OPCW Chiefs Ponder Chemical Arms Deadlines

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A possible failure by Russia and the United States to meet a 2012 deadline set by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) for the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles does not call into question the commitment of states-parties to the eventual elimination of chemical weapons, the current and future chiefs of the treaty's implementing body said in December.

Rogelio Pfirter of Argentina, outgoing director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and his designated successor, Ahmet Üzümcü of Turkey, made the comments during and just after the organization's annual meeting in Geneva Nov. 30-Dec. 4.

Russia and the United States are by far the biggest possessors of chemical weapons. Since the CWC entered into force, member states have declared about 70,000 tons of chemical weapons, with Russian and U.S. stockpiles accounting for more than 95% of that total. Under the CWC, Russia and the United States are obligated to eliminate their stocks by April 29, 2012. Yet, the United States has already announced that it will be unable to meet the 2012 date, and there are doubts about Russia's ability to do so. (See ACT, July/August 2009.) At the meeting, Russia announced that it has met a Dec. 31, 2009, intermediate deadline and destroyed 45 percent of its stockpile. The United States has destroyed more than 65 percent of its stockpile, according to an Oct. 7 OPCW report.

In a Dec. 3 conference call with journalists, Üzümcü said that the commitments of both countries to the destruction of their chemical weapons stockpiles are "unwavering" and that the problems they have encountered in meeting treaty deadlines for destruction are "more technical ones than political ones."

Pfirter, in a Dec. 14 interview with Arms Control Today, said the CWCs core purpose is "to ensure the full, irreversible, complete and universal destruction of existing stockpiles by possessor states." Russian or U.S. inability to meet the 2012 destruction deadline would not mean that "we run the risk of that central objective being violated by the two major possessor states," he said. He argued that "we need not. ..make the ultimate success of the treaty dependent on any particular date."

Pfirter welcomed the OPCW Executive Council's October decision to ask the council's chairman, Jorge Lomónaco Tonda of Mexico, to begin informal consultations on how and when to initiate discussion on issues related to meeting the "final extended deadlines" for the destruction of chemical weapons. "The fact that the council has chosen to act in the way it has chosen indicates to me that people indeed share this view of moving on prudently," Pfirter said.

At the OPCW meeting, members adopted a council recommendation to approve an extension of Libya's deadline for the destruction of its chemical weapons to May 15, 2011. (See ACT, November 2009.) They also followed the council's lead by unanimously agreeing to appoint Üzümcü as the next director-general. He will begin his four-year term July 25.

Achieving Universality

During the conference call, Üzümcü emphasized that Turkey "has good relations" with Egypt, Israel, and Syria, the three Middle Eastern states that are not parties to the CWC. Üzümcü has served as Turkey's ambassador to Israel and has also been posted to Syria. He said that as director-general he hopes to use "those relations and contacts to discuss this issue from a constructive perspective and try to persuade [Egypt, Israel, and Syria] to soon join the convention."

The CWC currently has 188 states-parties. Israel and Myanmar have signed but not ratified the treaty; Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia, and Syria are nonsignatories.

Pfirter said that Angola might join the convention very soon. "I'm hopeful about Angola because I don't believe there is any issue behind the delay or at least not any issue related to the objectives and purposes of the convention," he said. …