The relative silence by the African Union (AU) and its member states on allegations that the Syrian government or one of the various opposition groups have been using chemical weapons in the war that is gripping that country, represents another missed opportunity in the continent's quest to exert itself as an important player in international diplomacy. This is particularly true with regard to disarmament and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
While the findings of the United Nations (UN) inspection team - whose mandate stems from procedures provided under the UN Secretary-General's Mechanism to investigate allegations of the use of chemical weapons - are yet to be announced, it seems clear that chemical weapons were indeed used in the Syrian conflict. Exactly what type of chemicals, or indeed by whom, is still to be determined. A team consisting of nine experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and three from the World Health Organisation (WHO) is investigating the former. Environmental and biological samples are presently undergoing laboratory analysis and technical evaluation. Although efforts are being made to expedite this process, their report to the UN Secretary General may only be made public in three to four weeks - this despite the insistence of the UK's Prime Minister and the United States (US) and French presidents that the Syrian regime was responsible and that a 'punitive' military response is urgently needed.
South Africa, it seems, has been the only African state to strongly and publically condemn the alleged use of chemical weapons, stating [AL1] clearly that the 'use of these weapons is of serious concern and is wholly unacceptable by any standard'. This, and South Africa's opposition to any military intervention without UN endorsement is, or should be, the whole of Africa's response. Only three African states are not yet party to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction or the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) - Angola, Egypt and South Sudan. The CWC, which was adopted in 1992, is regarded as the jewel in the crown of treaty-based, multi-lateral disarmament as it eliminates an entire category of weapons of mass destruction and states parties must enforce the prohibition in respect of persons (natural or legal) within their jurisdiction.
The fundamental obligations of states parties to the CWC (Article 1, paragraph 1) are to never under any circumstances:
- Develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone;
- Use chemical weapons;
- Engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons;
- Assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.
Each state party also undertakes to destroy all chemical weapons and all such production facilities that it owns or possesses or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction and control, as well as to destroy all chemical weapons that it abandoned on the territory of another state party.
Under the OPCW's supervision about 80% of the world's declared stockpiles of chemical weapons have so far been verifiably destroyed. Libya, the US and Russia failed to comply with their obligations regarding the total destruction of their chemical weapons stockpiles by the deadline of 29 April 2012, but have been granted new timelines.
Angola's delayed ratification of the CWC seems to be related to logistical and resource constraints rather than political issues, while Egypt has always insisted on linking its future accession to the issue of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and that this linkage is also a necessary component of its support for a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East. Unfortunately, a 2012 Middle East Conference, mandated by the 2010 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference to discuss the creation of such a zone, was postponed indefinitely, according to the US [AL2] , because 'of present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference'. South Sudan only became a member of the UN in July 2011 and is expected to accede in the near future.
In addition, at the AU's 38th Ordinary Session of the Heads of State and Government in Durban, South Africa in July 2002, the AU adopted a decision (Decision AHG/Dec.182 (XXXVIII)) to support the CWC's aim 'to achieve the effective prohibition of the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and their destruction' and encouraged 'the call to achieve universality of the Chemical Weapons Convention in Africa' - effectively declaring Africa a chemical weapons-free zone.
This, and the fact that 51 African states (out of the current 189 states worldwide) are party to the CWC, represents a unanimous and unequivocal rejection of chemical weapons by Africa.
The Syrian Arab Republic and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPKR) have not signed the treaty, while Israel and Burma have signed but not yet ratified. However, Syria has observer status at the AU and is a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in war. Thus, the Syrian state and its citizens - including those opposing the present regime - are bound through customary international law not to use chemical weapons. While asserting the importance of international law and the UN Charter in dictating any response by the international community, this needs to be voiced by the AU and its member states.
Given that President Bashar al Assad, as far back as 2011, requested the AU's diplomatic support, Africa could, for example and as a starting point, use its influence to secure Syria's accession to the CWC and the immediate handover of any WMD in the possession of any of the parties to the Syrian conflict. This move could get the support of the Chinese and Russian governments, which support the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons and seem to carry weight with the Syrian government while also being opposed to a military response by the US and its strategic military allies.
Noel Stott is senior research fellow in the Transnational Threats and International Crime Division of the ISS.