Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons headquarters in The Hague. Image credit: Prensa Latina Ready Syria to Cooperate with Organization Against Chemical Weapons
Chemical weapons are a current hot topic. We are bombarded daily with media reports mentioning them. They seem to be driving an increase in international tensions. And all sorts of conspiracy theories are circulating.
In the midst of the fast-moving narratives and claims, sensible people are asking for evidence. That is where the international watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) should come in. So I welcome two bits of news which may help in the search for evidence;
- The completion of the OPCW work requested by the UK to provide independent confirmation of the UK findings on the toxic chemical behind the poisoning of three people (Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a father and daughter, and a local police officer Nicholas Bailey) in Salisbury, UK, and
- The beginning of the work of an OPCW investigation team, in the Syrian city of Douma where there are claims of a chemical weapons attack.
I will only discuss the OPCW report resulting from the UK request on the Salisbury poisonings – and then only the summary of the report. The UK agreed to declassify the summary but not the full report. We will have to wait until another member state releases the full report – if they ever do. I understand it is “voluminous.”
The summary can be downloaded from the OPCW – SUMMARY OF THE REPORT ON ACTIVITIES CARRIED OUT IN SUPPORT OF A REQUEST FOR TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE BY THE UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND (TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE VISIT TAV/02/18) These bureaucrats love long titles, don’t they?
It’s only two pages long and really only contains two important paragraphs worth discussing.
Confirmation of UK findings on “identity of the toxic chemical”
This was all the UK requested of the OPCW – that they provide an independent confirmation of the UK findings on the toxic chemical used. Unfortunately the OPCW was not given the mandate to make a full investigation of the incident (as they are now doing in Douma, Syria).
So their findings are (apparently) summarised in paragraph 10:
“The results of analysis by the OPCW designated laboratories of environmental and biomedical samples collected by the OPCW team confirm the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury and severely injured three people. “
I have two comments on this paragraph.
1: It has been widely misreported. Ideologically driven news media have widely extended the “confirmation” to the UK narrative – the claim that a specific “novichock-type” chemical was used, that it originated in Russia – or even to claim that the OPCW is confirming the whole UK political story. The politicians have, of course, encouraged these misinterpretations. Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Secretary, has claimed a confirmation that the chemical “was a military grade nerve agent – a Novichok,” (wrong) and that “there remains no alternative explanation about who was responsible – only Russia has the means, motive and record “(see Salisbury incident: Foreign Secretary statement on OPCW report).
Oh well, you know how to detect when politicians are lying, don’t you? Well, we should add “when they give a press release” to “their lips moving.”
An example of media misrepresentation is this from the Wall Stree Journal – The report puts beyond doubt that it was highly likely Russia carried out the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, using a nerve agent “of high purity”
This is just another example of fake news – especially considering that the UK simply asked for confirmation of their findings on the identity of the chemical used.
2: This paragraph does not actually identify the toxic chemical. It simply confirms the UK findings, without saying what these were. And it goes on to say in paragraph 12:
“The name and structure of the identified toxic chemical are contained in the full classified report of the Secretariat, available to States Parties.”
That is not much use, is it? Apparently they do have specific information about the toxic chemical but they are going to keep it secret. or more specifically the UK is because they could have allowed declassification of the whole report – in the “interests of the transparency” that Boris Johnson claims to support.
Well, let’s look further into this summary to see if we can get an idea of what exactly the OPCW is confirming.
The toxic chemical “identified by the UK”
The most informative section of the summary for this is paragraph 7:
“The team was briefed on the identity of the toxic chemical identified by the United Kingdom and was able to review analytical results and data from chemical analysis of biomedical samples collected by the British authorities from the affected individuals, as well as from environmental samples collected on site.”
Seriously! We are told that the OPCW investigation confirmed the UK expert findings – but we are not told what those findings are – unless we have a security clearance!
I agree – we can vaguely infer what those findings are from the statements of politicians like Theresa May and Boris Johnson. But, as a chemist and not a politician, I would actually like to know what the expert findings of the scientists at Porton Down are.
Findings like these get massaged when they are transferred to politicians and then issued to the media. Scientists are often put in the position of having their findings misrepresented, exaggerated or downplayed for political interests – and as the misrepresentation is carried out by their political masters they have no comeback. They are effectively silenced.
So, I would love to see the technical findings from the Porton Down scientists, and the technical findings of the OPCW team. Currently, I have no way of reading these unless at some stage another member state (not the UK which classified the report) releases the full document.* I sincerely hope this happens. In this respect, Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, has commented:
“We are currently engaged in a detailed study of this report, there are very interesting moments that arise from reading this document.We will in the very near future try to make them public when experts, both ours and the relevant departments, will deal with this rather voluminous document.”
At the moment all I have is a summary which is strangely very uninformative about the facts. I find its presentation circular – confirmation of the “findings” but the only revelation of the findings is to refer back to the unpublished UK “findings.” Mind you, such circular arguments are commonly used by bureaucrats involved in issues which have political consequences.
So, one step forward. The OPCW has independently confirmed the chemical and structural nature of the toxic chemical used in Salisbury. Good.
But, no specific or scientific information on the very subject the OPCW was asked to confirm – the nature of the toxic chemical used in the Salisbury poisonings.
That, in my view, is two steps back.
*Note: There is already alternative “confidential” information circulating in the media that the Swiss laboratory involved in the “confirmation” of the toxic chemical in the UK samples produced results not mentioned in the OPCW report. These sort of rumours will inevitably continue while the full report remains secret.