Mr. Mark A. Ortiz, Regional Affairs Project Coordinator for Disarmament in the Levant
United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA)
UN Plaza Regional Disarmament Branch Room
S-3035 New York, NY 10017, USA
Overview of the Mission of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs
The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) is guided by the vision of promoting global norms of disarmament and oversees efforts to deal with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and conventional weapons and the arms trade. The Office promotes nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation; strengthening of the disarmament regimes in respect to other WMDs – chemical and biological weapons; and disarmament efforts in the area of conventional weapons, especially small arms and light weapons, which are the weapons of choice in contemporary conflicts. The United Nations ODA was established in January 1998 as the Department for Disarmament Affairs which was part of the Secretary General’s program for reform. It was originally created in 1982 upon the recommendation of the General Assembly second special session on disarmament (SSOD II). In 2007, it became the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.
In its core areas, UNODA promotes disarmament in the areas of WMDs as well as conventional weapons, including small arms, landmines, and cluster munitions. UNODA provides substantive and organizational support for norm-setting in the area of disarmament through the work of the General Assembly and its First Committee, the Disarmament Commission, the Conference on Disarmament, and other bodies. It fosters disarmament measures through dialogue, transparency, and confidence-building on military matters, and encourages regional disarmament efforts; these include, by way of example, the UN Register of Conventional Arms and regional forums. Further it provides impartial and current information on multilateral disarmament issues and activities of member States and to the intergovernmental organizations and institutions, departments and agencies of the United Nations system. UNODA promotes outreach and awareness on United Nations disarmament efforts. It engages with external actors by maintaining an active relationship with relevant organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). It acts as the focal point of the Coordinating Action on Small Arms (CASA), which includes UN offices and agencies with programs in small arms, and cooperates with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDR). UNODA engages with civil organizations in disarmament conferences and education. It supports the development and implementation of practical disarmament measures after a conflict, such as disarming and demobilizing former combatants and helping them to reintegrate into civil society.
Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – UN Joint Investigative Mechanism
The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2235 on 7 August 2015, condemning any use of any toxic chemical such as chlorine, as a weapon in the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR). It expressed its determination to identify those responsible for such acts, and reiterated that they must be held accountable. In 1997 Member States established the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – UN Joint Investigative Mechanism with the mandate “to identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons, including chlorine, or any other toxic chemical, in the SAR where the OPCW Fact Finding Mission (FFM) determines or has determined that a specific incident in the SAR involved or likely involved the use of chemical weapons.” The Mechanism’s work is bound by the principles of impartiality, objectivity, and independence, and is undertaken in a professional manner. Pursuant to Resolution 2235, the Mechanism submitted its first report (S/2016/142) to the Security Council in February 2016. During the reporting period, the Mechanism reviewed FFM information and evidence. The Mechanism identified nine cases for further investigation in the Governorates of Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo. In June 2016, the Security Council considered the Mechanism’s progress report (S/2016/530) on its investigation into the nine selected cases related to incidents involving the use of chemicals as weapons in the SAR between April 2014 and August 2015. The Mechanism submitted two additional reports in August and October. The Mechanism concluded that the Syrian Armed Forces had been responsible for the use of chemical weapons in three specific instances. The Mechanism also concluded that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was responsible for the use of chemical weapons in one specific case. On 17 November 2016, by its Resolution 2319, the Security Council extended the mandate of the Mechanism for an additional year. The Council encouraged the Mechanism to engage relevant regional States in its work, including for the purpose of identifying any involvement of non-State actors in the use of chemical weapons in the SAR. It is the position of UNODA that while there is hope that the Joint Investigative Mechanism has indeed served as a deterrent to those who continue to believe that there is something to be gained in the use of toxic chemicals as weapons, leadership is disappointed and dismayed by continuous allegations of possession, movement, and/or intent of use of toxic chemicals, including chemical weapons, by the Syrian government and by non-state actors in the SAR.
UNODA can count as a success that the global taboo against the use of chemical weapons has been strengthened. Syria has become a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and has undertaken a process to eliminate its chemical weapons program. There has been renewed interest by Member States in the Mechanism and its functionality. And the experience in Syria has reinforced the vital role of the United Nations system, including its partner organizations, in dealing with the complicated tasks related to the elimination of WMDs. By considering the experience in Syria, UNODA must continue to buttress a collective capacity to investigate any case of alleged WMD use which might arise in the future. This capacity for enforcement must be enhanced to strengthen the Mechanism’s deterrent effect and can importantly serve as a driver for the elimination of such inhumane weapons.
Lessons Learned, Overarching Objectives, Key Challenges, and Recommendations
It is widely acknowledged that the FFM demonstrated the value and relevance of the Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical, Biological or Toxin Weapons. UNODA undertook an assessment to distill lessons learned from and to identify the results of actions that will strengthen the Secretary- General’s Mechanism (SGM) based on the experience of the precedent-setting case of the UN Mission in Syria. It was conducted during an active conflict and consisted of multiple allegations. The SGM and partner organizations, such as the OPCW, must work effectively to investigate allegations of the use of chemical weapons. The overall objective should be to enhance preparedness of the Mechanism as well as the cohesion and coordination of partner organizations in order to strengthen the application of the SGM in the future. The key categories of lessons learned include: Activation of the Mechanism, Strategic partnerships, Unity and consistency of the mission, and Information sharing. Within those categories four overarching objectives were identified from the UN Mission to Syria. They are: Understand the critical components of activation of the Mechanism, Ensure unity and consistency of the mission, Build and sustain strategic partnerships and modes of cooperation, and Strengthen means of implementing information sharing, respectively. The key challenges identified from the UN Mission in Syria that warrant attention and consideration pertain to: Producing a final report with appropriate balance between science and a political/legal narrative, Steps required for activation derived from an “actionable report,” Securing legal frameworks required for cooperation, and Preserving the legacy of an investigation (e.g., samples and documentation). Ensuring the overall commitment of operational stakeholders is crucial to success.
The engagement of Member States in organizing, investing, and preparing the tools and resources required for efficient and effective functioning of the investigative mechanism are critical components to an SGM’s success. The ability of the Secretary-General to launch and conduct timely and effective investigations of alleged use of prohibited weapons is crucial to mission efficacy. To ensure activation of the Mechanism requires timely appointment of a respected scientist with proven scientific achievement and political acumen, including strategic thinking and leadership experience, as head of Mission. Member States’ willingness to provide the necessary modalities of cooperation is indispensable. To ensure unity and consistency of mission calls for provision of channels of communication between the Secretary-General and Member States throughout the course of the investigation. Any investigation conducted under the mandate of the SGM must not be compromised. To ensure strategic partnerships, UNODA must persist in affirming sustained cohesion of stakeholders. Unity in commitment to principles is the key ingredient to effective investigations and enforcement of mechanisms of implementation. In addition to legal arrangements, pursuit of other forums for SGM stakeholders and vehicles for cooperation is advisable. UNODA advises the Secretary-General to consider the compilation of organizational tasks and a list of partners derived from international organizations upon which expertise could be drawn in the event of required activation. To ensure information sharing, the coordination to the greatest extent possible of SGM stakeholders with the SGM Roster of Experts, and the investigative findings of FFMs must be stressed throughout the entire process from report compilation to dissemination with particular emphasis on best practices of investigation, analyses, and recommendations.
Disarming Syria of Chemical Weapons During a Civil War
The disarming of Syria’s chemical weapons during a civil war hits directly on a challenging aspect of this situation. The current United Nations engagement on Syrian chemical weapon issues was born out of the tragic use of these weapons during the course of the conflict. The Office for Disarmament Affairs has been continuously engaged on the Syrian chemical weapons issue ever since it received the first report of alleged use in March of 2013. Given the gravity of the situation, the (then) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon immediately decided to launch an investigation; other Member States immediately followed with reports and corroborating information of the alleged use of chemicals at other locations in Syria during the conflict.
The Secretary-General’s Mechanism is the primary tool of the United Nations to uphold the international prohibition against the use of chemical or biological weapons in armed conflict. Under the Mechanism, the purpose of the investigation is to ascertain the nature and extent of any use and to report those findings to all Member States. While the FFM was on the ground in Damascus, the world received the news of the massive attack in Ghouta suburb in which chemical weapons were used. The Mission handed over its preliminary report covering the Ghouta incident (16 September). Its findings confirmed that chemical weapons had been used on a relatively large scale in the Ghouta area of Damascus in the context of the on-going conflict in Syria. When he reported to the Security Council, the Secretary-General expressed the view that this use of chemical weapons constituted a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other rules of customary international law and was a war crime.
Without a doubt, the indisputable conclusions of the investigation of the Ghouta incident functioned as a major catalyst for both peace and disarmament. The Syrian government announced its intention to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The Russian Federation and the United States reached agreement on a framework to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program.
The ability of the United Nations to carry out its mandate in Syria was important in highlighting the role of international institutions in solving seemingly intractable real world problems. It vindicated the indispensable role of the international organization in undertaking work that no national government alone can accomplish. It demonstrated the capability of the United Nations to undertake complex missions under the most difficult circumstances, including in situations of civil war. It united international actors who had sought to find a way to bring an end to the conflict. The UN was the natural partner to work with the OPCW as the operational enabler for the disarmament effort. The elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program is a complicated undertaking, requiring the resources of the UN and the OPCW as well as active support and contribution by Member States. The OPCW Executive Council and the UN Security Council, in Resolution 2118, required Syria to eliminate its chemical weapons program by 30 June 2014. The reasonable way to accommodate such a goal was to remove all chemical weapons from Syria for destruction by third party countries.
In accordance with the CWC, the Executive Council established three phases of the disarmament Mission. The first phase included initial inspections to verify the preliminary declaration submitted by Syria of its chemical weapons, related munitions, as well as its storage and production facilities. During the second phase, Syria was required to complete the destruction of all chemical weapon production equipment. It was also required to submit its full declaration of chemical weapons and production facilities as required by the CWC. Syria declared a total of 1000 tons of chemicals, including precursors for sarin. During this phase, the OPCW was required to complete its inspection of Syrian chemical weapons facilities. The third phase required the removal of chemical weapons from Syria and their final elimination by 30 June 2014. Syria was also required to destroy its chemical weapons production facilities. The Joint Mission and a number of States provided Syria with material and equipment to undertake its obligations. Syria shipped consignments of chemical weapons and material to the port of Latakia, which were removed by sea on ships provided by Denmark and Norway. These materials were neutralized on-board American and Russian ships.
Challenges: Experts in a War Zone, Negotiating with Multiple Factions, and Overcoming Mistrust
A challenge common to both investigation and disarmament mission relates to the need of brining technical and medical experts from OPCW, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other entities into a war zone. The United Nations with its extensive operational experience in peacekeeping operations and its global presence was able to provide service. The investigation team’s convoy was fired upon in its first visit to Ghouta, the presence of experienced UN security staff was indispensable. The investigation team was able to regroup and negotiate a new route, and successfully accomplish their visit without further incident.
Another challenge is that the situation in Syria has been exacerbated by the fact that the government does not control much of its territory, including locations where chemical weapons were allegedly used or even where chemical weapons facilities are located. There are about 1,000 autonomous factions operating in the country. To overcome the challenges of negotiating and coordinating access with multiple groups, the Joint Mission was able to rely upon the already-established presence on the ground of the UN country team in Damascus as well as on other UN Missions operating in the area. The UN has extensive experience in negotiating access for humanitarian convoys. During the investigation, temporary ceasefires were negotiated during the periods in which UN personnel were on site.
Given the highly politicized environment surrounding the Syrian conflict, even neutral international organizations have to work hard to overcome significant mistrust regarding their intentions. Attempting to negotiate legal modalities necessary for the UN to operate in Syria is extremely troublesome and laborious. It seems that the ability to reach a breakthrough on differences relates more to external events rather than to achieving mutually acceptable understandings. This reality has served to underscore the political dimension of the chemical weapons issue in the context of the current conflict. This was a major impediment for the investigation; yet the disarmament mission was able to accomplish its objectives due to the mandate afforded to it by the decisions of the UN Security Council and the OPCW Executive Council. The ambitious timeframe to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program was achieved under a cooperative Russian-US framework. The coordination of international support to provide for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons at sea by third-party countries was exemplary.
Conclusion: What Was Accomplished and What Has to Be Accomplished
Essentially the UN and the OPCW through the Joint Mission were able to make an invaluable contribution by serving as the main interlocutor for political and logistical requirements. The predispositions, intentions, and actions of Member States mattered plenty. The positions of the Russian Federation, the United States, and the European Union, in particular, affect the ability of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs to carry out its position of strengthening the disarmament regimes. In the case of Syria where chemical agents were the main WMD, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs provided substantive organizational support for norm-setting in the area of disarmament. It fostered and continues to foster disarmament measures through dialogue, negotiations, and confidence building on military matters. Its encouragement of and insistence on regional disarmament measures eliminated all known chemical weapons in Syria. The Office for Disarmament Affairs engaged with external actors to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. The UN Mechanism through the Joint Mission implemented practical disarmament measures during an armed conflict that is a raging civil war. The ultimate responsibility for ensuring the complete elimination of the chemical weapons programs remains with the Government of Syria of course. The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs is committed to continue to do everything possible to achieve its mandate. United Nations Secretary-General António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres has stated: “Disarmament can play an important role in ending existing conflicts and preventing the outbreak of new strife. Disarmament and arms control processes provide a breathing space for confidence to be built, stability to be strengthened, and trust to be established. This was true during the Cold War and it is true now.”
The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs affirms an approach to disarmament and international security that puts human beings front and center of policy. The appalling refugee crisis due to the civil war in Syria must be addressed by all Member States. The countries of Germany, Sweden, and Canada, for example, are humanitarian exemplars for accepting large numbers of refugees with the intent to integrate them into their societies. These Member States among others laud a humanitarian dimension be put at the forefront of discussions about Syria. The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs resolutely urges all Member States and the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council to commit to advocating for disarmament in Syria. Disarmament and non-proliferation are mutually reinforcing. There remain unacceptable proliferation and non-compliance concerns. The Government of President Bashar al-Assad as well as non-state actors have to be prevented from acquiring WMD. Any other scenario would be catastrophic.
The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs stresses that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict is abhorrent and unacceptable. Such weapons are prohibited under the UN Security Council Resolution 2118 and the CWC, and any such use by any party represents a serious crime under humanitarian law. The UNODA is pleased to have contributed to the United Nations investigation of alleged use of chemical weapons and to have been an integral part of the joint UN/OPCW mission to oversee the dismantlement of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. The UNODA supports all Member States and parties in their condemnation of any considerations for or continued use of chemical weapons in the form of chlorine gas, sarin, etc. in the conflict. It is steadfast in its commitment to the call of UN Secretary-General António Guterres for any and all perpetrators to be brought to justice.
On a day-to-day basis the biggest threat to human safety and security stems from the use of small arms and light weapons (SALWs) and their illicit proliferation. The entry into force of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a major achievement. UNODA affirms that the Treaty will encourage more responsible trade in conventional arms and help eradicate the unregulated and illicit trade in these arms. UNODA attaches the greatest importance to the wide adherence and effective implementation of the ATT. UNODA looks forward to help build a totally functional and effectively implemented treaty in Syria. It is in this spirit that UNODA endorses any and all commitments by Member States, non-government organizations, United Nations commissions, and other bodies to bringing to an end the proliferation of SALWs in Syria and to the promotion of weapons into regional conflicts which do not resolve conflict, but only make it worse. Thus major parties must be brought to the negotiating table to seek amity, resolution, and Concordia.
The UNODA envisions a resolution to the conflict through negotiations between the Assad government and the opposition, a national reconciliation process and multi-party elections. The guidelines of the Geneva Communiqué (2012) can serve as a framework for all subsequent attempts to mediate talks between Assad and the opposition and end the brutal civil war. In recognition of this position, UNODA is committed to the most practical proposal for ending war is by creating a bridge between the regime and the opposition and establishing a unity government. The executive of this power-sharing government would be made up of both regime officers and opposition members. There are hundreds of UN experts who have worked on post-conflict transitions. The UN would be wise to staff the Syrian mission with them now and plan ahead for negotiations to commence with power-sharing as the operative word. The United Nations ODA recognizes and upholds the view that the primary objective must be to end the war and begin political negotiations. The United Nations was created “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” as the body’s august preamble says. The UNODA contends that when the United Nations is perceived to be or criticized as powerless to act it is when the governments that constitute it, i.e., its Member States, have been unwilling to budge from their recalcitrant oppositional geopolitical positions rather than cooperate to find solutions that put human beings front and center of policy. The UNODA strenuously calls for the United Nations to spare no effort in further attempts at peace talks. It will for its part seek deescalation of the conflict through arms reduction and unwavering efforts monitoring the eradication of chemical weapons and vigilance regarding any reintroduction of such weapons or their precursors. It is the conviction of the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs that it must lead in the call for an end to a war that has left Syria in ruins and the Syrian people among the ruins. But ruins can be rebuilt when people reconcile and decide that rather than live among the ruins, they should rebuild while learning to live another day in peace. They don’t have to like each other, but they can live together. After all, they did so once before in a modicum of accommodation. Hope and wisdom calls upon them to do so again.
The UN Office of Disarmament Affairs envisions a resolution to conflicts in the Middle East through negotiations between nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Yemen and Saudi Arabia as well as internal reconciliations. The flow of arms exacerbates conflicts and keeps them going indefinitely; it does not solve them because no one has and no one will emerge as a clear cut winner. The nations of the region rush into conflicts fighting proxy wars that aggravate conditions and widen the fighting. They bring in outsiders that enlarge war and augment its lethality. Once there was a horrific proxy war during the 1960s fought in North Yemen between Egypt and Saudi Arabia and their proxies. Eventually the two Arab nations through the mediation of the United Nations reconciled their differences and the war came to an end. The United Nations also afforded Egypt and Israel the possibility of peace in the Sinai Peninsula by helping to keep the armies of the two nations separated from each other. The most practical proposal for ending war is creating bridges between hostile nations and regimes and their opposition. There is only one effective party that can accomplish an end to war through negotiations and resolutions, and that is the UNODA. In the long term the Middle East must no longer be a region known for conflict but instead for peace. Arms shipments from major suppliers must come to an end. The region has more than enough weapons, and all illegal weapons must be eradicated. In the long run when this is accomplished brutal wars will end and security corridors of peace will coalesce into a core of peace bringing the entire region into a meaningful and lasting reconciliation process.