Remarks by Mikhail Ulyanov, Director of the Foreign Ministry Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, at an extraordinary meeting of the OPCW Executive Council, The Hague, April 19, 2017
We have reconvened here to continue the April 13 discussion of the crucial emergency measures to be taken in connection with the most headline-making event this year. We received the first reports 15 days ago, yet no serious action has been taken to investigate these reports. At any rate, we have no information about the OPCW representatives visiting the Khan Sheikhun area. Continued inaction can seriously damage the prestige of our organisation, which received the Nobel Peace Prize for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria.
On the first day of this meeting, some delegations spoke as if the Syrian government’s involvement in the alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun had been established beyond doubt. The United States not only placed the blame on the Syrian government but even meted out punishment without waiting for investigation results. Its missile strike on a target in a sovereign state was in flagrant violation of international law, including the UN Charter. There are grounds to describe it as an act of aggression. This is not a polemic attempt to hurt the American delegation. This conclusion is absolutely free of emotion and is based on the Definition of Aggression that was approved at the UN General Assembly in 1974. This Definition says clearly that acts that qualify as aggression include the “bombardment by the armed forces of a state against the territory of another state.” This is exactly what happened in Syria.
It is puzzling that a number of countries from among the closest US allies rushed to express their approval of this missile strike. Time after time, they point to its supposedly “proportionate” nature. “Proportionate” to what, I wonder? The presence or absence of chemical weapons on Shayrat airbase? In truth, a request to the OPCW to conduct an inspection at the airbase would be a proportionate response to suspicions regarding the presence of chemical warfare agents. This would make it possible to establish the truth in the shortest possible time, acting efficiently and strictly within the legal framework. Unfortunately, the United States, as we see, does not believe in the effectiveness of the CWC mechanisms and prefers to act outside its legal field, resorting to gross violations of international norms instead. In all likelihood, the show of force and intimidation was the purpose of this illegal action, not the destruction of chemical weapons, the presence of which in Syria no one has so far proved.
To support its actions, Washington refers to it having absolute confidence in the culpability of Damascus. This is what our American colleagues themselves call “bad déjà vu.” We heard these same things from our American colleagues 14 years ago before the invasion of Iraq. In bilateral contacts, our American partners then – just as they do now – referred to allegedly reliable intelligence. As everyone remembers, this story had a disgraceful ending. Our American and British colleagues still have to wash off this stain. They should have learned the lesson. But no, they are doing exactly the same thing this time again, without even trying to make their position more credible.
A recent interview by Foreign Office Secretary Boris Johnson to The Telegraph, in which he called the use of chemical weapons by the government aircraft very likely, is a case in point. That is, the head of British diplomacy is not positive about it actually taking place. Then why do British colleagues allow themselves to make absolutely peremptory statements in the international arena? Aren’t they ashamed to support a missile attack triggered by nothing more than assumptions?
Russia is regularly called upon to “get on the right side of history.” We heard the same thing 14 years ago. Subsequent developments made it clear that we didn’t need to go anywhere, because we were on the right side. Back then, France and Germany were with us and persistently sought compliance with international law and the provisions of the UN Charter. It's unfortunate that these two countries have now adopted the opposite position. It looks like they haven’t learned the lesson of history, after having been on the right side of it in 2003.
We would like to remind everyone that there’s still no clarity regarding the Khan Sheikhun events. All charges against Damascus are unsubstantiated and based on questionable materials from social media provided by the long-discredited White Helmets non-governmental organisation, which is closely associated with the terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. We suggest that everyone get familiar with the materials put together by experts from Swedish Doctors for Human Rights who arrived at a conclusion that the children shown in the White Helmets footage were unconscious and under the influence of psychotropic substances.
The US Ambassador to the UN recently showed heart-rending pictures of Syrian children in the Security Council who allegedly came under the chemical attack at Khan Sheikhun. Incidentally, she didn’t even mention the Iraqi children exposed to chemical weapons in Mosul at about the same time. This topic leaves our Western colleagues absolutely indifferent. This also applies to the humanitarian disaster in Mosul, which they, guided by double standards as always, have swept under the carpet.
Following the example of our American colleagues, we were going to show some visual materials. Unfortunately, when he learned about our plan, the US permanent representative to the OPCW – and all of you, colleagues, just witnessed it – became panicky and hysterical. As a result, we were unable to show these pictures on the big screen. So, we will have to show them to you from a distance without using proper equipment. These photographs show us children with dilated pupils – almost the size of the iris – whereas the primary sign of sarin exposure is contracted pupils. This corroborates the conclusion made by the Swedish doctors that children in Khan Sheikhun were under the influence of narcotic or psychotropic drugs.
The following photos do not show signs that are typical of mild or moderate lesions, such as excessive salivation, lacrimation, or watery nasal discharge. Clearly, those who made these production shots are poorly versed in how chemical weapons work.
The type of ammunition presented in the video from Khan Sheikhun does not belong to airborne weapons, since it’s not outfitted with tail fins and is not properly marked. Most likely, it’s a homemade mine or some kind of metal item that is not related to full-fledged airborne ammunition. One such picture is enough to dispel the notion that the government air forces used chemical bombs. Many authoritative experts believe that makeshift chemical munitions were blown up in Khan Sheikhun rather than aviation bombs.
We are not trying to change our opponents’ minds, far from it. We showed these pictures to make a point that not everything is as simple and straightforward as someone is trying to make us believe. Only an immediate, professional, high-quality investigation can provide answers to all the questions. We will not be satisfied by an investigation carried out by the OPCW's Fact-Finding Mission in its usual way, that is, remotely, without inspecting the site of the alleged incident, and by just studying online materials and interviewing witnesses residing in the countries neighbouring with Syria.
To be truly effective and credible, an investigation must meet at least three criteria.
First, the investigative actions must be carried out directly onsite at Khan Sheikhun and Shayrat airbase where sarin used in Khan Sheikhun was allegedly stored.
Second, it is important to ensure a geographically balanced investigative team as expressly provided for in the Convention and the FFM mandate. We have to bring this up, because, according to our data, the FFM does not comply with the principle of broad and balanced geographical representation. If this is not the case, the Technical Secretariat can correct us and release a list of countries whose representatives are on the segment of the mission which investigates cases of alleged use of chemical weapons by government forces. We realise that disclosing identities is undesirable for security reasons, but there’s no secret about the names of the countries from which the experts come, or the number of representatives from each country. Clearly, representatives of those countries that are most hostile to Damascus should not dominate the FFM. It is hardly necessary to prove that high-quality professionals are available not only in North America and Western Europe, but in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America as well. When some Western delegations criticise Russia for posing the question of equitable geographical representation, they care not about the reputation of the mission, but their monopoly in it.
Third, the investigations cannot be based mainly on using online materials and polling opposition members. It is necessary to use the entire available range of investigative actions, as stipulated in the CWC and the FFM mandate, as well as the recommendations of the Joint Investigative Mechanism. Particular attention should be paid to collecting material evidence and samples directly on the site of the alleged incident.
If these three conditions are met, which are by no means far-fetched or excessive as some of our opponents are claiming, we can count on carrying out a swift and high-quality investigation. This is what the draft decision advanced by Russia and Iran, which is being reviewed by the Executive Council, aims for. We look forward to all countries that are interested in establishing the truth supporting it. We are willing to consider, carefully and constructively, possible additions and amendments to the text. Voting on this document will let us know whether all the Executive Council members really want a vigorous and effective investigation, as they state, or whether some of them hide their indifference or desire to conceal the truth behind this slogan.
Before putting the draft to vote, it is important to work through all the possibilities that may lead us to a consensus. We are willing to immediately start consultations to this end, including with the US delegation. If our American partners are genuinely interested in establishing the truth by conducting a serious and immediate investigation, we have a chance to strike a deal. If not, then virtually no chance of finding mutually acceptable solutions is left.