Before reports of chemical weapons use surfaced earlier this year in Syria, Rolf Ekeus, a prominent Swedish arms control specialist who headed up the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the 1990s, had been exploring ways to learn more about the chemical stockpiles in Syria and several other countries that were beyond the reach of the world's chemical weapons watchdog.
As chairman of a senior advisory group for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ekeus privately advocated that the agency appoint a special emissary that could reach out to those governments -- Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia, and South Sudan -- that had never ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, and were therefore not subject to international scrutiny. (Israel and Myanmar have signed the convention.)
The goal was two-fold: encourage these outliers to join the treaty body, and in the meantime, gather some insights into the scope of their programs, particularly in Syria, where international concern about the fate of the country's chemical stockpile was coming into relief as the country slid deeper into civil war.
But Ekeus encountered resistance from Ahmet Uzumcu, a former Turkish diplomat who serves as executive director of the Hague-based OPCW, and who vigorously opposed the initiative. The agency's executive council, which includes Britain, China, France, Iran, Russia, and the United States, also showed little interested in the proposal. They said "absolutely not," Ekeus recalled during a phone interview from his home in Stockholm. "These countries are not a party to the treaty so we have nothing to do with them," he was told. "I wanted a permanent arrangement for dialogue with non-members of the convention," he said. "Everyone was against it."
Ekeus said his "feeble effort" to reach out to these countries "was killed" in discussions by his advisory group, squandering an opportunity to improve the organization's understanding of the Syrian chemical weapons program.
Ekeus's disclosure comes weeks after Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist and former Ekeus protégé, was appointed to lead a U.N. mission investigating conflicting claims about the uses of chemical weapons in Syria. Sellstrom -- who was recruited by Ekeus in the 1990s to hunt for chemical weapons in Iraq -- is relying on the OPCW to supply most of his team's 15 inspectors. They have little first-hand knowledge of Syria's chemical weapons program, according to Ekeus.
The Syrian government insists that rebels attacked Syrian forces with chemical weapons on March 19 outside the city of Aleppo, But Syrian opposition leaders, along with Britain, France, and Israel, have counterclaimed that Syria fired chemical weapons at its own people on at least three separate incidents. President Barack Obama said the United States believes chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but that there is insufficient evidence to prove who did it.
It remains unclear why the OPCW and its board members objected to the Ekeus request. A spokesman for the chemical weapons watchdog, Michael Luhan, declined to comment on the matter. Earlier this week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged countries that have not ratified the chemical weapons convention to do so.
Perhaps it is unlikely to expect that Syria, which does not publically acknowledge it possesses chemical weapons, would reveal its most guarded national security secrets to an international emissary. Ekeus said that organization's failure to proactively court the Syrians has left them in the dark.
"There is very little knowledge about what they [the Syrians] really have because the organization does not want to touch governments, which are not parties to the treaties," he said. "My proposal was that they should try to build some skills, but now it's too late. Now, Sellstrom has to start from scratch."
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Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria has informed senior U.N. diplomats that he intends to resign in the coming weeks, marking the end of another doomed U.N. diplomatic effort to end a bloody civil war that has left well over 70,000 dead in Syria, according to U.N.-based diplomats.
The decision pitches the world’s main diplomatic initiative on Syria into a state of crisis at a time when the United States and its allies are weighing a response to reports to new intelligence reports indicating that Syria may have used chemical weapons against his people. It comes as Ake Sellstrom, the U.N.'s newly appointed chemical weapons inspector, arrived in Washington for meetings with U.S. officials on the Syrian program.
The United States has sought to persuade Brahimi to put off his plans to step down until after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry concludes a May 7-8 visit to Moscow for meetings on Syria and other matters with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Martin Nesirky, chief spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declined a request to confirm Brahimi’s resignation plans. But a U.N.-based diplomat from a government that has been briefed on the matter by Brahimi said he had confirmed his plans. "He said he’s going to resign," said the diplomat. But he said he would delay a formal announcement to allow the U.N. to "arrangement for a transition."
The U.N. secretary general, meanwhile, has been in discussions with the U.N.’s five major powers -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- about the future of U.N. diplomatic efforts after Brahimi's departure.
Brahimi, a veteran U.N. troubleshooter who has led major peace efforts from Afghanistan to Iraq, has voiced increasing despair in recent weeks over the dwindling prospects for a political transition in Syria. He has faulted the Syrian government and the armed opposition for failing to recognize the futility of a military victory and the need for a negotiated settlement.
"I am personally, profoundly sorry that my own efforts have produce so little," he told the Security Council in a closed-door meeting last month. "I apologize to the Syrian people for having, in the end, done so little for them during these past eight months and to you, in this council, for having had only sad news to report to you."
One senior Western diplomat who met with Brahimi in recent weeks said that the U.N. envoy had expressed frustration with a March 6 decision by the Arab League to adopt a resolution authorizing the Syrian National Coalition, the main Syrian opposition group, to represent Syria at the Arab League. The resolution, he explained to the Security Council last month, constituted a recognition that "no dialogue or negotiations are possible or necessary."
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Yesterday, I wrote a story -- published in the Washington Post and posted on this blog -- detailing how flawed intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program had cast a shadow over an ongoing effort to establish the facts surrounding the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. A former inspector from the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq took issue with my characterization of the Iraq effort as the "fruitless pursuit of lethal stockpiles that had long before been destroyed" and directed me to an official list of UNSCOM achievements.
It is true that UNSCOM was responsible for identifying and destroying large numbers of dormant chemical and biological weapons in Saddam's arsenals. But U.N. weapons inspections endured for so long -- more than 15 years -- because Iraq had secretly destroyed many of its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in the summer of 1991, telling the U.N. it had feared U.S. military retaliation if the stocks were ever discovered.
U.N. inspectors -- unable to obtain persuasive documentary proof from the Iraqis that the weapons had been destroyed -- engaged in a largely "fruitless" effort to find them or corroborate Iraq's claims that they no longer existed. It was not until after Saddam Hussein's overthrow that the CIA's Iraq Survey Group -- headed by a former U.N. inspector, Charles Duelfer -- provided a definitive account indicating that Iraq had destroyed most of its chemical and biological weapons programs by 1991. Here's a link to UNSCOM's official achievements page for a fuller list of weapons destroyed.
"UNSCOM has uncovered significant undeclared proscribed weapons programmes, destroyed elements of these programmes so far identified, including equipment, facilities and materials, and has been attempting to map out and verify the full extent of these programmes in the face of Iraq's serious efforts to deceive and conceal," reads the UNSCOM statement.
"Examples of what has been uncovered since 1991 include: the existence of Iraq's offensive biological warfare programme; the chemical nerve agent VX and other advanced chemical weapons capabilities; and Iraq's indigenous production of proscribed missiles engines. Following these discoveries, UNSCOM has directed and supervised the destruction or rendering harmless of several identified facilities and large quantities of equipment for the production of chemical and biological weapons as well as proscribed long-range missiles."
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A few days ago, a little-known Swedish scientist with a career devoted to studying lethal warfare agents paid a quiet visit to London. He was there to examine evidence that British officials believe shows that Syrian forces used chemical weapons against their own people.
Ake Sellstrom's confidential mission marked the first stage in a fledgling U.N. investigation into claims that the nerve agent sarin was used in battles in at least three Syrian cities since last December. The inquiry has once again thrust the United Nations into the center of a hunt for weapons of mass destruction.
For U.N. inspectors, the new inquiry is reminiscent of the days when they scoured Iraq's deserts and industrial parks more than a decade ago in pursuit of lethal stockpiles of chemical weapons that had long before been destroyed and nuclear facilities that no longer existed.
There are, to be sure, stark differences between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and President Bashar al-Assad's Syria. For one, the United States, which led the push for war in Iraq, appears reluctant to enter the war in Syria. For another, U.N. inspectors may never be permitted to step foot in Syria to examine the sites in question, making it extremely difficult to establish definitively whether chemical weapons were used and by whom.
But officials at U.N. headquarters also see the parallels and potential pitfalls between Iraq and Syria. Among them is a big-power rift between the United States and Russia and the reactivation of several veterans of the Iraq inspections, including Sellstrom. As happened with Iraq, any findings by the U.N. team will fuel an international debate about the wisdom of military intervention in Syria.
Its conclusions also will test the reliability of Western intelligence agencies, particularly in the United States and Britain, whose flawed intelligence served as the basis for the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "The echoes of weapons inspections in Iraq are inescapable," said Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, who managed his government's Iraq policy at the United Nations from 1997 to 2002.
Read the entire story, which ran in the Washington Post, here.
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon renewed an appeal to Syria to allow U.N. chemical weapons experts into the country, saying that on-site inspections "are essential if the United Nations is to be able to establish the facts and clear up all the doubts surrounding this issue."
The U.N. chief's remarks, delivered with the head U.N. chemical weapons inspector, Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, at his side, followed allegations by several countries, including Britain, France, Israel, and the United States, that chemical weapons were likely used in Syria.
The Syrian government invited the U.N. last month to conduct an investigation into its claims that rebels attacked Army forces with chemical weapons in a March 19 attack near Aleppo that left 26 people dead.
But Syria balked after Britain and France urged the U.N. chief to also investigate opposition claims that the government used chemical weapons in three cities: Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs.
Last week, President Barack Obama added his voice to the controversy, claiming that "we now have some evidence that chemical weapons have been used on the populations in Syria. Now, these are preliminary assessments; they're based on our intelligence gathering. We have varying degrees of confidence about the actual use, but there are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used."
Speaking in advance of a meeting with Sellstrom on the status of the U.N. probe, Ban said that he took "seriously the recent intelligence report of the United States about the use of chemical weapons in Syria" and urged the "Syrian authorities to allow the investigation to proceed without delay and without any conditions."
Ban said that that "a credible and comprehensive inquiry requires full access to the sites where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used," noting that an advance team of U.N. inspectors is already position in Cyprus, ready to deploy inside Syria within 24 to 48 hours of receiving a green light from authorities in Damascus.
In the meantime, Sellstrom travelled to London last Monday to examine physical evidence, including soil samples contaminated with a sarin-like agent -- that Britain claims indicates the government used chemical weapons. Ban said last week that the United Nations has already been in contact with the United States to discuss its claims. "Even while waiting for Syrian consent to enter the country, they have been doing what they have to do and what they can to gather and analyze available information," Ban said. "These activities include possible visits to relevant capitals."
"This is a crucial moment in our efforts to get the team on the ground to carry out its important task," Ban said. "Today, 29 April, is the annual Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Chemical Warfare. As we address these allegations, I encourage all involved to uphold their responsibilities in enabling us to properly police these heinous weapons of massive destruction."
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The U.N. Security Council this morning authorized the creation of a new force of 12,640 U.N. peacekeepers to consolidate French military gains against Islamist militants in northern Mali.
The new force -- to be called the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Force (MINUSMA) and comprised primarily of African soldiers -- is expected to secure several northern towns, where an insurgency by Islamic militants and Tuareg separatists was recently put down by French special forces and their feeble Malian army allies.
The council's action comes as the French military -- which intervened last January in Mali at the government's invitation to repulse what they feared was an all-out offensive on the capital -- is looking to withdraw most of its forces from Mali, and to place the U.N. in command of thousands of African troops that have already deployed in Mali in support of the French operation.
But the mandate adopted by the 15-nation council reflected the continuing uncertainty about the durability of France's military successes in Mali. A July 1 timetable for transferring peacekeeping authority to the United Nations is contingent on the further assessment of the threat posed to the peacekeepers by the armed militants. Today's resolution also authorizes French troops, operating under the command of the French government, to use military force to deter any threats against the U.N. peacekeepers.
France -- which currently has about 4,000 troops in Mali -- is hoping to scale back its presence by the end of the year, leaving a more permanent force of about 1,000 troops to carry on counterterrorism operations against remnants of the insurgency, and when needed, protect U.N. peacekeepers.
The French role has proven controversial within U.N. circles. While the U.N. is grateful that France will provide a last line of protection against the insurgents, it has expressed some misgivings about the risks of being too closely associated with a military counterterrorism campaign, fearing it would expose U.N. personnel in Mali and beyond to reprisal by extremist groups.
The U.N. resolution -- which was drafted by France -- condemns the Islamists' January 10 offensive towards southern Mali and welcomes the French decision to intervene to "stop the offensive of terrorist, extremist and armed groups." But it assigns no explicit combat role for the peacekeeping mission.
The mission -- which will be headed by a U.N. special representative -- will undertake several tasks, including securing strategic towns in northern Mali, promoting reconciliation between the Malian government, Tuareg separatists, and other groups in northern Mali that denounce any affiliation with extremist groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The U.N. will also help Mali -- which saw a military coup last year -- prepare the ground for a democratic transition, including "free, fair, transparent and inclusive" presidential and legislative elections, to be held respectively on July 7 and July 21.
The U.N. peacekeepers will be granted limited authority to protect civilians "under imminent threat of physical violence" if they are able and if such attacks occur in the area where the U.N. is present. They will also monitor human rights violations, including those committed by Malian government forces; help protect cultural and historical landmarks; use "all means necessary, within the limits of their capacities and areas of deployment" to help the Malians; and "as feasible and appropriate" hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes.
The resolution hints -- but does not include explicit orders -- that the U.N. could use that authority to apprehend any future suspects wanted by the International Criminal Court.
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The United States has abandoned an initiative to authorize a U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on human rights abuses in Western Sahara in the face of intensive resistance from Morocco, which exercises military control over the former Spanish colony.
Last week, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pushed for a broader mandate for the U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on rights abuses in Western Sahara and in Tindouf, Algeria, where more than 100,000 Sahrawi refugees live in a cluster of desert encampments.
The initial move -- which was applauded by human rights advocates -- encountered intense resistance from Morocco. Last week, Rabat protested the U.S. action by cancelling joint U.S.-Moroccan military exercises. The Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, also objected to the U.S. move in a letter to the White House. Morocco made clear that they would not allow the human rights monitors into Western Sahara.
The former Spanish possession is Africa's only remaining non-self-governing territory, with some 500,000 people in a sparsely populated desert expanse the size of Britain. Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, when the Spanish withdrew. Mauritania ultimately abandoned its claim, and Morocco claimed their share of the territory in 1979. Morocco -- aided by France's diplomacy -- has fiercely and successfully resisted efforts by the Polisario Front, which enjoys diplomatic support from Algeria, to claim independence.
The Algerian-backed Polisario rebels fought Moroccan troops until 1991, when a U.N. brokered ceasefire called for a referendum that would allow Saharans the ability to vote on an independence referendum. But Morocco has never allowed such a vote to occur, and now insists that Western Sahara remain as an autonomous part of Morocco. Morocco, however, has been unable to convince any other government to recognize its claim to Western Sahara.
For years, the government in Rabay has successfully blocked a raft of initiative by states, including Britain, to grant the U.N. mission a role in monitoring human rights abuses.
Last week, Rice surprised her counterparts in the so-called Friends of Western Sahara group -- which includes the governments of the United States, France, Britain, Spain and Russia -- by indicating that Washington would press for authorization of U.N. human rights monitors in a Security Council resolution renewing the U.N. peacekeeping mission's mandate for another year. But the proposal faced resistance in the U.N. Security Council from Morocco, the council's lone Arab government, and other key powers like France, China, and Russia.
Earlier this week, the United States dropped the proposal. The council is now set to vote tomorrow on a resolution that would renew the peacekeeping mandate, but without human rights monitors. Instead, the resolution offers far softer language stressing the importance of human rights, and encouraging key players to promote human rights and develop "independent and credible measures" to ensure those rights are respected.
Senior Security Council diplomats said that the United States had underestimated the depth of Moroccan opposition. They also complained that the U.S. delegation had failed to adequately consult with its key partners, including Britain, France, and Spain, before pressing ahead with the initiative.
However, one U.N. diplomat defending the U.S. position countered: "Not only did the U.S. coordinate with its allies and partners in the same timeframe as they typically do, but the positions of some important members of the Friends Groups had softened considerably on human rights."
Ahmad Boukhari, the U.N. representative of the Polisario Front, said that a stronger U.S. push could have resulted in a tougher resolution, but that he considered it a "moral victory" that the United States even put the matter on the table. Asked why the initiative was dropped, he said, "There were some difficulties whose nature is unknown to me."
The Moroccan mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.
Human rights advocates, meanwhile, expressed disappointment at the U.S. reversal. "The U.S. starting position was right on target, and had it prevailed would likely have contributed to an improvement of human rights conditions both in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps around Tindouf, in Algeria," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "Sadly the U.S. neither stuck to its guns or secured a compromise allowing enhanced human rights monitoring. Moroccan intransigence and the lack of vocal support by allies such as the UK did not help."
Britain, he noted, had previously supported the U.N. human rights mission in the past "and should have done so vocally again this year."
A spokeswoman for the British mission to the United Nations, Iona Thomas, said: "The United Kingdom strongly supports the upholding of human rights in Western Sahara. We welcome that the resolution, if adopted, will emphasize the importance of improving the human rights situation in Western Sahara and Tindouf camps."
The United States move followed a report earlier this month by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who urged "further international engagement" with the human rights situation in Western Sahara and Tindouf. "Given ongoing reports of human rights violations the need for independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained monitoring of the human right situations in both Western Sahara and the camps becomes ever more pressing."
The U.N. Security Council has been pressing Morocco to accept greater scrutiny of its human rights record. Last year, Rabat agreed to allow periodic visits by independent U.N. human rights experts, and experts from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"From the outset, our aim has been a renewal of MINURSO's mandate that is consistent with our goal of bringing about a peaceful, sustainable, and mutually agreed solution to the conflict whereby the human rights of all individuals are respected," said Payton Knopf, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "As the secretary general underscored in his recent report on Western Sahara, human rights remains a serious issue that deserves the council's attention."
"The draft resolution contains additional language this year encouraging enhanced efforts and further progress on human rights," he added. "Human rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps will continue to have the full attention of the U.N. Security Council and the United States, and we will be monitoring progress closely over the coming year."
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U.S. and European oil and financial sanctions are imposing hardships on the Iranian public, driving up the cost of living, causing shortages of medicine and meat, and fueling popular resentment against the West, Iran’s top economic official told reporters today.
But the official, Iran’s Minister of Economy and Finance Seyed Shamseddin Hoseini, told reporters at the Iranian mission to the United Nations today the long-term impact of the sanctions would be to make Iran’s economy more self-reliant, and that Tehran would never bow to U.S. and European pressure to halt its nuclear program.
Addressing Western reporters at a breakfast of fruit, fried eggs, walnuts, and croissants, Hoseini said that U.S.-backed sanctions targeting the Iranian Central Bank have made it impossible to transfer funds to companies selling even the most basic goods to Iran. For instance, he said, foreign farmers seeking to export beef to Iran have been unable to secure money transfers to conclude the sale.
“So, as a result, our people are consuming a little bit less meat,” he said. “If you were in the shoes of the average Iranian how would you judge the current situation? What, there is no [difference] between a nuclear installation and beef?”
U.S. and European diplomats say that while international sanctions are designed to impede the government’s ability to develop nuclear weapons they acknowledge that some of the measures imposed on Iran’s oil and financial sector may inadvertently harm ordinary citizens.
But they say that they have exempted basic foods and humanitarian goods, including medicines, from a list of sanctioned goods. Tehran, they contend, bears the greatest responsibility for the plight of the Iranian people because it has repeatedly failed to abide by multiple Security Council resolutions demanding it freeze its uranium enrichment program.
Iran maintains that it has no intention of developing a nuclear weapon, and that the program is for peaceful purposes, including the generation of electricity. It has argued that the West’s exemption on the import of medicines and humanitarian goods is meaningless given the refusal of international suppliers to transfer funds to Iranian banks and business out of fear they may be violating U.S. or European financial sanctions.
Hoseini claimed that the true objective of Washington and other European powers was not simply to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, but to prevent it from competing with them in the wider sciences, including aerospace industries, nanotechnology, and the nuclear sciences.
“We believe that the nuclear issue is not the central reason behind these sanctions; this is only a cover,” he said. “These are forbidden frontiers for us to cross into.” Only the big powers and their friends, he added, have “permission to cross that threshold.”
Iran “will continue our scientific progress and programs,” Hoseini said. In the meantime, the Iranian government is exploring ways to endure the sanctions, including providing rations to Iranian citizens and trying to cultivate new trade partners beyond. “Realism forces you to find new ways to get creative,” he said.
“We were continuing on a path and they created obstacles on our path,” he said. But “we will never stop behind the obstacles they put in our path.”
Despite the challenges, Hoseini said that Iran is coping.
“Don’t think for a moment now … there are no pharmaceuticals or medicines in Iran. Do not think that hospitals are unable to perform their daily health care operations or perform needed surgeries.”
Asked to comment on reports that the sanctions were crippling Iranians, doubling the price of basic staples like meat in the past month, he acknowledged that prices of “foodstuffs have increased across the board.” But, he added, “Of course, I don’t know which butcher shop you use in Iran because I have not heard prices of meat having doubled during the past month. They must have given you a raw deal.”
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.