As an impartial world organisation, the OPCW must serve the truth

Disinformation and propaganda destroy the credibility of politics

Interview by Karin Leukefeld with Hans von Sponeck

zf. On 7 April 2018, an alleged chemical weapons attack killing 50 civilians took place in Douma, Syria. Seven days later, on 14 April, a missile attack by US, French and British forces on three targets in Syria followed in response. These were justified on the grounds that the Syrian government was responsible for the alleged attack. However, important information and views of OPCW scientists who were involved in the investigation at the time are still being ignored today. What is more, two of its former scientists have been denounced by the OPCW, and the online network Bellingcat, which is close to NATO, even tried to slander one of the former OPCW scientists. All this despite the fact that factual WikiLeaks and Grayzone documents had since become public (see also Current Concerns No. 5 of 17 March 2020). On 11 March 2021, 27 former diplomats, high-ranking military officers, writers and journalists issued a “Statement of Concern” demanding transparency and accountability from the OPCW in order to restore the credibility and integrity of the organisation (see page 5 of this journal).
  One of the signatories of the declaration is Hans von Sponeck, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Humanitarian Aid Coordinator in Iraq, with whom Middle East correspondent Karin Leukefeld conducted the following interview.

Karin Leukefeld: Mr von Sponeck, you are an experienced UN diplomat and know the Middle East, especially Iraq, from your own experience. Is the war in Syria comparable to what happened earlier in Iraq?
Hans von Sponeck
: No armed conflict in the Middle East is as complex as the current conflict, the war in Syria, which has now been ongoing for ten years. The internal uprising of 2011 quickly became a broad confrontation of groups that had little to do with the internal Syrian conflict, but much to do with national interests of neighbouring countries and those of major powers pursuing their own geopolitical goals.
  Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult for observers to identify which of the internal and external parties was responsible for individual attacks. At the same time, the destruction of the country and the aggravation of the suffering of the people increased inexorably.

Why a “statement of concern”?

You have addressed a “Statement of Concern” to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW. Why are you concerned?
Today, the public is aware that all adversaries in Syria – the Syrian government, internal opposition groups, self-proclaimed rulers and other states – have most brutally as well as repeatedly violated martial law and international humanitarian law. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), founded in 1997, has – in general terms – the mandate to implement this prohibition and to ensure the destruction of chemical weapons. In cooperation with the United Nations, the OPCW is to do everything possible to prevent actions contrary to international law and the use of chemical weapons. At least, this is what is stipulated in the Chemical Weapons Convention, which has been signed by OPCW member-states or contracting states. The OPCW’s mandate in Syria was just that, to investigate and determine whether chemical weapons were used.
  The “Statement of Concern” is, after all, specifically about the case of Douma, where there was allegedly a chemical weapons attack in April 2018.
  Fifty Syrian citizens were reportedly killed, and, according to the OPCW's final report on Douma, allegedly by a chemical weapons attack. In the meantime, however, there has been an increase in the number of documents, scientific reports and statements by OPCW staff testifying that a false picture was spread about what happened in Douma at the time. This all points to the conclusion that the legitimisation of a certain political and military approach was aimed at. That is why we published the “Statement of Concern”.

This is a serious accusation.
This is not about speculation or assumptions, but about facts that testify that the OPCW management, in collusion with various governments, built up a false picture of what had happened in Douma. In the process, the OPCW’s commitment specified in the OPCW's self-imposed values to “conduct itself professionally and with integrity at all times” was forgotten.

Repression against high-ranking British co-signatory

One of your co-signatories, the British Lord West, has been accused by the government in London of engaging in “disinformation and propaganda”. These are big guns brought in to destroy your credibility.
Lord West is a member of the British House of Lords, he is a retired Admiral and was for a time Minister for Security in the UK. As a co-signatory of the “Statement of Concern”, he expressed, to the British government among others, considerable doubt on the claim that chemical weapons were used in Douma. His call for an investigation has led to harsh accusations against him. Behind these is probably the fear that his actions might lead to a criminal prosecution for the manipulations.
  The evidence of wrongdoing within OPCW management is serious and supported by facts. This cannot simply be dismissed by the UK or by other governments as “ideologically coloured” or, say, “simple-minded and naïve”. At least, one would think so. But it is so dismissed, and politics follows.
  Well, these governments are led by interest groups that have been involved in the manipulations and so defend them vehemently. They refuse to accept the facts and are pushing the dangerous confrontation further and further. This harms the Syrian people and prevents a peaceful end to the long war. These groups are not about international law or protecting the integrity of multilateral institutions.

It is about the truth

The signatories of the “Statement of Concern”, however, are concerned with the truth. It is ridiculous to think that they have anything to do with ideology or that they want to defend a dictator. They are 27 internationally known people who, despite their very different backgrounds, have one demand in common: Scientific knowledge should not be politicised. We call on OPCW Director-General Arias to abide by this rule. He should do everything possible to fulfil the OPCW’s mandate. The OPCW was created as an impartial world organisation; its duty is to serve the truth.

The hope to be heard

Who else besides the OPCW have you informed about your statement?
The statement was sent to the OPCW Director-General and all 193 OPCW members in mid-February. While an OPCW response is pending [on 24 March 2021, at the time of the interview], several Member States have already clearly expressed their concern about this development. Others have confirmed that they are not prepared to deviate from their policy of false statements. Similar to what happened in Iraq in the 1990s, they seem to be preparing to mislead the public by any means possible, just as they did then. Only in order to maintain their Syria policy. This will have serious consequences.
  The President-in-Office of the UN Security Council, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the President of the UN General Assembly Volkan Bozkin as well as United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres have also received the “Statement of Concern”. We hope to be heard there.

And who is the Berlin Group 21?
We are a small group of people from different countries who, with the help of the signatories of the statement, want to ensure that an investigation into the OPCW's approach to the Douma incident takes place, that the public learns the facts and will remain informed. We have also published background material for this purpose. We will remain in discussion worldwide to defend the right to truth about what happened in Douma.

Facts ...

Please let us go into more detail. What is the basis of your findings that there is something wrong with the final report on the alleged chemical weapons attack on Douma? What are the facts involved?
One fact is that the original, internal OPCW report on Douma did not include evidence of the use of chemical weapons. It is also a fact that shortly before the planned publication of the first interim report in the summer of 2018, and without the knowledge of several OPCW scientists involved in the Douma investigation, OPCW management wanted to replace the original report with a “revised” one, a manipulated one. This report falsely stated that chlorine gas had been used in Douma. Finally, this “revised” version was not published because the OPCW scientists protested. Nevertheless, the fact remains that a falsification was attempted.
  It is also a fact that the final report on Douma, which was eventually published on 1 March 2019, contained conclusions that had not been made by the original OPCW investigative team. The original report contains no evidence that chlorine gas was used in Douma; this information is missing in the final report.

And what about the 50 people found dead?
Again, the final report made no mention of the fact that toxicologists from the original OPCW team had concluded that the deaths of civilians in Douma could not have been caused by chlorine gas. And it also fails to mention that OPCW engineers on the team had testified that it was ballistically impossible that the gas cylinders found had been dropped from the air onto the affected house. Rather, the scientists thought it likely that these cylinders had been carried into the house and placed at the site to show a false picture of what had happened. The published final report also does not address the fact that there had been considerable tension among the OPCW staff involved, between scientists from the Douma team and those who were called in later.

… and their manipulation

Why should the OPCW have strayed so far from its own standards?
In this context, it is important to mention the timeline of events: On 7 April 2018, the attack on civilians in Douma occurred; one week later, on 14 April 2018, missile strikes were carried out by the US, the UK and France. Aircraft and warships were used in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The attacks were explained or justified by saying that the Syrian government should be punished for the alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma. The airstrikes were carried out before the OPCW had begun its Douma investigation! In other words, even without the OPCW, it had been “confirmed” that chemical weapons had been used in Douma, and thus the airstrikes were legitimate as punishment. All that remained was for the OPCW’s final report on Douma, published in 2019, to confirm that the dead civilians in Douma were victims of a chemical weapons attack. And the governments had already declared this a “fact” with their attacks a year earlier.

Open Sources: Facts verifiable for everyone

This sounds like a crime story. The governments of three countries that have veto power in the UN Security Council and also possess nuclear weapons are putting pressure on the OPCW to manipulate the report on what happened in Douma in order to legitimise the three countries’ attack on Syria?
The whole thing is without question a very disturbing event, but it is no longer a secret. The documents confirming it are available for inspection. I am referring to the original OPCW draft reports, which have been published and can be read at Wikileaks, by the Courage Foundation and also by the Berlin Group 21. Statements by OPCW staff have confirmed these documents bona fide. Furthermore, it is known that there have been other very serious scientific and procedural irregularities. “Inconvenient” OPCW staff members have been expelled. Just to be clear, these are not assumptions, but facts.

US pressure on the OPCW – as in Iraq

If the OPCW can be put under pressure like this and still try to hide it, does one have to ask how credible the organisation still is?
Urgent questions must be asked. These include the question: Where was the OPCW’s interest in allowing or even agreeing to neglect its mandate? And the question: was there a mandate from “outside”? The answer to the second question probably explains the OPCW’s behaviour. It has remained no secret that American diplomats made representations to the OPCW to ensure that the report would contain references to the use of chemical weapons in Douma. Details are now known of how the US exerted pressure on the OPCW in Iraq, for example. And although governments involved, such as those of the US, the UK and France, defend the OPCW, the agency has become increasingly discredited. Again, I want to point out that these are facts, not insinuations.

Germany must take more responsibility, but honestly

How do you assess the attitude of the Federal Government? Germany is – after the USA and Japan – the third largest contributor to the OPCW. That also means taking responsibility.
Germany is an important country in the large multilateral organisations such as the UN and the OPCW. Our government must understand that the world is watching them. Therefore, it should be particularly concerned that Germany respects international law and behaves correctly in its basic attitude. The developments on Douma over the last twelve months must lead the German government to seriously review Germany’s stance on cooperation with the OPCW. It must be examined to what extent corrections in cooperation have become unavoidable, especially in the case of Douma. At the annual Munich Security Conferences, politicians repeatedly emphasise that German foreign and security policy is ready to assume more responsibility. This must be a willingness to defend the integrity and honesty of politics. Many people who follow and think politics show concern about the dangerous and dishonest behaviour in the Douma case.

As UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Aid, you were serving in Iraq and resigned in protest over the UN sanctions at the time. In our dialogue, you repeatedly referred to Iraq. Is it these experiences in Iraq why you are now so committed to the truth about the OPCW report on Douma?
Indeed, it is reminiscent of the damage done to Iraq by the American and British governments during the years of sanctions and in 2003 through the war that was illegal under international law. The impoverishment of a people, the violation of international law and the weakening of the United Nations were based on the falsehood about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.
  Disinformation and false-flag propaganda destroy the incorruptible asset of political credibility. Germany and Europe must strengthen and protect this asset. A repetition of military operations in Syria, which was imminent after the publication of the censored OPCW final report on Douma in March 2019, must be prevented. As a member of Berlin Group 21, I wholeheartedly agree with former OPCW Director-General José Bustani. In his statement to the UN Security Council on 5 October 2020, he urged the current Director-General Fernando Arias to invite the inspectors who reject parts of the Douma report with scientific critical concern to a dialogue. This must be done if the OPCW is to restore its credibility. Such a dialogue should lead to the depoliticisation of the Douma Final Report, and governments that have supported and encouraged the OPCW’s approach should contribute to it. The road ahead will be long.

Thank you for the interview.  

First published in of 24 March 2021

(Translation Current Concerns)

Statement of Concern

The OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) investigation of alleged chemical weapons use in Douma, Syria

We wish to express our deep concern over the protracted controversy and political fall-out surrounding the OPCW and its investigation of the alleged chemical weapon attacks in Douma, Syria, on 7 April 2018.
  Since the publication by the OPCW of its final report in March 2019, a series of worrying developments has raised serious and substantial concerns with respect to the conduct of that investigation. These developments include instances in which OPCW inspectors involved with the investigation have identified major procedural and scientific irregularities, the leaking of a significant quantity of corroborating documents, and damning statements provided to UN Security Council meetings. It is now well established that some senior inspectors involved with the investigation, one of whom played a central role, reject how the investigation derived its conclusions, and OPCW management now stands accused of accepting unsubstantiated or possibly manipulated findings with the most serious geo-political and security implications. Calls by some members of the Executive Council of the OPCW to allow all inspectors to be heard were blocked.
  The inspectors’ concerns are shared by the first Director General of the OPCW, José Bustani, and a significant number of eminent individuals have called for transparency and accountability at the OPCW. Bustani himself was recently prevented by key members of the Security Council from participating in a hearing on the Syrian dossier. As Ambassador Bustani stated in a personal appeal to the Director General, if the Organization is confident in the conduct of its Douma investigation then it should have no difficulty addressing the inspectors’ concerns.
  To date, unfortunately, the OPCW senior management has failed to adequately respond to the allegations against it and, despite making statements to the contrary, we understand has never properly allowed the views or concerns of the members of the investigation team to be heard or even met with most of them. It has, instead, side-stepped the issue by launching an investigation into a leaked document related to the Douma case and by publicly condemning its most experienced inspectors for speaking out.
  In a worrying recent development, a draft letter falsely alleged to have been sent by the Director General to one of the dissenting inspectors was leaked to an ‘open source’ investigation website in an apparent attempt to smear the former senior OPCW scientist. The ‘open source’ website then published the draft letter together with the identity of the inspector in question. Even more alarmingly, in a BBC4 radio series aired recently, an anonymous source, reportedly connected with the OPCW Douma investigation, gave an interview with the BBC in which he contributes to an attempt to discredit not only the two dissenting inspectors, but even Ambassador Bustani himself. Importantly, recent leaks in December 2020 have evidenced that a number of senior OPCW officials were supportive of one OPCW inspector who had spoken out with respect to malpractice.
  The issue at hand threatens to severely damage the reputation and credibility of the OPCW and undermine its vital role in the pursuit of international peace and security. It is simply not tenable for a scientific organization such as the OPCW to refuse to respond openly to the criticisms and concerns of its own scientists whilst being associated with attempts to discredit and smear those scientists. Moreover, the on-going controversy regarding the Douma report also raises concerns with respect to the reliability of previous FFM reports, including the investigation of the alleged attack at Khan Shaykhun in 2017.
  We believe that the interests of the OPCW are best served by the Director General providing a transparent and neutral forum in which the concerns of all the investigators can be heard as well as ensuring that a fully objective and scientific investigation is completed.
  To that end, we call on the Director General of the OPCW to find the courage to address the problems within his organization relating to this investigation and ensure States Parties and the United Nations are informed accordingly. In this way we hope and believe that the credibility and integrity of the OPCW can be restored.

Signatories in Support of the Statement of Concern:

José Bustani, Ambassador of Brazil, first Director General of the OPCW and former Ambassador to the United Kingdom and France.
Professor Noam Chomsky, Laureate Professor U. of Arizona and Institute Professor (em), MIT.
Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor, Harper’s Magazine.
Daniel Ellsberg, PERI Distinguished Research Fellow, UMass Amherst. Former Defense and State Department official. Former official of Defense Department (GS-18) and State Department (FSR-1).
Professor Richard Falk, Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University.
Tulsi Gabbard, former Presidential candidate and Member of the US House of Representatives (2013-2021)
Professor Dr. Ulrich Gottstein, on behalf of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW-Germany).
Katharine Gun, former GCHQ (UKGOV), whistleblower.
Denis J. Halliday, UN Assistant Secretary-General (1994-98).
Professor Pervez Houdbhoy, Quaid-e-Azam University and ex Pugwash.
Kristinn Hrafnnson, Editor in Chief, Wikileaks.
Dr Sabine Krüger, Analytical Chemist, Former OPCW Inspector 1997-2009.
Annie Machon, former MI5 Officer, UK Security Services.
Ray McGovern, ex-CIA Presidential Briefer; co-founder, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.
Elizabeth Murray, former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, National Intelligence Council (rtd); member, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence.
Professor Götz Neuneck, Pugwash Council and German Pugwash Chair.
Dirk van Niekerk, former OPCW Inspection Team Leader, Head of OPCW Special Mission to Iraq
John Pilger, Emmy and Bafta winning journalist and film maker.
Professor Theodore A. Postol, Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dr Antonius Roof, former OPCW Inspection Team Leader and Head Industry Inspections.
Professor John Avery Scales, Professor, Pugwash Council and Danish Pugwash Chair.
Hans von Sponeck, former UN Assistant Secretary General and UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator (Iraq).
Alan Steadman, Chemical Weapons Munitions Specialist, Former OPCW Inspection Team Leader and UNSCOM Inspector.
Jonathan Steele, journalist and author.
Roger Waters, Musician and Activist.
Lord West of Spithead, First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff 2002-06.
Oliver Stone, Film Director, Producer and Writer.
Colonel (ret.) Lawrence B. Wilkerson, U.S. Army, Visiting Professor at William and Mary College and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Source: of 11 March 2021

Coldly given the heave-ho

ef. From 20 to 22 April 2021 the Twenty-Fifth Session of the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was held in The Hague. At this conference, 87 out of 193 states suspended OPCW member Syria’s rights and obligations.
  Karin Leukefeld reported in detail on this conference and the background in the Nachdenkseiten of 22 April. Syria’s punishment was demanded at the request of a group of 46 Western states “Addressing the possession and use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic. This request was granted: “Of the 193 member states, 136 took part in the vote. Of these, 87 voted in favour of the resolution, following the motion of the EU and the NATO states Canada, USA and Australia. 15 states voted against the resolution, 34 abstained.” (Leukefeld) With the result that Syria was suspended from the OPCW.
  The investigation findings of two OPCW inspectors, confirming the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma on 7 April 2018 as unlikely, were coldly given the heave-ho; as were further efforts at the international level, as outlined by Hans von Sponeck in the interview and as expressed in the “Statement of Concern”. Even a mediation proposal by Hans von Sponeck and Professor Richard Falk, sent to all OPCW member states before the conference was not considered. Nor were the forceful, fact-based statements of the high-level guests at the Arria Formula meeting of the UN Security Council on 16 April 2021.

Source: of 22 April 202

False accusation are nothing new

“These recollections of the past bring about a bitter déjà-vu feeling. Just like 20 years ago, today our Western colleagues invest every effort to convince the world that ‘Assad’s regime’ is to be blamed for all deadly sins, including in the area of non-proliferation. In doing so, they deliberately neglect all the arguments that contradict the guilty case they are making. They turn a blind eye not only to our criticism but also to basic laws of nature, physics, mathematics and even common sense. They attempt to mobilise public opinion against Syrian authorities with a sole purpose. And it is not about upholding non-proliferation regime. It is all about the regime change.” (Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, at the Arria-Formula Meeting of UN Security Council on 16 April 2021. (excerpt)


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