Statement and right of reply by Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia at an open UNSC briefing on the implementation of SC resolution 2118
Today is the first time since October 2020 that the Security Council meets in person to discuss the issues of implementation of UNSC resolution 2118. We thank the Estonian Presidency for convening this meeting. This is yet another step towards completing the long overdue return of the Council to its traditional methods of work.
We thank Ms.Nakamitsu for her briefing. We would also like to welcome Director-General of the OPCW Fernando Arias. It is encouraging that the guidance of the OPCW could finally find an opportunity to attend a Council meeting. We believe we should gather in this format on a regular basis.
The Syrian chemical file is a specific topic, where it is crucial to receive first-hand information. Many delegations have questions to ask to the OPCW, some of them rather concrete. So far Ms.Nakamitsu has had to answer to those, and we appreciate her comments. But still, representatives of the UN Secretariat cannot provide exhaustive answers for objective reasons. That is why it seems more logical to address those questions directly to the OPCW Director-General and give him an opportunity to answer during an open meeting. We believe the Council is interested in maximum transparency on this issue. We hope that the OPCW is interested in the same thing. We look forward to having such frank interactive conversation today.
In December last year we asked Mr.Arias a number of questions regarding the OPCW approach to the Syrian chemical file. Council members have a list of those questions, so I will not go deep into detail here. I will still remind of some core points though. Firstly, the notorious report of the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on the Douma incident (April 2018). As confirmed by various sources, including former OPCW inspectors who had taken part in the investigation, the final version of the report was radically doctored (under pressure of certain delegations) as compared to the initial version. In fact, a forgery took place. The inspectors tried to have the OPCW leadership start an investigation, but all was in vain. What is more, they suffered persecution because of this “truth quest”.
The statement that Mr.Arias made today takes me back to this question. In his statement, the Director-General says that none of the 193 UN member states ever doubted the conclusions of the final Douma report. To begin with, it is not true. Take Russia, for example. And we were not the only ones to cast doubt upon those conclusions. Director-General, you said today and many times before that the major part of the Douma investigation was completed after the dissident inspectors had left. When speaking on 6 February 2020, you said: “Both had no involvement in the last 6 month of the FMM investigation, when most of the analytical work took place”.
Besides, you assert that those inspectors, especially the one who had been in Douma, did not play any significant role in the investigation. But facts and documents refute this. At the UNSC Arria Formula VTC on 15 April we gave the floor to journalist A.Mate. He demonstrated documents which indicated that the major part of the work was done in the first months of the investigation, when inspector B was still the key member of the FFM and the author of the initial report. For example, when comparing the initial and the final reports, A.Mate noticed that 70 % of all samples were analyzed during the first month, including 100 % of wood samples. Could you please explain what kind of specific analytical work the FFM was doing during the latter 6 months of the investigation? Did they, perhaps, work on doctoring the original conclusions of the investigators?
Secondly, in June 2018 the FFM approached four toxicologists and pharmacologists from NATO regarding CW forensic tests. The materials of this meeting were leaked and published by ‘Wikileaks’. According to them, the experts excluded that the use of chlorine might have caused death of the victims, the footage of whom was made in Douma. The initial report recognized this conclusion, but the final report omitted it. Besides, the final report excluded the June meeting from the list of all FFM activities. Why did the final report omit the conclusions of the toxicologists that the deaths of those people had not been caused by chlorine?
The final report refers to meetings with toxicologists that happened at a later stage, in September and October, and also lists them among the FFM investigative activities. However it does not provide any information as to what conclusions those new toxicologists had arrived at. Why and how could it happen that their conclusions turned out more relevant than the conclusions of the initial toxicologists? Why didn’t the final report elaborate on the concrete findings of those toxicology experts? Why weren’t their conclusions and findings compared to the conclusions of the toxicologists that the FFM turned to first? Why did the report lack those initial conclusions? We hope to receive answers to all these questions.
Thirdly, Syria’s initial declaration under the CWC. We requested an explanation of why the Organization’s approaches to Damascus on that matter was absolutely different from its approaches to other states? I mean countries that encountered similar problems, but unlike Syria they were not exposed to an avalanche of criticism for that.
Fourthly, methodology of the OPCW Technical Secretariat. In its investigations, the TS builds upon information from biased sources, opposed to the Syrian government. It collects evidence remotely and then issues conclusions in the ‘highly likely’ fashion. This is a direct violation of the CWC, which stipulates the need to observe the chain of custody. Besides, former OPCW Spokesperson M.Luhan said back in 2013 that the Organization would never test samples to have been gathered by anyone other than OPCW experts in the field. So the Technical Secretariat openly violates the principles it previously declared and does not shy away from confessing to it in reports. What steps is the management of the OPCW TS going to make to improve this situation?
Another issue is the double standards that the Technical Secretariat applies when selecting sources of evidence. OPCW inspection teams embrace any materials coming from the notorious ‘White Helmets’, even if they are weak and unconvincing. But when it comes to evidence indicating that the opposition be affiliated with chemical provocations, they ignore them even if the evidence comes from professionals – Syrian authorities and Russian military. They also ignore plentiful testimonies of local living eyewitnesses who say that the incidents were staged. The FFM used this pattern again in its report on the incident in Aleppo (November 2018).
Time flies, and the bulk of questions to you as Head of the OPCW Technical Secretariat grows like a rolling snowball. The story with the Douma report is far from over. On the contrary, there are more and more twists to it. Apart from former OPCW inspectors, even independent experts digging into this episode now suffer persecution. It is twice as sad that “independent” and “democratic” Western media, e.g. BBC, have joined the campaign besmirching those experts.
OPCW leadership has left unanswered the address of public activists; in particular of prominent NGO “Courage Foundation”, which calls on the Technical Secretariat to dig into the numerous irregularities of its work, including evidence of forgery of the Douma report. We do not understand this discriminate approach. The Technical Secretariat actively cooperates with some selected NGOs and involves them in resolving some rather sensitive tasks. But when it comes to the NGOs that ask tough questions, the TS ostentatiously turns its back on them. What freedom of speech, transparency or respect for the opinions of the “civil society” can we talk about?
Starting from December last year, we have developed some further questions. Mostly they address the new IIT report on the incident in Saraqib (February 2018) that was “thrown in” just prior to the vote of the April Conference of CWC States Parties. This report did not improve the methodology flaws that we have been speaking of for years. The report itself indicates that the IIT never visited the incident scene. All material evidence was gathered by the notorious ‘White Helmets’. Again, half of the witnesses questioned were the White Helmets, and their testimonies were studied by anonymous “competent experts and science institutes”. What kind of impartiality or “chain of custody” can we talk about?
Like it was with Douma, it remains totally unclear why Damascus would use chlorine in Saraqib to become predictably exposed to international criticism, if it was not bringing any military or other advantage. The IIT alleges that only one (!) chlorine cylinder was used in Saraqib, causing slight injuries with 12 people, all of whom were released from hospitals within 2 hours from admission. At the same time, the IIT states that the Syrian army was not conducting any offensive in this area during that period.
There are many more inconsistencies in the report, e.g. pseudo-witnesses testifying of helicopters flying at low attitudes with signaling lights turned on, which is actually impossible when aircraft is on a combat mission at nighttime. Also, according to their testimonies the cylinder corroded by half within 12 hours from impacting the ground.
We would like to hear DG Arias’s comments on all this.
The new IIT report contains one more element that goes beyond any reasonable limit. Its para. 5.18 says that one of the most probable motives for launching a chlorine airstrike was “a ‘punishment’ for the downing of the Russian aircraft SU-25" by militants. The IIT makes this conclusion referring to an anonymous “military expert”. We call on DG Arias to explain on what grounds the TS which the OPCW leadership says deals with purely technical analysis, exceeded all conceivable boundaries of its mandate to engage in unabashed politically-motivated speculations. Who instructed the inspectors to include this knowingly false conclusion in the final report?
At the UNSC Arria Formula meeting that convened in April upon Russia’s initiative, one of the invited briefers - independent journalist Aaron Mate - addressed the representatives of the US and the UK asking if they would support the fraud around the FFM report being taken up by the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board with participation of the original team inspectors. We have not received an answer to this one from our colleagues.
I remind that under para. D (45) of the CWC, the responsibility for the activity of this Board rests with the OPCW Director-General. Hence a question to Mr.Arias. Do you agree to organize a purely technical discussion of the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board and invite the inspectors to discuss all discrepancies of the Douma report? We think our Western colleagues, who advocate for transparency and de-politicizing of the work of the OPCW should embrace this proposal. All of us are interested in having a frank and, as many delegations emphasized it, technical professional discussion. If you are not ready to have this conversation within the Advisory Board, what alternatives can you offer? Are you ready to meet directly with former inspectors to talk about their concerns?
We expect answers to all these questions to be delivered during the open portion of this meeting.
The purpose of this meeting is not to “interrogate” the OPCE Director-General by asking “uncomfortable” questions, as some our colleagues would put it. We gathered here, because we need to work collectively to improve the deplorable situation that has evolved in the OPCW. We need to talk frankly with the OPCW leadership in order to preclude further erosion of its authority and prevent reoccurrence of the miserable situation that happened in April this year, when the States Parties Conference adopted a decision to incapacitate at the Organization a sovereign state that faithfully complies with the CWC. The decision was “pushed through” in violation of the CWC norms and OPCW’s many-year long practice of consensus. It is encouraging that in fact less than a half of OPCW member states voted in favor of this decision, among them – only six Western states of the current composition of the Security Council. The others either abstained or voted against. Quite a number of former members of the Council who were present at its discussions of the Syrian chemical file last year and have a good insight in the situation adhered to the same position.
In conclusion, Mr.President,
As many other responsible parties to the CWC and a country that stood at the origins of the OPCW, we are concerned over increasing politicizing of its work, initiated by our Western colleagues. OPCW must be safeguarding the non-proliferation regime. It must not be a conductor of anyone’s political interests or a tool to punish the “unwanted”. Unfortunately, there are risks that this story may go beyond Syria. Any state can “get under blow” if one decides to use the “chemical leverage” to pressurize them.
The Security Council must not let this happen. We all have to take efforts to ensure that the OPCW is capable of implementing its mandate, while remaining an unbiased guardian of the chemical non-proliferation regime.
We hope our today’s conversation with the Director-General of the OPCW will not turn out the last one and will bring us nearer this goal. Russia is ready to engage at all platforms to ensure that trust in OPCW is restored and its authority growing; and to uphold non-proliferation of WMDs.
In response to Mr.Fernando Arias, Director-General of the OPCW:
Today, we heard from some of our colleagues that we should separate facts from noise, that there are some allegations or accusations which are not based on facts. I may answer that, unfortunately, some of our colleagues prefer to turn a blind eye to facts substituting them with convenient conclusions. It looks like when we speak, providing you with scientific facts, you switch off your hearing, you do not listen to us.
The Director General said that the OPCW had no alternative but to “investigate” and, he added, to “identify”. I will not comment on the second one but we also would like to investigate. The problem is that we do not accept the methods the OPCW employs to investigate, because they contradict the CWC.
Today, the Director-General spoke a lot. Frankly, we didn't hear from him anything that he had not said before. This is the same narrative that the Secretariat has chosen recently. We heard the same claims that those inspectors, in particular, Inspector A., were not in any way involved in the Douma investigation. That contradicts the facts and the documents that we provided. This inspector was with us at least on two occasions, at Arria Formula meetings in January and then in April. I do not think that any of you who listened to him – he was very reserved in his comments – doubt his integrity, doubt the facts that he provided, doubt the information he provided about himself and his role in the OPCW.
Though the Director-general spoke quite a lot, many questions remain unanswered. But we still reserve the right to deliberately and meticulously answer or comment on all those things that we heard today. I will refer to a few things only. The Director-General said that the bulk of the investigations came after the inspectors had left and it was done when the final report was prepared. That contradicts the fact that the interim report was produced first, from 3 May to 22 May 2018. 31 samples were analyzed, that is 70% of all samples analyzed. 5 wood samples were analyzed, that is 100% of all wood samples analyzed. 11 bio-samples were analyzed, that is 100% of all bio-samples analyzed. So there is a clear discrepancy gap, an inconsistency in what the Director-General was telling us today.
I was frankly surprised when the Director-General said that he was surprised that Syria was not cooperating with IIT. It is not surprising that Syria never recognized the legitimacy of the group, neither did we. This group was established illegitimately. You cannot expect that Syria will be cooperating with it. I think Syria made it very clear from the very beginning.
I am personally surprised that you, Director Arias, refer to the “Pinheiro Commission” as the ultimate authority in gathering evidence and testimony on the alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, when we challenge outcomes and conclusions of the body that is designed to deal with this issue, namely OPCW Technical Secretariat. I wonder from where this commission draws its expertise and authority to judge upon this issue.
The Director-General also referred to how inspectors went to Douma. The document that we distributed in the Security Council on 25 May was reminding how, in fact, inspectors came to Duma and how they were prevented. But before they were prevented from coming to Douma at the right time, on 10 April our Western partners had rejected our UNSC resolution providing for a full, unimpeded access of chemical experts, members of the mission to whatever location where an alleged chemical incidents took place. On 12 April, these experts were in Damascus waiting to go to Douma. They had been prevented from doing so from the headquarters, citing security reasons. And then, on 14 April the strikes by 3 well-known Permanent Members of the Security Council took place.
The Director-General quoted today a Russian communication to the OPCW Technical Secretariat under a note verbale. This is a seven-page document with a detailed technical analysis by our experts on the incident in Douma and their findings. The Director-General chose to quote one phrase of the conclusions. With your permission, I will quote the whole part of the conclusions: “The Russian Federation does not challenge the findings contained in the FFM report regarding the possible presence of molecular chlorine on the cylinders. However, the parameters, characteristics and exterior of the cylinders, as well as the data obtained from the locations of those incidents, are not consistent with the argument that they were dropped from aircraft. The existing facts more likely indicate that there is a high probability that both cylinders were placed at locations 2 and 4 manually rather than dropped from aircraft. Apparently, the factual material contained in the report does not allow us to draw a conclusion as to the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon. On that basis, the Russian Federation insists on the version that there was false evidence and on the staged character of the incident in Douma”. I think this quotation gives you a true account of what the Russian Federation meant when it sent this communication. That also corroborates with the conclusions by the pariah inspectors who, as the Director-General claims, violated the norms, rules and ethics of the OPCW, set in the interim report. The Director-General said that he would not engage in a dialogue with them through the Scientific Advisory Board.
By the way, Director Arias, I'm not the only person who doubts conclusions of the reports that the Technical Secretariat produces on the incidents. There are other authoritative people and countries in the world that challenge them. But you prefer not to notice them. If you are not prepared to engage through the Scientific Advisory Board, we propose that we organize an Arria Formula meeting to which we will invite all those who have doubts about the conclusions that the OPCW made. We would be happy to invite you there to defend the position of the OPCW Secretariat if it is challenged, and to provide facts that will make it clear that you were right and they were wrong.
This is just a fraction of what we could answer to your comments, Director Arias. We wholeheartedly thank you for being with us. But I think that my list is incomplete. We will use an opportunity to provide you with more comments on what we heard from you today.