THE international community on Wednesday endowed the global chemical weapons watchdog with new powers to identify those behind toxic arms attacks in Syria, prompting an angry Russia to say it would not rule out leaving what it called a “sinking Titanic”.
After two days of tense talks and in face of stiff opposition from Moscow and Damascus, a British-led proposal to strengthen the mandate of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) passed by 82 votes in favour with 24 against.
The OPCW now “has a crucial extra power, not just to identify the use of chemical weapons, but also to point the finger at the organisation, the state that they think is responsible,” said British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Other delegates said applause broke out after the vote at the rare special session of the OPCW’s top policy-making body, called by London following recent repeated use of poison gases in Syria, Iraq as well as nerve agent attacks in Malaysia and Britain.
But Moscow, which along with Syria and Iran had vehemently opposed the move, shot back that the move was a sign the watchdog was on the brink of collapse.
“The OPCW is sinking like the Titanic,” Russian Ambassador to the Netherlands Alexander Shulgin told reporters. “It looks like the collapse of the organisation is currently in the making.”
Asked point blank if Russia, which joined the OPCW at its beginnings in 1997, would withdraw from the body, Shulgin said “all options are on the table”, adding that the watchdog, which has overseen the destruction of all its declared chemical weapons, had been “severely damaged”.
Russia, with its allies, had argued that giving the OPCW the power to say who was behind a chemical weapons attack was going beyond its legal mandate, maintaining only bodies such as the UN Security Council had such authority.
But the international community had become increasingly frustrated at the lack of any mechanism to hold those behind chemical weapons attacks to account.
According to the text of Wednesday’s decision, seen by AFP, the OPCW’s secretariat “shall put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic”.
British ambassador to The Hague, Peter Wilson, hailed “an important day” saying the move was “a critical step forward in ensuring the chemical weapons abuse stops”.
OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu and his successor, who takes over in July, were also mandated to draw up proposals to give the body broader powers to identify those unleashing chemical weapons in any other country, if governments ask for help.
Those proposals will go to the next meeting of state parties in November for a vote, Wilson told reporters.
“The principle has been established that there should be a general attribution arrangement as well as a clear flick of the switch which allows the director general to proceed with attribution in Syria,” he said.
Both Moscow, the main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Damascus, stand accused by the international community of using chemical weapons in recent months – allegations they deny.
Indeed it was amid pressure from the United States and Russia, that Syria finally agreed in 2013 to join the Chemical Weapons Convention after denying for decades that it had a toxic arms stockpile.
The vote came as the OPCW is also due to publish a highly-anticipated report into an alleged chlorine and sarin gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma. Moscow and Damascus insist the attack was fake, staged by the Syrian rescue volunteers known as the White Helmets.
Wilson confirmed the OPCW now had the power to identify who could be behind the April attack in Douma in which medics and rescuers said 40 people were killed.
Late last year, Russia had wielded its veto power at the UN Security Council to effectively kill off a joint UN-OPCW panel aimed at identifying those behind suspected chemical attacks in Syria.