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Sanctioning Syria: An Analysis of the OPCW Vote

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The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) completed its 25th session of the Conference of the States Parties (CSP) on 22 April, the 106th anniversary of the first massive use of chlorine as a warfare agent in the First World War. Due to the sanitary restrictions to contain the global coronavirus pandemic, the OPCW spread the CSP-25 over two sittings. The first one took place on 30 November and 1 December 2020. Its primary objective was the adoption of the work programme and budget for 2021, which the states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) could not postpone without compromising the OPCW’s regular functioning.

The second part started on 20 April 2021 and ran for three days. It addressed the remaining CSP agenda items, the most consequential one being the sanctioning of Syria under Article XII for violating the CWC’s most basic prohibitions on the use and possession of chemical weapons (CW). Never in the treaty’s 24-year history did states parties invoke the provision that foresees in ‘measures to redress a situation and to ensure compliance, including sanctions’.

Social distancing at CSP-25 (Source: OPCW)

This blog posting looks at the vote and how it breaks down according to the five geographic regions of OPCW membership. While Syria and its main backer, Russia, decry a western plot to overtake the OPCW and victimise the Middle Eastern country, in no region did votes rejecting the decision proposal to sanction Syria surpass those condemning the country for violating its most basic of CWC obligations. Comparison with the vote in June 2018 to establish a new investigative mechanism within the OPCW shows that the number of countries disapproving of Syria’s behaviour has actually increased both in absolute terms and as a percentage of those ‘present and voting’.

The tables in this article replace the preliminary overview in my presentation during the webinar organised by the CWC Coalition on 10 May.

The path to Article XII

When Syria joined the CWC in the autumn of 2013, it agreed to give up its CW and have them destroyed under supervision of the OPCW inspectorate. However, between 2014 and 2018 it carried out over 300 CW attacks, some involving the nerve agent sarin and most the industrial toxic chemical chlorine, the same agent German imperial forces had first used as a weapon near Ypres, Belgium in 1915. Multiple OPCW investigations confirmed those allegations but the investigators lacked the mandate to identify the perpetrators. The OPCW and the United Nations set up a Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) in August 2015 to essentially peer review the reports on alleged use by the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM). While it corrected some findings, the JIM not only validated most of the FFM reports but, under its mandate, also pointed a finger at the culprit. Usually, the perpetrators were Syrian military forces. Russia vetoed the continuation of the JIM’s mandate in November 2017 after the body confirmed the FFM’s determination that Syria bore responsibility for the sarin strike at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.

In response, parties to the CWC called for a special CSP session in June 2018, during which they decided on the establishment of the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) within the OPCW. The decision entitled ‘Addressing the Threat from Chemical Weapons Use’ mandated the IIT to investigate cases where the FFM has determined that the use or likely use of CW in Syria. It must identify individuals or entities directly or indirectly involved in such use, by identifying and reporting on all information potentially relevant to the origin of those CW. However, the ITT cannot review those cases for which the JIM already identified the perpetrators.

After the publication of the IIT’s first report in April of last year confirming allegations of CW use in Ltamenah on 24, 25 and 30 March 2017, the OPCW Executive Council issued an ultimatum to Syria. (See my blog posting of 21 July 2020.) Damascus received 90 days to provide all information regarding facilities and preparations for those CW attacks, submit a full declaration of all CW still in its possession despite the official declarations made in 2013 (known to be incomplete), and address all outstanding issues regarding its past declarations. The OPCW Director-General furthermore had to report to the Executive Council within 100 days whether Syria had complied with this demand.

It was clear that CSP-25 scheduled for later that year would be seized by the matter. Having adopted a public position it had never resorted to chemical warfare since the start of the insurrection in 2011 and blaming all alleged incidents on insurgents, the Syrian government had the choice between admitting to major lies and becoming fully compliant  or perpetuating the lie. Damascus chose the latter course.

Between the first and second part of CSP-25, the IIT published on 12 April 2021 a second report blaming Syria for another incident in Saraqib on 4 February 2018.

Majority voting in the OPCW

As in most inter-governmental institutions, the OPCW’s preferred option is decision-making by consensus. However, the CWC negotiators foresaw the possibility of unsurmountable divergencies in positions and allowed two types of majority voting, namely decisions by simple majority for procedural questions and by two-thirds majority on substantive issues if differences cannot be reconciled (CWC Article VIII, para. 18). In the latter case, the chairperson of the CSP will defer the decision for 24 hours counting from the moment a state party requests a vote on a decision proposal and shall meanwhile facilitate achievement of consensus.

Given the equality of all parties to the CWC, each state has one vote. Part X of the CSP Rules of Procedure details how the voting takes place. The elements most relevant to the present discussion are:

  • A state party must have registered to participate in a CSP.
  • A state party must submit its credentials to be able to vote. A Credentials Committee decides on the validity of the submitted credentials. Until such decision, a state party may participate in the CSP session and vote (Part IV, Rule 28).
  • A state party loses its vote if it is in arrears in the payment of its financial contribution to the OPCW. Those arrears cannot equal or exceed the contributions due for the preceding two full years. However, the CSP may decide otherwise if it is satisfied that non-payment is the consequence of conditions beyond the control of that state.
  • Voting takes place by roll-call. Therefore, a state party must be physically present to vote. In practice, a state absent from the meeting room when called upon can still vote if the representative returns before the end of the roll-call.
  • A state party has three voting options, which it must express loud and clear: ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘abstention’.
  • The simple or two-thirds majority is determined by the OPCW members ‘present and voting’. The phrase refers only to those states voting affirmatively or negatively, and thus excludes those abstaining or registered for the session but absent from the room during the vote.

The vote on sanctioning Syria under Article XII

As of 30 November 2020, the first day of the first part of CSP-25, the OPCW counted 193 members (i.e. parties to the CWC). Of those, 136 states parties participated in the vote:

  • Yes: 87 (85.29%)
  • No: 15 (14.71%)
  • (Abstain: 34)

OPCW members belong to one of five regional groups: Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean (GRULAC), or Western European and Other States (WEOG).

In all regional groups a majority supported the decision proposal to sanction Syria under CWC Article XII.

Yes No Abstain Absent NR
Africa (52) 11 1 16 4 20
Asia (56) 16 9 16 3 12
Eastern Europe (23) 18 3 0 2 0
GRULAC (33) 14 2 1 5 11
WEOG (29) 28 0 1 0 0
Total (193) 87 15 34 14 43

In the table, ‘absent’ means that a state party had registered to participate in the CSP but was not present in the room when called upon to cast its vote. Also included in this column are states that attended but whose voting rights were suspended because of financial arrears. ‘NR’ means that a state party did not register for participation.

Comparing the voting in 2018 and 2021

With the IIT’s establishment in June 2018, states parties in the Executive Council and in sessions of the CSP have resorted to majority voting on Syria-related decisions. The Fourth Review Conference in 2018 ended without a final report because consensus on final language about Syria was unattainable (and also due to the US non-recognition of the State of Palestine as a legitimate state party).

Debating the proposal to sanction Syria under CWC Article XII (Source: OPCW)

Comparison of the vote on establishing the IIT with the one sanctioning Syria under Article XII may reveal whether any significant balloting shifts took place. Nevertheless, it is far too early to identify any emerging patterns.

There have been other roll calls. To include them in a single comparative analysis is difficult. For instance, the Executive Council’s membership comprises a subset of 41 states parties. States elected to represent their regional group in the Executive Council are active members with permanent representation based in The Hague, which is not the case for all states parties. CSP voting has thus far covered two major issue areas, namely Syria’s compliance with the CWC and OPCW-specified disarmament requirements, and the adoption of the annual budget, which includes allocations for the IIT’s functioning. Voting behaviour about the budget differs in some significant ways from that on Syria because other issues may come into play. For example, 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. Other delegations 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.

The next table compares the voting in June 2018 and April 2021.

         IIT / Syria votes Yes No Abstain Absent NR
Africa (52) 9 / 11 7 / 1 7 / 16 1 / 4 28 / 20
Asia (56) 17 / 16 12 / 9 12 / 16 1 / 3 14 / 12
Eastern Europe (23) 18 / 18 2 / 3 0 / 0 2 / 2 1 / 0
GRULAC (33) 10 / 14 3 / 2 7 / 1 0 / 5 13 / 11
WEOG (29) 28 / 28 0 / 0 1 / 1 0 / 0 0 / 0
Total (193) 82 / 87 24 / 15 27 / 34 4 / 14 56 / 43

In June 2018, 106 states cast an affirmative or negative vote and the decision to set up the IIT was adopted by 77.36% against 22.64%

The yes vote increased by 7.93% to 85.29% and the no vote decreased by exactly the same percentage to 14.71% in 2021.

The table confirms that in each regional group a majority considers Syria to be in breach of its treaty obligations. Only in the Eastern European Group did the no vote increase, a consequence of Armenia’s registration and participation in the 25th CSP.

Analysis of the vote shifts

Despite the surprise that the affirmative and negative votes rose and dropped by the same percentage, the above table indicates that the principle of communicating vessels does not explain the outcome. In absolute terms there are significant differences in abstainers, absentees and states that did not register for a session.

These moves were as follows:

  • No → Yes (2): Botswana; Philippines
  • No → Abstain (8): Burundi; South Africa; Sudan; Uganda; India; Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Uzbekistan; Viet Nam
  • No → Absent (2): Namibia; Venezuela
  • No → NR (2): Eritrea; Cambodia


  • Yes → No (0)
  • Yes → Abstain (6): Malawi; Nigeria; Tunisia; Oman; United Arab Emirates; Mexico
  • Yes → Absent (1): Dominican Republic
  • Yes → NR (6): Cook Islands; Samoa; Solomon Islands; Tonga; Guyana; Saint Kitts and Nevis


  • Abstain → Yes (7): Bahrain; Argentina; Brazil; Ecuador; Guatemala; Panama; Uruguay
  • Abstain → No (1): Pakistan
  • Abstain → Absent (2): Sri Lanka; Yemen
  • Abstain → NR (2): Mozambique; Dominica


  • Absent → Yes (0)
  • Absent → No (1): Zimbabwe
  • Absent → Abstain (1): Afghanistan
  • Absent → NR (0)


  • NR → Yes (9): Democratic Republic of Congo; Gambia; Senegal; Zambia; Maldives; Marshall Islands; Palau; El Salvador; Paraguay
  • NR → No (3): Kyrgyzstan; State of Palestine; Armenia
  • NR → Abstain (4): Burkina Faso; Madagascar; Mali; Jordan
  • NR → Absent (7): Angola; Equatorial Guinea; Mauritania; Nauru; Barbados; Cuba; Jamaica

Summary of consequential shifts between 2018 and 2021

From the overview it follows that a relatively large portion of states parties – 64 out of 193, or 33% – shifted category between the votes on establishing the IIT and the sanctioning of Syria.

As the summary below reveals, both the votes supporting and opposing the respective decision proposals suffered a more or less equivalent loss. Only two states changed their no vote into a yes vote while nobody reversed an affirmative vote into a negative one.

Gain Loss Net
Yes 18 13 +5
No 5 14 -9

The greatest movements appear to involve abstentions. Both no and yes voters in 2018 became abstainers. However, only one abstainer expressed its disapproval for measures under Article XII, whereas more abstainers supported the decision proposal than there were defectors, resulting in a net gain of one.

The yes vote suffered its greatest losses from states parties that did not register for CSP-25 but these were offset by an even larger number of participants that had not registered for the special session in 2018 (6 versus 9). Here, the no vote was less volatile, yet yielded a net gain of only one (2 versus 3).

Whereas most shifts do not figure in the official final tally, they are responsible for a net increase for the yes vote by five and a net loss for the no vote by 9; a change of 14 votes overall. Given that in CSP-25 four fewer participants were ‘present and voting’ (102 versus 106 in 2018), the underlying movements contributed to the much higher percentage of endorsement for sanctioning Syria under Article XII.

Why states voted differently or why they participated in one CSP and not in the other one, the figures do not reveal. The yes vote proved steady in the WEOG and to a slightly lesser extent in the Eastern European Group – a testimony to the effectiveness of coordination by the European Union, whose members belong to WEOG, Eastern Europe and Asia (Cyprus). In contrast, the voting behaviour of certain members of the African, Asian and GRULAC groups appears less predictable.

The rock-solid foundation for the no vote in the Syria dossier is much narrower – Russia and the Collective Security Organisation; China and some states in its economic and political sphere of influence, plus a small motley group uniting anti-US or anti-Western states.

The greatest foreseeable risk may come from perceptions that divisive issues in the OPCW reflect a conflict between the West and the East rather than matters of concern to the whole world. Hearing echoes from the Cold War, states in the Global South may become reluctant to cast their vote supporting one position or the other. This would not only sink the legitimacy of the decision-making process but could also make the outcome of the ballot less predictable.

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