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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Alicia Sanders-Zakre

Fact Sheets: Treaties and Agreements at a Glance

More Chemical Attacks Reported in Syria


April 2018
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

Reports of chemical weapons attacks in the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta surfaced in March as attempts continued at the UN Security Council to restart investigations to identify the perpetrators of banned chemical weapons use in Syria.

There were at least two chlorine gas attacks in rebel-held eastern Ghouta in March, according to local reports that blamed the Syrian government, for the attacks. The Syrian American Medical Society reported that 29 victims were treated in one facility on March 7. Another chlorine gas attack was reported in the same region on March 11. These follow at least five alleged chemical weapons attacks in January and February.

A Syrian man shows remnants of rockets reportedly fired by regime forces on the rebel-held town of Douma in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on January 22, 2018. (Photo: HASAN MOHAMED/AFP/Getty Images)Although Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 and subsequently declared and removed what it said was its chemical weapons stockpile, attacks since then indicate that Syria did not disclose its entire arsenal.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) created several investigative bodies to address concerns about Syria’s actions. The Declaration Assessment Team reported on March 2 to the OPCW Executive Council on its investigation of Syria’s chemical weapons declaration. The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission, which is tasked with verifying alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria, will issue a report soon, Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN high representative for disarmament affairs, told the UN Security Council on Feb. 5.

Efforts are underway to revive investigations to identify the perpetrators of attacks in Syria. Investigations stalled in late 2017 after Russia, which backs the Syrian government with military aid, prevented the Security Council from extending the mandate for the UN-OPCW joint investigative team. (See ACT, December 2017.)

Russia circulated a proposal on Jan. 23 to renew such investigations, which the United States quickly dismissed as an attempt to distract from a launch the same day of a French-led initiative to prevent “impunity” for those authorizing chemical attacks. The United States also objected to the Russian draft’s terms, which included mandating that investigators visit all attack sites, even though many are in areas too dangerous to reach. In early March, the United States circulated an alternative draft resolution to restart the investigation effort.

Russian state-run media have quoted Russian military officials as claiming the recent chlorine gas attacks are a so-called false flag operation in which the rebels attack their own people to blame the Syrian regime, to draw international sympathy for their fight, and as a possible pretext for U.S. airstrikes against Syrian government sites.

The reported continuing use of chemical weapons has drawn strong international condemnation. “The civilized world must not tolerate the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical weapons,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on March 4. French President Emmanuel Macron threatened on March 14 to order military strikes against launch sites should there be sufficient evidence that chemical weapons were used against civilians.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü described the allegations as a “source of grave concern” in a March 13 address to a meeting of the OPCW Executive Council. Timothy Edwards, Canada’s acting permanent representative to the OPCW, argued that Syrian noncooperation with the Declaration Assessment Team and Fact-Finding Mission should disqualify it from maintaining the “rights and privileges of OPCW membership.”

In neighboring Iraq, the OPCW confirmed the destruction on March 13 of Iraq’s remaining chemical weapons stockpile, which consisted of remnants stored in two bunkers. Although Iraq initially declared the bunkers in 2009 as containing chemical weapons, destruction did not begin until 2017 due to hazardous conditions.

 

The United States and Russia continue to clash at the UN Security Council over investigations.

Diplomats Urge Unity Ahead of NPT Meeting


April 2018
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

Representatives to the second preparatory committee meeting for the 2020 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference will seek to focus on shared goals in the face of daunting obstacles to a successful outcome.

Adam Bugajski, Poland’s permanent representative to the UN Office and international organizations in Vienna, will chair the meeting, which is scheduled to be held April 23-May 4 in Geneva. Bugajski previously served as security policy director at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Poland’s deputy permanent representative to NATO.

Participants at the first preparatory committee meeting for the 2020 review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in May 2017 in Vienna. (Photo: United Nations Information Service Vienna / Agata Wozniak)As chair of the conference, Bugajski said he intends to stress that “there is no single road toward disarmament and that disarmament is not only about reductions.”

Bugajski began consulting with member states and civil society representatives shortly after the first preparatory committee meeting in May 2017, he told Arms Control Today in a March 14 email. The consultations included regional seminars in Mexico City, Addis Ababa, and Jakarta and regional group consultations in Geneva, Vienna, and New York. Bugajski also established a task force for the conference at the Polish Foreign Ministry.

Other representatives highlighted the need for practical steps to uphold the NPT regime ahead of its 50th anniversary in 2020 and in light of mounting challenges.

“Our main objective is really quite straightforward, and one hopefully shared by the vast majority of NPT members,” Carl Magnus Eriksson, director and deputy head of the Department for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Arms Control Today in a March 12 email. “It is to demonstrate the continued vitality and indispensable role of the NPT framework despite many challenging circumstances.”

Jamie Walsh, Ireland’s deputy director for disarmament and nonproliferation, said in a March 16 email to Arms Control Today, “In order to remain relevant and effective it is critical that the treaty, which has long been at the center of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime, doesn’t become stagnant. Simply reiterating commitments is not enough; there must be momentum and progress.”

Diplomats cited a number of challenges that could inhibit progress at the meeting, including a lack of trust among member states, the global security environment, and North Korea’s illegal nuclear and missile programs.

Given these challenges, several disarmament representatives encouraged member states to concentrate on areas of common interest.

Robert Wood, the U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, chided those pursuing “unrealistic agendas that cannot gain consensus” in a March 26 email to Arms Control Today. The United States will continue to remind states that “that disarmament efforts cannot be divorced from the broader international security environment,” he wrote.

Eriksson suggested focusing on “practical measures to reduce risks, enhance transparency and build confidence.” Other officials echoed the need for practical measures. Both Nobushige Takamizawa, Japanese permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), and an official in the German foreign ministry, who commented on a nonattribution basis, recommended member states include a focus on implementing previously agreed steps, including the 2010 action plan.

States are already considering how to bridge divides, such as the advancement of disarmament, which could threaten conference unity. The committee will be the first gathering of NPT states-parties since the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in September 2017, which is opposed by nuclear-weapon states. (See ACT, October 2017.)

Walsh, whose government was one of leading negotiators of the 2017 treaty, stated that, at the committee meetings, Ireland would “continue to emphasize the synergies that exist” between the prohibition treaty and the NPT and hopes that the sessions “will offer an opportunity to dispel any suggestion that states that were actively to the fore in negotiating the [prohibition treaty] are somehow disengaging from the NPT.”

Takamizawa encouraged all nuclear-weapon states to take “concrete disarmament measures, even small
steps that they can accomplish on a voluntary basis.”

Hans Brattskar, permanent representative of Norway to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva, pointed to the success of cooperative measures between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states, such as on nuclear disarmament verification. “From a Norwegian perspective, it is essential to foster the confidence needed for balanced, mutual, irreversible and verifiable reductions of nuclear arsenals in the future,” he said.

Meanwhile, another disarmament body, the long-stalled CD, agreed on Feb. 16 to create subsidiary bodies to take forward a substantive program of work. The 65-member body, which operates on consensus, last agreed to programs of work in 2009 and in 1998.

Five subsidiary committees were established to address the cessation of the nuclear arms race, the prevention of nuclear war, the prevention of an arms race in outer space, effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, new types of weapons of mass destruction, a comprehensive program of disarmament, and transparency in armaments.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in a Feb. 16 statement, welcomed the move and urged CD members to “redouble their efforts and forge a new consensus for disarmament.” In his email, Bugajski also praised the development, but recommended “caution and patience,” given the failure of the body to implement the program of work adopted in 2009.

On March 15, the CD deadlocked over the coordinators for the five bodies, but after intensive consultations, the matter was resolved by adjusting the program of work.

“As a former French delegate to the CD, I can confirm that, oftentimes, procedural issues are a fig leaf for substantive differences,” wrote Marc Finaud, senior program adviser at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, in a Feb. 16 email to Arms Control Today.

 

Representatives seek practical steps to uphold the nonproliferation regime ahead of the treaty’s 50th anniversary.

Banned Russian Toxin Used in UK Attack


April 2018
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

An attempted assassination of a former Russian spy with a highly lethal Russian-developed nerve agent calls into question Moscow’s compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and threatens to further undermine the norm against chemical weapons use.

The United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the United States were the first to accuse the Russian government of carrying out the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, UK, on March 4 using the chemical agent Novichok. As a consequence, the United States announced March 26 that it was expelling 60 Russian diplomats, joining more than 20 European countries taking similar actions to punish Moscow.

A police officer in a protective suit and mask works near the scene where former double-agent Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia were found after being attacked with a nerve agent on March 16, 2018 in Salisbury, UK. (Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

 

“No country except Russia has the combined capability in chemical warfare, intent to weaponize this agent, and motive to target the principal victim,” UK Prime Minister Theresa May wrote in a March 13 letter to the president of the UN Security Council.

The Russian government has initiated assassinations on UK soil previously, including the targeted killing of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko by a radioactive isotope in London in 2006, which President Vladimir Putin allegedly authorized.

Alexander Shulgin, Russian permanent representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), derided UK accusations as “nothing but fiction and another instance of the dirty information war being waged on Russia,” during a March 13 OPCW Executive Council meeting. Although the UK asserted that Russian responsibility is “highly likely,” most members of the UN Security Council are less confident and, at a March 14 emergency meeting called by the UK, requested that the OPCW conduct an independent investigation.

The UK notified the OPCW Technical Secretariat of the attack on March 8 and OPCW experts subsequently were deployed to the UK to collect samples. The results of the analysis, which will not assign blame, could come by mid-April at the earliest, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said at a briefing at the UN on March 20.

The Soviet Union developed Novichok secretly in the 1970s and 1980s, after which Russia inherited the program. Its existence was publicly revealed only when Soviet scientist Vil Mirzayanov leaked the project to the press in the 1990s. Novichok reportedly is more lethal than known nerve agents sarin and VX.

The March 4 attack would constitute its first known use, although some chemical weapons experts told The New York Times that the agent could have been used in assassinations in the past but not recognized.

Novichok affects victims through skin exposure or inhalation. Like other nerve agents, Novichok exposure inhibits certain neurotransmitters that relay messages to nerves, eventually resulting in muscle spasms, organ failure, and death from suffocation or heart failure.

The OPCW, the implementing body of the CWC, announced that Russia destroyed its entire declared chemical weapons arsenal in September 2017. Russia did not declare Novichok agents as part of its chemical weapons arsenal when it joined the convention. Vassily Nebenzia, Russian permanent representative to the United Nations, at the UN Security Council on March 14 denied that Russia possesses any Novichok agent.

If Russia is confirmed as responsible, it would mean that Russia not only failed to declare its entire arsenal to the OPCW but also that it retained a part of its arsenal after the OPCW verified that it had destroyed it. That would constitute a “major case of non-compliance with the treaty that would need to be remedied in short order to maintain confidence in the efficacy of the treaty and the OPCW,” Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, told Arms Control Today in a March 16 email.

In a March 12 address to Parliament, May urged Russia to disclose its Novichok program to the OPCW in order to return to compliance with the CWC. Russia also would need to allow the OPCW to monitor the destruction of any remaining chemical weapons stocks or provide “credible evidence” of chemical weapons and production facilities destruction to the OPCW, Koblentz said.

At a March 14 meeting of the UN Security Council, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, demanded that the body “take immediate, concrete measures” to address Russian noncompliance, although council action may be challenging given Russia’s veto power.

Investigations could be mandated instead through the secretary-general’s mechanism, said Andrew Weber, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, in a March 15 email to Arms Control Today.

The use of Novichok in the UK occurred as the norm against chemical weapons use may be eroding globally due to ongoing use of chemical weapons by Syria, a CWC state-party, and North Korea’s use of VX to assassinate Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia last year.

To prevent norm erosion, chemical weapons users must be held to account, Weber and Koblentz said. Koblentz pointed to the International Partnership Against the Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, launched in Paris in January, as a useful tool for “marshaling international support to punish and prosecute perpetrators” of chemical weapons attacks. Although the initiative was launched largely in response to chemical weapons use in Syria, its work applies to chemical weapons use globally. (See ACT, March 2018.)

“The use of chemical weapons anywhere erodes the norm everywhere,” said Koblentz.

Assassination attempt indicates Russia has a nerve agent in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

China, France, U.S. Reject UN Disarmament Push

UN Secretary-General António Guterres drew criticism from nuclear powers after saying that he will launch a disarmament initiative. In a Feb. 26 speech to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), Guterres asserted that much work remains to fulfill the first resolution of the UN General Assembly in 1946, which encouraged the total elimination of weapons of mass destruction. Further, he said work remains to be done to counter the erosion of the norms against chemical weapons use and nuclear testing. “In the face of this deterioration, the international community must urgently rebuild a common vision on disarmament and arms control,” he asserted.

A U.S. official told Reuters on Feb. 7 that disarmament was only an “aspirational goal” and that the United States does not believe “that it’s time for bold initiatives, particularly in the area of nuclear weapons.” Nuclear disarmament in the near term is unrealistic, Robert Wood, the U.S. ambassador to the CD, said in an address to that body following Guterres’ speech. Chinese and French ambassadors concurred. Alice Guitton, French permanent representative to the CD, said that disarmament must be built on patience, perseverance, and realism. Izumi Nakamitsu, UN high representative for disarmament affairs, has been gathering input from UN member states and civil society organizations on the structure of the initiative before an expected launch in May.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

China, France, U.S. Reject UN Disarmament Push

Chinese Analysts Urge Nuclear Increase


March 2018
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

Commentary in an official Chinese military newspaper called on China to strengthen its nuclear deterrent, although Chinese official statements and expert analysis downplay a more assertive nuclear weapons stance.

Two analysts at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Science, which informs China’s Central Military Commission, raised the prospect of an accelerating nuclear weapons program by China. “To enhance China’s strategic counterbalance in the region and maintain China’s status as a great power, and protect national security, China has to beef up and develop a reliable nuclear deterrence capability,” they wrote in PLA Daily, according to a translation by the South China Morning Post.

China displayed the DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missile during a military parade September 3, 2015 in Beijing. The silo-based missile, deployed in 2015, is reported to carry multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles. (Photo: Rolex Dela Pena - Pool /Getty Images)The commentary argued that both the development of new nuclear weapons proposed by the latest U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons modernization programs could create a need for an enhanced deterrent through an expanded Chinese nuclear force.

The PLA Daily “provides an outlet for more extreme views” within the PLA, Catherine Dill, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told Arms Control Today in a Feb. 14 email. She noted that opinion pieces may not signal future military plans.

The United States asserted in a recent intelligence assessment and in its latest NPR report that China is already advancing and expanding its nuclear weapons capabilities. China is modernizing its nuclear missiles to “ensure the viability of China’s strategic deterrent by providing a second-strike capability,” according to the U.S. intelligence community’s worldwide threat assessment report, which was presented to Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 13.

Twice in November 2017, China tested a DF-17, a medium-range ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle that could help it evade missile defenses. China continues to develop its submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and may be producing additional nuclear-powered submarines, according to the report.

China is “expanding its already considerable nuclear forces” and pursing “assertive military initiatives,” according to the NPR report. The NPR provides a rationale for the Trump administration’s plans to accelerate U.S. nuclear weapons programs.

But China’s modest nuclear force posture, official Chinese statements, and expert analysis all point to China rejecting an aggressive nuclear expansion. China maintains a small nuclear arsenal compared to those of Russia and the United States. Although a level of secrecy surrounds the Chinese nuclear arsenal, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in July 2017 estimated China has 270 nuclear warheads.

China also holds to a no-first-use policy, whereby it declares that it will only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack. The Chinese Defense Ministry reaffirmed that it follows this policy as recently as Feb. 4, when it also claimed that it would “resolutely stick to peaceful development and pursue a national defense policy that is defensive in nature.”

Other analysts doubt that China will pursue an arms buildup. Chinese military analyst Zhao Chenming told the South China Morning Post on Jan. 30 that China is too “pragmatic” to spend heavily on an arms race. In a Feb. 9 blog post, Gregory Kulacki, China project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, underlined the defensive nature of Chinese nuclear forces, arguing that although China has the ability to engage in an arms race, it is “unlikely to do so.”

“[T]he piece does reflect general unease within China and the PLA about U.S. military plans,” Dill stated, adding that China will likely continue to focus on developing SLBM capabilities, long-range conventional strike systems, and missile defense assets.

But there is reason to doubt that the commentary signals a policy shift.

New Group Challenges CW ‘Impunity’


March 2018
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

France launched an initiative to counter the use and proliferation of chemical weapons amid a recent spike of chemical attacks in Syria. About 25 countries attended the Jan. 23 launch ceremony in Paris for the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons and agreed to implement its declaration of principles.

“This initiative puts those who ordered and carried out chemical weapons attacks on notice: You will face a day of reckoning for your crimes against humanity, and your victims will see justice done,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in opening remarks.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks January 23 in Paris in support of the French initiative against the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria.  (Photo: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images)The partnership will facilitate information sharing, “name and shame” individuals and entities involved in chemical weapons attacks by publicizing their names on a website, and strengthen national accountability and enforcement efforts. France also imposed sanctions on individuals and entities linked to Syrian chemical weapons use.

Although the partnership intends to address chemical weapons threats globally, the emphasis during the ceremony was on Syria. There were six chemical attacks in Syria from early January to early February, according to a U.S. State Department press release Feb. 5. The day before the partnership’s launch, there were reports of a chlorine gas attack killing an estimated 20 civilians in East Ghouta, a rebel-held Damascus suburb.

A report is forthcoming by a fact-finding mission investigating recent alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria, Izumi Nakamitsu, UN high representative for disarmament affairs, told the Security Council on Feb. 5.

The new chemical weapons accountability initiative follows the breakdown late last year of a mechanism that identified chemical weapons users in Syria. In 2015 the Security Council adopted Resolution 2235, creating the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), a collaborative effort between the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) tasked with determining the culpable actor for verified chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

The latest JIM report, in October 2017, found the Assad regime guilty of using sarin gas in an April 2017 attack and the Islamic State group responsible for using sulfur mustard in a September 2016 attack. The JIM’s mandate expired, and the body was forced to cease investigations in November 2017, after Russia blocked several attempts to extend the mandate and asserted that the JIM conclusions were inaccurate and politically biased. (See ACT, December 2017.)

In remarks at the launch ceremony, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian emphasized that the new group would not replace existing multilateral bodies, such as the JIM. Instead, the project would aim to “complement” their work by creating a “meaningful and operational instrument” in light of the obstructions encountered by existing bodies.

Although Russia was absent from the launch, U.S.-Russian animosity over chemical weapons use in Syria was not. In Paris, Tillerson chastised Moscow for shielding the Assad regime, asserting that “Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in East Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons.”

In New York just hours after the launch ceremony, Vassily Nebenzia, Russian ambassador to the UN, called an impromptu Security Council meeting, where he rejected U.S. criticism, called the French initiative an attempt “to create an anti-Damascus bloc through the proliferation of lies,” and introduced a proposal to extend the JIM mandate. Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN, dismissed the Russian proposal on the grounds that its terms were unacceptable and that it was intended as a distraction from the partnership launch.

France will chair the partnership this year, with plans to convene experts meetings to discuss progress on the implementation of the principles. Some experts have remarked on the uncertainty around the effort and the obstacles it may encounter to gain additional members.

The procedure for the partnership to determine its rules of operation are not yet clear. John Hart, head of the Chemical and Biological Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, wrote in a Feb. 8 article for the Lowy Institute that the partnership may have trouble reaching a “common understanding” between governments and civil society and among governments on the source and use of intelligence, as well as guidelines for the publication of information.

Hart observed that states may be unwilling to “become entangled” in a Russian-U.S. dispute or will lack the technical capacity to contribute intelligence to the partnership.

Western powers struggle against chemical weapons use by Russia’s ally, Syria.

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