party, I think the process will take more time. Of course, we do not want to make it open-ended or continue it for years. Our purpose is to finalise the process as soon as possible.

Libya has now asked to have its remaining holding of chemicals evacuated from the country in view of the growing insurgency there. Actions taken with regard to Syria were not to be considered as precedent-setting, but can you see this past year’s experience as a template for future action?

Actually, Libya made no formal request for removal of its Category 2 CW out of the country. In the light of the security situation in the country, they have asked us to explore different options. We have held a few consultation rounds here with some States Parties that helped Libya destroy their Category 1 CW in the past. One option could be removal of the precursors outside of the country and to destroy them in chemical industrial plants as with Syria. But there is no decision yet; there is no formal request. All of this has been informal.

You are right when you say that the Syrian project does not set any precedent for the future and it was clearly mentioned in the decisions. Therefore we would need a consensus among States Parties on this issue. Practically, however, this may make sense because of the conditions in the country. It would be very hard to build a destruction facility from scratch and undertake this mission there.

But again, nothing is decided yet. Libyan authorities are discussing this issue among themselves. They will come back to us and then we will try to find the best possible option.

The OPCW has now distributed two reports on the investigation of alleged use of chlorine in Syria. The investigation process is still ongoing. In view of the OPCW’s traditional preoccupation with confidentiality, could those reports and underlying documentation and analyses be made available to the International Criminal Court or a special war crimes tribunal? Could investigators—whether as staff of the Technical Secretariat or as ex-staff members—testify?

I do not know actually what types of actions the international community could take in follow-up to such reports. Our fact-finding mission continues to work on the documentation. They will submit a more comprehensive report later on. It will not be up to the Technical Secretariat to decide. We undertake the technical work. As we have seen in the recent reports, the accounts are based on eyewitness accounts by people who were exposed to the chlorine. Therefore, as the Technical Secretariat or as staff members who took part in this mission, we cannot attribute in a confident manner this CW use to any party.

If there is a court process, if these reports are requested by some courts, I think it will be up to the decision-making bodies of the OPCW to decide on this.

There are fresh allegations of CW in Syria and Iraq. However, in Syria the situation appears peculiar. A non-state actor is alleged to have used chlorine or some other toxic substance against another non-state actor on a piece of territory of a State Party, but which is not under the control of that State Party. How can the CWC address such a situation?

You describe a very complex situation. Syria is a State Party. This alleged use of chlorine or other substances occurs in territories not under the control of the government. Clearly a provision in the CWC Verification Annex enables the UN Secretary-General to invoke his investigative mechanism on territory not under the jurisdiction or control of a State Party. So the UN mechanism could be more appropriate.

In April 2015 we will commemorate the centenary of the first modern attack with CW. Chlorine was the agent used. Today we are again confronted with the use of chlorine. Ironic?

It is ironic, and it is also deplorable. It took about 100 years to develop and enforce the regime against CW. I believe, of course, that this regime is in the interest of humanity. It was awful that those weapons were used on a large scale in 1915 and are now being used again against Syrians. But looking again at the unified international reaction against the use of CW in Syria, one should be encouraged, and I was encouraged to see that. This determination and this united position as well as our success in Syria have pushed the threshold for use of CW quite high. No country now, I think, could defend in a legitimate way, leaving aside legally, the use of these substances. In fact, I do not see any country able to use CW anymore. The reaction will be very firm.

But now we are confronted with the possible use of such substances by non-state actors. This is a challenge. And a challenge that the international community should address. I believe that some additional measures to prevent access by non-state actors to the raw materials, to the technology, to the equipment to produce such weapons can reinforce the existing regime. We have an open-ended working group on terrorism here at the OPCW, which was established in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. It is a platform for exchanging views on best practices in countering terrorism. In the context of the OPCW, we are talking about chemical terrorism, of course. At the last meeting the Secretariat raised the idea whether Article VI inspections could contribute to counter-terrorism efforts. We wish that States Parties reflect upon whether this regime can contribute to counter-terrorism efforts, and if not, whether it could be somehow adapted to meet the new security challenges. We now only have six states outside of the regime, but as I said earlier CW use by any country has become remote. Preventing their use by non-state actors, particularly terrorists, is the real challenge today. We must find ways to address this issue effectively.

Üzümcü Nobel address

The Nobel Peace Prize address (Source: OPCW)

The 2013 Nobel Peace Prize and the accomplishments in Syria have raised expectations from the CWC and the OPCW. Where do you go from here?

That is a good question. Since the start of the Syrian crisis March 2011 we have been preparing ourselves for possible intervention. After we got directly involved last year, we have not been able to continue our focus on the future of the Organisation. The debate had already started a few years ago. When I took over in 2010, I noticed that for CW we were approaching the global zero. This is a big achievement and it will happen in the next 4–5 years. Therefore, this Organisation must prepare itself for the post-destruction phase.

The initial balance in the Convention was between the verified destruction of existing stockpiles and routine industry inspections, on the one hand, and the other activities, on the other hand. This balance will be upset not because of the failure of the Organisation, but rather because of its success. Therefore we must strike a new balance. This new balance will be in my view between prevention of re-emergence of CW, including in the hands of non-state actors, and the rest. The rest is very important too. We want to engage a larger group of States Parties through international cooperation and capacity-building activities. We want to reinforce the capacity of States Parties in the field of assistance and protection as well as more generally for emergency response. We want to strengthen our cooperation with other international bodies, including regional or sub-regional organisations, to bring together the different capabilities. And we want to undertake more educational and awareness-raising activities, which did not exist before. This is a rather new project. All this is clearly a big challenge for the Organisation and for the membership. The challenge is to keep the OPCW relevant and viable.

The OPCW is not just the Technical Secretariat, but without the Technical Secretariat, I do not think that the regime can survive. Therefore the Technical Secretariat should be fully capable to deliver the tasks that the States Parties expect from it.

I think we have already entered the transition phase. We should anticipate the post-destruction phase of the CWC as of 2016. We have set up some groups and will develop our medium to long-term staff planning. From 2016 onwards the programme and budget to be submitted by the Technical Secretariat to the Conference of the States Parties will include some structural adaptation measures. This way the Organisation can ensure a smooth transition through that phase and will not be caught unprepared. The worst scenario would be that several CW destruction facilities complete their activities and the number of inspectors drops dramatically. It will go down inevitably. We used to have 175 inspectors in 2010, now we have 125, and their total will be reduced further to 90 or so. However, when the States Parties adapt the rest of the Technical Secretariat to that number, how can we do it and in what orderly fashion? Everything has to be orderly. That is the challenge. But I am very pleased that during and after the 3rd Review Conference in 2013 the States Parties did agree that this Organisation was serving their interests, especially their security interests. After all, the CWC is primarily a security regime that will continue to serve their security interests.

The challenge is to develop a fresh consensus among States Parties on the new priorities for the Organisation. I hope that this new consensus will not be based on the lowest common denominator. I do hope that those common standards will be higher than that and doable. I have another four years during which I want to contribute to this transition phase. I want to keep this Organisation relevant, capable and ready to deliver.

This was my last question. Is there anything else you particularly feel you wish to add?

Actually, chemical disarmament has been successful. As we discussed earlier, it took several decades, but one category of weapons of mass destruction is close to being eliminated. It has taken us longer than foreseen because of technical difficulties and other complexities, but the process is moving. Every State Party is committed to chemical disarmament; nobody questions it. I see that as a major achievement. I hope the international community can view this achievement as a good example for similar future initiatives. I have spoken to several experts who think that the CWC verification measures could be a model for a nuclear disarmament process, which is quite encouraging. I can only say that this success, which was also recognised by the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, is a good example of effective multilateralism we should all cherish. Those who are working in this area, including yourself, we should all be proud of this achievement.

You mention nuclear disarmament. Anything for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)?

(Laughs) The BTWC is being implemented in a rather flexible way in a confidence-building process. The initiatives to develop a verification mechanism have so far failed. I do not know where this will lead. Clearly, it is not appropriate for me to comment on the positions of individual States Parties to the BTWC. But I think the convention should rather focus on prevention, if possible, rather than on disarmament. I do not think much can be done in terms of disarmament, but the matter is certainly important.

Thank you very much.