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Chemical Arms Ban Nations Underline Fears on Syria

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

A victim of a reported chemical weapons strike in the Syrian village of Khan al-Assal receives treatment on March 19. Chemical Weapons Convention member nations on Friday cited "deep concern" over potential use of lethal chemical agents in the Syrian civil war (AP Photo/Syrian Arab News Agency). A victim of a reported chemical weapons strike in the Syrian village of Khan al-Assal receives treatment on March 19. Chemical Weapons Convention member nations on Friday cited "deep concern" over potential use of lethal chemical agents in the Syrian civil war (AP Photo/Syrian Arab News Agency).

WASHINGTON -- Member nations to an international chemical arms ban on Friday voiced “deep concern” over the alleged use of lethal agents in Syria's civil war, and they pressed Damascus and seven other governments to quickly join the accord "in the interests of enhancing their own national security."

The Syrian government has exchanged accusations with rebels regarding who was behind an alleged March 19 gas attack responsible for 31 deaths in the village of Khan al-Assal. President Bashar Assad's government requested a U.N. probe of its assertions but subsequently blocked international investigators from entering the country. Separately, U.S. intelligence agencies were said last week to be reviewing indications of multiple chemical strikes by Assad's forces.

“The use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances would be reprehensible and completely contrary to the legal norms and standards of the international community,” delegates said in a 29-page political declaration backed by consensus at the third Chemical Weapons Convention review conference, which concluded in the Netherlands on Friday.

A draft copy of the document calls for close cooperation on the Syria situation between the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the pact's implementing agency. Specialists from The Hague-based body are expected to assist in the U.N. investigation headed by Swedish scientist Åke Sellström.

Global Security Newswire obtained the preliminary document as well as a draft report on conference proceedings prior to their final release, which is anticipated within days.

The emphasis placed on Syria in opening statements at the review conference by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and OPCW Director General Ahmet Üzümcü set a tone in which "it was OK to talk about Syria" for the rest of the meeting, said Paul Walker, head of environmental security and sustainability for Global Green USA.

“Some states parties didn’t want to talk about [the situation] because Syria is not a [Chemical Weapons Convention] state party and was not there to defend itself," but the treaty "really bans any use of toxic chemicals in warfare anywhere, anytime by any country regardless of whether they’re a state party or not," Walker told GSN on Monday.

He said "strong differences of opinion" persist among member nations over OPCW funding and nongovernmental participation in agency activities.

The political document singles out Russia, the United States and Libya for failing to finish dismantling their chemical stockpiles by April 29, 2012, the "final extended" destruction deadline established under the pact. The treaty bans production, storage and use of chemical arms, and it requires signatory governments to eliminate any stocks they held upon joining.

Russia last week reaffirmed plans to finish eliminating its chemical arms by 2015; earlier press claims suggested the process could drag out for an additional five years. Moscow as of late last year had destroyed 70 percent of the 44,000-ton stockpile that had once been the world's largest.

The United States has eliminated close to 90 percent of its chemical warfare agents and plans to finish the job by 2023, a deadline some officials have described as conservative. The country is achieving "steady progress" in preparations to destroy its remaining chemical warfare stocks, U.S. acting Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller said in a statement to the conference.

Col. Muammar Qadhafi destroyed about half of Libya's declared mustard agent and precursors prior to the country’s 2011 revolution; the country’s new government has since reported additional materials and weapons never declared by its predecessor. No public word has surfaced on plans to destroy the remaining material, but Gottemoeller said the United States "has been assisting Libya in planning for the destruction of the chemical weapons previously hidden by the Qadhafi regime."

"We look forward to any additional information [from] the Libyan government and the [OPCW] Technical Secretariat ... that addresses where the recently discovered chemical weapons were produced, as well as what chemical agent they contain," she said in an address delivered in the first half of the two-week meeting.

Documents from the review conference are intended to set a five-year course for decisions by the organization's 41-nation Executive Council and by annual gatherings of states parties. One hundred and twenty-two of the treaty's 188 member nations dispatched delegates to this month's meeting, according to an OPCW press release.

The participating states wrapped up deliberations two minutes before midnight on Friday, chemical weapons expert Richard Guthrie said by telephone from the United Kingdom. 

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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