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Remarks at the CWCC webinar on ‘Reinforcing the Norm Against Chemical Weapons’

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Remarks at the webinar Reinforcing the Norm Against Chemical Weapons: The April 20-22 Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, organised by the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition and the Arms Control Association, 10 May 2021


Director-General Arias,

Ambassador Helfand,

Ambassador Lingner,


I am pleased to join this webinar of the global non-governmental platform, the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition (CWCC). As a CWCC member from the start, I wish to express my gratitude to Paul Walker, who has been the engine behind the initiative for as long as it has existed, and to the states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that have supported the CWCC, including Norway and Germany.

25th session, part 2 of the Conference of the States Parties (Picture: OPCW)

The 25th session of the Conference of the States Parties has been remarkable. Not only was the meeting hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic and forced to meet in two parts because of health restrictions, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) also had to vote on whether to sanction one of its members under CWC Article XII.

Indeed, the civil war in Syria has witnessed the return of chlorine to the battlefields for the first time since the First World War, and of sarin. Only this time, Syria is a party to the CWC.

The step to act under Article XII is the latest in a series to have Syria come clean on its chemical weapon (CW) programmes and to force it to cease its CW attacks on insurgent and civilian targets.

In June 2018, the OPCW voted to set up the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT); in April 2020 it published its first analysis based on the findings by the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM). The OPCW Executive Council in response gave Syria a deadline of 90 days to come clean, which it failed. So now, it has certain rights and privileges suspended.

Remarkable are the strong votes cast supporting the norm against CW. States parties adopted the decision to establish the ITT with 82 votes in favour, 24 against and 45 abstentions. The decision to sanction Syria last month received 87 yes votes, 15 noes, and 34 abstentions. Comparing both ballots, some significant shifts become visible.

Vote shift from June 2018 to April 2021

(States that voted in at least one ballot)

No → Yes: +2 +2
Abstain → Yes: +11 Yes → Abstain: -6 +5
Absent → Yes: +5 Yes → Absent: -6 -1
Yes → No: 0 0
Abstain → No: +4 No → Abstain: -8 -4
Absent → No: +1 No → Absent: -4 -3
Summary of shifts
Yes votes: +6 No votes: -7

[Note: this table has been updated in Sanctioning Syria: An Analysis of the OPCW Vote (19 May 2021).]

I still need to verify the exact vote count especially regarding absentees[1] and states parties having lost their voting rights because of arrears with their budget contributions and assess the reasons behind the shifts. But the trend is clear despite the efforts to discredit the OPCW and its work:

  • The number of states parties that demand full compliance with the CWC from Syria shifted by six, while those opposing measures to hold Syria to account dropped by seven; a net shift of 13 votes by those present and voting that count towards reaching the mandatory two-thirds quorum. (Abstentions and absentees do not contribute to the quorum.)
  • Only two states parties reversed their 2018 no vote to a yes vote; no state turned its yes vote.
  • Shifts in abstentions appear have had the greatest impact on the final tally in the April 2018 ballot. The yes vote enjoyed a net gain of five, whereas the no vote suffered a net loss of four.
  • As concerns absentees, both the yes and no votes suffered net losses but the figure was slightly worse for the no vote.

(Meanwhile there were also ballots required to approve the OPCW budget, which includes funds for the functioning of the IIT. Some states seem to have justified their negative vote in terms of their opposition to the reallocation of unspent funds to the new investigative body. Some other ones used the voting opportunity to record their disappointment with the proposed allocations to implement Article XI on international cooperation. In several instances their negative vote on the budget differed from the ones cast in June 2018 or April 2021.)

Much of the debate on CW use takes place in the context of the OPCW. And its members have by virtue of the treaty – Articles VIII, IX and XII – the right to investigate breaches of Article I and decide against the offending party. Therefore, the FFM and the IIT must definitely continue their work, as must the Declaration Assessment Team in eliminating gaps and inconsistencies in Syria’s declarations.

The vote to sanction Syria under Article XII was an important step, a first in the 24-year history of the CWC. However, now there is also a need to consider the future. As history has demonstrated time and time again, coercive disarmament does not bring the offending party into the fold. So, with measures taken under Article XII, where do we go from here?

The IIT has issued its second report early in April, which the Executive Council will consider in July. And there will be more IIT reports later. However, the time lag between the reviewed incident and issuing the report will only grow provided the current halt on CW attacks continues. Continuing sanctions for actions ever farther in the past may delay or prevent any Syrian willingness to cooperate, as Iraq demonstrated in the 1990s. This is no call for impunity. Far from, but establishing criminal responsibility for the CW attacks is for courts, not the OPCW. The OPCW verifies and investigates, and it presents facts based on the best available science and investigative methods. States parties can sanction a peer if a member flagrantly and wilfully violates the OPCW charter, which the CWC is. The one thing they cannot do, however, is to expel a member from the organisation, as per the CWC.

While the Technical Secretariat needs to continue with its work and Syria must come clean on its past CW activities and its undeclared CW holdings, I nevertheless call on the community of non-governmental organisations and states parties to start outlining an end game – without forgetting the support for criminal trials of individuals involved in chemical warfare atrocities – with a view of restoring the focus on cooperative disarmament and preventing the re-emergence of CW.

Thank you.


[1] An ‘absentee’ is a state party that registered to participate in the CSP but was not in the meeting room at the time of the vote. A country registered for only one of the meetings does not figure in the table, which may explain certain discrepancies.

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