Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations

Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations

Statement by Vassily Nebenzia, Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN, at an open VTC of UNSC members on the situation in the Middle East (Syria CW)”

Mr. President,


I would like to thank Ms.Nakamitsu for her briefing. Izumi, I count on your understanding that in my statement I will mostly focus on the remarks of the other briefer, whose participation in a UNSC meeting we had very much anticipated and which became subject to a most vivid discussion among the Council members. I welcome Mr. Fernando Arias, Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and I would like to put forward several questions to him regarding the OPCW stance toward the Syrian chemical file. 

Mr. President, with your kind permission I will continue in English so that Director Arias could better comprehend my questions, avoiding any possible losses in translation. 

We all remember the time when Syria with our encouragement joined OPCW, made its initial declaration and subsequently got rid of its stockpiles of CW, a fact that was confirmed by the OPCW on numerous occasions. Such a development brought about hope that allegations of Damascus using CW against its own population have become obsolete.

However, gradually things changed, our Western colleagues consistently stepped up pressure on the Syrian Government, which they tried in vain to topple with the help of armed opposition groups that they supported. I will not dwell into details, to cut the whole story short: Western countries made a number of serious accusations against Damascus mostly on the basis of the video footage from social media and questionable accounts of witnesses on the ground relayed through abroad-based Syrian opposition and NGO’s like “White Helmets”, which became the basis of IIT reports. And they maintain this anti-Syrian narrative despite all the discrepancies or counter evidence presented by Syria, Russia and independent experts and exploit these allegations in their political crusade against Assad government.

There is no doubt that the OPCW, which you currently lead, plays an important role in this regard and is widely used by our Western colleagues to support claims that Syria has used chemical weapons on several occasions.

However, there were several episodes where conclusions of the OPCW were seriously challenged not only by external experts, but also by those from inside the organization who participated in investigative activities. In general, there are a lot of questions to the OPCW from the public. We believe, Mr. Director-General, that they need to be addressed in order to uphold the credibility of the OPCW. That is why we were insisting on inviting you to our meeting and believe that you should be welcome to address this Council regularly. Russia cares for the OPCW and condemns all the cases of usage of CW, no matter who is behind them. What we reject is speculations and political smear campaigns, which, unfortunately, more and more often poison the OPCW.

To help you out, Mr. Director-General, we decided to prepare the following list of questions, which I will share with you immediately for your convenience. 

1. The recent FFM report on the incident in Aleppo. While investigating the incident in Aleppo in November 2018, the OPCW Technical Secretariat received from the Syrian national authority exhaustive evidence, which included the information from the Russian military experts. This evidence clearly shows that the opposition is responsible for this attack.

However, the FFM report claims that the available evidence “is not enough” to conclude that an attack with the use of CW occurred. On the contrast, in case with Douma and Khan Sheykhun the evidence provided by the notorious NGOs like “White Helmets” was accepted by the TS with readiness and without hesitation.

How can you comment on this clearly double-standard approach?

2. The OPCW TS working methods. Almost every TS report is based on the “highly likely” concept of evidence provided by the resources, which reputation is at least questionable. Instead of on-site collection of samples the TS is carrying out investigations remotely, relying on the external information providers as well as open sources. The Member States are supposed to believe these assumptions.

Do you accept that such practices violate the basic requirements of the CWC, in particular, preservation of the “chain of custody”? What measures are you going to undertake to bring the working methods of the OPCW TS into compliance with the CWC?

3. The initial declaration of the SAR. The OPCW TS at one point in time volunteered to help Syria to submit its initial declaration, which was prepared within a limited timeline and amid an ongoing military conflict on its territory. It is evident even to external observers that the Syrian authorities are willing to cooperate to close the outstanding issues. However, it does not look to be the case for the OPCW TS. There are indications that it is deliberately stalling this process by inventing more and more pretexts to keep this file open. In particular, the former OPCW team leader, Mr. Ian Henderson, who is first-hand familiar with the subject, claims that many states had the same issues and gaps with their initial declarations as the SAR. However, they had never amounted to that level of criticism Syria is faced with. He described the approach of the TS to the Syrian initial declaration as “Keep the file open” and “Keep pressure on”.

Also, the TS is attempting to turn a blind eye to missing 200 tons of CW precursors in Libya while in parallel pressuring Syria to explain the “disappearance” of even tiny amounts of chemical substances.

Can you confirm that the Syrian initial declaration issues are not extraordinary for the OPCW? If this is the case, then how can you explain the difference in the way the TS approaches the Syrian initial declaration in contrast to other countries? Why the requirements for Lybia and Syria differ?

4. The Douma report. The controversy surrounding the OPCW Douma investigation and report has been widely publicized, with some of the investigators claiming there was irregular and scientifically fraudulent behavior in the process, involving suppression and manipulation of, inter alia, chemistry and toxicology evidence, as well as a failed attempt to publish a doctored version of the team's original report. You have said all views were taken into consideration, yet the inspectors say otherwise. Many believe, including the OPCW's first Director-General Jose Bustani, that an open and free discussion between management and all the investigators would surely help the Organization resolve this controversy. And, after all, the CWC provides for inspectors to attach their ‘differing observations’ to inspection reports, including reports on alleged uses of chemical weapons.

Given this, have you met, or will you meet, with those inspectors to let them share their concerns?

5. The Douma report. It is now well-established via leaked documents and testimony from former OPCW inspectors that the original interim report was heavily redacted and there was a failed attempt to publish this redacted version -without the knowledge of the Douma FFM team- which also had unsupported conclusions inserted. This has been widely reported, and as far as we know, you have not denied it publicly. This incident amounts to a major act of deception within the OPCW and was, as you are aware, the cause of the original dissent within the FFM. In an e-mail recently published by the news outlet Grayzone, it is claimed by the former Chief of Cabinet that the redaction was not done at the behest of your office.

Has an investigation ever been conducted to determine at whose behest it was done, and if so, what was the outcome and what actions were taken?

6. Again the Douma report. The Courage Foundation panel in October 2018 reported detailed anomalies regarding the Final FFM Douma Report concerning chemistry, toxicology, ballistics and witness testimony. These anomalies were corroborated by leaked documents and are now well understood. However, you have refused to respond to any of these clear and well specified issues and, instead, repeatedly dismissed the issues on the basis of an assertion that most of the work was carried out after the departure of Inspector B. But if we compare the final report with the leaked original report, it is clear that the bulk of the text was already written by June 2018. In view of these facts, do you still stand by your assertion that the bulk of the FFM investigation was carried out after the departure of Inspector B?

7. Recent leaks from the OPCW: ‘Bellingcat’. In recent weeks, purported OPCW persons have leaked a draft letter to the Bellingcat website. The Bellingcat article claims you said Inspector B’s assumptions [about the final report] are wrong because – “he simply wasn’t aware of the latest scientific techniques used by the OPCW because they were developed after he left the organization. It was these techniques that allowed the OPCW to conclude chlorine gas had been released in the building in which the Syrian civilians died”.

Regarding the draft letter leaked to the Bellingcat, can you confirm: 1) if it originated inside the OPCW, 2) if you agree with what it said, 3) if an investigation has been initiated into the suspected leak?

8. This last week, new documents have emerged (again from the Grayzone) which confirm that other senior officials also shared concerns regarding the Douma investigation and were supportive of the dissenting inspectors. One senior official is reported to have made highly politicized and prejudiced comments that the Douma investigation could not be challenged because otherwise it would ‘feed into the Russian narrative’.

Have you been made aware of this and what comments do you have?

I will stop there, eight questions will be enough for a start, but I can assure you we have many more.

I want to draw your attention to the fact that yesterday we circulated as an official document of the Council as well as the General Assembly, the Summary of our Arria-formula meeting conducted in September with attached statements of all the participants who sent them to us. I will also see to the fact that you will get a copy of this document which, I believe, should be of particular interest to you.

In conclusion, let me remind you, Mr. Director-General, about the special responsibility that rests with you as the head of the key pillar of CW non-proliferation regime – the Organization in charge of its implementation and verification. Though technical by nature, its conclusions have far-reaching political consequences that affect daily lives of people. I intentionally did not touch upon in much detail the disputed 9 July decision of the Executive Council which is based on the controversial and biased report of the illegitimate IIT. However, you should be mindful that this report, coupled with artificially stalled initial declaration issues, triggered a chain of unfair, discriminatory and oppressive initiatives against Syria, both in the Hague and here in New York. One of these unfortunate examples is the campaign led by the Western states to push forward a decision of the Conference of State Parties to disqualify Syria in the OPCW. This is another destabilizing step, and its implications may be very grave and irreversible.

Mr. Director-General, in your presentation and briefing you also touched upon the situation with A.Navalny. We also have questions on that issue, but I will refrain from putting them forward here. I will leave it for our closed consultations, which will follow.

I thank you, Mr. President.