In view of the forthcoming Conference of the States Parties (CSP 25, 20-22 April 2021), Professor Falk and Hans von Sponeck have sent the following communication and proposal to all 193 OPCW missions and the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board.
Important Communication Regarding the Douma Report from the BERLIN GROUP 21
Distinguished Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives to the OPCW,
We are writing on behalf of the Berlin Group21, a grouping of concerned individuals that includes Ambassador José Bustani, first Director General of the OPCW, Professor Richard Falk, Professor of International Law, Emeritus, Princeton University, and Hans von Sponeck, former UN Assistant Secretary General and Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq. Our goal is to seek improved transparency, independence, and accountability from international organisations with the aim of fostering greater public trust in these valued and indispensable institutions. We also believe that international justice demands for this sensitive subject-matter the strongest possible assurances as to the reliability of any finding of a prohibited use of chemical weapons.
Our most immediate concern, however, relates to the ever-growing controversy surrounding the OPCW investigation into the alleged chemical attack in Douma in April 2018. We fear that failure to resolve this divisive debate over a specific and very public element of the Organisation’s work risks inflicting irreparable damage to the institutional integrity of OPCW, which has enjoyed an otherwise highly professional and outstanding reputation for the work that it does. More specifically, the failure of senior OPCW management to engage with or respond to those who have raised credible and well-documented doubts about the reliability and integrity of the 2018 Douma investigation, particularly the disappointing response to inspectors of the Organization who participated in the probe, should be a matter of grave concern.
Distinguished delegates, you may recall that all State Parties received on 12 February 2021 an international petition signed by twenty-eight credible and internationally known persons as well as former OPCW scientists calling for senior management at the OPCW to allow the inspectors to have their concerns properly heard to ensure, without prejudice to any outcome, the scientific integrity, procedural robustness of the investigation, and remedial action as appropriate. The Berlin Group 21 has now published detailed background information setting out procedural and scientific flaws relating to the OPCW’s Douma investigation.
The signatories have also expressed consternation at what appears to be a systematic effort from within the OPCW to target and tarnish the reputations of Ambassador Bustani and inspectors who have expressed dissenting views and raised concerns that deserve official attention. In an unauthorised voiced-over interview for a BBC 4 podcast series, Mayday, for example, an unidentified OPCW staff member went so far as to allege that Ambassador Bustani’s support for the dissenting inspectors may have been because he had an ‘axe to grind’. The remarks are particularly disturbing given that Ambassador Bustani, OPCW’s first Director-General continued to give his unwavering support to the OPCW despite being ousted from his post in 2003 in a blatantly unprofessional manner. After his removal was judged illegal and politically motivated by the International Labour Organisation in a formal proceeding, Ambassador Bustani donated his entire very considerable award for damages back to the OPCW, to be made available to the under-funded Assistance and Protection Programme, which helps developing nations take steps to protect themselves against the use or threat of use of chemical weapons.
This is not the act of a person with an ‘axe to grind.’ It is one of solidarity and generosity from someone who cares deeply, as all of us do, about the importance of a truly independent, impartial, and trustworthy OPCW. It is in this context that Mr Bustani’s support for the dissenting inspectors, as well as that of the other signatories to the Statement of Concern, should be understood. Suspect players in this controversy, with self-serving motives, endeavour to distort the call for transparency, independence, and accountability at the OPCW. They portray efforts to seek clarity and transparency with respect to the Douma investigation as an elaborate conspiracy or managed disinformation campaign to undermine the Organisation and its work, or even as a malicious stratagem to exonerate a state of heinous chemical attacks. It is disgraceful that those who are seeking to establish the objective realities of what took place in Douma should be accused of engaging in ‘disinformation’ on behalf of the Governments of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Russian Federation. It is our informed belief that nothing could be further from the truth.
It is indisputable that only an OPCW that has the trust and confidence of all Member States and the general public can effectively combat the scourge of chemical weapons and their use. A divided OPCW means an enfeebled chemical weapon’s control regime, and that is neither in the OPCW’s nor the world’s interest. The solution to the current predicament cannot be for OPCW management to ignore the legitimate concerns of the Organisation’s own scientists and specialists, seeking refuge behind a firewall of silence in the hope of waiting-out the crisis. Further inaction would be irresponsible and serve only to increase the potential damage to the OPCW. Public trust and confidence in the Douma investigation continues to wane, and with it the once unconditionally lauded reputation that the Organisation previously enjoyed.
It is urgent for the concerns of all the investigators to be heard and judged on their merits. If OPCW management believes it has already done this, then it should pose no difficulty in clearing the air by doing so again, if it would help overcome the current impasse. If it can be transparently and satisfactorily demonstrated that the inspectors’ concerns are unfounded, that should signal the end of the current controversy and help restore unity and a return to an operational consensus within the OPCW on how such doubts about findings should be handled in the future. If, however, it is shown that there were serious failings in the Organisation’s investigative work, and now honest efforts are made to address them, the OPCW can only gain from such self-scrutiny, and by so doing enhance its prestige and international standing.
By way of closure, we in the Berlin Group21 humbly suggest a practical path forward, that we hope could be discussed as a possibility by delegations at, or on the side-lines of, the upcoming OPCW Conference of States Parties later this month. The concerns about the Douma investigation essentially relate to what the inspectors consider to be serious procedural and scientific irregularities. Like any questionable or fraudulent behaviour that might be reported in an organisation, be it financial fraud or staff misbehaviour, it should be credibly investigated by the appropriate authorities. A refusal to do so inevitably gives rises to impressions of a coverup, and this is essentially how a growing public is now perceiving events surrounding the Douma Report.
We suggest that the most appropriate body to process and assess the claims of the inspectors would seem to be the OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). The SAB possesses the necessary scientific and technical expertise. Its members serve in their individual capacities and appear best situated to make objective and informed commentary, recommendations, and judgments relevant to this controversy. Such a process between the inspectors and the SAB, which we believe is within the remit of the SAB (Article VIII, paragraph 45 of the CWC), could be low-key, conducted behind closed doors and without any media involvement. It could take place even in small groups, and in a confidential setting that is not intimidating to the inspectors but is nonetheless transparent and accountable. After such a meeting has taken place a press conference could be convened to inform the public of the outcome.
Ambassador Bustani, Professor Falk, and von Sponeck, believe that leaving the scientific debate to the scientists, who best understand the issues at hand, would provide a more objective and rational approach to begin resolving this unfortunate and highly damaging controversy that surrounds the OPCW and indirectly endangers global security by eroding confidence in future findings relevant to alleged uses of chemical weapons.
Should you wish to be in touch, we can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(on behalf of the Berlin Group21)
Professor Richard Falk, Professor of International Law, Emeritus, Princeton University & Hans von Sponeck, Former UN Assistant Secretary-General