World powers to vote on giving chemical watchdog teeth

The logo of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is seen during a special session in the Hague, Netherlands, on June 26, 2018.
The logo of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is seen during a special session in the Hague, Netherlands, on June 26, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

THE HAGUE (AFP) - Decision day loomed on Wednesday (June 27) at the world's chemical weapons monitor as Western powers frantically sought behind closed doors to rally support for moves to beef up the watchdog's powers.

Britain, backed by allies such as the United States and France, is leading a drive to enable the independent Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to attribute blame for any use of toxic substances in Syria.

But they have met fierce opposition from Russia, backed by Syria and Iran. Both Moscow and Damascus stand accused by the international community of using chemical weapons in recent months.

The move comes amid growing frustration at the lack of a mechanism to punish perpetrators amid repeated recent attacks with chlorine, sarin and even mustard gas in Syria and Iraq, and the use of rare nerve agents in Britain and Malaysia.

After a heated 12-hour public meeting on Tuesday, the rare special session of the OPCW's top policy-making body moved into private on Wednesday, away from the glare of the world's media for what is expected to be a tense vote.

"Today is decision day... for the @OPCW in The Hague. We will vote at 14:40," the British delegation to the OPCW said in a tweet.

It maintained that there was "growing support to empower the OPCW to determine responsibility for chemical weapons attacks and strengthen" the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), for the vote that will start at 1240 GMT.

In a war of words on Twitter, mirroring the tensions inside the cavernous World Forum where the meeting is being held, the Russian embassy hit back that "deception is perhaps the word of the day".

Britain had failed to provide any evidence that Moscow was behind the never agent attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in March, it said.

Instead, Britain has "embroiled their allies in the blatant campaign against Russia. Now they try to drag the #OPCW in their games."

Both sides were believed to be furiously working behind the scenes to win support, with one diplomatic source telling AFP "it's very intense inside".

Opening Wednesday's session, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok voiced his country's support for the British-led drive.

The recurrent use of chemical weapons was a "black cloud" hanging over last year's 20th anniversary celebrations for the OPCW, which has destroyed 96 per cent of the world's toxic arms stockpiles, he told delegates.

"The result was terrible human suffering, but also the risk of a 'new normal': a situation where perpetrators consider themselves untouchable," he said, according to a copy of his speech provided to AFP.

And despite some optimism among Western diplomats, there are no guarantees that the vote will go in favour of Britain and its allies.

Brazil on Tuesday summed up the unease felt by several countries at giving the watchdog greater powers outside the forum of the UN Security Council and voiced caution.

"Any change, if it is to be adopted, should... by no means make up for protracted impasses or dysfunctionalities in other international bodies," said Ambassador Regina Maria Cordeiro Dunlop.

Late last year, Russia wielded its veto power at the UN Security Council to effectively kill off a joint UN-OPCW panel aimed at identifying those behind attacks in Syria.

And amid the dragging seven-year civil war in Syria, Moscow has grown increasingly protective of its Middle Eastern ally.

The OPCW is also due to soon publish a report into an alleged gas and sarin attack in the Syrian town of Douma. But Moscow and Damascus insist the attack was fake, staged by the Syrian rescue volunteers known as the White Helmets.

A two-thirds majority, minus any abstentions, is needed for Britain's proposal to pass at the OPCW meeting on Wednesday.

"We all hoped that these terrible instruments of death would never be used again," British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the meeting on Tuesday.

"But the tragic reality is that chemical weapons have been used and are being used all over again."