UPDATE 11. July 2021: Why is OPCW chief Fernando Arias afraid of his own inspectors?
UPDATE 05. July 2021: OPCW chief misleads UN with new lies, excuses on Syria cover-up (video)
UPDATE 02. July 2021: Pressed for answers on Syria cover-up, OPCW chief offers new lies and excuses
Russia slams ‘disgraceful’ ban on founding OPCW chief speaking at UN Security Council on Syria, PUBLISHES his speech unilateraly
By RT - 06. October 2020 (VIDEO of banned speech below)
An ex-OPCW chief, sacked under US pressure, has been barred from briefing the UN Security Council about a controversial probe into an alleged 2018 chemical attack in Syria. Russia called it a “shame” and published his speech.
Jose Bustani, a Brazilian diplomat who led the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) from 1997 until 2002, was invited by Moscow to speak at a UN Security Council meeting about the so-called “Syrian chemical dossier,” but his appearance was blocked at the last minute by Belgium, Germany, Estonia, France, the US and the UK.
“What has happened now is yet more sad proof that Western delegations fear the uncomfortable truth,” Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, stressed while addressing the UN global body on Monday.
He said the six countries had “made history” because the Security Council has never voted “on the presence or absence of a briefer proposed by the [UNSC] president.” Prohibiting the former OPCW director general from speaking was a “shame and disgrace,” Nebenzia concluded, promising to publish Bustani’s statement after the meeting.
UK envoy Jonathan Allen said that Bustani is not in a position to “provide relevant knowledge or information.”
Shortly afterwards, the undelivered speech appeared on the website of the Russian mission to the UN. In it, the sacked OPCW chief raised “serious questions” over “whether the independence, impartiality, and professionalism of some of the organization’s work is being severely compromised, possibly under pressure from some member states.”
As a major example, Bustani cited an OPCW investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian city of Douma on April 7, 2018. Western governments, and media outlets, maintain that forces loyal to Damascus dropped two gas cylinders as part of an offensive against jihadist forces, killing scores of civilians.
The allegations were used as a pretext for a major US-led airstrike against Syrian government forces later that year. The OPCW launched a probe into the “chemical attack,” and in early March of 2019, the final report by the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the OPCW stated that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that canisters filled with “molecular chlorine” were dropped from Syrian aircraft in Douma.
The final report gave credence to the Western show of force by implicating the Syrian government of Bashar Assad in conducting the attack, which the Syrian authorities vehemently deny.
Shortly after the release of the OPCW report, an internal memo by OPCW engineers was leaked, suggesting the canisters were likely just placed at the site of the “attack,” and did not come from the skies. Still, the final report did not include such information, and a senior OPCW official reportedly ordered the removal of “all traces” of the dissenting opinion, according to WikiLeaks.
Months later, Bustani noted that he was invited to an expert panel which heard the testimony of an unnamed OPCW investigator, who came forward with damning evidence that his own organization had engineered a report based on a flawed conclusion and likely deliberately steered toward the outcome favored by the West.
That expert provided “compelling and documentary evidence of highly questionable, and potentially fraudulent conduct in the investigative process,” Bustani’s statement recalled. The Brazilian diplomat had been so stunned by the testimony that he personally called on the OPCW to be “resurrected to become the independent and non-discriminatory body it used to be.”
However, he continued, the chemical weapons watchdog did not respond to any calls for greater transparency about the controversial Douma investigation. The probe was “hidden behind an impenetrable wall of silence and opacity, making any meaningful dialogue impossible.”
In conclusion, Bustani called on Fernando Arias, the current OPCW chief, to hear the grievances of OPCW inspectors who voiced dissenting opinions on the Douma incident. They “have dared to speak out against possible irregular behavior in your organization,” Bustani argued, adding that it is “in the world’s interest that you hear them out.”
Bustani noted that he had been removed from his OPCW position “following a US-orchestrated campaign in 2002.” Back then, he was trying to send chemical weapons inspectors to Iraq prior to the 2003 US invasion there. A UN tribunal ruled that his sacking was unlawful.
FILE PHOTOS: Former OPCW Director Jose Bustani and chemical products shown to Western journalists in Douma, Syria © EVARISTO SA / AFP; REUTERS/ Ali Hashisho
Statement and right of reply by Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia at the UN Security Council Meeting on implementation of resolution 2118
05. October 2020
Video - see below
Unfortunately, what happened now is yet another sad proof that Western delegations fear the uncomfortable truth. You try to muffle objective facts that can ruin the image you painted so carefully – of “heinous crimes of the Syrian regime” and the impeccability of the OPCW. But everyone sees now that this picture has little connection to reality.
I wonder if you realize in what ugly light you put yourselves in front of the global community. What happened today is shame and disgrace. You made it to the history of the Security Council and made the Council go down in history, because the UNSC has never – try to prove me wrong – never voted on the presence or absence of a briefer proposed by the President. What you referred to today was not about participation of a briefer, but about an agenda item of the meeting.
Since you did not allow the former Director General of the OPCW to speak, I will read his address when speaking in my national capacity. As for our national statement, you will find it posted on our website shortly after the meeting.
"Mr Chairman, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, your excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,
My name is José Bustani. I am honoured to have been invited to present a statement for this meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the Syrian chemical dossier and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. As the OPCW’s first Director General, a position I held from 1997 to 2002, I naturally retain a keen interest in the evolution and fortunes of the Organisation. I have been particularly interested in recent developments regarding the Organisation’s work in Syria.
For those of you who are not aware, I was removed from office following a US-orchestrated campaign in 2002 for, ironically, trying to uphold the Chemical Weapons Convention. My removal was subsequently ruled to be illegal by the International Labour Organisation’s Administrative Tribunal, but despite this unpleasant experience the OPCW remains close to my heart. It is a special Organisation with an important mandate. I accepted the position of Director General precisely because the Chemical Weapons Convention was non-discriminatory. I took immense pride in the independence, impartiality, and professionalism of its inspectors and wider staff in implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention. No State Party was to be considered above the rest and the hallmark of the Organisation’s work was the even-handedness with which all Member States were treated regardless of size, political might, or economic clout.
Although no longer at the helm by this time, I felt great joy when the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons”. It was a mandate towards which I and countless other former staff members had worked tirelessly. In the nascent years of the OPCW, we faced a number of challenges, but we overcame them to earn the Organisation a well-deserved reputation for effectiveness and efficiency, not to mention autonomy, impartiality, and a refusal to be politicised. The ILO decision on my removal was an official and public reassertion of the importance of these principles.
More recently, the OPCW’s investigations of alleged uses of chemical weapons have no doubt created even greater challenges for the Organisation. It was precisely for this kind of eventuality that we had developed operating procedures, analytical methods, as well as extensive training programmes, in strict accordance with the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Allegations of the actual use of chemical weapons were a prospect for which we hoped our preparations would never be required. Unfortunately, they were, and today allegations of chemical weapons use are a sad reality.
It is against this backdrop that serious questions are now being raised over whether the independence, impartiality, and professionalism of some of the Organisation’s work is being severely compromised, possibly under pressure from some Member States. Of particular concern are the circumstances surrounding the OPCW’s investigation of the alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria, on 7 April 2018. These concerns are emanating from the very heart of the Organisation, from the very scientists and engineers involved in the Douma investigation.
In October 2019 I was invited by the Courage Foundation, an international organisation that ‘supports those who risk life or liberty to make significant contributions to the historical record’, to participate in a panel along with a number of eminent international figures from the fields of international law, disarmament, military operations, medicine, and intelligence. The panel was convened to hear the concerns of an OPCW official over the conduct of the Organisation’s investigation into the Douma incident.
The expert provided compelling and documentary evidence of highly questionable, and potentially fraudulent conduct in the investigative process. In a joint public statement, the Panel was, and I quote, ‘unanimous in expressing [its] alarm over unacceptable practices in the investigation of the alleged chemical attack in Douma’. The Panel further called on the OPCW, ‘to permit all inspectors who took part in the Douma investigation to come forward and report their differing observations in an appropriate forum of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, in fulfilment of the spirit of the Convention.’ UNQUOTE.
I was personally so disturbed by the testimony and evidence presented to the Panel, that I was compelled to make a public statement. I quote: “I have always expected the OPCW to be a true paradigm of multilateralism. My hope is that the concerns expressed publicly by the Panel, in its joint consensus statement, will catalyse a process by which the Organisation can be resurrected to become the independent and non-discriminatory body it used to be.” UNQUOTE.
The call for greater transparency from the OPCW further intensified in November 2019 when an open letter of support for the Courage Foundation declaration was sent to Permanent Representatives to the OPCW to, QUOTE, ‘ask for [their] support in taking action at the forthcoming Conference of States Parties aimed at restoring the integrity of the OPCW and regaining public trust.’ UNQUOTE.
The signatories of this petition included such eminent figures as Noam Chomsky, Emeritus Professor at MIT; Marcello Ferrada de Noli, Chair of the Swedish Doctors for Human Rights; Coleen Rowley, whistle-blower and a 2002 Time Magazine Person of the Year; Hans von Sponeck, former UN Assistant Secretary-General; and Film Director Oliver Stone, to mention a few.
Almost one year later, the OPCW has still not responded to these requests, nor to the ever-growing controversy surrounding the Douma investigation. Rather, it has hidden behind an impenetrable wall of silence and opacity, making any meaningful dialogue impossible. On the one occasion when it did address the inspectors’ concerns in public, it was only to accuse them of breaching confidentiality. Of course, Inspectors – and indeed all OPCW staff members – have responsibilities to respect confidentiality rules. But the OPCW has the primary responsibility – to faithfully ensure the implementation of the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention (Article VIII, para 1).
The work of the Organisation must be transparent, for without transparency there is no trust. And trust is what binds the OPCW together. If Member States do not have trust in the fairness and objectivity of the work of the OPCW, then its effectiveness as a global watchdog for chemical weapons is severely compromised.
And transparency and confidentiality are not mutually exclusive. But confidentiality cannot be invoked as a smoke screen for irregular behaviour. The Organisation needs to restore the public trust it once had and which no one denies is now waning. Which is why we are here today.
It would be inappropriate for me to advise on, or even to suggest how the OPCW should go about regaining public trust. Still, as someone who has experienced both rewarding and tumultuous times with the OPCW, I would like to make a personal plea to you, Mr Fernando Arias, as Director General of the OPCW. The inspectors are among the Organisation’s most valuable assets. As scientists and engineers, their specialist knowledge and inputs are essential for good decision making. Most importantly, their views are untainted by politics or national interests. They only rely on the science. The inspectors in the Douma investigation have a simple request – that they be given the opportunity to meet with you to express their concerns to you in person, in a manner that is both transparent and accountable.
This is surely the minimum that they can expect. At great risk to themselves, they have dared to speak out against possible irregular behaviour in your Organisation, and it is without doubt in your, in the Organisation’s, and in the world’s interest that you hear them out. The Convention itself showed great foresight in allowing inspectors to offer differing observations, even in investigations of alleged uses of chemical weapons (paras 62 and 66 of Part II, Ver. Annex). This right, is, and I quote, ‘a constitutive element supporting the independence and objectivity of inspections’. This language comes from Ralf Trapp and Walter Krutzsch’s “A commentary on Verification Practice under the CWC”, published by the OPCW itself during my time as DG.
Regardless of whether or not there is substance to the concerns raised about the OPCW’s behaviour in the Douma investigation, hearing what your own inspectors have to say would be an important first step in mending the Organisation’s damaged reputation. The dissenting inspectors are not claiming to be right, but they do want to be given a fair hearing. As one Director General to another, I respectfully request that you grant them this opportunity. If the OPCW is confident in the robustness of its scientific work on Douma and in the integrity of the investigation, then it has little to fear in hearing out its inspectors. If, however, the claims of evidence suppression, selective use of data, and exclusion of key investigators, among other allegations, are not unfounded, then it is even more imperative that the issue be dealt with openly and urgently.
This Organisation has already achieved greatness. If it has slipped, it nonetheless still has the opportunity to repair itself, and to grow to become even greater. The world needs a credible chemical weapons watchdog. We had one, and I am confident, Mr Arias, that you will see to it that we have one again."
I would like to thank Izumi Nakamitsu for her presentation of the 84th monthly report of the OPCW Director General (S/2020/961) on the implementation of UNSC resolution 2118. Madame Under-Secretary-General, you can see what Western delegations are doing to this topic and what are the real roots of the anti-Syrian decision that the Executive Council of the OPCW adopted in July. We have convened two Security Council events in order to show the inside of those approaches and provide a true picture of what is happening to the OPCW – an organization that, unfortunately, relays selfish interests of certain countries. The UN must not repeat its fate when considering the Syrian chemical file; it must not encourage injustice and aggression. We ask you not to treat these initiatives arbitrarily or mechanically, and to draw the Secretary-General’s attention to it. At stake is the authority of the United Nations, its Security Council and the UNSG himself.
It is the second open meeting of the Council dedicated to the Syrian chemical file, initiated by Russia. As President, we believe our task is to lead the discussion of this complicated and highly politicized topic out of an impasse where it has stuck for quite some time. We advocate for an open and frank conversation that should help us objectively conceive the developments at this track.
To facilitate it, in the run-up to this session we hosted an “Arria-formula” meeting on the Syrian chemical file on 28 September. Among the participants were renowned independent experts – Ian Henderson, Theodore Postol, and Aaron Mate. This event received much interest from those who keep close track of this story. We are still receiving positive feedback and gratitude for giving the floor to very interesting and informative reports. We plan to compile statements that were made and circulate this material, so we invite all who took part in the discussion to submit to us texts of their statements by the end of day tomorrow, 6 October.
Thanks to the briefers, our discussion on 28 September was frank, based on facts and evidence rather than unsubstantiated slogans. Regrettably, not all UNSC members turned out ready to have such a discussion. Some of them, apparently in the absence of counter arguments, tried to “suppress” our experts by accusing them of bias and incompetence. However, they had no single reason to say so: all our invited speakers were ready to stand their ground, argue about facts and ways to interpret them. But our Western partners were not ready for this – their arguments were nothing new, all based on notorious concepts “highly likely”, “everyone knows that”, “there is no other plausible explanation”, etc.
The times when we could “technically” discuss a UNSG report on the progress of resolution 2118 have long passed by. We have accumulated a “critical mass” of questions to the OPCW Technical Secretariat (TS) and proofs of manipulations and falsifications in its reports. Our claims regarding the FFM report on the incident in Khan Shaykhun of April, 2017 were ignored despite plentiful evidence that the incident had been staged. We have still received no explanations from the TS regarding manipulations with the FFM report on the events in Douma in April, 2018, neither a response from the Director General on how he is going to address the exposed malpractices. Although there is evidence of I.Henderson – a witness who used to be directly involved in the investigation – that we deal with a clear forgery. The initial report concluded that the incident had not been caused by chemical weapons; but this report was replaced by another version, which was more convenient for the West, whereas authors of the first – the objective one – were oppressed by the OPCW leadership.
More examples are coming in almost monthly. Since spring, we have had to discuss the IIT report on the incidents in Al Lataminah in March, 2017. This is a politically biased, factually unreliable and technically unconvincing document. We have already presented our detailed criticism of it, our arguments have been circulated as a UNSC official document in June. This report contains a poor excuse for analysis of combat situation near Al Lataminah and Hama in March-April, 2017, but even what it got is enough to state that Syrian governmental forces had no need whatsoever – even hypothetically – to use chemical weapons. Back then, the Syrian Army was on a successful offensive in Hama Governorate, with up to 70 % of its territory already back under control. To use chemical weapons and thus “draw the fire upon itself” would make no sense for the Syrian Government.
However, this dubious report was fundamental for the OPCW Executive Council as it was pronouncing its “guilty verdict” - the anti-Syrian decision adopted at the July session by the minimum required number of votes. This decision prescribes that Syria must meet the conditions that cannot possibly be met: to declare allegedly remaining chemical weapons and related facilities that Syria has no more, because all CW had been taken out and eliminated, and none of the OPCW inspections ever since 2013 has been able to prove the opposite.
Latest arrivals on this track are FFM reports on the incidents in Aleppo in November, 2018, and Saraqib (Idlib) in August, 2016, that the TS issued only upon our numerous and insistent calls. Thereby for more than 12 months both us and the Syrian side had been bombarded by requests for more and more information. Something lacked all the time; TS encountered “unsurmountable” barriers; samples went missing; and so on. At some point, we were completely exhausted proving that we had submitted all the materials. So why did the “investigation” of those incidents take so long and go so hard? Isn’t it because it was the opposition, not the Syrian Army, that was accused of using chemical weapons? Against this backdrop, the findings of the FFM were not a revelation – of course, the Mission could not “determine” the fact of CW usage by opposition groups. The TS could have spared efforts pretending that the investigation was underway. Instead they could have published this conclusion right away and, for that matter, admit that they would not even consider that the Syrian opposition might have been related to the use of chemical weapons.
The present report of the Director General builds on top of these traditions. Take, for example, its paragraphs dwelling on outstanding issues with regard to initial declaration. As we learned from former OPCW inspector I.Hendersen during our “Arria-formula” VTC, guidance of the TS instructs the Declaration Assessment Team (DAT) to keep them open. With such an approach, no matter how Syrians justify themselves, this part of the file will not be closed. I would also like to remind that, according to the same expert, at the initial stage of joining the CWC, many states-holders encountered similar problems when filing their declarations. But in their cases those were interpreted as “minor drawbacks” that did not undermine the integrity of the declaration. It means the TS treatment of Damascus is biased.
We cannot but note that in his cover letter to the report, the UN Secretary-General used the language of the aforementioned biased and unrealistic decision of the OPCW Executive Council that “those individuals responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable” and that it allegedly takes the unity of the Council to uphold this “urgent commitment”.
We are not easy to surprise. Unfortunately, everything that is marked “made in the OPCW” evokes association with some sort of manipulations and falsifications. Let us say frankly: the TS is becoming a tool that the West uses to exert informational and political pressure on “unwanted” countries. Involvement of the TS in anti-Russian campaigns also supports this conclusion. We saw this happen earlier – with the Skripals incident, where questions float unanswered up in the air, and we see this happen again today. I mean the situation around alleged poisoning of A.Navalny in Russia. For some reason, upon Western countries’ first call for “technical assistance” the OPCW Technical Secretariat readily hurries to “investigate” in the very same direction that matches the political conclusions already made about some “irrefutable evidence” of commissioned poisonings.
In spite of this, we invited OPCW inspectors to Russia to establish the details of what had happened. We did this because we really have nothing to hide.
Allegations that Russia try to “undermine” the authority of the OPCW are absolutely unsubstantiated. As J.Bustani pointed out in his statement: “This Organisation has already achieved greatness. If it has slipped, it nonetheless still has the opportunity to repair itself”. As all responsible members of the OPCW, we want to restore its good name so that it could continue to implement its mandate according to the CWC.
Distinguished colleagues, we know too well what you are going to say – been there, heard this. I tell you frankly if I may: all of this looks bleak and unconvincing. Russia remains interested in objective investigations, but we will oppose disinformation and blatant lies.
In conclusion, let me make one more point. When Western delegations argued with us (today and earlier) regarding practicability of J.Bustani’s participation in this meeting, they stated that it would be more logical to invite current Director General F.Arias. We have never objected to this scenario, we only insisted on the open format of the briefing. Now the time has obviously come to speak openly, no delays any more. We suggest agreeing today that we will invite F.Arias to our next meeting on the Syrian chemical file. We expect to hear his exhaustive answers to the questions set by earlier by I.Henderson, A.Mate, and T.Postol, and today by J.Bustani and the Member-States.
In response to the representative of Germany:
What regards High Commissioner for Human Rights Mr. Al Hussein - in the mentioned meeting the question was whether to consider an agenda item in the SC or not. Indeed, the agenda item was not adopted as it did not receive the needed number of votes.
So it is inappropriate to say Russia blocked participation of a speaker that was about to brief the Council. We blocked consideration of an agenda item, which makes a big difference. Just compare - it would be as if today somebody had tried to block the agenda item under consideration, which is implementation of resolution 2118.
In response to the representative of the Great Britain:
The United Kingdom proposed to put to vote the question of briefer's participation, which I did as President of the Council. I must say to the UK representative that in your place I would have appreciated that Presidency put the question to vote in the wording that you proposed. Though I am convinced that the issue of the wording and the related arguement were absolutely legitimate. You understand that should the wording be different, the result wouldn't have been the same.
Now in my national capacity. As for the prospects that we discussed to invite DG Arias - it is us who offered it. I hope next time he is a proposed briefer at our open briefing on Syria CW, you will not put the issue of his participation to vote.
In response to statements by the representatives of France and Estonia:
I would like to respond to the words of the representative of France who reproached the Presidency with going beyond its authority. Let me remind that I not only remained within my authorities as President, but even not used them to fullest capacity. Had I used all the authority we are entitled to, without any prejudice to the rules of procedure, we would have had another vote result.
Now in my national capacity - by this vote we covered ourselves in disgrace. For the first time ever the Council voted on the presence of a proposed briefer. It is telling of your fear to hear the truth and of your lack of confidence - that's it. So are the statements that I heard here today. Once again - this is a remark in my national capacity as representative of Russia.
I would kindly request the distinguished representative of France not to abstain from making recommendations on what I should or should not include in my national statements.
In my national-capacity response to the representative of Estonia I should say that we will with great pleasure participate in a meeting with DG Arias next time he attends a UNSC open briefing, which, I hope, will happen as soon as next month.
Address by former OPCW DG J.Bustani to the UNSC meeting on progress of resolution 2118
•Oct 5, 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRdLkmhkCP0
Address by former Director General of the OPCW J.Bustani to the UNSC meeting on progress of resolution 2118, October 5, 2020 Full text of the statement - https://russiaun.ru/en/news/syria051020 The official website of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the UN - https://www.russiaun.ru
Why is OPCW chief Fernando Arias afraid of his own inspectors?
By AARON MATÉ·- 11. July
Rather than address the concerns of two veteran inspectors about a Syria cover-up, OPCW Director General Fernando Arias has attacked them with false claims. OPCW sources and newly leaked material expose Arias’ latest Western state-backed deceit.
(Part two of two. Read part one below.)
The stated mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is to ensure “a world free of chemical weapons.” From his executive suite at The Hague, however, OPCW Director General Fernando Arias has been on a different mission: keeping the organization free of accountability for an explosive Syria cover-up scandal, and trying to silence two veteran inspectors who blew the whistle.
Arias has refused to address the manipulation of the OPCW’s probe into an alleged chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma. Back in April 2018, the US, UK and France accused Syria of dropping chlorine gas cylinders that killed dozens, and bombed the war-torn country in purported retaliation. The OPCW subsequently reinforced the US-led narrative of Syrian government guilt in a public report issued in March 2019.
A trove of leaks soon exposed a deception both in Douma and then at OPCW headquarters. OPCW inspectors who deployed to Syria had, in fact, found no evidence of a chemical attack. If published, their findings would have undermined the stated pretext for the Western airstrikes, and bolstered suspicions that sectarian insurgents had staged the incident to frame the Syrian government. But senior OPCW officials doctored the team’s original report, sidelined its members, and kept its critical findings from the public. US officials were also allowed to visit The Hague and try to influence the probe in their favor.
Rather than investigate the subterfuge, the OPCW leadership – with the backing of the US and other NATO governments – has waged a public campaign against two veteran OPCW scientists who challenged the scandal from within. In February 2020, Arias denigrated the whistleblowers under the guise of an inquiry into their alleged confidentiality breaches. In a coordinated effort late last year, unknown OPCW sources laundered disinformation about the inspectors and the Douma investigation to two Western state-funded outlets, Bellingcat and the BBC. Their smear efforts included an outright hoax exposed by The Grayzone.
The latest phase of the Douma deflection campaign arrived during a June 3rd appearance by Arias before the United Nations Security Council.
In part one of this report, The Grayzone revealed how Arias put forward a new round of excuses and falsehoods to whitewash the Syria cover-up scandal and evade concrete proposals to resolve it. This follow-up article, based on OPCW sources and leaked material – some previously unpublished – exposes Arias’ latest distortions about the two dissenting inspectors.
The inspectors who vocally opposed their superiors’ deceptions are Ian Henderson, described by the OPCW as “Inspector A,” and Dr. Brendan Whelan, “Inspector B.” The two have previously responded in detail to Arias’ public attacks. They first replied to the OPCW leader inFebruary 2020, and again in follow-up letters the next month.
Undeterred by these prior corrections, Arias chose once again to denigrate Henderson and Whelan at the United Nations. With a slew of deceitful claims, Arias demonstrated that he is willing to continue spreading disinformation about the inspectors rather than answer their concerns.
“Involved”: OPCW chief omits Douma probe’s original report
Dr. Brendan Whelan (“Inspector B”) was the first to challenge the cover-up. In his comments at the UN, Arias disingenuously minimized Whelan’s involvement in the Douma investigation, in particular the team’s interim report, and falsely claimed that the 16-year OPCW veteran had “produced” reports on a “personal” basis:
He was involved in the draft of the interim report on the FFM related to Douma. … The conclusions of the reports produced personally by Inspector B are, of course, erroneous and uninformed.
Whelan was not merely “involved in the draft of the interim report”, as Arias claimed. Whelan was the chief author of the team’s original report, which ruled out a chlorine attack in Douma. Unknown OPCW officials doctored that report at the eleventh hour. They then tried to hurriedly publish a bogus version containing unfounded claims that chlorine was used as a weapon.
After a standoff over the doctoring, the OPCW released a watered-down version of the original report on July 6, 2018. This is the “interim report” that Arias is referring to, omitting the original that it replaced. (See the timeline at the end of this article for a breakdown of the Douma investigation’s four different reports, both published and unpublished.)
The OPCW has never denied the Original Report’s authenticity, challenged its contents, or refuted the fact that that there was an underhanded attempt to issue a doctored version. This appears to be why Arias is now trying to tacitly invalidate the original team report by falsely dismissing it as something that Whelan “produced personally.” As Arias knows, the report was assigned to Whelan, and his final product was peer viewed by other team members.
Arias and other OPCW officials have never explained why they believe that the conclusions of the Whelan-drafted report were “erroneous and uninformed.” By contrast, it is Whelan who has vigorously documented the OPCW’s errors and outright fraud. This started immediately upon discovering the attempted deception. On June 22 2018, Whelan sent an email of protest to senior management expressing his “gravest concern” about the doctoring of the original report.
Whelan’s intervention thwarted the publication of that bogus version. But it also led to him being effectively sidelined, having only a token involvement in further work. The investigation also became more tightly controlled. In the wake of Whelan’s dissent, OPCW management, still determined not to publish the Original Report, moved to issue the new interim report, while trying to lend an appearance that the report doctoring was being addressed. The reality, as this article will demonstrate, was far different.
Leaks reveal how interim Douma report replaced censored original
After ignoring the existence of the original report and Whelan’s involvement in it, Arias went on to claim that Whelan ultimately agreed with the conclusions of the published Interim Report that replaced it:
He confirmed in writing, and we have the document, to senior management… that he agreed with the interim report conclusions.
It is not clear why Arias insists on making this irrelevant and inconsequential observation — he doesn’t say. Whelan has never claimed he disagreed per se with the published Interim Report to which Arias is referring. Instead, Whelan challenged the censorship of his Original Report; and then, nine months later, took issue with the Final Report that was published after he was no longer with the organization. It appears that Arias is trying to insinuate that if Whelan “agreed with the interim report conclusions,” then that somehow invalidates the concerns he raised about the fraudulent process before and after it was published.
Whatever his reasoning, Arias’ claim is deceptive and, in fact, based on a false premise. Whelan could not have agreed with the “conclusions” about the Douma incident in the published Interim Report, simply because it did not have any.
The absence of conclusions was a result of direct instructions from the Douma Team Leader. Following the censorship of the Original Report and Whelan’s thwarting of the Doctored Report, a new draft was then prepared. In a previously undisclosed July 2nd email obtained by The Grayzone, the Team Leader decreed that no “conclusions or hypotheses” could be included in this replacement version.
“As the investigation is ongoing, the status update [Interim Report] will not include conclusions or hypotheses,” the Team Leader wrote. It would, he said, “be limited to” descriptive details such as security arrangements, number of samples analyzed, lab results, numbers of witnesses, and methodologies.
In the same email, the Team Leader directed Whelan and two colleagues to “meet tomorrow and draft this document.” These two colleagues had not deployed to Syria, and were members of the so-called “core team” that excluded most of the inspectors who were on the ground.
Whelan agreed to this watered-down version on certain conditions. As he would later tell Arias in a letter of April 2019, he accepted the drastically curtailed report provided “there were no factually incorrect statements or conclusions contained in it.” He also insisted on including a highly significant fact about the chemicals found in the Douma samples. An OPCW Designated Laboratory had detected only trace levels of common chlorinated organic compounds – no higher than might be expected in a normal environment – at the scene.
Whelan was also led to understand that the censored facts and findings would later be re-incorporated into the final version, whenever that would come. In a previously leaked July 5themail to Whelan and other team members, the Team Leader in fact acknowledged that there were “important facts that we decided not release in this interim report.”
With these conditions, the new interim report — despite omissions of other key information — would at least be an honest account of events. But ultimately, none of Whelan’s conditions were satisfied.
When Arias now claims to “have the document” where Whelan “confirmed in writing” that he “agreed with the interim report conclusions,” he is omitting several critical facts. For one, even Whelan’s “confirmation” contained a significant concern that the other members of the team were prevented from reviewing the report. And after Whelan reservedly consented to the report, the Team Leader unilaterally removed the finding about trace levels of chlorinated organic compounds detected at the scene.
The “document” to which Arias refers is in fact not even a document, but an email. The exchange began on July 2nd, when Whelan wrote to Chief of Cabinet Bob Fairweather – the deputy to then-OPCW Director General Ahmet Üzümcü (Arias would take over a month later) – with a request about the pending Interim Report.
“I would kindly like to request that before the interim report on D[ouma] is issued, that all members of the FFM team be consulted by you to ensure that each one has had the opportunity to review the version to be released,” Whelan wrote.
Whelan was clearly invoking the dispute over the doctored original report, and the deceitful attempt to rush it out for publication unbeknownst to the Douma FMM members. Fairweather did not provide a direct response. Instead, he evaded Whelan’s request by replying: “I would have hoped that over the last two weeks the team have been able to map out the way forward with handling the report.”
The following day, Fairweather followed up to ask Whelan if the team had agreed on “mapping the way forward.” Whelan responded that he had in fact been kept out of the loop, and had been instructed to help produce the new Interim Report on the basis of the “redacted” doctored report that he had protested two weeks earlier.
Fairweather – having avoided Whelan’s request that all the other team members get the chance to review – replied: “Okay, I await the draft which I take it everyone now agrees on this version?”. Whelan responded by invoking the request that Fairweather had ignored: “Not everybody in the team was invited to attend, but at least those present agreed.”
When Arias now claims to “have the document,” he is referring to this email. Arias did not mention that Whelan’s comment was made in passing, and contained the significant caveat that the other team members – specifically, all who had gone to Syria — had been excluded.
Arias not only omitted this context, but also omitted a critical alteration that occurred two days later. On June 5th, the eve of publication, the Team Leader unilaterally removed the language about the extremely low levels of chlorinated chemicals. This last-minute edit deprived the interim report of a crucial piece of evidence that could undermine the case for a chemical attack. It also amounted to a significant change to the report after Whelan had offered his qualified agreement. When Whelan protested this decision, the Team Leader responded: “I would like to remind you that I can take unilateral decisions.”
In short, Whelan’s superiors secured his tenuous agreement, and then made a unilateral edit over his objections.
In this context, the interim report emerges as a stalling measure for the officials behind the cover-up.
Published two weeks after Whelan’s June 22nd email of protest and just two months before his scheduled OPCW departure in September 2018, the watered-down document – with the Original Report’s inconvenient facts excised – opened the door for the future return of the doctored findings once the original chief author was gone for good. As The Grayzone has previously reported, the Team Leader even took a six-week vacation following the publication of the Interim Report – returning one day after Whelan’s last day on the job.
The email chain between Whelan and Fairweather shows that the dissenting inspector feared a rigged outcome. In addition to seeking a chance for the team to review the interim report, Whelan also asked if, in the future, he would have the opportunity to review the final report, which would likely be published after his scheduled departure from the OPCW in September.
In response, Fairweather pointed out that “once we leave OPCW we leave behind our work and responsibilities. I shall have no involvement with the report after I leave.”
Whelan’s apparent worry about the final report proved to be well-founded. That report, released in March 2019, baselessly concluded that there was “reasonable grounds” for chlorine gas use in Douma, and disingenuously excluded the evidence that undermined this narrative.
“For the first time…”
In another attempt to disparage Whelan, Arias highlighted the fact that Douma was his first FFM mission, and that he did not enter the Syrian town with other team members:
[Whelan/Inspector B] participated in an FFM investigation for the first time, but only in a limited capacity: he could not be deployed in the field, as he had not completed some of the inspector’s trainings.
It is true that Douma was Whelan’s first FFM investigation. But Arias omitted that the same is true for at least two other members of the team, including the deputy team leader.
More importantly, the Douma mission was the first OPCW on-site FFM for everybody on the team. Previous FFM teams who investigated allegations of chemical use by Syria had only operated from outside Syria, particularly in Turkey. Far from the scene of the alleged incidents, the FFM teams in Syria’s northern neighbor collected supposed evidence and interviewed alleged witnesses gathered by opposition-tied groups including the White Helmets, an organization funded by the US, UK, and other belligerents in the Syria war, and whose parent foundation, Mayday International, fell under investigation for fraud by the Dutch government.
Douma marked the first time that anybody from the OPCW had been involved in an OPCW FFM investigation where they could go on site in Syria, collect their own samples, and conduct their own measurements.
Accordingly, whatever Arias was trying to imply in highlighting that Douma was Whelan’s “first” mission, applies to everybody else on the investigation.
This also extends to Arias’ claim that Whelan “could not be deployed in the field” to Douma. If Whelan was somehow hindered by operating from the command-post in Damascus and not entering Douma, then that is even more the case for the so-called “core team,” the officials who wrote up the final report. With only a few exceptions, none of the “core team” members even set foot in Syria. In fact, the original team leader left Syria before the investigation even began, yet was central to drafting the final report.
“…but only in a limited capacity”
At the UN, Arias asserted that Whelan participated in the Douma mission “only in a limited capacity.” In reality, Whelan played the leading role. Most notably, Whelan drafted the original report — for which the bulk of the investigative work was completed — and led the scientific element of the mission.
In May 2018, shortly after the team’s return from Syria, it was Whelan, and not the nominal team leader, who was assigned to give a high-level briefing to state representatives on the conduct of the investigation in Douma, as The Grayzone has previously reported.
Newly obtained documents show that Whelan also played a critical role from the start of the investigation. Whelan was a member of the Advance Team, comprising the three most senior inspectors on the mission, that went to Beirut on April 12 to plan for the mission.
The next day the remainder of the team (six junior-level inspectors and three interpreters) followed to join them (Ian Henderson, the other known dissenting inspector, arrived in Syria part-way through the deployment). In notifying Syria of the arrival of the follow-on team, the OPCW wrote that an “additional team of the OPCW FFM” would come “to reinforce the supportfor the [Advance] team.”
Whelan was also one of only five inspectors who deployed to Syria for the entire period of the investigation.
It is outright false then, for Arias to now claim that Whelan’s role in the Douma probe came in a “limited capacity.”
And it is especially egregious given that Arias is personally well aware of Whelan’s senior role. In a letter to the OPCW chief in April 2019, previously published by The Grayzone, Whelan outlined his extensive duties in the Douma investigation. In a letter of response in June 2019, Arias did not challenge a single claim.
Ultimately, after taking these jabs at Whelan, Arias has never explained their significance, or how his trivialities and distortions would invalidate the fundamental concerns of scientific impropriety and fraud that Whelan raised.
Arias continues to falsely deny inspector’s team role
In his UN remarks, Arias also sought once again to minimize the role of Ian Henderson, the 12-year OPCW veteran known as “Inspector A”:
[Henderson] was never a member of the FFM and only had a supporting task to the FFM for a limited period of time.
Arias has now claimed several times that Henderson was not an FFM member. As The Grayzone has previously reported, his assertion is directly at odds with leaked documents that list Henderson as an FFM member and among the Douma “Mission Personnel.”
That Henderson may have had “only had a supporting task to the mission”, in Arias’ words, does not necessarily mean he was not part of it. The aforementioned April 13 Note Verbale from the OPCW to Syria described all members aside from the three-person “Advance Team” as acting in a “supporting” role. So by definition, Henderson’s role was no different than the bulk of the team that went to Syria.
What is not in dispute is that Henderson did deploy on site to conduct investigation activities. The Chemical Weapons Convention has no obvious provisions for conducting on site activities without being part of an inspection mission. Even the interpreters are considered part of the team.
And just as with Arias’ claims about Whelan’s role in the probe, whether or not OPCW leaders now view Henderson as an official FFM member is again irrelevant to the question of whether his concerns about misconduct are valid. As with Whelan not going on site in Douma, it is in fact irrelevant if Henderson was part of the FFM or not. The concerns he raised have to be judged on their own merits.
While raking in US praise, OPCW seen as “source of shame and embarrassment“
At the UN, Arias also sought to cast doubt on the inspectors’ motivations:
Following the issuance of the FFM’s report, two former inspectors of the Secretariat could not accept that the conclusions of the FFM were different from their own personal views, views that were not backed by evidence. When their opinions could not gain traction within the Secretariat, they tried to publicly portray the work of the OPCW as biased, partial, and that somehow the FFM report would have been doctored.
But there is no dispute that the “FFM report” was doctored: anyone comparing the Original Report to the Doctored Report can see it in plain sight. Not even the OPCW has come out and flatly denied it. (Because they can’t).
When it comes to the dissenting inspectors’ actions, leaked documents and public statements show that both Henderson and Whelan repeatedly tried to raise their concerns internally. All of Whelan and Henderson’s efforts were rebuffed. For Arias to now claim that they publicly criticized the OPCW only after their “own opinions did not gain traction” ignores their suppressed efforts to raise concerns – not “opinions” — within the organization.
This suppression includes denying Henderson and Whelan the right to record their dissenting views in the Douma final report. The Chemical Weapons Convention allows for inspectors to record “differing observations” specifically to guarantee the independence and objectivity of its reports – a provision that Arias and the OPCW have ignored. (Verification Annex, Part 2, par. 62).
Remarkably, while deceiving the UN with a series of lies and evasions about the Douma cover-up, Arias sought to portray his organization as the victim:
I wish to stress at this point that the OPCW Technical Secretariat continues to deliver on all the various Syrian-related mandates under extraordinarily difficult conditions, namely, the numerous and sophisticated cyberattacks it suffers, the massive spread of disinformation about our work and sometimes even the denigration of some staff members of the organization.
But as his UN appearance demonstrated, it is Arias who has spread disinformation about the OPCW’s work, and denigrated the former staff members who have tried to protect the organization’s integrity.
In a recent letter to the UN Human Rights Council obtained by The Grayzone, the members of the Berlin Group 21 – headed by distinguished diplomats and experts Hans von Sponeck, José Bustani, and Richard Falk – wrote that the OPCW leadership’s conduct “should be a source of shame and embarrassment,” as “no serious attempt has been made to respond to the repeated calls from eminent individuals and organisations for transparency and accountability at the OPCW regarding its controversial Douma investigation.”
The letter added:
This failure is made all the more serious because what is at issue here concerns the deaths of fifty or more civilians and now well documented flaws and irregularities regarding an investigation into the circumstances of their deaths. It is simply not tenable for the United Nations and associated organisations to be seen tolerating the smearing of respected and experienced scientists whilst failing to answer eminently reasonable questions and calls for transparency and scientific rigour.
The OPCW Director General has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid hearing from his inspectors first-hand, or have his own independent scientific body review their concerns. In recent testimony to the UN, von Sponeck revealed that Arias had refused to even open a Statement of Concern – signed by notable global voices including five former OPCW officials — sent to him earlier this year. Instead, the Director General’s office returned the letter to sender.
Arias’ recalcitrance begs the obvious question: what is it he is so afraid of? If, as Arias says, the inspectors are “erroneous and uninformed”, then surely he would welcome the opportunity to demonstrate this and end the protracted Douma standoff once and for all.
The same question applies to the powerful NATO member states who have backed Arias’ efforts to avoid the whistleblowers at all costs. The controversy surrounding the Douma investigation not only calls into question that one incident in April 2018 and the stated pretext for the US-led airstrikes that followed, but more importantly, the credibility of all OPCW investigations of alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria. These missions have extensively relied on opposition-tied and Western-funded groups such as the White Helmets for alleged evidence and witnesses.
Evidence that the White Helmets played a critical role in the Douma deception – including staging a scene of purported gas attack victims in a field hospital – is surely not lost on its powerful state sponsors, nor on the OPCW officials who have treated the insurgent-adjacentgroup as a neutral, uncompromised source.
Arias’ conduct stands in sharp contrast to his predecessor Bustani, the OPCW’s founding Director General. In 2002, the Bush administration engineered Bustani’s ouster for trying to facilitate Iraq’s entry into the Chemical Weapons Convention, which impeded the White House’s plans for war. Bustani stood his ground even after then-US ambassador John Bolton threatened to harm his children.
When Bustani tried to testify at the UN in support of the whistleblowers last year, the US and its allies blocked him from speaking. By contrast, these same states continue to heap praise on Arias as he joins them in stonewalling any accountability for the Douma deception.
“The United States remains grateful for his [Arias’] commitment and leadership at the OPCW in upholding the norm against the use of chemical weapons,” US Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills said at the United Nations.
Leading a multi-year chemical weapons cover-up at the OPCW, Arias has clearly earned the gratitude of a US government that is once again compromising his organization to uphold an interventionist deception. The OPCW’s credibility on the international stage faces irreparable damage so long as this high-level deceit remains the norm.
Timeline: The OPCW’s Four Reports on Douma
There were four different reports produced during the OPCW’s Douma Fact-Finding Mission (FFM):
- Original Report (unpublished; authored in June 2018 and leaked to Wikileaks in 2019): The original report of the Douma FFM was drafted by Dr. Brendan Whelan, and peer-viewed by at least four other members, including the team leader. This report found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Douma, and concluded that the cause of death was incompatible with exposure to chlorine gas.
- Doctored Report (unpublished; authored in June 2018 and leaked to Wikileaks in 2019).After Whelan submitted the original report, he discovered that senior officials had doctored it and tried to rush out their bogus, replacement version for publication. This doctored report removed critical findings that undermined the case for a chemical weapons attack in Douma. In their place, it inserted a series of baseless claims that disingenuously suggested that a chlorine gas attack had occurred. “After reading this modified report, which incidentally no other team member who deployed into Douma has had the opportunity to do, I was struck by how much it misrepresents the facts,” Whelan wrote in protest.
- Interim Report (published July 6, 2018). Whelan’s intervention thwarted the underhanded publication of the Doctored Report just hours before it was due for release. As a result of the standoff, OPCW management moved to issue a new watered-down version based on the Doctored Report. This Interim Report was seen as a compromise: it removed the false claims of the doctored version, yet also no longer contained the key findings of the original report. Two months later, Whelan left the OPCW at the scheduled end of his tenure.
- Final Report (published March 1, 2019). The publication of the Final Report on the Douma incident was delayed for six months after Whelan’s September 2018 departure. This odd time lapse came despite the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) requirement that reports on investigations of alleged uses of chemical weapons be completed 30 days after the team’s return from the site of investigation (CWC, Verification Annex, Part XI, para 23). Aligning with the US narrative, the report found that there are “reasonable grounds” to conclude that a chlorine gas attack occurred in Douma. Though not stated outright, the report’s findings suggested Syrian government guilt.
OPCW chief misleads UN with new lies, excuses on Syria cover-up
Pressed for answers on Syria cover-up, OPCW chief offers new lies and excuses
By AARON MATÉ·- 02.
Facing growing outcry, OPCW Director General Fernando Arias went before the UN and told new falsehoods about his organization’s Syria cover-up scandal — along with more disingenuous excuses to avoid addressing it.
Part one of two. Read part two here. Watch Aaron Maté and Piers Robinson discuss this article on Pushback.
In the two years since the censorship of a Syria chemical weapons investigation was exposed, the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Fernando Arias, has vigorously resisted accountability.
Arias has refused to investigate or explain the extensive manipulation of the OPCW’s probe of an alleged April 2018 chlorine attack in Douma. Rather than answer calls to meet with the veteran inspectors who protested the deception, Arias has disparaged them. The OPCW Director General (DG) has even resorted to feigning ignorance about the scandal, recently claiming that “I don’t know why” the organization’s final report on Douma “was contested.”
Facing growing pressure to address the cover-up – most prominently in a “Statement of Concern” from 28 notable signatories, including five former senior OPCW officials – Arias came before the United Nations Security Council on June 3rd to answer questions in open session for the first time.
In a nod to the public outcry, Arias backtracked from a previous statement that the Douma controversy could not be revisited. But while appearing to suggest that the investigation could be reopened, Arias offered more falsehoods about the scandal, and new disingenuous excuses to avoid addressing it.
This two-part report summarizes Arias’ latest evasions and distortions, which include the following:
• Rejecting proposals for resolving the Douma controvery, Arias invoked restrictions that do not appear to exist. Arias falsely claimed that the OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) has “no authority” to examine the suppressed Douma evidence. Arias also claimed that he personally has “no authority whatsoever to reopen this investigation,” even though the OPCW’s regulations contain no such limits.
• To discredit the vast quantity of work that was done for the investigation’s original report, which found no evidence of a chlorine attack, Arias falsely stated that the “bulk” of analysis was conducted after its chief author was no longer involved. To advance this falsehood, Arias cited a fabricated figure.
• Arias tacitly retracted a previous false claim that no state has challenged the Douma report’s conclusions. But instead of acknowledging that prior falsehood, he replaced it with a new one.
• Arias did not answer direct questions about the documented scientific fraud in the Douma probe, and how he plans to address it. The DG ignored a question from the Russian delegation about why the Final Report omitted the conclusions of NATO member state toxicologists who ruled out chlorine gas as the cause of death. And for the third time, Arias did not respond to a question asking whether he will agree to meet with the dissenting inspectors.
• Arias continued to deceptively minimize the role of the key dissenting inspector, Dr. Brendan Whelan. Arias downplayed the fact that Whelan was the scientific coordinator and chief author of the team’s original report, and falsely claimed that he was only involved “in a limited capacity.”
• Arias also continued to falsely downplay the role of the second known whistleblower, Ian Henderson. Arias’ latest distortions about Whelan and Henderson are addressed in the second part of this report.
Arias’ UN appearance was the latest chapter in a saga that has upended the world’s chemical weapons watchdog. In April 2018, the US, UK and France bombed Syria after accusing its government of committing a chemical attack in Douma. In March 2019, the OPCW released a final report that aligned with the US narrative that Syria was guilty of dropping chlorine gas cylinders on a pair of apartment buildings, including one where dozens of dead bodies were filmed. But an extraordinary trove of leaks soon exposed that the OPCW had published a whitewash.
Internal OPCW documents showed that the inspectors who investigated the Douma incident had found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack. The files also revealed gross inconsistencies in the prevailing narrative that chlorine was the cause of death. These findings, if released, would have reinforced strong indications that extremist insurgents who controlled Douma had staged the incident, just as Syrian forces were set to retake control. But the Douma evidence was concealed in a multi-stage cover-up.
Unknown senior OPCW officials were caught trying to doctor the team’s original report to falsely suggest evidence of a chemical attack. A delegation of US officials also visited the Hague and, in a highly irregular move, tried to convince the team that chlorine gas was used by the Syrian government. The bulk of the original team who deployed in Douma was sidelined, replaced by officials who, for the most part, had not even set foot in Syria. The result was a deceptive final report that erased the key findings of the censored original.
Although the OPCW leaks first surfaced in May 2019, Arias did not face direct questioning about the controversy until December of last year, when he came before the United Nations Security Council. However, Arias refused to answer in open session, and reportedly gave vague, non-substantive answers in private.
The Director General’s decision to return to the UN to answer questions in open session followed growing public pressure, led by former senior UN official Hans von Sponeck, as well as Bustani, the former OPCW chief. Arias’ reliance on falsehoods and hollow excuses offered the most stark display yet that his handling of the Douma cover-up cannot be defended in good faith.
OPCW chief falsely claims “no authority whatsoever” to address Douma cover-up
Just weeks before his UN appearance, Arias told the European Parliament on April 14th that when it comes to the OPCW’s Douma scandal, “the matter is closed.”
But when he came before the UN Security Council on June 3rd, Arias changed his tune. Rather than personally closing the door on revisiting the probe, Arias now claimed that he does not have the authority to re-open it. Arias did so by citing OPCW rules and restrictions that do not appear to exist.
Arias’ fallacious excuse came in response to a new proposal to break the impasse. In April, the Berlin Group 21 – established by former UN assistant secretary general Hans von Sponeck, former OPCW chief Jose Bustani and Richard Falk, an eminent Princeton Law Professor – put forward a way to address the dispute over the Douma report. They urged Arias to allow the OPCW’s own Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) — a subsidiary body made up of 25 independent scientific and technical experts who serve in their personal capacities — to assess the claims of the dissenting inspectors.
“The SAB possesses the necessary scientific and technical expertise,” the Berlin Group 21 statement said. “[We] believe that leaving the scientific debate to the scientists, who best understand the issues at hand, would provide a more objective and rational approach to begin resolving this unfortunate and highly damaging controversy that surrounds the OPCW and indirectly endangers global security by eroding confidence in future findings relevant to alleged uses of chemical weapons.”
At the UN Security Council, Arias rejected this proposal, claiming that his hands are tied by the OPCW’s own regulations:
The goal of the Scientific Advisory Board is written, in the terms of reference, is to enable the Director-General to render specialized advice in connection with very sophisticated, very complicated matters and issues related to chemicals and chemical weapons. Which means that the SAB has no role to assess the findings of the FFM. The FFM is entrusted to investigate and activate an investigation to produce a report. And this report—I sign the report, I don’t touch it—it goes directly to the policymaking organs, in this case the Executive Council. Which means that the SAB has no authority to reassess the investigation of the FFM or to assess any opinion of the inspectors produced on a personal basis.
In claiming that the SAB “has no authority to reassess” the Douma FFM’s findings, Arias is invoking a restriction that does not exist.
In citing the SAB’s terms of reference (ToR), Arias failed to mention that it – along with the Chemical Weapons Convention — explicitly allows for the establishment of a temporary working group of scientific experts to provide recommendations on “specific issues” – exactly as the Berlin Group 21 proposed. Paragraph 9 of the SAB’s ToR states:
In consultation with members of the [Scientific Advisory] Board, the Director-General may establish temporary working groups of scientific experts to provide recommendations within a specific time-frame onspecific issues, in accordance with Article VIII, paragraph 45 of the [Chemical Weapons] Convention.
Contrary to Arias’ claim, there is nothing preventing him from convening a working group of scientific experts to review the particularly “specific issue” that is the Douma investigation – arguably the most internally contested specific issue in the OPCW’s history. Yet Arias is claiming that he is somehow hindered by regulations that, in reality, explicitly grant him the authority to do exactly what he now claims he cannot.
In stating this excuse, Arias also dismissed the work of the dissenting inspectors as having been “produced on a personal basis”, and therefore not subject to reevaluation. Yet there was nothing “personal” about the Brendan Whelan authored-original report, completed in June 2018 and reviewed and sanctioned by other inspectors, including the team leader. What remains unknown is who exactly were the senior OPCW officials who personally doctored its contents – a question that Arias has refused to investigate.
Arias also offered another hollow excuse. The OPCW chief claimed that he can no longer revisit the Douma investigation because it is no longer “in the hands” of his office, but instead the policy-making organizations of the OPCW. According to Arias, that power now lies in the hands of the Executive Council, (the rotating group of 41 member states who govern the OPCW), and the full Conference of State Parties (all OPCW member states):
I have to say that the report of the FFM directed to Douma is in the hands of the Executive Council and the Conference. The Director-General has no authority whatsoever to reopen this investigation that concluded and was reported to the Executive Council, and through the Executive Council to the Conference. The matter is in the hands of the policymaking organs and not of the Director-General. The Executive Council was already seized of the matter in March 2019.
This is the first time that the Director General has claimed that the report is out of his control, and instead “in the hands” of a higher body. In introducing this escape-hatch, Arias is now giving the appearance that in principle he no longer objects to a reopening of the investigation. In reality, he is skirting responsibility for that decision by passing it to executive bodies that have blocked any efforts to discuss the cover-up right from the start. Upon the release of the Douma final report in March 2019, the Executive Council immediately voted down a proposal to hear from all of the experts who worked on the Douma case. The US delegation lobbied to block the vote by reportedly arguing that such a hearing would be akin to “Stalinist trials.”
Contrary to Arias’ assertions, the Chemical Weapons Convention does not support his claim that once a final report is issued, it becomes “in the hands of the Executive Council and Conference.” The relevant passage of the CWC simply states that the “Director General shall promptly transmit the preliminary and final reports to the Executive Council and to all States Parties.” (Part XI of the Verification Annex to the CWC, Investigations of Alleged Uses of Chemical Weapons, Section D [Reports], paragraph 23.)
There is nothing to suggest here that the Executive Council – or the State Parties — becomes the custodian of these reports, or that the Technical Secretariat (TS), which the Director General oversees, somehow loses control over them.
This is indeed borne out by past practice. It is common for the TS to make amendments to final reports and issue them without the Executive Council’s permission. Such amendments, which are issued as official TS “Addendums” to published reports, can be minor technical or typographic corrections, but also major substantive additions.
This practice includes a previous OPCW investigation in Syria. After publishing a final report on alleged chemical attacks by insurgents in Syria in December 2015 (S/1318/2015/Rev.1), Syrian authorities invited the OPCW to return in order to collect further evidence that the report claimed was lacking. The FFM team paid a second visit to Syria one month later and published an Addendum to the final report — with details of its additional deployment — in February 2016. (S/1318/2015/Rev.1/Add.1).
This addendum provides information further to “The Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria Regarding the Incidents Described in Communications from the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates and Head of the National Authority of the Syrian Arab Republic” (S/1318/2015/Rev.1, dated 17 December 2015’).
In the case of Douma, no one is even proposing that the OPCW return to Syria, as it did after issuing that final report of December 2015. The OPCW is simply being asked to hear from the Douma probe’s own inspectors, and address their complaints, including the doctoring of the mission’s original report. Arias is passing the buck to a concocted higher authority in order to avoid exercising his own.
Disparaging whistleblowers, OPCW chief cites a fabricated figure
In one of his few attempts to make a substantive claim in defense of the Douma investigation, OPCW Director General Ferando Arias has repeatedly asserted that “most of the analytical work took place” in the last six or seven months, when the dissenting inspectors were no longer part of the Douma Fact-Finding Mission (FFM). Because of this, Arias has claimed that the whistleblowers “had manifestly incomplete information on the Douma investigation,” rendering their protests “egregious.”
At the UN Security Council, Arias doubled down on this argument by adducing, for the first time, a purported figure to substantiate it. According to Arias, 70 samples were analyzed by the OPCW in the last six months of the investigation, when the dissenting inspectors were no longer involved. Arias made this claim twice:
The FFM, after Inspector B departed, worked for more than six months, during which the bulk of the results of the investigation was got by the team. For instance, out of the more than 100 samples, around more than 70 results were brought in those last six months of the investigation.
…Of course, the bulk of the investigations related to Douma came after I arrived to the Organisation after July 2018. Of the more than 100 samples, more than 70 good samples were analyzed after the summer of 2018. The bulk of the investigation, the bulk of information, the bulk of analysis, of all the information that had been gathered came after the two inspectors left.”
Arias’ claim that “more than 70” samples “were analyzed after the summer of 2018” in the “last six months of the investigation” is a demonstrable falsehood. Unless the OPCW somehow failed to report dozens of analyzed samples until now, the claim of 70 samples is a fabricated figure. In reality, the final report on Douma shows that just 44 samples were analyzed throughout the entire probe. And just 13 of those samples were analyzed after the issuing of the interim report — i.e., after the dissenting inspectors were out of the picture.
With just 44 samples analyzed for the entire probe, and just 13 new samples analyzed in the final six months, this means that 70% of the Douma investigation’s total sample analysis was in fact conducted in its first month.
Completely inverting that reality, Arias has now produced a phony figure that paints a false picture of the work conducted in the six months after the dissenting inspectors were sidelined.
By claiming that the “bulk of the investigation” was conducted after the whistleblowers were no longer involved, Arias is also erasing other critical areas of work conducted in the first two months and included in the suppressed original report.
As I recently detailed in a UN presentation, a comparison between the interim report of July 2018 and the final report of March 2019 shows that the vast majority of the investigation was already done in the first two months in multiple key areas: 100% of the research of the scientific literature; 87% of the total interviews had been conducted and analyzed; a meeting with four NATO toxicologists had been convened, and 98.5% of the metadata analysis of media files from Douma was undertaken. In addition, a complete epidemiological study was reported in the original report, much of which was expunged from the final report.
This means that, contrary to Arias’ claim, the bulk of the work was in fact carried out in the probe’s first two months.
Retracting one falsehood, Arias replaces it with another
At the European Parliament in April, Arias falsely claimed that no state party has challenged any of the Douma report’s conclusions, and that Russia even “agrees” with them:
The conclusions of the report, paradoxically, have never been disputed by a state party. Even the Russian delegation agrees with the conclusions.
Arias’ implausible contention was that, despite the heated two-year public dispute over the Douma investigation, no member state has challenged it. Yet Syria and Russia have vigorously challenged the report’s findings, within the OPCW itself and in a series of UN Security Council debates.
As The Grayzone has previously reported, this phony talking point was first put forward by the NATO-tied website Bellingcat last year. Bellingcat produced excerpts of a letter that it claimed was sent by Arias in June 2019 to Dr. Brendan Whelan, the key dissenting inspector. This letter, Bellingcat declared, “reveals that at a diplomatic level behind closed doors, the Russian and Syrian governments have both agreed with the conclusions of the OPCW report.”
But The Grayzone then revealed that not only was this claim ludicrous, but based on a “letter” that was never actually sent. The Grayzone obtained and published Arias’ actual letter to Whelan, which contained none of Bellingcat’s text.
In a sign that he has now recognized the fallacy of the Bellingcat-promoted talking point, Arias tacitly walked it back in his June 3rd UN appearance. But instead of acknowledging his previous error, he replaced it with a new one. Arias now claimed:
None of the 193 Member States of the OPCW have challenged the findings of the FFM that chlorine was found on the scene of the attack, in Douma.
To support his claim about chlorine found at the scene, Arias cited a note verbal (diplomatic correspondence) from Russia:
I have here in front of me a note verbal of the Russian Embassy, dated the 26th of April 2019, note #759 that includes an attachment. It’s a Russian Federation paper, based on the conclusions of the report of the FFM in Douma. And this note required me to disseminate this report. This note, or report attached to the note by the Russian Embassy in The Hague said, “Conclusion. The Russian Federation does not challenge the findings contained in the FFM report regarding the possible presence of molecular chlorine in the cylinders, etc.” This is on the web page from the Organisation.
Arias’ own source undermines his claim. Whereas Arias told the UN that no state has “challenged the findings of the FFM that chlorine was found on the scene,” his evidence for that statement – a Russian note verbal – simply states that Russia “does not challenge” that there was a “possible presence of molecular chlorine in the cylinders.”
The Russian correspondence goes on to explain why it explicitly does challenge the final report’s conclusion that chlorine was likely used as a chemical weapon. Responding to Arias at the UN, Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya read the relevant passage in full:
The Russian Federation does not challenge the findings contained in the FFM report regarding the possible presence of molecular chlorine on the cylinders. However, the parameters, characteristics and exterior of the cylinders, as well as the data obtained from the locations of those incidents, are not consistent with the argument that they were dropped from an aircraft. The existing facts more likely indicate that there is a high probability that both cylinders were placed at Locations 2 and 4 manually rather than dropped from an aircraft. Apparently the factual material contained in the report does not allow us to draw a conclusion as to the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon. On that basis, the Russian Federation insists on the version that there was false evidence and on the staged character of the incident in Douma.
Therefore, the only contention that Russia did not challenge is that of a “possible” presence of molecular chlorine in the cylinders found in Douma. That is for obvious reasons.
No one has argued that there was no possibility of a chlorine presence. There were, after all, two chlorine cylinders found at the scene, so traces of chlorine could be expected. In reality, the OPCW did not even report any finding of chlorine gas on the cylinder. They found chloride, a breakdown product of chlorine gas but also a very common substance in the environment, and in household products like table salt and other chloride salts. Chloride theoretically could have been dispersed around the cylinders.
Other possible evidence of chlorine gas use came from very low traces of various chlorine-containing organic compounds (CLOCs) found at the scene — most, if not all, of which can be present in the environment. Because the OPCW failed to test background samples – an oversight or deliberate omission that Whelan later described as scientifically indefensible – it could not determine if these trace quantities of CLOCs found at the scene pointed to chlorine gas use, or if they came from benign sources.
When challenged at the UN on his misrepresentation of the Russian note verbal, Arias did not offer a rebuttal. He instead tersely stated: “The Russian note verbale is published and that is what they have to say.”
Arias’ willingness to deceive the UN on the details of the Douma probe and the OPCW’s own capacity to address it also extends to his portrayal of the whistleblowers, as we will explain in detail in the second part of this report.