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article imageProtect chemical weapons ban, watchdog's chief pleads

By Jo Biddle (AFP)     Jul 17, 2018 in World

The outgoing head of the world's chemical arms watchdog has urged nations not to sacrifice a century of hard-fought efforts to banish toxic weapons for the sake of short-term political disputes.

Speaking exclusively to AFP just days before he steps down and with a team of inspectors on the ground in Britain to probe a suspected nerve agent attack, Ahmet Uzumcu called on members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to overcome bitter divisions.

The Chemical Weapons Convention banning the use, production and stockpiling of arms such as mustard gas, which crept across the battlefields of World War I or enveloped the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, came into force in 1997.

Today "in order to reach this stage to develop such a regime, the international community spent more than 100 years," stressed Uzumcu.

Uzumcu said the OPCW teams are driven by "the sense of purpose"
Uzumcu said the OPCW teams are driven by "the sense of purpose"

"It will be really unfortunate if we make it a victim to short-sighted political interests."

- Work in a time of war -

When the seasoned Turkish diplomat took over as the OPCW's director general in July 2010 the body was little known, ploughing away at its arduous task of eliminating the world's stockpile of chemical weapons.

In total 193 countries have signed up to the convention, and 96 percent of the world's declared stocks have been eliminated. The remaining 4 percent is in the United States and due to be eradicated by 2023.

Yet the ongoing civil war in Syria has seen repeated allegations of chemical weapons attacks on civilians -- 85 reports have been checked by the OPCW's fact-finding team and 14 have been proven.

Used to being behind the scenes, the OPCW inspectors were thrust into a high-profile war, in full glare of an anxious international community.

"We had to restructure, to re-prioritise our work... we had to prepare and train our staff to go to Syria to conflict areas," Uzumcu said.

Even after "the most traumatic incident" when one team came under attack and was ambushed in May 2014, there was no lack of volunteers including the team which went into the Syrian town of Douma in April.

In an interim report, experts have ruled out the use of sarin gas in the deaths of about 40 civilians there, but suspect chlorine may have been unleashed.

- Noble cause -

The teams are driven by "the sense of purpose. They think that they are contributing in fact to a noble cause, getting rid of chemical weapons, thereby in fact preventing their use and harming people."

But the body, which in 2013 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work, has become riven with disputes between Western nations, and Syria's main ally Russia and its supporters.

"I hope that this division amongst state parties will be over very soon and they will be united once again as used to be the case," Uzumcu said.

He warned chemical weapons are also evolving -- even the so-called Islamic State jihadists were found to have used mustard gas.

"The proliferation risks are high. We need to be aware of this," Uzumcu said, referring particularly to jihadists returning to their own countries.

Following a landmark vote last month, the OPCW now has the added responsibility of deciding who was behind any attack in Syria.

Uzumcu confirmed inspectors would also review previous attacks, such as in Latamneh in northwestern Syria in March in which both sarin and chlorine were used, to determine who was behind them.

- Taboo crime -

Attribution is the first step towards bringing perpetrators to justice, he insisted.

"Accountability is key," said Uzumcu, otherwise "we cannot ensure deterrence. We cannot prevent further uses. A culture of impunity would be extremely dangerous for the future."

An image grab taken from a video released by the Syrian civil defence in Douma shows unidentified vo...
An image grab taken from a video released by the Syrian civil defence in Douma shows unidentified volunteers giving aid to children at a hospital following an alleged chemical attack on the rebel-held town on April 8, 2018
HO, AFP/File

A team of OPCW inspectors arrived Sunday in Britain for the second time this year, to take samples including tissue from Dawn Sturgess who died on July 8.

She, and her partner Charlie Rowley who is recovering in hospital, are believed to have been exposed to the same poison used in March in Salisbury on a former Russian spy and his daughter.

Concerned about the events in Britain, Uzumcu revealed he has set up a small taskforce to learn more about this nerve agent, named by London as Novichok, but so rare it is not even listed in OPCW files.

Despite leaving a busy in-tray for incoming director general, Spanish diplomat Ferdinand Arias, Uzumcu remains hopeful as he ends his mandate, pointing out no-one has yet claimed responsibility for any recent attack.

"Everyone, I believe, is fully aware that the use of chemical weapons is a taboo. It's a crime, and they perfectly understand that those who commit such crimes may be held accountable," he said.

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