Salisbury: A Case for the Chemical Weapons Convention

Oliver Meier
Oliver Meier

London’s conflict with Moscow over the Skripal poisoning is escalating. Russia rejects the British accusations as baseless. Oliver Meier argues for using the fact-finding procedures of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a nerve agent from the “novichok” family of substances represents the latest in a string of apparent violations of the international prohibition on the possession and use of chemical weapons. The chemical warfare in Syria, the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother with the nerve agent VX and the 4 March Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, UK, all raise the spectre of chemical weapons use becoming a normality.

The international community thought it had progressed beyond that point. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1992 – which by now has almost universal membership – comprehensively bans chemical warfare by prohibiting the “development, production, stockpiling and use” of all chemical weapons, including new and hitherto unknown substances. Today, the destruction of the declared global chemical weapons stockpile of 70,000 tonnes is almost complete. In September 2017, Russia proudly announced the conclusion of the destruction of its stockpiles under international supervision.

Consultations, Cooperation and Fact-Finding under the CWC

The CWC includes procedures to deal with malicious attacks such as the Skripal poisoning, and these should be applied now. The British government has informed the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) about the results of its investigation that the agent in question was “of a type developed by Russia”, and has invited OPCW inspectors to Salisbury to confirm this analysis. However, it is unlikely that the organisation will be able to attribute the attack to Russia, if it does not have access to the “novichok” formulae.

The British government has not yet requested clarification under CWC Article 9 (“consultations, cooperation and fact-finding”). London argues that Russia’s comprehensive denial of responsibility and its refusal to provide relevant information make application of the Convention’s mechanisms pointless. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called for the incident in Salisbury to be discussed under CWC Article 9 (2), which provides for bilateral consultations to “clarify and resolve, through exchange of information and consultations among themselves, any matter which may cause doubt about compliance with this Convention”. Russia would have ten days to respond. Because Article 9 (2) requires no further action, Moscow might expect to come out of this procedure with a clean bill of health.

The offer is nevertheless surprising, given Russia’s recent harsh attacks on the OPCW. Moscow is unhappy with findings of the OPCW – together with the United Nations – that the Syrian government was responsible for several chemical weapons attacks against its own citizens. To this day, Moscow evades, obfuscates and lies when questioned on the “novichok” programme. There is reliable evidence about “novichok” from former programme staff and from the process of dismantling chemical weapons facilities, yet Moscow denies that it has ever produced these extremely deadly agents. Russia has never declared the programme to the OPCW. Thus, the British government is not alone in suspecting that Lavrov’s offer represents a ploy to use CWC procedures to gain time and/or to come out of the affair with clean hands.

The Advantages of a Multilateral Approach

Despite these doubts, London should take up Lavrov’s offer to involve the OPCW. But it should insist on the “procedure for requesting clarification” under Article 9 (3)–(7). This is a sharper instrument than the one proposed by Russia. Article 9 (3)–(7) would also grant Moscow ten days to respond, but it would then be obliged to supply information. If London was not satisfied with the explanation, a multistage process would follow in which Moscow would be required to provide further clarification. The OPCW Executive Council can also call on the Director-General to establish a group of experts “to examine all available information and data relevant to the situation causing the concern”. At the end of process, after 60 days, a special meeting of the Conference of the States Parties can be requested to discuss the findings and refer the case to the UN Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions.

There are advantages to such a course of action. Firstly, it would reinforce the central role of the CWC in dealing with violations of the chemical weapons prohibition. Western demands on Russia to acknowledge the findings of the OPCW and United Nations investigations in Syria lose credibility if CWC procedures are not applied in this case. Notwithstanding requests for clarification under the CWC, London would still be free to demand clarification by direct channels or to impose sanctions.

Secondly, Russia may not necessarily be able to control the outcome of consultations under Article 9 (3)–(7). A group of experts appointed by the Director-General would certainly be able to take into account the wide-ranging and reliable information about Soviet and Russian activities to develop and produce “novichok” agents, which by many accounts continued well into the 1990s. Unlike in the Security Council, Russia is not a veto power in the OPCW. Decisions on consequences of the procedure’s outcome can be adopted by majority vote. Russia and its allies have already been outvoted several times over the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Thirdly, the consultations in the OPCW offer a confidential framework under which Moscow – in the best of worlds – might actually contribute to a clarification of the incident. A comparison of “novichok” chemical formulae for example could help to arrive at an informed judgement on the veracity of allegations.

If the consultations conclude without any clear findings, we would not have progressed towards clarification beyond the point where we stand today. Yet, this would not necessarily be a step backwards either. Moscow’s refusal to cooperate constructively in a process of consultations, cooperation and fact-finding would shed further doubts over its denials. And the UK would have demonstrated that it was willing to exhaust all possibilities to clarify what happened in Salisbury.

Recommended Reading

Oliver Meier

The Danger of Chemical Weapons in Syria

Unfinished Disarmament and International Control Efforts

SWP Comment 2016/C 23, April 2016, 4 Pages

SWP Comments

Molly O’Neal
The European Commission’s Enhanced Rule of Law Mechanism


Raphael Bossong
The Expansion of Frontex

Symbolic Measures and Long-term Changes in EU Border Management

SWP Research Papers

Evita Schmieg
Connections between Trade Policy and Migration

A Sphere of Action for the EU

Daniel Voelsen
Cracks in the Internet’s Foundation

The Future of the Internet’s Infrastructure and Global Internet Governance