Covering the CWC Fifth Review Conference

Authored by Mina Rozei

Through the following blog series, CWC Coalition Project Coordinator Mina Rozei will be providing ongoing reports and analysis from the Chemical Weapons Convention Fifth Review Conference from May 15-19, 2023.

The opening session of the Fifth CWC Review Conference was colored by the 2022 Russian
invasion of and ongoing war in Ukraine. Several delegations of States Parties displayed signs
with the words “Stands with Ukraine” next to their country nameplate, defying Russian
bemoaning of the “politicization” of the conference. Russia stated that other countries were
exacerbating existing divisions within the OPCW.

Beyond this show of solidarity, Russia’s unilateral decision-making was challenged when its veto
of Lithuania and North Macedonia as vice-chairs of the Eastern European Group resulted in a
secret ballot vote in which all States Parties participated. Despite the clear 18 out of 23 majority
in favor of the nomination of Lithuania and North Macedonia in the initial vote, Russia's veto
made it impossible to move forward with the decision. As of the closing of today’s session, the
results of the secret ballot vote had not been determined.

This obstruction by one delegation was a theme that played out throughout the debate and will
likely continue for the duration of the conference. It was invoked repeatedly in reference to the
vetoing of civil society organizations by one or two States. The subject of NGO participation in
the conference was the focus of statements by Türkiye, Germany, Russia, Ireland, and Iran. All
countries acknowledged the importance of NGO and civil society participation in the
implementation of the CWC, but it was noted that the procedures could be improved. Türkiye,
Russia, and Iran qualified their support of NGO participation by stating that the OPCW should
only approve NGOs with “relevant” interests to the proceedings. Germany shared its
appreciation of the critical expertise, inclusivity, and transparency that NGOs bring to the
organization, but was concerned that a small number of States Parties were undermining this
participation and that the process under the current guidelines is not transparent enough with
regards to the decision to reject certain NGOs. Germany proposed a review of the guidelines.
United States Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins reaffirmed
the United States’ position that civil society participation is “vital” to the OPCW.

Despite the sometimes-contentious debate, there was at least one bright spot: the overwhelming
success of the CWC in achieving its goal of eliminating existing chemical weapons stockpiles.
To date, 99.82% of all known stockpiles have been destroyed, with the last possessor state, the
United States, on track to complete destruction of its remaining stockpiles by September 2023.
Fernando Arias, Director General of the OPCW, called the CWC the “gold standard among
multilateral disarmament agreements.”

Today’s morning plenary session saw the continuation of States Parties delivering national statements. Delegations tended to emphasize their compliance with CWC provisions for verification and elimination of stockpiles and the importance of the newly-opened ChemTech Centre. Contentious moments took place along the same lines as yesterday’s rift between Syria and Russia on one side and the majority of other States Parties on the other. During the Syrian delegation’s statement it declared that some Western states have “politicized” the OPCW. It also asserted that the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) established by the OPCW was “illegal” – certainly a reference to the IIT’s third report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria released earlier this year.

During the time allotted to observer states, Israel concluded its statement by replying to Palestine’s criticism of it during yesterday’s session – a reply that was stopped short by the Chair of the Fifth Review Conference, Dutch ambassador Henk Cor van der Kwast for being out of turn. Subsequently, during the right of reply period, both Syria and Palestine responded to Israel’s statement as hypocritical since Israel has not acceded to the CWC, while both Syria and Palestine are parties to the convention.

Several States Parties included references to the importance of NGO participation in their statements. Romania supported NGO involvement as an important part of the conversation, New Zeeland stated that NGOs help ensure that the work of the OPCW is “robust and responds to the reality around us,” Denmark praised outside stakeholders such as NGOs for “enriching” the OPCW. Other delegations included environmental and humanitarian considerations in their statements: Bangladesh stated its intention to be “environmentally-friendly” with regard to its chemical industry, Samoa warned that climate change makes handling chemicals “precarious,” and Niger expressed its “compassion for victims” of chemical weapons attacks.

Finally, at the end of today’s plenary session, NGOs presented their statements on a range of issues relevant to the convention. Statements were delivered by coalition members and highlighted key issues facing the CWC today and offered recommendations for taking the treaty into its next phase.

Side events once again took place between during the break from 1 to 3 PM. One of our coalition members, the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Injured and Victims of Chemical Weapons in Fars Province, Iran (SCWVSF) held a screening of a short film called “The Life of a Chemical Victim.” The film showed the long-term and transgenerational consequences of chemical weapons attacks on victims and sparked an impassioned discussion afterwards. It was noted that the suffering of victims transcends borders. Chiara Maria Venturi of IPB said, “It’s the humanity aspect that we must put forward so that we can overcome the different blocks and impasses” presented by political disputes between States Parties. At the end of the session, the SCWVSF presented Dr. Paul Walker with a gift to show their appreciation of the CWC Coalition’s support.

Tomorrow we look forward to the two side events organized by the CWC Coalition will hold two side events: an open forum and a session on victims’ rights and health.  

The two CWCC-organized side events were the highlight of today’s events for the coalition. The Open Forum took place first, followed by the presentation on Victims’ Rights and Health, both of which were deemed a success by attendees, as well as Dr. Paul Walker.

During the Open Forum, two coalition members, Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch and Michael Crowley of the University of Bradford, gave informative presentations on matters of importance to the coalition. Mary Wareham’s speech emphasized the “flawed process for handling NGOs” at OPCW conferences, referring to the ability of one or two States Parties to reject NGOs without any transparency as to their reasoning. Her presence in the room alone underscored this fact, since this marked the first time that Human Rights Watch had been approved for attendance at either a Conference of States Parties or Review Conference. Wareham also brought attention to the work that Human Rights Watch has done in “ensuring accountability” by documenting chemical weapons attacks. Next, Michael Crowley presented work that he has conducted with fellow CWCC member Malcolm Dando, also of the University of Bradford, on toxic chemical use in law enforcement. He demonstrated this through case studies in six different countries.   

The second side event, which took place directly after the Open Forum, covered the many ways in which chemical weapons attacks impact survivors in the long-term. Dr. Shahriar Khetari gave an informative presentation on the context in which the chemical weapons attacks in Iran during the 1980s took place and the many adverse health effects that they have had on the targeted populations. Homeyra Karimivahed spoke about the social stigmas faced by survivors of chemical weapons attacks and presented her upcoming project, an oral history of chemical weapons victims. Finally, three survivors of chemical weapons attacks gave oral testimonies of their lives when they were attacked and the medical and social issues that they have to deal with to this day.

Today was not quite as busy for NGOs as the previous days have been. The two plenary sessions for today were very short, lasting only about 10 minutes each, and the delegations of States Parties spent most of the day in the Committee of the Whole working on the final document, which meant that NGOs were not allowed in the room to observe the proceedings. The plenary session will reconvene tomorrow at 2 pm, so we will have to wait until then to hear what has been agreed upon and whether we will end this Review Conference with a consensus or a Chairman’s Report.
Despite the lack of OPCW-organized activities for NGOs to participate in today, there was still an opportunity for NGOs to meet: the CWCC held an informal gathering for drinks in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel, to which all NGO representatives were invited. About 25 people showed up and appeared to have many interesting conversations. Also present were Elisabeth Waechter and Alex Maggs from the OPCW Public Affairs office, whose presence was greatly appreciated as it represented engagement by the OPCW with NGOs. Personally, I enjoyed the mixer because it allowed me to speak with NGO representatives with whom I had unfortunately not had a chance to speak with earlier in the week. Hopefully this was a positive experience and a way for NGOs to connect with one another.
Tomorrow marks the last day of the Fifth Review Conference in which we will see whether the contentious issues of this conference were able to be resolved and what the future may look like for the CWC.

NGOs and other members of civil society were excluded from most of the proceedings on Thursday and Friday, as the final two days of the conference were dedicated mostly to meetings of the Committee of the Whole. However, NGO participation was strong in other arenas of the conference. On Monday night, an event at the Norwegian ambassador’s residence was held in which rejected NGOs had the opportunity to speak informally. During Tuesday’s plenary session, 10 statements were delivered by members of the CWC Coalition on issues of importance to NGOs as a whole. NGOs were allotted an hour to speak and covered issues from the danger of acquisition of chemical weapons by non-state actors to the need for increased collaboration with public health organizations, and more. NGO side events took place throughout the week, and the CWC Coalition organized two on Wednesday: one was an Open Forum in which members of human rights organizations and academia spoke, and one was an event centered on the victims of chemical weapons attacks and the long term social and medical consequences that they face.


The main issue hanging over the conference was the question of whether or not a consensus document would be able to be produced. Agreement could not be taken for granted, since the issue of use of chemical weapons in Syria was one of the main topics of concern, but the Russian Federation, the Syrian Arab Republic, and the Islamic Republic of Iran consistently denied their alleged use. On the other hand, statements organized by the European Union and others garnered widespread support from a large number of States Parties. By Friday, the Committee of the Whole could not reach an agreement on a document since the Russian Federation and Syrian Arab Republic objected to mention of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria. By the close of the conference on Friday, no consensus report could be produced, and the conference ended with a chairman’s report that essentially summarized the week’s proceedings. Ambassador Henk Cor van der Kwast, Chairperson of the Fifth Review Conference, attributed the lack of consensus to a “lack of time,” as the OPCW political organs allowed only one week for the conference.


Despite this disappointing outcome, OPCW Director General Fernando Arias stated in his closing remarks that while there would be no consensus document, the “common ground that was found and national documents that were produced will provide strategic guidance for the tasks that the OPCW will carry out in the future.”