Britain, which has condemned Russia over the nerve agent poisoning of an ex-spy, is pushing to give more teeth to the global chemical weapons watchdog so that it can point the finger at those who carry out attacks with banned toxic substances.
The 20-year-old Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees a 1997 treaty banning the use of toxins as weapons, is a technical, scientific body which determines whether chemical weapons were used.
But it does not have the authority to name those responsible for illegal use. A British-led proposal, which is backed by Western powers including France, Germany and the United States and will be debated at a special session of the OPCW on Tuesday, would give the world body greater powers to assign responsibility for violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The draft proposal circulated by Britain, a copy of which has been obtained by Reuters, would thrust the OPCW to the forefront of the diplomatic confrontation between the West and Moscow which has seen relations deteriorate to their lowest point since the Cold War.
The Western draft is opposed by Russia which has submitted a rival proposal, the details of which are not yet known. Western diplomats said Moscow's draft, and a third text from Indonesia, were not believed to have strong political backing.
The poisoning of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March led to tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats by Moscow and the West.
Russia has denied any involvement in their poisoning. But Western governments have also blamed Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and Russia, which backs him, for using chemical weapons in the protracted Syrian conflict. Both deny using chemical weapons. Up to now it has fallen to the United Nations, where a joint OPCW-UN team known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) was created in 2015, to identify individuals or institutions behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
The JIM confirmed that Syrian government troops used the nerve agent sarin and chorine barrel bombs on multiple occasions, while IS militants were found to have used sulphur mustard.
But at a deadlocked UN Security Council, the JIM was disbanded last year after Moscow used its veto to block several resolutions seeking to renew its mandate beyond November 2017.
The new British-led proposal, which so far has the support of 21 other states, comes after a steady increase since 2012 of the use of chemical weapons, mainly in the Syrian civil war, but also in Iraq, Malaysia and England. It is expected to be submitted by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Tuesday in The Hague and voted on by OPCW members on Wednesday, sources told Reuters.
Decisions must win two-thirds of votes cast to be passed. The OPCW has recorded around 400 alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria since 2014, causing hundreds of civilian deaths.
Air strikes by the United States, France and Britain were launched in April in response to an alleged poison attack in the Douma enclave near Damascus earlier that month. The British proposal condemns the use of nerve agent Novichok in the Skripals' poisoning, the assassination with VX nerve agent in February 2017 of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Malaysia and the use of sulphur mustard gas by IS fighters in 2015 and 2016 in Syria and Iraq.
"We believe that the chemical non-proliferation regime is in danger," said a French diplomatic source. "It's in danger because we continue to see a trivialization of the use of chemical weapons in war zones, especially in Syria."
Under the British proposal, the text of which could change before it is voted on, the head of the OPCW would establish a body "with a view to facilitating universal attribution" for attacks globally. "The political objective is to re-mobilize the international community for the political condemnation of the use, manufacture and use of chemical weapons," the source said.
The OPCW's head will then propose ways "to enhance the capacity and tools" needed to create such a mechanism at the OPCW. By Friday, roughly 130 out of the 193 OPCW members had registered to participate in the conference, which could run until Thursday. - Reuters