In moving UN speech, veteran diplomat confronts OPCW ‘stonewalling and smear tactics’ on Syria

Speaking to the UN Security Council, veteran diplomat Hans von Sponeck calls out the OPCW’s “stonewalling and unacceptable smear tactics” amid growing outcry over the Syria cover-up scandal.

Returning to the United Nations, veteran German diplomat and former top UN official Hans von Sponeck calls for an end to the stonewalling of accountability for the OPCW’s cover-up of its April 2018 Douma chemical weapons probe.

“The manner in which this serious controversy has been handled by OPCW management… has sought to cover up any serious questioning of the OPCW through stonewalling and unacceptable smear tactics,” Sponeck says. “The Security Council can not be surprised that there is increasing public pressure for UN leadership to find an unbiased resolution of this troubling controversy.”

Sponeck recently spearheaded a Statement of Concern about the Douma scandal, signed by notable global voices including five former OPCW officials.

In his comments, Sponeck reveals that that the OPCW has refused to accept the letter, “return[ing] to the sender without comments – an unfortunate act of humiliation.”

Sponeck is the former UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq. He spent 32 years as a UN official, from 1958 to 2000, when he resigned in protest of the UN sanctions on Iraq.

Video: Hans von Sponeck, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq. Speaking at an Arria-Formula Meeting of the United Nations Security Council, April 16 2021.

Link: “Statement of Concern” on the OPCW scandal — Berlin Group 21.

Prepared Remarks by Hans von Sponeck — Briefing of the UN Security Council on Douma – April 16 2021

The last time I spoke in the Security Council was 21 years ago when I outlined the dangers of disinformation and the impact this had had  for the security and livelihoods of the Iraqi people. I failed to make a difference.

We all know what happened in Iraq and why it happened.

It was then when I first interacted in Baghdad with a highly professional OPCW delegation which had come at the request of Secretary-General Kofi Annan to close a UN disarmament laboratory under more than dubious circumstances.

I appreciate the opportunity to participate to-day in this  Arria formula meeting on the unresolved Douma chemical weapons  controversy. I want to assure you that I join this meeting with respect, great respect,  for an organization to which I belonged for 32 years and which I value deeply. I  understand that you are representing governments while I represent only myself.

There have been already  a good number of Arria meetings on Douma. It would be most unfortunate, if a Douma fatigue sets in,  since this most serious  controversy has yet to be resolved through a unity of purpose consistent with the principles – and, may I add the ‘ethics’ of the UN Charter.

The Douma debate is different from other UN debates where year after year a majority of member states adopts recommendations without being able to solve the issues. The controversy on the alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma has to do with the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions between denial and acknowledgment of facts and the immediate impact this has on the  security in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Concerning the details and  timelines for Douma, I would ask you to  bear with me when I   briefly summarize what has become a reliable public platform of facts of international concern:

The serious incident in Douma in April 2018 was followed by airstrikes involving three P5 members without – important to me as a former UN official — Security Council consent.

The strikes were justified as punitive measures for the alleged use by the Syrian Arab Republic of chemical weapons in Douma.

A year later, a Fact-Finding Mission report was published by OPCW providing ex post the allegation that chemical weapons had been used in Douma. The report did not reflect that according to senior inspectors, there had been serious procedural irregularities and scientific flaws on how the investigation had arrived at its conclusions.

Preceding the final report, an [original] interim report became available in June 2018. The original draft referred to uncertainty about the use of chlorine agents. The redacted version, however,  indicated that reactive chlorine  was present.

We are told that some 50 civilians died in Douma and yet, the causes of their deaths remain unexplained. Going forward, these deaths must eventually be investigated as a potential war crime.

The manner in which this serious controversy has been handled by OPCW management reflects the long standing  and systematic campaign that has sought  to cover up any serious questioning of the OPCW through stonewalling and unacceptable smear tactics.

DG Arias is correct in referring to the politicisation of the CW debate, as he did yesterday at the EU parliamentary subcommittee on Security and Defence, pointing the finger at capitals of UN member states as the parties that have the responsibility to resolve this crisis.

It, however, does not dispense a Director-General from his duties as a responsible manager of an important multilateral institution. At yesterday’s EU hearings,  which I viewed, he regrettably failed to answer precise and direct questions raised by MEPs regarding the Douma investigation.

More generally, senior OPCW management has refused repeated requests by dissenting inspectors to meet and  review the Douma file.

OPCW ignored to respond to enquiries by outsiders including members of parliament.

A Statement of Concern   was signed in March  by 28 internationally known and respected  men and women, including OPCW scientists. Coming from very different backgrounds, they had one thing in common: the demand for a transparent, independent and accountable OPCW.

This Statement of Concern was received by DG Arias but returned to the sender without comments – an unfortunate act of humiliation for the 28  professionals who had signed the Statement.

I assume that this Statement has also reached you, as it was sent to all 193 OPCW State Parties, the Security Council, the GA and the Human Rights Council.

Let me interject here, with some uneasiness: I have decided willingly to join those who want to defend the integrity of scientific research, the credibility of OPCW as an important global institution and more specifically, to help in protecting the right of dissent. To put it crudely: I am nobody’s useful idiot!

The Security Council can not be surprised that there is increasing public pressure for UN leadership to find an unbiased resolution of this troubling controversy. In this spirit, I would ask for no more, but also for  no less,  that you accept  ‘a voice from outside’.

Douma is, of course, about the protection of scientific evidence. But Douma is only  part of a much bigger geo-political confrontation. It is about  honesty and  the grave danger of politicisation of facts. It is about preventing unfortunate precedents from replication. It is about the protection of individuals revealing the truth. Nations and people alike, must be protected from unsubstantiated claims.

This demand is what motivates an increasing number of people in all parts of the world to prevail in making the case for truth about Douma.

As a first step of redress and the healing of an institution, I would hope that statesmanship prevails in accepting facts and ending the defence of what has become  in-defendable, and  that as members of the Security Council, especially the P5,    your governments  will use their collective  influence next week at the forthcoming Conference of State Parties  to request OPCW Director-General Arias to  provide a neutral forum, for example the OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board,  or, alternatively, an independent commission, in which the concerns of all the OPCW investigators can be heard  – a review behind closed doors and without media with results made public when a fully objective and scientific investigation of the Douma attack of 2018 has become available.

Thank you.

-Hans Von Sponeck, April 16 2021.















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