On June 27, 2018, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) gained the power to assign blame for chemical weapons attacks. This British-led move, opposed by Russia, Syria and their allies, is a big step forward in holding perpetrators of such attacks legally accountable, and comes at a time when chemical weapons are in the spotlight following horrific stories of attacks on civilians in Syria and the Sergei Skripal case.
This latter case no doubt could be why Russia not only opposed the motion but tried to filibuster it, which ultimately passed 82 to 24, with 26 countries abstaining.
Notably, the June 26-28 meeting officially condemned attacks in Syria and the UK, as well as the attack on Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia in February of 2017, assigning blame in cases where it had previously not done so.
In the decision from the meeting, responsibility was assigned to the Syrian Arab Republic for various attacks such as in Khan Sheikhoun. On April 4, 2017, over 80 Syrians were killed following a sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town. Witnesses and activists say that the attack happened when many were asleep. Two months after the attack, the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission confirmed that sarin was used, but did not publicly indicate a responsible party until now.
The decision also assigns responsibility to Daesh (or ISIL) for noted attacks.
Markedly, the decision does not assign blame for the attack against Sergei Skripal or Kim Jong Nam. The inclusion of blame would most likely have brought even greater resistance from Russia and potentially even other states.
On March 4, 2018, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter were found unconscious on a bench after they had been poisoned with a nerve agent identified as Novichok, which fueled tensions between Britain and Russia. Russia continues to deny involvement.
Britain seeks to “hold Russia legally responsible” given the Soviet origin of Novichok (although Russia has pointed out that other states can synthesize such chemicals), and for putting the lives of British nationals at risk and violating Britain’s sovereignty. Having had OPCW technical assistance with this case which assessed the agent to be highly pure, Britain could potentially move forward with action following the July 27 vote.
The July 27 vote could be another step towards action against the Syrian Arab Republic as well. The OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism in Syria was the only body with the expertise and mandate “to attribute responsibility of use of chemical weapons in Syria,” although multiple other organizations and bodies exist to draw attention to perpetrators. But this body was short-lived surviving from 2015 until 2017 when it was dissolved following Russia’s inability to accept the findings that held Syria responsible, “an illustration of the broader geopolitical cleavage between Russia and the West.”
Ironically, Iran, supporting Russia’s resistance of the July 27 vote, said in a statement at the session that they questioned whether the move to allow the OPCW to assign blame would “politicize” the body and stated that it would “cause a heavy burden of responsibility and liability for the Technical Secretariat and the DG and place their impartiality under question as well.”
Moving forward, cases such as Syria and Skripal will remain contentious in terms of the proper actions to take and the perceived impartiality of the OPCW; however the motion to assign blame passed on July 27 was a large stepping stone towards international accountability.
Maria O’Sullivan is a Legal Assistant at Berliner Corcoran and Rowe LLP.