The victims of chemical-weapon attacks in Syria were barely mentioned during a UN Security Council meeting on Wednesday to discuss the Assad regime’s failure to comply with a resolution ordering the destruction of all such weapons.
As those victims were relegated to the sidelines, member states engaged in another, all-too familiar round of in-fighting as they traded accusations and vilified each other.
This was the 88th time the Security Council had gathered to discuss the issue of chemical weapons in Syria. Members were briefed by Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN’s under-secretary-general and high representative for disarmament affairs, on the implementation of Resolution 2118.
It was unanimously adopted in September 2013 following a UN investigation that confirmed the use of chemical weapons against civilians in a Damascus suburb the previous month. Images of people, including children, suffocating after breathing in the nerve agent caused outrage worldwide.
The resolution called on the Syrian regime to destroy its stockpiles of chemical weapons by mid-2014, and set out punitive measures in the event of non-compliance. It banned Syria from using, developing, producing, acquiring, stockpiling or retaining chemical weapons, or transferring them to other states or non-state actors.
In October 2013, Syria submitted to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) a formal initial declaration about its chemical-weapons program, including a plan for the destruction of its stockpiles.
Nakamitsu told the Security Council on Wednesday that, more than seven years later, the declaration “cannot be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).”
“Gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies” have been identified that cast doubt on the true extent of the elimination of chemical weapons during the Civil War, she added.
While “some progress” has been made, resulting in the closure of three issues relating to the initial declaration, Nakamitsu said 19 issues remain outstanding as investigations continue into allegations of the use of chemical weapons in a “variety of incidents.”
One of those issues concerns a facility Syrian authorities said has never been used to produce chemical weapons. However information and evidence gathered by the OPCW since 2014 indicates that the production or weaponization of chemical warfare nerve agents did indeed take place there, Nakamitsu said. The organization ordered the Syrian government to disclose the types and quantities of chemical agents produced or weaponized at the site but it has yet to respond.
“I say this every month because it bears consistent repeating,” said Nakamitsu. “There is an urgent need to not only identify but hold accountable all those who have used chemical weapons in violation of international law. Without such an action, we are allowing the use of chemical weapons to take place with impunity.”
She also reminded council members of the need to heal geopolitical rifts and find common ground as a matter of priority.
“To address today’s roiling peace and security threats, we need to find a bridge back to common sense,” she said. “We need a united Security Council.”
Despite Nakamitsu’s plea, council members immediately displayed anything but unity.
Russia came to the defense of the Assad regime and attempted to discredit the OPCW report and its “unbelievable 19 issues.”
“This country is living (under a) Damocles’s sword of accusations of CWC noncompliance — this time in the form of outstanding issues of the initial declaration,” said Vassily Nebenzya, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN.
He warned member states that “squeezing Syria” could demotivate the regime in the country from cooperating with the OPCW, with whom he said it has acted as a “responsible partner … but the more concessions it makes, the more accusations it encounters.”
Nebenzya criticized the OPCW and what he called “the illegitimate nature” of its Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), then proceeded to highlight “other facts that our Western colleagues prefer keeping silent about.”
He accused Western delegations of blocking proposals by his country to investigate certain sites in Syria. Had these investigations take place, he said, all of the council’s questions would have been answered.
The envoy also blamed “our Western colleagues” for never speaking up when the Syrian regime does something positive, and described their focus on the 19 outstanding issues relating to Syria’s initial declaration as “manifest slyness and a shift in emphasis.”
He accused the OPCW of bias and urged the Security Council to maintain its objectivity, saying: “We often hear urgent calls on Syria to ‘cooperate more.’ In response to that may we ask: what do you mean by ‘more?’ It seems that the only thing to meet these requirements would be Syria ‘acknowledging its guilt’ and publicly confessing to all deadly sins.”
He added: “What will be the point for Damascus to continue cooperating with the organization? After all, what is your goal: to ‘crush’ Syria as you did with Iraq on far-fetched pretexts, or ensure that Syrian soil is free of chemical weapons?”
Richard Mills, the acting US ambassador to the UN, said: “The Assad regime has repeatedly used chemical weapons against the Syrian people, and then subsequently sought to avoid accountability by obstructing independent investigations and undermining both the responsibility and work of the OPCW.”
He accused Russia of shielding the Assad regime by “spreading disinformation, attacking the professional work of the OPCW, and otherwise seeking to undermine efforts by responsible nations to hold the Assad regime accountable for its use of chemical weapons.”
The US and 45 co-sponsors have submitted a draft decision to the OPCW’s Conference of the States Parties in response to the Syrian regime’s failure to comply with measures requested by the OPCW Executive Council, demanding that the regime take action to address the situation.
“Unsurprisingly, Syria failed to complete any of the measures set forth in the decision,” said Mills, who called on the Conference of States Parties to take appropriate action when it reconvenes in the spring “so that we send a strong message to the Assad regime and its supporters that the use of chemical weapons in direct contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention has consequences.”