Anger as Syria heads global disarmament body

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Geneva

image copyrightReuters
image captionMore than 350,000 people have been killed in Syria's seven-year war

Members of the UN have expressed dismay over Syria becoming president of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva.

The move comes just weeks after the latest reported chemical weapons attack, in which the Syrian authorities are widely believed to have used chemical agents against civilians.

"The UK deplores the fact that Syria will assume the presidency of the Conference on Disarmament, given the regime's consistent and flagrant disregard of international non-proliferation and disarmament norms and agreements," said a statement by British diplomats.

Meanwhile, Robert Wood, Washington's ambassador in Geneva, tweeted: "Monday, May 28 will be one of the darkest days in the history of the Conference on Disarmament with Syria beginning its four-week presidency. The Damascus regime has neither the credibility nor moral authority to preside over the CD. The international community must not be silent."

In an earlier tweet, he called on Russia to ask Syria to step aside. That appeal appears to have met with no response.

PR disaster?

So is this is a public relations disaster for the United Nations? A sign the body is dysfunctional? UN officials have been wearily pointing out that the rotating presidency system was devised by member states, primarily to prevent more powerful countries constantly jockeying for position.

Syria takes over from Switzerland simply because it follows Switzerland in the alphabetical list of member states.

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image captionThe US ambassador called it one of the conference's "darkest days"

And the Conference on Disarmament is not even a UN body, but holds its meetings at the UN in Geneva.

"Even the secretary general himself cannot change the system," said one UN official. "It has to be changed by member states."

Nevertheless it was the CD which painstakingly negotiated the convention banning chemical weapons, which was signed by Syria. The prospect of Syria sitting in the president's chair, when there is widespread evidence that it has used nerve gas against its own people, is to many people shocking.

Under watch

So is there a way to prevent Syria taking up the presidency? Not easily, as the UK acknowledges later on in its statement, pointing out that it would "require consensus amongst all CD members, Syria included, for Syria not to take on the presidency, so we cannot stop that happening.

"What we will do is ensure the Syrian presidency cannot inflict damage on the work of the Conference of Disarmament and its subsidiary bodies."

Quite what action the UK, the US, or other member states are planning to take remains unclear, though it is expected that further expressions of concern will be voiced during the conference session on Tuesday.

image copyrightReuters
image captionSyria is suspected of carrying out chemical attacks, something it strongly denies

Ensuring the Syrian presidency "cannot inflict damage" on CD work will not be too difficult. The CD has been stalled on all major issues for many years now, something UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres lamented just last week, pointing out that it had "produced very little" for decades, and calling for it be "reinvigorated".

But one thing the CD did produce is that convention on chemical weapons, and out of that convention came the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The OPCW is investigating Syria on numerous counts, and believes that chemical weapons were used, or were more than likely to have been used, in 14 cases so far.

Every single use is a crime under international law. Widespread use, of which there is evidence in Syria, is likely a crime against humanity.

So Syria may sit in the ceremonial president's chair for four weeks in Geneva, presiding over a body which has no pressing business before it, but it won't, in the words of one disarmament analyst "be let off the hook".

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