Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office: Annual Report 2012-13

International Concerns About Chemical Weapons in Syria

Sixteen years after the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force, its prohibitions on the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons have become an international norm which leaves no tolerance for defiance by anyone, including the few countries – Syria being one – that remain outside the Convention. That said, events taking place in Syria highlight the importance of universality to achieving a global chemical weapons ban. The Syrian Government is known to hold large stockpiles of chemical weapons, and there is mounting evidence that chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, have been used in a number of locations in Syria.

Australia has called on the Syrian Government to ensure the safety and security of its chemical weapons stockpiles, and expressed deep concern about the alleged use of these weapons against the Syrian people. While Syria is not yet Party to the CWC, it has an obligation not to use chemical weapons as a State Party to the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare (the 'Geneva Protocol').

The Director-General (DG) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), wrote to the Syrian authorities in December 2012, as did United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) Ban Ki-moon in July 2012, urging Syria to become a member of the CWC without delay. The risk of further chemical weapons' use in Syria, or their falling into the hands of terrorists, remains cause for grave concern.

Following the allegations of chemical weapons' use by Syrian Government forces, on 20 March 2013, the United Nations (UN) received a formal request from Syrian authorities for a 'specialized, impartial and independent mission' to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons near the city of Aleppo. In response, UNSG Ban Ki-moon announced that the UN would conduct an investigation of all allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, with assistance from the OPCW and the World Health Organisation (see boxed insert). Following a formal request to DG OPCW, a special meeting of the Executive Council was convened on 27 March and CWC States Parties pledged their full support. Australia and many others have expressed support for a comprehensive UN investigation into all reports chemical weapons' use in Syria and urged the Assad Government to give UN inspectors unconditional access.

At the time of writing, the Terms of Reference for the UN mission, including sites to be visited, had yet to be finalised and the investigation team was still awaiting permission to enter Syria. In the interim, the UN team has conducted fact-finding activities in Turkey, a CWC member country bordering Syria that has reportedly received victims of chemical weapons attacks seeking medical attention.

Investigating the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons

The CWC allows for the investigation of alleged use (IAU) of chemical weapons by or against a State Party. An IAU is initiated pursuant to Articles IX (Consultations, Cooperation and Fact-Finding) or X (Assistance and Protection against Chemical Weapons) and conducted in accordance with Part XI of the Verification Annex and any detailed procedures established by the Director-General (DG) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). These procedures also extend to investigations of alleged use of riot control agents as a method of warfare.

Any State Party can request an IAU of chemical weapons by another State Party through the DG of the OPCW. However, where the alleged use is by a State not party to the Convention, or in territory not controlled by a State Party, the request for an IAU involving the OPCW must be made through the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UNSG). Should such a request be made, the OPCW would put its resources at the disposal of the UNSG and cooperate closely with him/her in accordance with paragraph 27 of Part XI.

Investigation of alleged use of chemical weapons by a non-CWC State Party against another non-State Party, or within its own territory, is the responsibility of the UN. When requested by a UN Member State, the UNSG has the authority to investigate alleged uses of chemical, biological and toxin weapons. This authority has its origins in UN General Assembly resolutions 35/144C of 1980, 37/98D of 1982 and 42/37C of 1987, which were reaffirmed by UN Security Council resolution 620 of 1988.

Arrangements for the conduct of investigations of alleged use involving the OPCW, but initiated through the UN, are governed by the 2000 OPCW Relationship Agreement with the UN and the more recent 2012 Supplementary Arrangement Concerning the Implementation of Article II(2)(c) of that Agreement.

Thus far, the OPCW has not received any IAU requests from CWC Member States. However, 12 investigations of alleged use of chemical weapons were conducted by the UN in various countries between 1980 and 1993, prior to entry into force of the CWC.