Chemical weapons watchdog to vote on ability to assign blame

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, leaves the Foreign Office on his way to Downing Street for a cabinet meeting, in London, Tuesday June 26, 2018. Johnson visited Afghanistan for talks on Monday, missing a crucial parliamentary vote on expanding London's Heathrow Airport. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)
In this Monday, June 25, 2018 provided by the UK Embassy, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Boris Johnson, right, greets British soldiers at Resolute Support (RS) headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. (UK Embassy via AP)

BRUSSELS — The global chemical weapons watchdog plans to vote Wednesday on whether it should have authority to apportion blame for attacks, an idea arising from frictions between Britain and its key Western allies on one side and Russia and Syria on the other.

The British delegation to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons introduced the proposal to empower the Nobel Prize-winning group to identify those responsible for chemical weapons attacks. The organization, based in The Hague, the Netherlands, currently does not have that ability.

"At present, the OPCW experts will say where and when an attack happened, but not who was responsible," British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said at a special meeting on the U.K. proposal Tuesday. "If we are serious about upholding the ban on chemical weapons, that gap must be filled."

Several nations agree that limits written into the organization's agreements with the United Nations and the countries that decided to be bound by an international chemical weapons ban hamstring the watchdog's work. The British delegation argues that the ability to identify perpetrators would "strengthen the organization entrusted with overseeing the ban on chemical weapons."

Britain made its proposal in the wake of the chemical attacks on an ex-spy and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury, as well as in Syria's civil war and by the Islamic State group in Iraq. Britain has accused Russia of using a nerve agent in the attempted assassination in March of former spy Sergei Skripal, which Moscow strongly denies.

Russia has said a change like the one Britain proposed would undermine the organization and threaten its future. Its representative said at Tuesday's meeting that the U.N. Security Council was the only place to discuss such issues.

"So it would seem that the U.K. draft is an attempt to undermine the mandate and sovereignty" of the Security Council, Russian Deputy Industry and Trade Minister Georgy Kalamanov.

The Security Council established a joint U.N.-OPCW investigative team to determine responsibility for chemical attacks in Syria. But Russia vetoed a Western-backed resolution in November that would have renewed the joint team's mandate.

Efforts to revive or replace the Syria team since then have failed. So, at the moment, Britain's Johnson said, "no international body is working to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria."

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