Chemical arms watchdog wins right to assign blame for attacks, Russia says may quit

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson addresses a special session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague, Netherlands, on June 26, 2018. (REUTERS/Yves Herman)
Updated 28 June 2018
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Chemical arms watchdog wins right to assign blame for attacks, Russia says may quit

  • A proposal to empower the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to identify those behind chemical weapons attacks passed by 82 votes in favor with 24 against.
  • London pushed for the expanded mandate following recent repeated use of poison gases in Syria, Iraq as well as nerve agent attacks in Malaysia and Britain.

THE HAGUE: The international community Wednesday endowed the global chemical weapons watchdog with new powers to identify those behind toxic arms attacks in Syria, prompting an angry Russia to say it would not rule out leaving what it called a “sinking Titanic.”
After two days of tense talks and in face of stiff opposition from Moscow and Damascus, a British-led proposal to strengthen the mandate of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) passed by 82 votes in favor with 24 against.
The OPCW now “has a crucial extra power, not just to identify the use of chemical weapons, but also to point the finger at the organization, the state that they think is responsible,” said British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Other delegates said applause broke out after the vote at the rare special session of the OPCW’s top policy-making body, called by London following recent repeated use of poison gases in Syria, Iraq as well as nerve agent attacks in Malaysia and Britain.
But Moscow, which along with Syria and Iran had vehemently opposed the move, shot back that the move was a sign the watchdog was on the brink of collapse.
“The OPCW is sinking like the Titanic,” Russian ambassador to the Netherlands Alexander Shulgin told reporters. “It looks like the collapse of the organization is currently in the making.”
Asked point blank if Russia, which joined the OPCW at its beginnings in 1997, would withdraw from the body, Shulgin said “all options are on the table,” adding that the watchdog, which has overseen the destruction of all its declared chemical weapons, had been “severely damaged.”
Russia, with its allies, had argued that giving the OPCW the power to say who was behind a chemical weapons attack was going beyond its legal mandate, maintaining only bodies such as the UN Security Council had such authority.
But the international community had become increasingly frustrated at the lack of any mechanism to hold those behind chemical weapons attacks to account.
According to the text of Wednesday’s decision, seen by AFP, the OPCW’s secretariat “shall put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic.”
British ambassador to The Hague, Peter Wilson, hailed “an important day” saying the move was “a critical step forward in ensuring the chemical weapons abuse stops.”
OPCW director general Ahmet Uzumcu and his successor, who takes over in July, were also mandated to draw up proposals to give the body broader powers to identify those unleashing chemical weapons in any other country, if governments ask for help.
Those proposals will go to the next meeting of state parties in November for a vote, Wilson told reporters.
“The principle has been established that there should be a general attribution arrangement as well as a clear flick of the switch which allows the director general to proceed with attribution in Syria,” he said.
Both Moscow, the main ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Damascus, stand accused by the international community of using chemical weapons in recent months — allegations they deny.
Indeed it was amid pressure from the United States and Russia, that Syria finally agreed in 2013 to join the Chemical Weapons Convention after denying for decades that it had a toxic arms stockpile.
The vote came as the OPCW is also due to publish a highly-anticipated report into an alleged chlorine and sarin gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma. Moscow and Damascus insist the attack was fake, staged by the Syrian rescue volunteers known as the White Helmets.
Wilson confirmed the OPCW now had the power to identify who could be behind the April attack in Douma in which medics and rescuers said 40 people were killed.
Late last year, Russia had wielded its veto power at the UN Security Council to effectively kill off a joint UN-OPCW panel aimed at identifying those behind suspected chemical attacks in Syria.


Amazon tribe in Brazil patrols territory, braces for fight

Updated 8 min 48 sec ago

Amazon tribe in Brazil patrols territory, braces for fight

  • Tension over territory reached a new height after a surge in annual fires
  • Some indigenous people who live in the Amazon say deforestation is encroaching on their lands and way of life

ALTO RIO GUAMA INDIGENOUS RESERVE, Brazil: Deep in the Amazon rainforest, there is talk of a looming conflict over land. The men in the Tembe indigenous group sometimes daub themselves in traditional war paint and patrol the forest. They carry bows and arrows, but feel increasingly vulnerable as they brace for run-ins with illegal loggers.

Tension over territory reached a new height after a surge in annual fires, usually set to clear land, devastated large areas of the Brazil’s Amazon region in past weeks. Some indigenous people who live in the Amazon say deforestation is encroaching on their lands and way of life.

The problem is old — and escalating. On Aug. 27, Tembe people who had repeatedly warned loggers to stay out of their reserve took action. On a forest trek, men from the Tekohaw village spotted loggers using chain saws, trucks and tractors to cut down and haul trees. The indigenous warriors recorded video. Then they intervened, letting the loggers flee before burning their machinery.

“We destroyed their machinery because they have been destroying our lives for a long time. Our life is the forest,” said Ronilson Tembé. On a recent jungle patrol, he was camouflaged from head to foot with leaves and carried a large red horn to summon companions.

The Tembe are proud of their triumph, but worry about retaliation. Police are monitoring makeshift sawmills around their land after the Tekohaw village chieftain filed reports of death threats. “Every day that passes, the invasion comes closer to our village,” said the chieftain, Sergio Muxi Tembé. He wore a colorful headdress of macaw and other feathers and a traditional bone bracelet on his wrist, next to a Casio digital watch.

“We don’t want to be killed by bullets,” he said. “We want the federal government to assume its responsibility and guarantee the right that we have to live in our lands, to live in peace.” Their 1,080-square-mile (2,766-square-kilometer) Alto Rio Guama homeland is officially protected. But in reality, it’s under siege by loggers who try to extract prized hardwood in a Brazilian state that is one of the Amazon’s largest producers and exporters of timber.

Like other Amazon states, Para has also been hit by thousands of fires that have intensified international concern about the world’s largest rainforest, considered a vital bulwark against climate change. An Associated Press team traveled for days in the Amazon to document the fires and deforestation on the remote indigenous reserve, which can only be reached by river or on rough roads.

On a recent day, a boa constrictor slithered in the sun on a red dirt road leading to Tekohaw, where about 600 members of the tribe live on the banks of the Gurupí River. Their life mixes tradition and modernity. Villagers fish for piranhas, hunt for birds, and pick fruits and take materials for traditional medicine from jungle trees, while some watch television or log on to the Internet on phones inside thatched-roof huts.

Like elsewhere in Brazil, stricter enforcement of environmental laws between 2004 and 2014 sharply curbed deforestation in the Amazon. The rate began climbing after that, and ramped up further as the fires escalated in early August, according to Brazilian state monitors.

Amid an international outcry, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sent the military to help battle some fires and banned most legal fires for land-clearing in the Amazon for 60 days. However, he had previously promised to loosen protections for indigenous lands as a way to develop Brazil’s economy, a pledge that critics say has stoked clashes.

Bolsonaro believes past allocations of land to indigenous people were excessive. About 14 percent of Brazil is indigenous territory, a huge area for a relatively small population, according to the president. Brazil’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, said in Washington last week that the opening of the Amazon to development is “the only way to protect the forest.”

One expert on Brazil said the plight of the Tembe people is the direct outcome of government policy. “This leads to a situation where the lawlessness of the Amazon region ... becomes such that the livelihood of the indigenous people is under a real threat. And they don’t have a lot of capacity to defend themselves,” said Monica de Bolle, a Brazil expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“These are the people who live off the land, who do substance farming. They are very much aware of the environment around it and how to maintain it because that’s how they sustain their livelihood,” said de Bolle, who recently testified before US Congress about the Amazon.

Human Rights Watch said in a report released this week that deforestation in the Amazon “is driven largely by criminal networks that use violence and intimidation against those who try to stop them.” It blamed Brazil’s government for failing to protect the rainforest and people trying to protect it.

Those networks can “coordinate large-scale extraction, processing, and sale of timber, while deploying armed men to intimidate and, in some cases, kill those who seek to defend the forest,” Human Rights Watch said. It based its report on interviews with indigenous people and others in the Brazilian states of Para, Maranhao and Rondonia.

In Brazil’s Congress, lawmaker Edmilson Rodrigo from Para state made a call to defend the Amazon’s indigenous people, including the Tembe. “Land grabbers, miners, loggers have taken their lands and they’ve reacted by trying to protect it,” he said.
Women of the Tembe tribe said their men will suffer casualties if they get into a fight with loggers likely to have firearms. They hope an international donor can provide the men with bulletproof vests.

“Our husbands go to look out after our lands, and this is our only weapon,” said Anailde Tembe, the chieftain’s wife. She lifted a bow and a sheaf of feathered arrows.