The OPCW and Russia's alleged Novichok programme


The Hague (AFP)

Leaders of Britain, France, Germany and the US on Thursday published a joint statement condemning the poisoning of Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter earlier this month.

The four Western powers are demanding that Russia make a "full and complete" disclosure of its Novichok programme at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.

Herewith five questions about the OPCW and Russia's Novichok programme:

- What can the OPCW do? -

The most important aspect is for Britain to provide evidence that a chemical weapon has been used by providing samples to be tested, says Alastair Hay, retired professor of environmental toxicology at Leeds University.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the BBC that Britain is sending a sample of the nerve agent to the watchdog for examination.

London may now even ask the world's chemical watchdog to actively probe Russia, its right under the OPCW's Chemical Warfare Convention's challenge procedures.

Under the CWC, states also retain the right to act bilaterally, which is now the case with Britain expelling 23 diplomats and suspending high-level contacts with Moscow.

- Why wasn't Novichok probed? -

Based in The Hague, the OPCW can only investigate chemical weapons that are declared by the organisation's 192 member states.

The OPCW marked the final destruction of Russia's declared chemical weapons stockpile in October last year.

Russia did not declare Novichoks and has denied that they even exist, says chemical weapons expert Mark Bishop at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Dissident Soviet scientist Vil Mirzanayov, exiled in the United States, gained notoriety in the 1990s for his claims that Moscow was secretly developing Novichok and maintained tens of tonnes of the binary nerve agent in its undeclared chemical stockpile.

- How effective is the OPCW then? -

The OPCW "has been very effective in creating a world free of chemical weapons" says Sico van der Meer, researcher at The Hague's Clingendael Institute.

More than 95 percent of the world's declared chemical stockpiles have now been destroyed and the OPCW in 2013 won the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to rid the world of chemical arms.

The organisations' inspectors have been highly effective, but the system is not completely watertight, the experts say.

"If somebody wants to do harm, then there is always a way to do harm," said Van der Meer.

- What does the CWC say? -

It is the responsibility of the signatory to the Chemical Warfare Convention to declare its chemical weapons, including what they are, the quantities and the location and storage and production facilities.

The OPCW has the right to inspect facilities, but cannot do a house-to-house search.

Thus a certain level of trust is involved.

- Has Russia contravened the CWC? -

The CWC requires that member countries declare all of their chemical weapons. Russia on Thursday repeated its consistent denial that Novichok ever existed.

Britain's ambassador to the OPCW, Peter Wilson, on Tuesday accused Moscow of failing "for many years" to fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile. Chemical weapons expert Bishop said Moscow has claimed that its understanding of the pact was that it had to declare only chemicals that were destined for use in chemical weapons and not research chemicals.

"There are many toxic chemicals that chemists have produced that could be used as weapons, but have actually been produced for other purposes," he said.

"The Russians can say that they were doing research on Novichok-like chemicals to be used in pesticides" for instance, Bishop said.