January 27, 2022

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Our Global Partnership Against Chemical Weapons Abuses

20 min read

Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford, Assistant SecretaryBureau of International Security and Nonproliferation

Plenary Meeting

Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction

As Delivered

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a distinct honor to join you for another virtual plenary meeting of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (GP), and a pleasure to join my friends and colleagues, Susanne Bauman from Germany and Sarah Price from the United Kingdom, in addressing this important topic. 

As I noted to the June plenary, our work in the GP is more crucial than ever.  Then, I stressed the importance of collaboration in mitigating biological threats.  The COVID-19 pandemic is an apparently natural outbreak, but it continues to highlight the ways in which actual biological weapons could wreak untold mayhem.  In recent years, concern about biological weapons has focused on terrorists – but we must also remember that the specter of state-sponsored biological warfare has never left us.  In fact, in August of this year, the United States announced measures to block commercial dealings with certain Russian government institutes involved in the Russian biological weapons program  biological weapons program, thus publicly and officially making clear for the first time that there is still a Russian biological weapons program. 

Today, however, I’d like to say a few words about chemical weapons (CW) threats – another area in which the Kremlin has recently distinguished itself in odious and unlawful ways.  The GP has a vital role to play in helping to mitigate these threats, as part of a larger effort that requires all our governments to take robust steps to re-establish the global norm against CW use by calling out abuses where they occur, imposing consequences for such atrocities, and standing together to re-establish and reinforce global CW nonproliferation norms. 

The world has long recognized the terrible nature of chemical weaponry, and humanity has tried repeatedly to control it.  Initial efforts to prohibit the use of poison gas in warfare failed to prevent its use in World War One, but the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting use of chemical or biological weapons gained widespread adherence.  A number of states still maintained CW programs, but their actual use was thankfully very rare thereafter.  The few instances that did occur – such as Egypt’s use of CW in Yemen in the 1960s and the large-scale employment of chemical agents in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s – helped to drive progress toward a total ban, achieved with the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997.  After that, one hoped, CW would just be a thing of the past, and indeed the superpower adversaries, the United States and Russia, heir to the Soviet Union’s program, declared their Cold War CW stockpiles and production facilities and set about destroying them under international supervision. 

As I have said before, in some ways the CWC is structurally the most ambitious of humanity’s various efforts to control weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  The CWC, after all, does not just prohibit an entire type of WMD; it also provides a means for implementing the destruction of CW stocks, a means for verifying that such destruction had occurred, and incorporates mechanisms for investigating allegations of CW use and attributing that use to its perpetrators.  It is, one might say, humanity’s first and only “one stop shop” for all-aspect WMD prohibition and elimination, and one should never overlook what a tremendous achievement that was.   

In recent years, however, this laudable regime has come under threat in ways that not only directly undermine the global ban on CW but that could also threaten other hard-won gains in multilateral arms control and disarmament.  Countries such as Russia and Iran have been in violation of the CWC for some time, hiding certain aspects of their programs rather than eliminating them, but the worst of the modern ugly spiral of CW problems began with the use of sarin nerve agent by the Syrian regime against its own people.   

For a while, it was thought that the international community had met this threat, for Syria was persuaded to join the CWC, declare its chemical weapons to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and destroy that stockpile under international supervision, with Russia assuming responsibility as guarantor of Syrian compliance.  As it turned out, however, this was a scam, for Syria did not declare all its CW, nor destroy all of it.  Instead, it secretly preserved key elements of its chemical weapons program and was soon using CW once again, to further horrific effect, against the Syrian people.   

Making things worse, Russia swung into action as Syria’s protector in these atrocities, working diligently to shield its client from accountability, and making denial of CW use part of its disinformation narrative.  Today, far from protecting the CWC, Moscow is playing the disgraceful role of trying to undermine the OPCW’s work and legitimacy.   

Such atrocities by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces, moreover, have proven to be merely the beginning of a broader undermining of the norm against CW use.  In addition to well-documented uses of CW by Syrian regime forces and ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq, North Korea used VX nerve agent in an assassination in Malaysia in 2017.  Russia itself used one of the novichok nerve agents in an assassination attempt against the Russian expatriate defector and UK citizen Sergei Skripal in 2018, an attack undertaken on British soil.  (The Skripal attack, in turn, echoed Russia’s 2006 poison attack in London against Alexander Litvinenko – a defector from the Russian security service who had written about Vladimir Putin instigating false-flag terrorist attacks in Russia as a tool to justify his rise to power – with the difference merely that Russian government agents had then used radioactive Polonium-210, and that Mr. Litvinenko did not survive.)  This was the first known use of these sophisticated nerve agents, which serve no other purpose than to be used as a chemical weapon.  

Russian opposition figure and pro-democracy activist Aleksey Navalny was also poisoned, in August, with a nerve agent that German, French, and Swedish laboratories and the OPCW itself have confirmed is one of the chemicals in the novichok group – a class of chemical weapons that were developed in secret by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, at the same time it was negotiating the CWC, and remain in the hands of Russia as part of its continuing illegal CW program.  Let me be perfectly clear: there is no plausible explanation for Mr. Navalny’s poisoning other than Russian government responsibility. 

These proliferating examples of the undermining of norms against CW use and grave damage to the CWC regime illustrate the enormous task we have in front of us if we want to save these incredibly important institutions.  In this, we all must stand together.  We have a moral duty to hold the perpetrators of such outrages accountable for their crimes and abuses.   

But all is not lost.  Global Partnership countries can contribute to bringing things back under control, shoring up the global CWC regime, and re-establishing the norm against chemical weapons.    

Several GP countries are not yet participants in the Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, but nothing is stopping you from participating.  Indeed, your hanging back may be taken as a sign by Syria and Russia that you don’t really care about their CW use.  You can remedy this, and I strongly encourage you to join, and even to play an active role such as by serving as its rotating Chair or by hosting a Partnership event. 

Those of you whose governments are part of the Australia Group (AG) can work with us in continuing the AG’s excellent work to step up export controls against chemical and biological weapons-related materials and technology.  The AG has already implemented enhanced measures against chemical proliferation to Syria, and against novichok proliferation, and it has a key role to play in promoting global “best practices” in these areas on an ongoing basis. 

All countries who take seriously the dangers of chemical weapons and do not wish to be seen as helping the perpetrators of CW atrocities hide from accountability should also strongly support the OPCW itself.  In particular, they should maintain strong support for the OPCW Technical Secretariat’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which has already done such impressive work in documenting and attributing multiple instances of CW use to the regime in Syria.    

Your governments should also use their votes at the OPCW’s Conference of the States Parties (CSP) to send a strong message that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons is unequivocally, absolutely, and entirely unacceptable.  The OPCW Executive Council issued a strong decision in July 2020 making clear that Syria must take measures in response to its CW use, such as by declaring its remaining chemical weapons stocks.  The Assad regime, however, has failed to do this, and so the CSP must take a stand.  Countries should also continue to protest Mr. Navalny’s poisoning and call out Russia’s blatant violation of the CWC in CSP national statements.  

We also urge you to demonstrate your support for these principles in national practice.  We commend the European Union, for instance, for imposing sanctions against Russian entities for poisoning Mr. Navalny.  For its part, the United States has imposed state-level sanctions on all three of the countries to have used CW in the 21st century – Syria, North Korea, and Russia – as well as upon hundreds of individuals and entities involved in those CBW programs.   

This is also an arena in which partnership capacity-building can do much good, including through efforts such as the Global Partnership.  Through the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, for instance, we have provided chemical detection and decontamination equipment and training to security forces in Iraq for years, we have helped select laboratories in partner countries enhance their capability to conduct verification analysis of chemical warfare agents and related chemicals, and we have provided protective equipment and CW use attribution test kits to humanitarian medical first-responders in Syria who have been trying to cope with vicious chemical assaults by the Assad regime.  We have hosted conferences and trainings, local internships, and security upgrades for regional stakeholders, in order to promote chemical security and proliferation-prevention “best practices” in chemical distribution and trade, including assistance in how to identify front companies and other deceptive tactics commonly used by state-sponsored CW programs.    

ISN has also trained chemical safety and security experts in government, industry, and academia from across the Middle East, South and East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa – helping them improve their ability to uphold CWC norms by detecting, deterring, and disrupting CW attacks, helping them create cadres of experts and a “best practices” community to secure the chemical supply chain, assist high-risk institutions in adopting robust chemical security practices, and counter toxic gas plots.  We have been helping partner countries build effective legal and regulatory systems for items controlled by multilateral export control regimes.  ISN even recently held a training program of tabletop exercises for frontline states at risk from state-sponsored assassinations using chemical agents, helping them learn how to overcome active measures to obfuscate the origin of such an attack and how to protect the credibility of agencies investigating such incidents. 

We are immensely proud of all this capacity-building programming, and we will continue it, even if for now the pandemic means that a good deal of it must be in the form of virtual engagements.  But we also urge you to explore how your government’s efforts – including partnering through the GP – can also help do more against the horrors of CW use and the erosion of the CWC regime.  And when U.S. officials approach you with information about suspect proliferation shipments, we hope you will be willing to use all available legal and regulatory tools, including “catch-all” export controls against suspect end-uses and end-users, to stop them.  

The CWC, and the broader global nonproliferation regime of which it is a part, is today at a turning point.  We must not let the persistence of state-level CW programs in countries such as Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Syria – and indeed continuing episodes of outright CW use – destroy this regime.    

Fortunately, we don’t have to let this happen.  And your governments’ contributions – in diplomatic weight and resolution, in the use of its authorities to impose costs and consequences for CW abuses, and in ongoing programmatic commitments to capacity-building – can help turn the tide.  We can succeed together, and our collective work here in the Global Partnership can be a very important part of turning things around to ensure we uphold this historic treaty and the norm against CW use that it establishes. 

Thank you.

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