OPCW and the Douma Investigation – an Update at early November 2021
On the 7 April 2018 in Douma Syria over 43 civilians were killed allegedly by a chemical weapons attack conducted by the Syrian Air Force. Military action against Syria by the US, France and the UK swiftly followed. Ever since then the alleged Douma chemical weapon attack has been mired in controversy with the Russian Federation and the Syrian governments accusing opposition groups of staging the attack whilst the US, UK and France have continued to attribute responsibility to the Syrian government. Significant dissent within the OPCW Douma investigation team occurred in June 2018after an attempt was made to secretly alter and then publish a doctored version of the original interim report. Controversy intensified following the publication in March 2019 of the OPCW FFM (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Fact Finding Mission) final report which concluded there were ‘reasonable grounds’ to conclude the alleged CW attack had occurred. Most prominently, two OPCW scientists involved with the OPCW investigation raised serious concerns about its scientific objectivity and accuracy whilst eminent figures called for a reinvestigation of the alleged Douma attack.
2021 Statement of Concern
By early 2021 a Statement of Concern, initiated by former UN Assistant Secretary-General Hans von Sponeck and signed by 28 internationally respected personalities, called on the OPCW to address the serious and multiple concerns raised by its own scientists. The Statement of Concern was accompanied by details of eleven fundamental procedural and scientific irregularities needing to be addressed by the OPCW. The Statement was sent in early February 2021 to the Director General of the OPCW, Fernando Arias, and copied to the Presidents of the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council as well as the UN Secretary General. A week later the Statement of Concern was shared with all 193 missions to the OPCW. Remarkably, the copy sent to the OPCW DG was returned to Hans von Sponeck, unopened. The Statement of Concern was made public on 12 March 2021.
Shortly after this Hans von Sponeck, José Bustani (first Director General of the OPCW) and Professor Richard Falk (Emeritus Professor of International Law at Princeton) formed the Berlin Group 21 (BG21) with the aim of trying to protect the integrity of the OPCW and the credibility of its investigations. In an effort to break the stalemate on the Douma crisis the group suggested, in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, a way forward to the OPCW states parties: it proposed that the OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board convene to review the Douma investigation and that all the scientists involved in the investigation be allowed to participate in the review. The proposal was delivered to all 193 missions to the OPCW in time for the Conference of States Parties (20-22 April 2021).
During the same period, BG21 made contact with Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, Ambassador Shameem Khan, President of the UNHRC, and Itzumi Nakamitsu, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. They were asked to react to the Statement of Concern and the continuing serious controversy regarding the OPCW investigation and, more specifically, address contradictions and inconsistencies between the final OPCW report and UN Commission of Inquiry reports on Douma.
The only substantive response to these approaches occurred on 25 May 2021 when the UN Commission of Inquiry confirmed that Douma was not included in its list of 38 ‘confirmed’ chemical attack cases in Syria.
On 3rd June 2021, during a UNSC meeting, OPCW DG Arias refused the proposal that the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board meet with all the Douma inspectors to review the investigation whilst simultaneously smearing two former OPCW scientists Brendan Whelan and Ian Henderson who had raised the concerns about the integrity of the investigation. The OPCW Director General ‘s grounds for refusal were that the SAB was not authorized by its Terms of Reference to take on such a task. The claim is false as the CWC specifically grants authority to the SAB to set up Working Groups to deal with important scientific issues. The misleading and false nature of the claims made by the DG when addressing the UNSC were listed and communicated in a further correspondence from BG21 to Ambassador Khan and copied to Nakamitsu and Pinheiro on the 8th of June 2021.
Current Situation: failure to respond and smears
Aside from the Commission of Inquiry’s confirmation that it did not include Douma in its list of ‘confirmed’ attacks -which the OPCW DG has inaccurately drawn upon as support for the conclusion of the OPCW FFM Douma report that there were reasonable grounds to conclude a chlorine attack happened- there has been a complete failure on the part of the OPCW and all major relevant UN entities to respond to the Statement of Concern, the eleven procedural and scientific issues, and multiple fundamental questions raised by BG21. By their silence it can reasonably be interpreted that the OPCW and related UN bodies are unable to provide convincing answers. Their failure to answer is made all the more unacceptable because what is at stake here is the truth behind the deaths of 43 plus civilians in Douma as well as the broader issue of responsibility for all alleged chemical weapon attacks in Syria and the credibility of OPCW as an institution.
The silence from responsible UN agencies has been paralleled by crude attempts to publicly smear the dissenting OPCW scientists and others who have expressed similar concerns. The OPCW DG attempted to discredit them on a number of occasions, e.g., when he spoke to the EU Parliament and, as noted above, at a UN Security Council meeting in June 2021, during which he made false claims about former OPCW scientists Brendan Whelan and Ian Henderson. Concurrently, state-linked agencies such as the BBC and Bellingcat printed disinformation: In late 2020 Bellingcat was revealed to have published a false letter from the OPCW DG whilst the BBC was recently forced into an embarrassing retraction of a false claim.
As we contact yet again all those UN entities that are involved with Syria and also OPCW Director-General Arias, we sincerely hope to have belated reactions to our sincere efforts to help in resolving a controversy that has considerable geo-political implications. In due course BG21 will publish the correspondence to which there has been no response, communicate with parliamentary legislative bodies and media, as well as pursue a number of further initiatives including consultations with legal authorities seeking advice as to how the OPCW and the UN system can be required to respond to the justified questions we have raised and for which we will continue to seek answers.
on behalf of the Berlin Group 21
Ambassador Jose Bustani, Professor Richard Falk, Dr.h.c Hans von Sponeck, Dr. Piers Robinson