GENEVA — Chemical weapons have killed hundreds of people in Syria’s seven-year civil war, yet the country is taking on a new role of presiding over the U.N. Conference on Disarmament that negotiated the 21-year-old Chemical Weapons Convention.
At the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Syria took the helm of the conference’s month-long rotating presidency this week. U.S. diplomats registered a strong note of protest and outrage, saying Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has no credibility or moral authority.
“It is a travesty that the Syrian regime — which continues to indiscriminately slaughter its own people with weapons banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention — should presume to preside over this body,” said Robert Wood, the U.S. ambassador to the conference.
“Rather than pretend that there is any legitimacy to Syria’s presidency of this body,” he said, “we should all hold accountable the Syrian regime and those who enable its barbaric crimes.”
The U.S. delegation staged a protest walkout as Syria’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Hussam Edin Aala, delivered his opening remarks. The Americans later returned for the session.
The 65-nation conference has achieved little recently, but it is still regarded as the world’s foremost negotiating forum on disarmament. Britain said Syria could not lead the conference after repeatedly using chemical weapons in its war, according to a U.N. record of the talks.
Australia, also speaking for Turkey and Canada, said it regretted Syria’s turn in charge. France said its ambassador would skip the Syria-led sessions. Bulgaria, on behalf of the European Union, said it respected the rules of procedure.
China, North Korea, Venezuela and Algeria said they had confidence in Syria’s leadership. Russia, Syria’s most important ally, only said it hoped for a sound month-long work agenda.
Syria’s envoy Aala said his nation was proud to preside over the conference and believed in the importance of preserving its role as the most important forum for disarmament, though it was unfortunate that negotiations had stalled for more than two decades. In February, he told the same forum that Syria could not be using chemical weapons because it had none.
The United Nations, however, blamed four chemical weapons attacks on the Syrian government and a fifth on the Islamic State group. More than 40 people were killed in the latest attack largely blamed on Assad’s government, which denied responsibility.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, organized a fact-finding mission to investigate that attack reported in early April. Dozens of Syrians choked to death in their homes in the rebel-held suburb of Douma, east of the Syrian capital Damascus.
U.S. expresses outrage at #Syria’s presidency of the Conference on Disarmament. “We cannot turn a blind eye to the presidency of a regime that stands for everything this body was conceived to prevent.” – @USAmbCD Robert Wood. https://t.co/mjufu2FGSE pic.twitter.com/DKYi2646uJ
— U.S. Mission Geneva (@usmissiongeneva) May 29, 2018
Protocols and stalemate
The Hague-based organization’s role is to work with 192 nations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which aims to eliminate an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. The OPCW monitors compliance with the treaty and verifies elimination of these weapons.
Though it is largely symbolic, the conference presidency has incurred diplomatic wrath and protest before. Canada sat out sessions Iran chaired in 2013 and North Korea chaired in 2011.
Last week, António Guterres led off a major push for global disarmament by calling on nations to eliminate nuclear arsenals and other weapons that could provoke catastrophic mistakes. He described Syria’s turn in charge of the conference as largely procedural and unavoidable.
In February, Guterres told conference members that disarmament and arms control were top priorities for him, and he appreciated the “serious efforts” they made “to break the long-standing stalemate” in the forum, which, like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is an essential but flawed and slow-moving mechanism.
In 2013, Guterres’ predecessor, then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, called on the conference to end years of stalemate over Pakistan’s reluctance to allow talks to begin towards a ban on production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. The forum operates on consensus; it took 12 years for diplomats to adopt a negotiating program on fissile materials and weapons.
That came just a month after then-U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his fledgling presidency’s first major foreign policy speech in 2009. In it, he declared America was commited “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Syria is the fourth nation to hold the monthlong presidency this year, after Switzerland, Sweden and Sri Lanka. Next up will be Tunisia, then Turkey, under rules that call for the presidency to be rotated in English alphabetical order.