Russia has a duty to account for Salisbury nerve agent

Russia has a duty to account for Salisbury nerve agent

British Prime Minister Theresa May last week announced that former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a Novichok military-grade nerve agent developed by Russia. May said that fact, combined with “Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations,” had led the UK Government to conclude it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the attack.
What makes chemical attacks such as those in Salisbury and in Kuala Lumpur last year especially alarming is that they contravene the Chemical Weapons Convention. Those attacks and the free-for-all use of chemical agents by the Syrian regime against its own people point to the need to revisit CWC enforcement mechanisms. Curiously in the case of Syria, Russia has singlehandedly stymied efforts to make the Assad regime accountable for its atrocious use of chemical weapons.
May, meanwhile, has offered two possible explanations for the Skripal incident: Either this was a direct act by the Russian state, or “the Russian government could have lost control” of the nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.
The attack took place on March 4 in Salisbury, a quiet city in southern England. Russia has denied responsibility for the incident and ridiculed British accusations. Moscow’s Ambassador to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov suggested that a British laboratory could be the source of the nerve agent. He said Russia did not stockpile this agent, while the Porton Down lab was only eight miles away from Salisbury.
The UK has announced a set of sanctions and called on others to follow suit. A joint statement by the UK, United States, France and Germany strongly condemned Russia for the attack, but did not announce specific sanctions related to this incident. The UN Security Council held an emergency session last Wednesday, where members condemned the Salisbury attack and warned about the danger of proliferation of chemical weapons. US Ambassador Nikki Haley said: “If we don’t take immediate concrete measures to address this now, Salisbury will not be the last place we see chemical weapons used… They could be used here in New York or in cities of any country that sits on this council.”
As expected, however, the council failed to take action in the face of denial and objections from Russia, which holds veto power.

Until a thorough, independent investigation of the incident is carried out, suspicions will linger and fears of yet another chemical attack will mount.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Just hours after May issued an ultimatum to Russia in the House of Commons over the Salisbury poisonings, Nikolai Glushkov, a Russian opposition figure, was found strangled at his home in London. British counterterrorism detectives are treating his death as murder, but have not established a direct link to the Salisbury attack.
Kremlin critics link more than three dozen deaths and near-deaths in several countries in recent years to political assassinations by Russian agents. The weapons of choice were usually bullets, but have also included such methods as radioactive tea, toxic umbrella tips, tainted letters, poisonous essence of flowers, and now a military-grade nerve agent. The victims include politicians, businessmen, journalists and whistleblowers. Russia has denied responsibility for these acts, but curiously has not conducted credible public inquiries into them to demonstrate its innocence.
Russia is not alone. In February 2017, the older half-brother of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was assassinated by smearing a nerve agent on his face while traveling through Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The rogue regime of North Korea was believed to be behind the killing of its president’s estranged sibling.
International law is quite clear on cross-border assassinations: They are serious crimes regardless of their motives or who the victims may be. States are within their rights to request the extradition of those suspected of committing crimes, and then giving them a fair trial. States may not violate other countries’ sovereignty and kill or harm their opponents.
These increasingly recurring cases threaten to erode the international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, which was thought to be one of the most sacrosanct postulates of international law. After the atrocities of the two world wars, where various poisonous gases were freely used by the warring factions, it was thought humanity had evolved beyond the use of those abhorrent weapons.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was established in 1997. Its membership includes almost the entire UN, representing about 98 percent of the world’s population. In other words, it represents a clear international consensus. Almost all nations are represented in its Conference of the States Parties. Its 41-member Executive Council deals with compliance issues, among other tasks. Both the conference and the council can be convened in emergencies to address dangerous developments.
Article IX of the CWC stipulates two options for affected parties: Consultations and challenge inspections. Consultations could be bilateral between two states (Britain and Russia in this case) or multilateral through the Executive Council. The other option is challenge inspections and investigations to be conducted by the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat.
Russia has denied responsibility for the Salisbury attack, but since the nerve agent used was developed as part of the Soviet Union’s offensive chemical warfare program, it has been inherited by the Russian Federation. As such, there is a moral if not a legal duty to cooperate with the investigation, and to account for that agent and prevent its proliferation.
Until a thorough investigation is carried out by the OPCW, the main international body responsible for chemical disarmament, suspicions will linger and fears of yet another chemical attack will mount. 
  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is a columnist for Arab News. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @abuhamad1
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