Statement and right of reply by Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia at the UN Security Council Meeting on implementation of resolution 2118
Unfortunately, what happened now is yet another sad proof that Western delegations fear the uncomfortable truth. You try to muffle objective facts that can ruin the image you painted so carefully – of “heinous crimes of the Syrian regime” and the impeccability of the OPCW. But everyone sees now that this picture has little connection to reality.
I wonder if you realize in what ugly light you put yourselves in front of the global community. What happened today is shame and disgrace. You made it to the history of the Security Council and made the Council go down in history, because the UNSC has never – try to prove me wrong – never voted on the presence or absence of a briefer proposed by the President. What you referred to today was not about participation of a briefer, but about an agenda item of the meeting.
Since you did not allow the former Director General of the OPCW to speak, I will read his address when speaking in my national capacity. As for our national statement, you will find it posted on our website shortly after the meeting.
"Mr Chairman, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, your excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,
My name is José Bustani. I am honoured to have been invited to present a statement for this meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the Syrian chemical dossier and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. As the OPCW’s first Director General, a position I held from 1997 to 2002, I naturally retain a keen interest in the evolution and fortunes of the Organisation. I have been particularly interested in recent developments regarding the Organisation’s work in Syria.
For those of you who are not aware, I was removed from office following a US-orchestrated campaign in 2002 for, ironically, trying to uphold the Chemical Weapons Convention. My removal was subsequently ruled to be illegal by the International Labour Organisation’s Administrative Tribunal, but despite this unpleasant experience the OPCW remains close to my heart. It is a special Organisation with an important mandate. I accepted the position of Director General precisely because the Chemical Weapons Convention was non-discriminatory. I took immense pride in the independence, impartiality, and professionalism of its inspectors and wider staff in implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention. No State Party was to be considered above the rest and the hallmark of the Organisation’s work was the even-handedness with which all Member States were treated regardless of size, political might, or economic clout.
Although no longer at the helm by this time, I felt great joy when the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons”. It was a mandate towards which I and countless other former staff members had worked tirelessly. In the nascent years of the OPCW, we faced a number of challenges, but we overcame them to earn the Organisation a well-deserved reputation for effectiveness and efficiency, not to mention autonomy, impartiality, and a refusal to be politicised. The ILO decision on my removal was an official and public reassertion of the importance of these principles.
More recently, the OPCW’s investigations of alleged uses of chemical weapons have no doubt created even greater challenges for the Organisation. It was precisely for this kind of eventuality that we had developed operating procedures, analytical methods, as well as extensive training programmes, in strict accordance with the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Allegations of the actual use of chemical weapons were a prospect for which we hoped our preparations would never be required. Unfortunately, they were, and today allegations of chemical weapons use are a sad reality.
It is against this backdrop that serious questions are now being raised over whether the independence, impartiality, and professionalism of some of the Organisation’s work is being severely compromised, possibly under pressure from some Member States. Of particular concern are the circumstances surrounding the OPCW’s investigation of the alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria, on 7 April 2018. These concerns are emanating from the very heart of the Organisation, from the very scientists and engineers involved in the Douma investigation.
In October 2019 I was invited by the Courage Foundation, an international organisation that ‘supports those who risk life or liberty to make significant contributions to the historical record’, to participate in a panel along with a number of eminent international figures from the fields of international law, disarmament, military operations, medicine, and intelligence. The panel was convened to hear the concerns of an OPCW official over the conduct of the Organisation’s investigation into the Douma incident.
The expert provided compelling and documentary evidence of highly questionable, and potentially fraudulent conduct in the investigative process. In a joint public statement, the Panel was, and I quote, ‘unanimous in expressing [its] alarm over unacceptable practices in the investigation of the alleged chemical attack in Douma’. The Panel further called on the OPCW, ‘to permit all inspectors who took part in the Douma investigation to come forward and report their differing observations in an appropriate forum of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, in fulfilment of the spirit of the Convention.’ UNQUOTE.
I was personally so disturbed by the testimony and evidence presented to the Panel, that I was compelled to make a public statement. I quote: “I have always expected the OPCW to be a true paradigm of multilateralism. My hope is that the concerns expressed publicly by the Panel, in its joint consensus statement, will catalyse a process by which the Organisation can be resurrected to become the independent and non-discriminatory body it used to be.” UNQUOTE.
The call for greater transparency from the OPCW further intensified in November 2019 when an open letter of support for the Courage Foundation declaration was sent to Permanent Representatives to the OPCW to, QUOTE, ‘ask for [their] support in taking action at the forthcoming Conference of States Parties aimed at restoring the integrity of the OPCW and regaining public trust.’ UNQUOTE.
The signatories of this petition included such eminent figures as Noam Chomsky, Emeritus Professor at MIT; Marcello Ferrada de Noli, Chair of the Swedish Doctors for Human Rights; Coleen Rowley, whistle-blower and a 2002 Time Magazine Person of the Year; Hans von Sponeck, former UN Assistant Secretary-General; and Film Director Oliver Stone, to mention a few.
Almost one year later, the OPCW has still not responded to these requests, nor to the ever-growing controversy surrounding the Douma investigation. Rather, it has hidden behind an impenetrable wall of silence and opacity, making any meaningful dialogue impossible. On the one occasion when it did address the inspectors’ concerns in public, it was only to accuse them of breaching confidentiality. Of course, Inspectors – and indeed all OPCW staff members – have responsibilities to respect confidentiality rules. But the OPCW has the primary responsibility – to faithfully ensure the implementation of the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention (Article VIII, para 1).
The work of the Organisation must be transparent, for without transparency there is no trust. And trust is what binds the OPCW together. If Member States do not have trust in the fairness and objectivity of the work of the OPCW, then its effectiveness as a global watchdog for chemical weapons is severely compromised.
And transparency and confidentiality are not mutually exclusive. But confidentiality cannot be invoked as a smoke screen for irregular behaviour. The Organisation needs to restore the public trust it once had and which no one denies is now waning. Which is why we are here today.
It would be inappropriate for me to advise on, or even to suggest how the OPCW should go about regaining public trust. Still, as someone who has experienced both rewarding and tumultuous times with the OPCW, I would like to make a personal plea to you, Mr Fernando Arias, as Director General of the OPCW. The inspectors are among the Organisation’s most valuable assets. As scientists and engineers, their specialist knowledge and inputs are essential for good decision making. Most importantly, their views are untainted by politics or national interests. They only rely on the science. The inspectors in the Douma investigation have a simple request – that they be given the opportunity to meet with you to express their concerns to you in person, in a manner that is both transparent and accountable.
This is surely the minimum that they can expect. At great risk to themselves, they have dared to speak out against possible irregular behaviour in your Organisation, and it is without doubt in your, in the Organisation’s, and in the world’s interest that you hear them out. The Convention itself showed great foresight in allowing inspectors to offer differing observations, even in investigations of alleged uses of chemical weapons (paras 62 and 66 of Part II, Ver. Annex). This right, is, and I quote, ‘a constitutive element supporting the independence and objectivity of inspections’. This language comes from Ralf Trapp and Walter Krutzsch’s “A commentary on Verification Practice under the CWC”, published by the OPCW itself during my time as DG.
Regardless of whether or not there is substance to the concerns raised about the OPCW’s behaviour in the Douma investigation, hearing what your own inspectors have to say would be an important first step in mending the Organisation’s damaged reputation. The dissenting inspectors are not claiming to be right, but they do want to be given a fair hearing. As one Director General to another, I respectfully request that you grant them this opportunity. If the OPCW is confident in the robustness of its scientific work on Douma and in the integrity of the investigation, then it has little to fear in hearing out its inspectors. If, however, the claims of evidence suppression, selective use of data, and exclusion of key investigators, among other allegations, are not unfounded, then it is even more imperative that the issue be dealt with openly and urgently.
This Organisation has already achieved greatness. If it has slipped, it nonetheless still has the opportunity to repair itself, and to grow to become even greater. The world needs a credible chemical weapons watchdog. We had one, and I am confident, Mr Arias, that you will see to it that we have one again."
I would like to thank Izumi Nakamitsu for her presentation of the 84th monthly report of the OPCW Director General (S/2020/961) on the implementation of UNSC resolution 2118. Madame Under-Secretary-General, you can see what Western delegations are doing to this topic and what are the real roots of the anti-Syrian decision that the Executive Council of the OPCW adopted in July. We have convened two Security Council events in order to show the inside of those approaches and provide a true picture of what is happening to the OPCW – an organization that, unfortunately, relays selfish interests of certain countries. The UN must not repeat its fate when considering the Syrian chemical file; it must not encourage injustice and aggression. We ask you not to treat these initiatives arbitrarily or mechanically, and to draw the Secretary-General’s attention to it. At stake is the authority of the United Nations, its Security Council and the UNSG himself.
It is the second open meeting of the Council dedicated to the Syrian chemical file, initiated by Russia. As President, we believe our task is to lead the discussion of this complicated and highly politicized topic out of an impasse where it has stuck for quite some time. We advocate for an open and frank conversation that should help us objectively conceive the developments at this track.
To facilitate it, in the run-up to this session we hosted an “Arria-formula” meeting on the Syrian chemical file on 28 September. Among the participants were renowned independent experts – Ian Henderson, Theodore Postol, and Aaron Mate. This event received much interest from those who keep close track of this story. We are still receiving positive feedback and gratitude for giving the floor to very interesting and informative reports. We plan to compile statements that were made and circulate this material, so we invite all who took part in the discussion to submit to us texts of their statements by the end of day tomorrow, 6 October.
Thanks to the briefers, our discussion on 28 September was frank, based on facts and evidence rather than unsubstantiated slogans. Regrettably, not all UNSC members turned out ready to have such a discussion. Some of them, apparently in the absence of counter arguments, tried to “suppress” our experts by accusing them of bias and incompetence. However, they had no single reason to say so: all our invited speakers were ready to stand their ground, argue about facts and ways to interpret them. But our Western partners were not ready for this – their arguments were nothing new, all based on notorious concepts “highly likely”, “everyone knows that”, “there is no other plausible explanation”, etc.
The times when we could “technically” discuss a UNSG report on the progress of resolution 2118 have long passed by. We have accumulated a “critical mass” of questions to the OPCW Technical Secretariat (TS) and proofs of manipulations and falsifications in its reports. Our claims regarding the FFM report on the incident in Khan Shaykhun of April, 2017 were ignored despite plentiful evidence that the incident had been staged. We have still received no explanations from the TS regarding manipulations with the FFM report on the events in Douma in April, 2018, neither a response from the Director General on how he is going to address the exposed malpractices. Although there is evidence of I.Henderson – a witness who used to be directly involved in the investigation – that we deal with a clear forgery. The initial report concluded that the incident had not been caused by chemical weapons; but this report was replaced by another version, which was more convenient for the West, whereas authors of the first – the objective one – were oppressed by the OPCW leadership.
More examples are coming in almost monthly. Since spring, we have had to discuss the IIT report on the incidents in Al Lataminah in March, 2017. This is a politically biased, factually unreliable and technically unconvincing document. We have already presented our detailed criticism of it, our arguments have been circulated as a UNSC official document in June. This report contains a poor excuse for analysis of combat situation near Al Lataminah and Hama in March-April, 2017, but even what it got is enough to state that Syrian governmental forces had no need whatsoever – even hypothetically – to use chemical weapons. Back then, the Syrian Army was on a successful offensive in Hama Governorate, with up to 70 % of its territory already back under control. To use chemical weapons and thus “draw the fire upon itself” would make no sense for the Syrian Government.
However, this dubious report was fundamental for the OPCW Executive Council as it was pronouncing its “guilty verdict” - the anti-Syrian decision adopted at the July session by the minimum required number of votes. This decision prescribes that Syria must meet the conditions that cannot possibly be met: to declare allegedly remaining chemical weapons and related facilities that Syria has no more, because all CW had been taken out and eliminated, and none of the OPCW inspections ever since 2013 has been able to prove the opposite.
Latest arrivals on this track are FFM reports on the incidents in Aleppo in November, 2018, and Saraqib (Idlib) in August, 2016, that the TS issued only upon our numerous and insistent calls. Thereby for more than 12 months both us and the Syrian side had been bombarded by requests for more and more information. Something lacked all the time; TS encountered “unsurmountable” barriers; samples went missing; and so on. At some point, we were completely exhausted proving that we had submitted all the materials. So why did the “investigation” of those incidents take so long and go so hard? Isn’t it because it was the opposition, not the Syrian Army, that was accused of using chemical weapons? Against this backdrop, the findings of the FFM were not a revelation – of course, the Mission could not “determine” the fact of CW usage by opposition groups. The TS could have spared efforts pretending that the investigation was underway. Instead they could have published this conclusion right away and, for that matter, admit that they would not even consider that the Syrian opposition might have been related to the use of chemical weapons.
The present report of the Director General builds on top of these traditions. Take, for example, its paragraphs dwelling on outstanding issues with regard to initial declaration. As we learned from former OPCW inspector I.Hendersen during our “Arria-formula” VTC, guidance of the TS instructs the Declaration Assessment Team (DAT) to keep them open. With such an approach, no matter how Syrians justify themselves, this part of the file will not be closed. I would also like to remind that, according to the same expert, at the initial stage of joining the CWC, many states-holders encountered similar problems when filing their declarations. But in their cases those were interpreted as “minor drawbacks” that did not undermine the integrity of the declaration. It means the TS treatment of Damascus is biased.
We cannot but note that in his cover letter to the report, the UN Secretary-General used the language of the aforementioned biased and unrealistic decision of the OPCW Executive Council that “those individuals responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable” and that it allegedly takes the unity of the Council to uphold this “urgent commitment”.
We are not easy to surprise. Unfortunately, everything that is marked “made in the OPCW” evokes association with some sort of manipulations and falsifications. Let us say frankly: the TS is becoming a tool that the West uses to exert informational and political pressure on “unwanted” countries. Involvement of the TS in anti-Russian campaigns also supports this conclusion. We saw this happen earlier – with the Skripals incident, where questions float unanswered up in the air, and we see this happen again today. I mean the situation around alleged poisoning of A.Navalny in Russia. For some reason, upon Western countries’ first call for “technical assistance” the OPCW Technical Secretariat readily hurries to “investigate” in the very same direction that matches the political conclusions already made about some “irrefutable evidence” of commissioned poisonings.
In spite of this, we invited OPCW inspectors to Russia to establish the details of what had happened. We did this because we really have nothing to hide.
Allegations that Russia try to “undermine” the authority of the OPCW are absolutely unsubstantiated. As J.Bustani pointed out in his statement: “This Organisation has already achieved greatness. If it has slipped, it nonetheless still has the opportunity to repair itself”. As all responsible members of the OPCW, we want to restore its good name so that it could continue to implement its mandate according to the CWC.
Distinguished colleagues, we know too well what you are going to say – been there, heard this. I tell you frankly if I may: all of this looks bleak and unconvincing. Russia remains interested in objective investigations, but we will oppose disinformation and blatant lies.
In conclusion, let me make one more point. When Western delegations argued with us (today and earlier) regarding practicability of J.Bustani’s participation in this meeting, they stated that it would be more logical to invite current Director General F.Arias. We have never objected to this scenario, we only insisted on the open format of the briefing. Now the time has obviously come to speak openly, no delays any more. We suggest agreeing today that we will invite F.Arias to our next meeting on the Syrian chemical file. We expect to hear his exhaustive answers to the questions set by earlier by I.Henderson, A.Mate, and T.Postol, and today by J.Bustani and the Member-States.
In response to the representative of Germany:
What regards High Commissioner for Human Rights Mr. Al Hussein - in the mentioned meeting the question was whether to consider an agenda item in the SC or not. Indeed, the agenda item was not adopted as it did not receive the needed number of votes.
So it is inappropriate to say Russia blocked participation of a speaker that was about to brief the Council. We blocked consideration of an agenda item, which makes a big difference. Just compare - it would be as if today somebody had tried to block the agenda item under consideration, which is implementation of resolution 2118.
In response to the representative of the Great Britain:
The United Kingdom proposed to put to vote the question of briefer's participation, which I did as President of the Council. I must say to the UK representative that in your place I would have appreciated that Presidency put the question to vote in the wording that you proposed. Though I am convinced that the issue of the wording and the related arguement were absolutely legitimate. You understand that should the wording be different, the result wouldn't have been the same.
Now in my national capacity. As for the prospects that we discussed to invite DG Arias - it is us who offered it. I hope next time he is a proposed briefer at our open briefing on Syria CW, you will not put the issue of his participation to vote.
In response to statements by the representatives of France and Estonia:
I would like to respond to the words of the representative of France who reproached the Presidency with going beyond its authority. Let me remind that I not only remained within my authorities as President, but even not used them to fullest capacity. Had I used all the authority we are entitled to, without any prejudice to the rules of procedure, we would have had another vote result.
Now in my national capacity - by this vote we covered ourselves in disgrace. For the first time ever the Council voted on the presence of a proposed briefer. It is telling of your fear to hear the truth and of your lack of confidence - that's it. So are the statements that I heard here today. Once again - this is a remark in my national capacity as representative of Russia.
I would kindly request the distinguished representative of France not to abstain from making recommendations on what I should or should not include in my national statements.
In my national-capacity response to the representative of Estonia I should say that we will with great pleasure participate in a meeting with DG Arias next time he attends a UNSC open briefing, which, I hope, will happen as soon as next month.