The OPCW and the Fight Against Chemical Weapons: an exclusive interview with Ahmet Üzümcü, Director…

In October 2013, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in the global detection and elimination of chemical weapons. In 2010 Ahmet Üzümcü was elected Director-General of the OPCW and has headed its operation in a time that has seen the organisation take on its biggest challenge: the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program. The Syrian civil war reached its pinnacle in the summer of 2013 after a UN report confirmed on September 16th that the chemical weapons were used against civilians, causing international outcry.

Ferdinand Goetzen: The Nobel Prize for Peace was given to the OPCW in 2013. The decision to award an organisation of this type was often reported to have been somewhat unprecedented. How does this reflect the OPCW’s success of the past years?

Ahmet Üzümcü: Actually, it is not unprecedented for an organisation to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. You may remember that the International Atomic Energy Agency already won the same Prize in 2005. When the OPCW received the Prize in October last year it was announced that it was given because of its extensive efforts in the field of chemical disarmament. It was not just due to the mission in Syria, rather it is a recognition of its achievements after 16 years of existence. I believe that’s important, because this organisation was able to make a significant contribution to global peace and security.

FG: What are the core values of the OPCW?

AÜ: We have four pillars deriving from our Convention. The Convention is the result of twenty years of negotiation in Geneva. The debate was concluded in 1992, but it entered into force in 1997. The four pillars are: chemical disarmament; chemical non-proliferation, that is the prevention of their re-emergence; the third is assistance and protection, which means that if a country feels threatened, it could ask for the support of other states parties; the fourth is the promotion of the peaceful use of chemistry.

These four pillars are extremely important because they complement each other resulting in a very balanced context. Most developing countries do not have chemical weapons or industrial plants to produce the relevant chemical agents but we want to keep them engaged within the organisation in order to prevent the re-emergence of chemical weapons and the misuse of chemistry. We base ourselves on those four pillars and speak clearly about core objectives. The overall goal is to prevent the use of chemical weapons and the misuse of chemistry for hostile purposes. So far 86% of chemical weapons have been destroyed under the verification of the OPCW and the remaining 14% are expected to be destroyed in the coming years. Once we achieve that goal I think our mandate will continue to prevent the new production of chemical weapons.

FG: How did you first get involved with the OPCW and how does your past experience working in diplomacy impact and reflect your work?

AÜ: I worked in the Turkish Foreign service for 34 years. I served in different countries and organisations, like NATO, and I was ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. In Geneva I was also a member of the Conference on Disarmament, which was the platform where the Chemical Weapons Convention was negotiated in the 80’s and 90’s quite successfully. It took some time but in the end the product was adopted by consensus. Coming back to my background, I have been familiar with disarmament and global security issues. This helped me a lot in my functions as Director General. I was elected to this position among other candidates and took over in 2010. When I took over this position I did not know that a challenging mission like the one in Syria would happen or that the OPCW was going to be awarded with the Noble Prize. Everything that happened over the past four years has been very challenging but at the same time rewarding. A piece of advice that I could give to younger generations is that when you face challenges, you should know that these should be seen as opportunities. The bigger the challenges, the bigger the rewards.

FG: The detection, assessment, and action on chemical weapons is a complex and costly enterprise. How does the OPCW manage it?

AÜ: We have a very good group of experts and they are fully equipped to carry out their functions. When I arrived, the group of inspectors was made of about 180 people and now the number has decreased to 130, mainly because of our success in the field of destruction of chemical weapons. The states have to destroy them but a fundamental element is the verification of our experts of this disarmament process which is made on a daily basis in Russia, the US, and elsewhere. This has enabled the organisation to develop a lot of expertise over the years and we have seen that in the case of Syria over the past year. Our experts have been very successful in fulfilling their task in very challenging conditions: in the midst of a civil war. The member states did provide a lot of support in terms of funding and equipment so we did not have any shortage of resources.

In all international organisations, it is extremely important that the member countries provide the necessary support. Decisions have been taken here by consensus for years with few exceptions which shows that there is a united position against chemical weapons. We now have parties in 190 states. Only six countries are missing and we are making every possible effort to have them on board as well. These countries are North Korea, Myanmar, Angola, South Sudan, Egypt and Israel. The reasons behind these countries not being members are complex and diverse.

FG: The OPCW was put in charge of removing and destroying Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile, an operation of unprecedented magnitude. How did this come to be?

AÜ: We knew that the chemical weapons existed in Syria and we knew that a certain role could be trusted to the OPCW. Last year after the verified use of chemical weapons near Damascus in August 2013, the international community reacted and, in the end, Syria decided to join the OPCW in September 2013. We were therefore asked to deploy our experts to Syria to identify the chemical weapons and to plan for their destruction outside the country. This happened in a very short time span: the decision was taken on September 27th and we were able to deploy our experts on October 2nd. The UN provided extensive support and within ten months all chemical weapons were removed from the country and 98% of them have already been destroyed. There are some issues that remain but we expect them to be settled by mid-2015.

FG: The events of the Syrian crisis in 2013 revived the debate on the use of chemical weapons. What are the chances of chemical weapons falling into the hands of rebel groups such as ISIL?

AÜ: The Syrian case was most critical, not because of the size of the chemical weapons stockpile but because of the situation in the country. The chemical weapons possessed by Syria were located in the government held territories. We were told by the Syrians that nothing was actually captured by the opposition groups from their stocks but we have been reported that there might have been some activities by these groups to acquire or produce such weapons. However, we were not able to verify them. There are also reports that these groups have been using other toxic agents like chlorine against their opponents. For instance, ISIL used chlorine against Iraqi soldiers. I cannot say that we have any evidence of production or possession of chemical weapons by these groups but we have received reports that there have been some attempts.

FG: Both morally and pragmatically speaking, how do chemical weapons differ from other weapons (nuclear, biological, etc.)?

AÜ: They do, a lot; there are some clear distinctions. Firstly, chemical weapons have a long history of production and use, and there were many attempts to ban them. In 1899 at the Hague Peace Conference it was decided to attempt to ban them and then again by the Geneva Protocol. Its historical background is long. Secondly, this was a type of weapon that was used frequently, fuelling the consensus of the international community over decades. For instance, during the negotiations at the Geneva Convention, there were new attacks in the Iran-Iraq war. These attacks served as a catalyst and accelerated the decisions taken at the Convention. This Convention is non-discriminatory; no countries are allowed to possess chemical weapons. This is different when it comes to nuclear weapons. The Non Proliferation Treaty allows for some countries to continue possessing nuclear weapons. This Convention has a very robust verification mechanism, whereas in the field of biological weapons that is not the case. The question of whether chemical weapons are really weapons of mass destruction or not is an academic debate. Many experts assert that chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction because they do not discriminate between civilians and ‘combatants’. In fact, thousands of civilians have been killed by such weapons.

FG: There is a general global consensus that chemical weapons are particularly harmful and must be eradicated; however they still exist in many countries. Why is this the case?

AÜ: Actually the states that are party to the Convention have declared whatever they possessed. Now these weapons are secured in their countries and are being destroyed under the supervision of OPCW experts; no country is allowed to produce them anymore. Whether our verification mechanism is strong enough to completely stop such misuse or violation; I think it is, because it’s very difficult, almost impossible, for an active chemical weapons programme to remain undetected. I believe that with the current tools of communication and monitoring, the international community would become quickly aware of such activities. In such cases we have a mechanism of challenge inspection, whereby any member country can ask me to carry out an inspection in a very short time. We can then have a fully equipped team ready to be deployed within twenty-four hours. In serious cases there are sanctions in place to penalise severe violations.

FG: When do you believe the world could be rid of chemical weapons, if at all?

AÜ: This is a mechanism that functions on the basis of declarations: every country has an obligation to declare what it possesses. Based on declared stockpiles, the United States will complete their destruction by 2023, meaning that within the next seven to eight years we will be able to claim that all chemical weapons that have been declared by member-states have been destroyed. The remaining countries will by then hopefully have joined the Convention. So by 2023 we will be able to declare that we achieved a global zero on chemical weapons.