Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson addresses an extraordinary session of member states of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons initiated by Britain in The Hague on June 26, 2018. Photo: Jerry Lampen | AFP
by Joe Biddle and Jan Hennop
THE HAGUE — In a bitter diplomatic battle, Russia, backed by Iran and Syria, Tuesday sought to head off a Western push to endow the world's global chemical watchdog with new powers to identify those behind toxic arms attacks.
Delegates from 143 countries gathered in The Hague for a special meeting of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) called by Britain and other allies, including France and the United States.
It comes as the body is expected to unveil soon its report into an alleged sarin and chlorine gas attack in April in the Syrian town of Douma. Medics and rescuers say 40 people were killed, blaming the attack on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was expected to address the rare special session of the OPCW's top policy-making body later, as London seeks to overcome the lack of an effective way of holding perpetrators to account.
"We want to strengthen the Organisation entrusted with overseeing the ban on chemical weapons," the British delegation said in a tweet.
"We want to empower the @OPCW to identify those responsible for chemical weapons attacks."
The talks come in the wake of the nerve agent attack in March on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English town of Salisbury, which Britain and its allies have blamed on Russia.
There has been growing international concern about repeated allegations of the use of poison gases in the Iraq and Syria conflicts, as well as alarm at the 2017 assassination of the North Korean leader's half-brother in a rare nerve agent attack in Kuala Lumpur airport.
Need for accountability
"If accountability is avoided the potential re-emergence and acceptance of chemicals as weapons of war and terror will not be deterred," outgoing OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu warned.
Speaking for the EU, Bulgarian delegate Judit Koromi said: "We firmly believe that it is the international community's task ... and responsibility to identify and hold accountable individuals, entities, groups or governments responsible for the use of chemical weapons."
"The question of attribution can and should be addressed by the OPCW," she added, stressing "there can be no impunity and those responsible for such acts must be held accountable."
But tensions ran high from the start. It took three hours of a heated back-and-forth between the delegates of Russia, Syria and Iran in a three-pronged attack on the ambassadors from the United States and Canada just to adopt the agenda.
There was no early consensus on the British draft decision, meaning the delegates have to wait 24 hours before voting on it behind closed doors on Wednesday.
Russia's delegation head, Georgy Kalamanov, said Moscow would not support the draft and will unveil its own, state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
"We believe that the powers that Britain wants to give to the OPCW are the powers of the UN Security Council and this is the only body which has a right to make such decisions," he said.
Backed by Iran and Syria, Russian ambassador to the Netherlands Alexander Shulgin sought time after time Tuesday to bog down the debate in procedural matters.
Eliminating toxic arms
But opening the session, the conference chairman, Abdelouahab Bellouki, argued those responsible for chemical weapons attacks "need to be punished on the basis of true and strong evidence".
"In spite of different and divergent positions and opinions, we are all committed to constructive cooperation... in order to rid once and for all the world of chemical weapons."
A two-thirds majority, minus any abstentions, is needed for Britain's draft to pass. But Russia was reportedly working hard behind the scenes to try to defeat Britain's proposal.
"We are quietly confident that the vote will go through," a Western diplomat told reporters on the sidelines of the talks, adding it was not an East-West battle but about "broader reform" of the OPCW.
Moscow has already wielded its veto power at the UN Security Council to effectively kill off a previous joint UN-OPCW panel aimed at identifying those behind attacks in Syria.
Before its mandate expired in December, the panel known as the JIM (Joint Investigative Mechanism) had determined that the Syrian government used chlorine or sarin gas at least four times against its own civilians. The Islamic State group used mustard gas in 2015.