May 4, 2018 / 5:27 PM / 6 months ago

France proposes new mechanism to assign blame for chemical attacks

THE HAGUE/PARIS (Reuters) - Western powers are weighing a French proposal to create a new mechanism at the world’s chemical weapons watchdog that would enable it to assign blame for attacks with banned munitions, diplomatic sources told Reuters.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague currently only determines whether such attacks have taken place, not who carried them out.

A new mechanism could fulfil that role, which had been carried out since 2015 by a joint United Nations-OPCW investigation in Syria until its renewal was vetoed by Russia in November.

“On Syria everything is blocked at the U.N. Security Council and in general we are seeing repeated and systematic flouting of multilateral frameworks, including proliferation of chemical weapons,” said a senior French diplomat.

“We need a mechanism to apportion blame. Salisbury was a step too far.”

Creating a global mechanism for accountability is also seen as important due to a rising number of incidents with nerve agents since they were banned two decades ago under an international treaty.

Recent use includes the assassination with VX of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017 and the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a 66-year-old former Russian double agent, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, with a Novichok nerve agent in March in Salisbury, England. They both survived.

But the French proposal is also likely to meet resistance from Russia, Iran and others. Decisions at the OPCW are usually put to a vote by the 41-seat executive council, where 28 votes are needed to pass. Recent initiatives at the OPCW to condemn Syria for using chemical weapons have not garnered enough support.

DEADLOCK

The alternative is to go to the OPCW’s full 192-seat conference of states, which can intervene to ensure compliance with the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which has been violated repeatedly by the use of sarin, chlorine and sulphur mustard gas in Syria, as well as the attacks in England and Malaysia.

French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the new OPCW mechanism with the head of the OPCW, Ahmet Uzumcu, during a visit to the Netherlands in March. France is working with its close allies on the details of how the system would work, another source said.

“It would be a significant step forward if OPCW member states succeeded where the U.N. Security Council has failed due to Russia’s repeated vetoes,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.

“The important thing is to move quickly. If Moscow succeeds in preventing the OPCW from setting up an attribution mechanism to protect the Syrian government, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should appoint one on his own authority.”

The U.N. Security Council has been deadlocked over how to replace the U.N.-OPCW inquiry. In April the Security Council voted on and failed to adopt rival U.S. and Russian proposals to set up new inquiries into chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

France, the United States and Britain then circulated a new draft resolution that aims to establish a new independent inquiry into who is responsible. However, Russia has said there was no point in establishing a new inquiry because the United States and its allies had already acted as judge and executioner. Talks on the Western draft have stalled.

There are also diplomatic efforts at the United Nations to convince Guterres to appoint his own attribution mechanism.

A suspected chemical attack on April 7 in the Douma enclave near Damascus prompted missile strikes by the United States, France and Britain against alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Editing by Gareth Jones, William Maclean

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