What Does Putting Syria’s Chemical Weapons Under “International Control” Mean? (And Some Thoughts on Russia’s Use of International Legal Rhetoric)

What Does Putting Syria’s Chemical Weapons Under “International Control” Mean? (And Some Thoughts on Russia’s Use of International Legal Rhetoric)

With the focus now on the Russian proposal to bring Syrian chemical weapons under “international control,” questions that remain include how would this actually work? Who would take control?

One likely participant in the implementation would be the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  From the OPCW website:

As of today the OPCW has 189 Member States, who are working together to achieve a world free from chemical weapons…

To this end, the Convention contains four key provisions:

1. destroying all existing chemical weapons under international verification by the OPCW;

2. monitoring chemical industry to prevent new weapons from re-emerging;

3. providing assistance and protection to States Parties against chemical threats; and

4. fostering international cooperation to strengthen implementation of the Convention and promote the peaceful use of chemistry.

See their annual reports here.

Although Syria is not a signatory to the CWC, given the OPCW’s expertise, it is a fair assumption that they would be involved in some capacity in any international control of Syria’s chemical weapons.  The OPCW has already been involved in attempts to address the Syrian crisis: the UN-led group of monitors that investigated the chemical weapons attack in Damascus primarily consisted of OPCW technical experts.

As for the new proposal, the OPCW Director-General has released a statement that I will paraphrase as saying something like “we notice that there’s a proposal about bringing Syrian chemical weapons under international control. That sounds like the stuff we do and we’re ready to help.” For the actual statement, click this link.

More generally, the (recent and potential) work of the OPCW shows the importance of international monitoring bodies and expert groups, especially when related to issues of weapons of mass destruction. For one thing, it is able to provide an analysis of whether or not chemical weapons were used that is likely to be more persuasive to undecided states than referring to classified U.S. intelligence reports.  Monitoring bodies are able to present a statement of the situation that is more likely to become the common set of facts from which argument can proceed.

Second, international institutions like the OPCW can provide solutions that seem less like zero-sum battles where one state “wins” and the other “loses.”  In the case of Syria’s chemical weapons, the other options that had been explored so far were fraught with problems.    Military force under Chapter VII was not a viable option given likely vetoes by Russia and China. And the quasi-unilateral use of military force by the U.S. (and maybe some others) is widely viewed as illegal under international law. Not to mention that such a strike is unlikely to actually solve the problem of chemical weapons. Of course, these are not the only possible responses to Syria, but they have been the main ones on the table. Turning to international monitoring, possibly through the OPCW, could lead to a real prevention of the future use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, avoid a Russian veto, and get the U.S. out the corner it painted itself into with a bunch of red lines.

But I only say “could,” not “will.” The actual proposal needs to be seen.

And, related to this,  is Russia’s star turn in a bit of political theatre.  In short: its use of the rhetoric of international legality and of international insitutionalism has been quite deft. Russia, particularly under Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, has been much better at using the language of law than the US, even when the US has been on better legal footing than Russia.

Here, though, the US has been pushing for an intervention that, without Security Council approval, is (to me, at least) pretty clearly illegal under the law as it now stands.   And so Russia has spoken the language of international law and institutions regarding Syria. Whether this was cynical or heartfelt, I do not know.  Regardless, as a matter of public diplomacy, the rhetoric plays well and it helped put Russia in a position to offer a potential solution.

I had previously written that Russia was much better than the Bush Administration in using the rhetoric of international law in public statements to support its positions on issues of self-determination, irrespective of whether the US or Russia actually had the stronger legal argument. (I had also written about the Bush Administration’s reluctance to use the rhetoric of international law, in general.)  In this case, the Obama Administration is not only politically wrong-footed, it is (was?) seeking an action that was widely seen as illegal, and its attempt at legal argumentation are muddled, at best. This pretty much leaves a wide-open field for Russia to make arguments based on the international rule of law and look like it is taking the high road. Score one for rhetoric.

Or at least “maybe” score one for rhetoric: in the short time that I have been writing this post, disputes have broken out over the substance of the resolution. So now we just need to see if the initial proposal will turn into a real resolution that will become a policy that will actually save lives.


Foreign Relations Law, General, Middle East, National Security Law, Organizations
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