The Hague: Britain moved to bolster the global chemical weapons organisation on Tuesday, calling for its members to vote on a proposal to give it new powers to identify those responsible for attacks with banned poison munitions.
The call for a vote was made at a special session of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), where more than 140 countries have gathered to discuss the watchdog's future. A vote will be held on Wednesday.
The British are seeking to fill a gap in implementing an international ban on chemical weapons, the use of which has become systematic in the Syrian civil war, but has also been seen in Iraq, Malaysia and Britain since 2012.
"For clarity, I am now requesting that the chair, immediately after my remarks, asks the meeting whether the United Kingdom's text can be adopted by consensus," said Frederick Curzon, Britain's minister of state for defence.
"If a consensus is not possible I request that the chair schedule a vote of the conference of states parties in exactly 24 hours."
Russia, Iran and Syria immediately objected to the move and accused the British of breaking OPCW rules. The conference chairman said the British call for a vote was in line with procedures.
The 20-year-old OPCW, 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 identify perpetrators.
The British-led proposal, backed by France, Germany and the United States, was to be debated by roughly 140 countries at a special session of the OPCW that started on Tuesday.
"Attribution goes beyond the mandate of the OPCW," the Russian delegation said on Twitter. "The decision to create such a mechanism within the OPCW cannot be made at the special session" being held in The Hague.
The draft proposal, a copy of which was seen 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.
Russia and Indonesia submitted rival proposals, but Western diplomats said they were not believed to have strong political backing.
It comes as OPCW inspectors prepare a report on an alleged poison attack in the Douma enclave near Damascus, Syria, in April that killed dozens and triggered air strikes by the United States, France and Britain.
Western governments have also blamed Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and Russia, which backs him, for using chemical weapons in the 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 nerve agent sarin and chorine barrel bombs on several 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.
"The widespread use of chemical weapons by Syria in particular threatens to undermine the treaty and the OPCW," said Gregory Koblentz, a non-proliferation expert at George Mason University, in the US state of Virginia.
"Empowering the OPCW to identify perpetrators of chemical attacks is necessary to restoring the taboo against chemical weapons and the integrity of the chemical weapons disarmament regime."
Decisions must win two-thirds of votes cast to be passed.
The new proposal condemns the use of nerve agent Novichok against ex-spy Sergei Skripal, the assassination with VX nerve agent in Feb. 2017 of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Malaysia and the use of sulphur mustard gas by Islamic State fighters in 2015 and 2016 in Syria and Iraq.
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.