April 22, 2021 | Policy Brief

OPCW Member States Hold Syria Accountable for Chemical Weapons Use

Eighty-seven member states of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted yesterday to suspend Syria’s voting rights in the organization. This was an appropriate, albeit overdue, response to the Assad regime’s unconscionable use of chemical weapons against Syrian citizens.

The OPCW’s unprecedented action marks the first time that the multilateral anti-chemical weapons body has suspended a country. In 2013, Syria joined the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and nominally surrendered its chemical weapons arsenal. Yet the OPCW, UN Security Council, and independent investigations have proven the Assad regime continued to use chemical weapons against civilians on numerous occasions since 2013. The CWC requires parties to disclose, destroy, and refrain from using chemical weapons, but Damascus has refused to cooperate.

In July 2020, the OPCW’s 41-member Executive Council (EC) set a 90-day deadline for Syria to declare its chemical weapons, its banned chemicals and precursors, and its related production facilities and to demonstrate compliance with the CWC. The EC recommended that the OPCW’s 193-member Conference of States Parties (CSP), which makes final decisions on CWC compliance issues, take appropriate action if Syria did not comply with the deadline.

Nine months later, the organization has finally acted to penalize Syria.

Unfortunately, only 87 countries in the CSP stood with the Syrian people, while 15 voted against the resolution and 34 countries abstained. Fifty-seven countries did not vote at all. The “no” votes were not surprising and included countries that habitually vote against strong action to uphold the CWC, such as China, Iran, Russia, and Syria.

But a few countries that abstained should explain their failure to take a stance on this critical issue. For example, Mexico and Cameroon voted for the July EC decision but abstained in the suspension vote. The United Arab Emirates and India, close Western partners, abstained in both votes. Jordan also abstained.

Still, the suspension of Syria’s voting rights is long overdue and represents a first step toward restoring the global norm of zero chemical weapons use. The OPCW’s next action must be holding Russia accountable for its continued use of chemical weapons to silence regime opponents.

Fifty-nine countries issued a statement at the CSP on Tuesday condemning Russia’s August 2020 use of a Novichok nerve agent to poison dissident Alexei Navalny. Yet the statement did not go far enough. It asked that Russia provide additional information about the incident, which is unlikely, rather than demanding an OPCW investigation.

At the next OPCW EC meeting in July, the Biden administration should lead an effort to adopt a decision demanding that Russia comply with its CWC obligations within 90 days, modeled on the July 2020 EC resolution on Syria. Seventeen current EC member states were among the 59 who condemned Russia on Tuesday, a robust start toward gathering the 28 votes needed for an EC decision.

While some states may regard such an EC decision as hasty, Russia also used Novichok in 2018 in the United Kingdom, inadvertently killing a mother of three instead of the Russian defector targeted for assassination. President Vladimir Putin evidently has yet to receive the message that it is unacceptable to use chemical weapons.

In the lead-up to the July OPCW meeting, Washington should also issue additional targeted sanctions on Russia and Syria and support the prosecution of officials who have committed atrocities.

The OPCW decision marks an important first step toward restoring the global norm of zero chemical weapons use. The fight will continue in the OPCW and elsewhere. The Biden administration must prioritize efforts to hold violators accountable.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrea Stricker is a research fellow. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP), Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP), and International Organizations Program. For more analysis from Anthony, Andrea, CMPP, CEFP, and the International Organizations Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow the authors on Twitter @NatSecAnthony and @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


International Organizations Military and Political Power Nonproliferation Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance Syria