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Syria Must Not Use Chemical Weapons: U.N. Chief

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, right, speaks to journalists on Monday alongside Ahmet Üzümcü, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The U.N. chief pressed Syria’s embattled Bashar Assad regime to refrain from unleashing the nation’s chemical arsenal (U.N. photo). U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, right, speaks to journalists on Monday alongside Ahmet Üzümcü, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The U.N. chief pressed Syria’s embattled Bashar Assad regime to refrain from unleashing the nation’s chemical arsenal (U.N. photo).

UNITED NATIONS -- U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday joined senior diplomats from a number of nations in demanding that Syria refrain from using its chemical weapons against its growing list of enemies.

“The use of such weapons would be an outrageous crime with dire consequences,” Ban said at a meeting marking the 15th anniversary earlier this year of the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The April 1997 accord prohibits the development, production, stockpiling or use of lethal warfare materials such as mustard blister gas or the nerve agents VX and sarin.

Syria is one of eight nations that have yet to join the 188-member pact. The Mideast country is widely assumed to possess hundreds of tons of nerve and blister agents that could be delivered by missiles and other weapons.

There have been increasing concerns that President Bashar Assad’s government might use its chemical holdings in a last-ditch effort to defeat the armed rebellion that began in 2011 or to repel foreign armed forces should an outside intervention occur. Another worry is that some part of the arsenal might intentionally or unintentionally pass into the hands of terrorist organizations operating in Syria.

“I once again emphasize the fundamental responsibility of the Syrian government to ensure the safety and security of any such stockpiles,” Ban said in a brief press conference before the meeting. The U.N. leader said he had delivered that message directly to Damascus in writing.

Without explicitly naming Syria, the head of the international body that monitors compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention decried the July 23 statement in which the government appeared to suggest its readiness to use chemical and biological arms against foreign aggressors.

“We must deplore this development,” Ahmet Üzümcü, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, told ambassadors and other senior diplomatic officials attending the meeting. “It flies in the face of the global sentiment that regards chemical weapons as abhorrent and unacceptable.”

Many of the more than 40 speakers at the event also noted their concern over Syria’s July statement.

While the nation has not joined the chemical-arms convention, it is barred from employing these weapons by the 1925 Geneva Protocol and other aspects of “general and international law and convention,” said Thomas Mayr-Harting, who leads the European Union delegation to the United Nations.

Syrian officials were present at Monday’s meeting but did not offer a formal address and declined to comment on the situation in their country.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi also made no reference at the CWC gathering to his nation’s longtime ally in separate statements representing both the position of the government in Tehran and the Nonaligned Movement of developing states. However, at a Council on Foreign Relations event the same day, Iran's top diplomat did warn against "any country," including Syria, using its chemical arsenal.

"If any country ... uses weapons of mass destruction, that is the end of the validity, eligibility, legality, whatever you name it, of that government," Agence France-Presse quoted Salehi as saying.

Back at the U.N. meeting, he also noted the failure by “major possessor states parties” to eliminate their chemical arms stockpiles by the final deadline allowed by the convention -- April 29 of this year.

Salehi’s comments were a barely obscured shot at the United States and also Russia, which together once held nearly all of the known amounts of chemical weapons agents in the world.

Those nations must “embark on sustained and accelerated efforts … for full compliance with their obligations under the convention. Otherwise, the raison d'être of the convention will be seriously challenged and its credibility will be significantly tarnished,” Salehi said in comments echoed later by Algerian and Sudanese delegates to the high-level meeting.  

The United States has eliminated 90 percent of an arsenal that once encompassed 27,000 metric tons of material, along with millions of munitions. Construction continues on the two facilities that will finish off the stockpile, which is now expected to occur in 2023.

Russia, meanwhile, has destroyed 68 percent of its original, world’s-largest 40,000-metric-ton chemical holding. It has pledged, to some skepticism, to complete disposal operations by the end of 2015.

Convention member states in late 2011 chose not to penalize Russia and the United States, along with Libya, for failure to meet the deadline. Instead, the three nations were placed under a program of increased reporting and transparency regarding their weapons storage and demilitarization activities.

At the meeting in New York, diplomats from Washington and Moscow reaffirmed their governments’ intention to get rid of the banned materials and munitions.

“The United States remains fully committed to the destruction of every last chemical weapon in the world,” Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, said during the meeting.

Monday’s event offered diplomats the opportunity to highlight the success of the convention to date and its challenges going ahead.

Slightly more than 75 percent of 71,196 metric tons of declared toxic materials have been eliminated under monitoring by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Albania, India and South Korea have done away with their arsenals.

However, along with viable stockpiles of Libya, Russia and the United States, Iraq has a small holding of degraded materials left by Saddam Hussein. Beijing and Tokyo are still wrestling with management of a huge number of Japanese weapons left in China after World War II.

Then there are the eight holdout states -- Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria. Along with Syria, North Korea is widely believed to stockpile chemical weapons.

Few speakers on Monday missed the opportunity to urge all eight countries to join the accord.

“States that do not join the convention prevent their capabilities from being declared and eliminated under international verification,” Üzümcü said. “Without that the vision of a chemical weapons-free world will remain elusive.”

The OPCW chief and others also highlighted the need for convention member nations to meet their obligation to establish laws and administrative procedures to prevent illicit development of chemical agents within their borders. A number of states have yet to fulfill this commitment, delegates to the meeting noted, with the Netherlands calling for Üzümcü’s agency to take a “more proactive approach” to dealing with such nations.

The Hague-based organization at last count had examined 1,103 industrial plants in 81 nations that are subject to inspections aimed at ensuring they are not being turned toward weapons purposes. Refining the inspections program for private plants will be key as the nonproliferation body in coming years focuses more on preventing “re-emergence” of chemical weapons and keeping up with potentially worrisome advances in science and technology, Üzümcü and others said.

These matters and others must be addressed at the third CWC review conference next April, which will offer participants an opportunity to consider the past operations of the accord and to direct its future, diplomats said.

The conference “should lay the groundwork for addressing the future priorities of the organization,” said Ryszard Sarkowicz, Polish ambassador to the United Nations.

“We are on the road toward a world free of chemical weapons. But we must not be complacent,” said Mark Lyall Grant, British ambassador to the international body.

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