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Briefing on Salisbury Chemical Weapons Attack

The Security Council will meet this afternoon (5 April) at Russia’s request to discuss the latest developments related to the 4 March use of a nerve agent in Salisbury, United Kingdom on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who spied for the UK, and his daughter. The meeting will be convened, as was the last meeting on this issue on 14 March, under the agenda item “Letter dated 13 March 2018 from the Chargé d'affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council” (S/2018/218). (This letter transmitted a letter from UK Prime Minister Theresa May on the attack.)

Yesterday (4 April) the Special Executive Council meeting of the OPCW held a meeting at Russia’s request to address “the situation around allegations of non-compliance” with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) made by the UK against Russia with regard to the Salisbury incident. During the meeting Russia produced a draft statement proposing a joint Russia-UK investigation. This draft statement was put to a vote with a result of 15 against, 6 for and 17 abstentions. It would have needed a two-thirds majority vote out of the 41-member council to pass.

On 16 March, the UK requested technical assistance from the OPCW in identifying the nature of the toxic chemical used in the Salisbury attack. The technical assistance is ongoing, and the results are expected to be received by the OPCW next week. Russia has indicated that it would find it hard to accept the results of the OPCW investigation if its experts did not participate in it. The UK said in its statement at the OPCW meeting yesterday that there is no requirement in the CWC for a victim to engage the perpetrator in a joint investigation and to do so would be “perverse”.

The Council first met on this issue on 14 March at the request of the UK to update the Council on its investigation into the attack (S/PV.8203). At that meeting, the UK said the investigation showed that Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by the Soviet Union and inherited by Russia. Based on the knowledge that Russia had previously produced this agent and that it had conducted State-sponsored assassinations of dissidents in the past, the UK had concluded that Russia was highly likely to have been responsible and that there were only two explanations: Russia had either directly attacked the UK or had lost control of a military-grade agent that it had developed. The UK said that it had sought an explanation from Russia but had not received any “meaningful response”. Russia refuted the UK’s accusation that it had been involved in the use of poisonous substances in Salisbury and said that there had been no research and development on this nerve agent in Russia. It also demanded material proof of Russian involvement.

The diplomatic fallout over Salisbury attack between the UK and its allies on the one hand and Russia on the other hand has continued. Following the attack the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats and in retaliation Russia expelled 23 British diplomats from Russia and closed the British Consulate General in St Petersburg and the British Council. At least 27 countries have expelled Russian diplomats in a show of solidarity with the UK, with the US expelling 60 Russian diplomats and closing the Russian consulate in Seattle. Moscow has responded by expelling diplomats from 23 countries, including 60 American diplomats.

The increasingly polarised positions of Council members with regards to the use of chemical weapons has been apparent on Syria, as displayed in yesterday’s briefing by the Deputy to the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Thomas Markram. This meeting was held exactly a year after the chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykhun. Russia has been highly critical of the methodology used by the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission and the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) in investigating this and other attacks that point to the responsibility of the Syrian government. In November 2017 the JIM was shut down following the failure of the Council to agree on its extension. The Salisbury attack is likely to further deepen divisions on the issue of the use of chemical weapons.

At today’s meeting the US and EU Council members—France, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden, as well as a number of other members, are expected to show solidarity for the UK position and call on Russia to respond to the UK’s questions and cooperate with the OPCW. Some members may emphasise the need for accountability and that there should be no impunity for those who use chemical weapons. The UK is expected to provide an update on its response to the attack and the technical assistance being provided by the OPCW. It may raise Russia’s request for a joint investigation and reiterate its opposition to this proposal. Russia is expected to reiterate the call made by its foreign minister today for a “substantial and responsible” investigation into the use of the nerve agent in Salisbury and to emphasise the need for hard evidence to be presented. There may be questions from Russia about whether the proper procedures have been followed by the UK within the framework of the CWC.

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