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article imageChemical weapons body faces 'difficult moment', new chief warns

By Danny KEMP, Jan HENNOP (AFP)     Nov 13, 2018 in World

The world's chemical arms watchdog is confronting a "difficult moment" after a series of recent attacks and a Russian spy scandal, the body's new chief told AFP Tuesday.

In an interview days before a key meeting of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, director-general Fernando Arias said attacks in Salisbury, Kuala Lumpur and Syria were "worrying".

But the Arias said the OPCW would look beyond "temporary" divisions among members because "this organisation is forever" when it came to the eradication of chemical arms.

"We are going through a difficult moment," Arias said at his office in The Hague. "But what I can say is that the general feeling of the member states of this organisation is that the OPCW is more needed than ever."

The OPCW was rocked in October when Dutch authorities said they had caught and expelled four Russian agents trying to hack the organisation's computer system using equipment in a car parked in a nearby hotel.

The hacking bid came as the OPCW was investigating a nerve agent attack in the British city of Salisbury that London has blamed on Moscow, and also a suspected chemical attack in Russia's ally Syria.

Russia has meanwhile likened the OPCW to a "sinking Titanic" after member states agreed in June, despite Moscow's opposition, to boost its powers to be able to attribute blame for chemical attacks.

- 'This organisation is forever' -

Both issues are expected to dominate the meeting of 193 OPCW member states in The Hague starting next Monday, but veteran Spanish diplomat Arias said the body had longer-term goals.

"What we are living now... is temporary, the conflicts are starting and finishing, but this organisation is forever," he said of the OPCW, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.

"This organisation is much more than Syria -- Syria is an important issue of course, Salisbury is an important issue of course, but this is much more than that," he said.

"Instead of saying 'we have so many difficulties..' no, we are adapting to these new times."

The OPCW is charged with enforcing the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the use, production and stockpiling of arms such as mustard gas, nerve agents and chlorine.

So far it has eradicated more than 96 percent of the world's declared stocks, and was instrumental in enforcing a 2013 US-Russian deal under which Damascus gave up its chemical weapons.

But after a string of further chemical attacks in Syria -- coupled with the March 2018 Salisbury attack on a former Russian double agent, and the nerve agent murder of a half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2017 -- western nations led a successful push earlier this year to give the OPCW more teeth.

Next week's OPCW meeting will discuss how to implement the body's new power of attribution, which Arias described as a "difficult task".

He said the OPCW was setting up a Syria attribution team and had a "rapid response mission" to deal with alleged chemical weapons use elsewhere, but said the body needed "more resources, expertise, equipment."

- 'Learn this lesson' -

Several member states have already pledged more funding, but on the other hand Russia has fiercely opposed the attribution power, warning that it could even pull out of the OPCW.

Russia was a "very important country and has had always an important role in this organisation", Arias insisted, saying that the key to the OPCW's success was the "universality" of having all but four nations on earth as members.

After the hacking incident, Arias said the "first reaction was to take in a very serious way anything related to cybersecurity", adding that the OPCW had suffered several such attacks since the beginning of the year.

But he stressed that it was important to try to keep all countries on board, whatever the external political tensions, adding that he was "doing the role of mediator or broker."

With the world just having marked 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Arias said it was important to keep a historical perspective of the OPCW's role.

On Sunday he had been in the Belgian town of Ypres "where chemical weapons were used for the first time on a massive scale.

"To die under an attack with chemical weapons is horrendous. We have to learn this lesson," he said.

But he played down fears that the world was entering a new era of chemical weapons attacks in the wake of Salisbury, Kuala Lumpur and Syria.

"It is worrying without any doubt. I am aware, it is worrying. But at the same time... we have the tools for reducing those risks," he said.

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