WORLDVIEWS

The OPCW Should Recommend Sanctions Against Syria for Missing Deadline

A chemical weapons inspector working for the United Nations arrives back at The Hague after a trip with others to Syria in August 2013. Samples they collected were also on the plane.
A chemical weapons inspector working for the United Nations arrives back at The Hague after a trip with others to Syria in August 2013 to gather samples on the ground, which they stored on the plane on their flight back to the Netherlands.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has removed more than 80 percent of the world’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons through its oversight of the Chemical Weapons Convention, but the Syrian case has posed a serious challenge to the organization’s effectiveness on compliance and enforcement.

Since Syria will most likely not complete its chemical weapons removal by the deadline of June 30, as it agreed to do when it became a state party to the convention last year, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) should condemn Syria’s noncompliance and urge its 190 member states to individually issue sanctions against Syria. This would be the first time in the organization’s history that it has deemed a member state noncompliant and that it would be tasked with enforcing the rules of the convention.

Censuring Syria could have great potential in removing the final barriers to the disposal of the weapons by Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, as well as present a low risk to the reputation of the organization. About 7 percent of the stock remains in the country, says the United Nations, which blames both security obstacles and government stalling. (The OPCW has a “working relationship” with the UN, according to its website.) Censoring Syria would also provide the OPCW with more oversight in compliance enforcement, as it would develop the sanctions for the state parties to implement. Such a measure is allowed in the OPCW’s bylaws.

If Syria is deemed noncompliant, the OPCW can also appeal to the UN Security Council to take enforcement steps. Given Russia’s support of the Syrian regime, however, and its veto as a permanent member of the council, it is unlikely that consensus against Syria will happen. Therefore, enforcement is largely in the hands of the OPCW.

The organization does not have any authority under international law to enforce legally binding sanctions in the same manner as the Security Council, but because of its strong track record, it commands a great deal of international respect. A recommendation of this size holds much more value coming from an organization with such collective legitimacy, rather than from an individual state or small group of states.

The process would begin by the organization’s executive council voting to suspend Syria’s privileges under the convention. Then it would draft the sanctions to recommend to its member states. The sanctions should be targeted and include humanitarian exemptions: medical supplies, basic foodstuffs and other essentials for civilians, such as educational and agricultural provisions and water and sanitation equipment.

Such “smart sanctions” will target Assad and his close advisers who have violated the convention but hopefully have little damaging effect on civilians. The state parties to the convention will agree to lift the sanctions and allow Syria member status if it begins disarmament again.

The strategy of recommending sanctions by the OPCW represents a true multilateral effort in arms control and a credible way to ensure that chemical weapons banned under the convention will not be used again as the three-year-old civil war rages on.

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