India Joins Russia in Voting Against West-Backed Move to Expand Powers of OPCW

The proposal "will grant the director general, as an individual, unprecedented and unchecked powers. This lends itself to partisan use of the institution of the director general," India said.

New Delhi: India voted against a UK-backed move that will allow the global chemical weapons watchdog to apportion blame for illegal attacks, criticising the decision to grant “unchecked powers” to the head of the group which could be used for “partisan” purposes.

On Wednesday, more than two-thirds of the member states of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted to authorise the international body to identify the perpetrators and sponsors of a chemical weapons attack. It also specifically called on the OPCW’s technical secretariat to begin work on identifying the perpetrators behind the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The draft decision, sponsored by 30 countries, was adopted at the fourth special session of the conference of the states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention at the Hague, with 82 in favour and 24 negative votes.

While Europe, the United States and their allies voted ‘yes’, there was strong opposition from Russia and Iran. India was in the camp of the nay-sayers.

“As our concerns have not been addressed by the draft decision, India has decided to vote against the draft decision,” said India’s permanent representative to the OPCW, Venu Rajamony in his explanation of vote.

He stated that India had studied the draft “very carefully and had consulted with the drafters and the main co-sponsors of the draft decision”.

But India felt that that consultations conducted by the sponsor on the draft decision with “far reaching importance and implications” were largely “incomplete”.

Rajamony stated that the legitimacy of the Chemical Weapons Convention [CWC] can only be maintained if all provisions are effectively followed when allegations of the use of toxic munitions are made.

“Following scrupulously the provisions of the CWC, the procedures embedded within, and respecting the distribution of powers and responsibilities of various policy making organs is the only way to garner international legitimacy and ensure that all actions under the convention meet the twin requirements of effective action and international acceptance,” he said.

The Indian diplomat described the CWC as a “very finely balanced cooperative structure” between various policy making organs and the technical secretariat headed by the director general.

‘Too much power to the director general’

He pointed out that the convention was envisaged to be driven by member states, with assistance from the technical secretariat. This would be turned up-side down by the UK-sponsored decision, he argued, specifically pointing to difficulties in operative paragraphs 10 and 20 in the decision.

10. Decides that the Secretariat shall put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic by identifying and reporting on all information potentially relevant to the origin of those chemical weapons in those instances in which the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria determines or has determined that use or likely use occurred, and cases for which the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism has not issued a report; and decides also that the Secretariat shall provide regular reports on its investigations to the Council and to the United Nations Secretary-General for their consideration;

20. Decides that the Director-General, if requested by a State Party investigating a possible chemical weapons use on its territory, can provide technical expertise to identify those who were perpetrators, organisers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons, and further decides that, in this context, the Director-General may enlist support as appropriate from outside experts with relevant qualifications and professional experience, and invites the Director-General to submit to the Conference at its next regular session specific proposals to establish such independent, impartial, expert arrangements;

“While the convention gives primacy and oversight to the executive council and the conference of states parties over the functioning of the technical secretariat, the latest decision will grant the director general, as an individual, unprecedented and unchecked powers. This lends itself to partisan use of the institution of the director general,” the Indian ambassador said in explaining why he was voting against the proposal.

The Indian envoy also claimed that this would also be “deeply problematic” from the point of view of legality as “the investigator also assumes the role of the judge”.  “The proposed provision seeks to short-circuit an established legitimate structure and process,” he said.

Rajamony asserted that the decision tabled at the conference was tantamount to an amendment of the convention. “Any amendment to the convention must follow the procedure as prescribed under Article XV of the convention for that purpose. Therefore, India cannot justify its action in joining the effort for the creation of such a mechanism which is not in keeping with the provisions of the Convention”.

Even as he cast a negative vote, Rajamony said that India was still open to discussion to find a solution “provided it is strictly within the framework of the convention”.

Indian ambassador Venu Rajamony at the OPCW. Credit: OPCW

“The international community has high expectation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and it is incumbent on all states parties to rise up to this expectation by preserving and protecting the convention,” he said, adding that India remained opposed to use of chemical weapons and supported accountability for the perpetrators any attacks.

The UK has already been in conflict with Russia at the OPCW over the alleged use of a nerve agent against a former double agent.

In April, India had abstained on a proposal by Russia at the OPCW executive council for a joint probe into the poisoning at Salisbury. Declaring India’s intention, Rajamony had urged for all provisions of the CWC to be “utilised to address concerns in accordance with the procedures laid down in the convention, so as to reach evidence-based conclusions”.

India’s statement that the investigation of the OPCW should be awaited was viewed by observers as an implicit rebuke of unilateral steps taken by US, US and EU against Russia. But, New Delhi had balanced that censure of the West with an explicit opposition to the Russian proposal for a joint probe.

Meanwhile, UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson said that the expansion of the powers of the OPCW technical secretariat was a reaction to the Russian veto of a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council to renew the mandate of a joint UN-OPCW team to determine responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria. “This is very important because it fills a crucial gap left when the United Nations Security Council was prevented from renewing its own investigation in November”.

The Russians also claimed that the mandate of the CWC had been changed drastically, with powers of the UNSC handed to the OPCW. “Our Western partners are forcing this mission with tenacity that would be better applied elsewhere. It is clear why they do this – they want to bypass Russia’s veto in New York,” said Russia’s permanent representative to OPCW Alexander Shulgin.

Shulgin called the attempts to hand over the powers of the UN Security Council to the OPCW “complete nonsense”. “There is nothing in the convention [on the prohibition of chemical weapons] that allows the OPCW to take on these functions,” he stated.

The Russian envoy noted that while countries like China, India and South Africa voted against the draft, the western camp was bolstered by votes from small island states

“There were many delegations from the island states that literally flooded the conference hall. The Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Saint Kitts and Nevis began to actively promote the British and US proposals. Malicious gossip has it that their Western sponsors paid these delegations’ expenses by actually organising the trip to The Hague to ensure the necessary results,” Shulgin told reporters after the vote as per a Tass report.