Speech minister Koenders about OPCW
Your Royal Highness,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today we mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the organisation we are so proud to host here in The Hague – international city of peace and justice.
Almost two decades ago, on the 6th of May 1997, we came together in this city to inaugurate this new international organisation. To celebrate that an entire category of weapons of mass destruction had been universally banned – a norm we seeked to establish as early as 1899, in the Hague Peace Treaty.
Throughout the 20th century, we witnessed the development and use of progressively more deadly chemical weapons. During the First World War, sometimes dubbed ‘’the chemists war’’ – we saw harrowing scenes in places like Ypres, but also in Rawka, Loos and Monte San Michele.
Scenes like the one described by this Canadian soldier in 1919, and I quote:
‘Over the trenches, a greenish-yellow fog appeared, strangely out of place. And then – a burning sensation in the head, red-hot needles in the lungs, the throat seized as by a strangler. Many fell and died on the spot. The others, gasping, stumbling with faces contorted, hands wildly gesticulating. Uttering hoarse cries of pain...”
The second half of the century reminded us that the threat was far from over: in 1988 in Halabdja, on the Tokyo subway in 1995. And as recent as last april, in Khan Sheikoun, Syria. Al incidents that reminded us that chemical weapons continue to be a threat - well into this twenty-first century.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the twenty years since its founding, the OPCW has come a long way. Membership has expanded to cover almost every country in the world - universalising the international legal norm.
Since 1997, almost all declared stockpiles have been destroyed. Only six per cent remain – we are confident these will follow suit in the next couple of years.
These are important achievements.
But the OPCW alone cannot, unfortunately, as recent events have demonstrated, prevent the use of chemical weapons. The convention is only as strong as the capacity of the Organisation combined with the political will of each of the individual member states.
This was something the OPCW’s Director-General himself also pointed out in 2013, when the organisation was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, when he said that, and I quote:
‘the recognition that this Peace Prize brings, will spur us to untiring effort, even stronger commitment and greater dedication.’
And such commitment and dedication is needed today more than ever. From the OPCW itself, but first and foremost: of its member states.
Because the context of the OPCW’s work has become so much more complex over the past 20 years.
Firstly, there is the chemical industry itself:
The modern world cannot survive without the advances that it has brought. Everything is chemistry and chemistry is everywhere - from pharmaceuticals to plastics. The chemical industry has more than doubled in size and production processes have been simplified. That also means that the OPCW has a lot more to inspect, with barely any more staff than it had at the start of its mandate.
Secondly, the world itself has changed a great deal. Think of all that’s taken place during the last decades: 9/11, the scourge of ISIS, the rise of non-state actors, hybrid threats and international terrorism, the conflicts in Lybia and Syria, where so many international norms were violated.
In short - the world in which the OPCW must carry out its mission is totally different to the world of twenty years ago. We’re no longer in that optimistic period after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Chemical Weapons Convention came to fruition after 20 years of negotiations.
That’s all the more reason for us to applaud what has been accomplished: in just two decades, 94% of all declared chemical weapons have been destroyed.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today is a day to duly recognize this cause for celebration. But we cannot ignore the black cloud hanging over us.
Less than a month ago, dozens of innocent people in Syria – including many children – suffered a terrible death as a result of nerve gas – sarin, as it has now also been confirmed by OPCW investigators. The world watched in horror as this inhuman scene played out. We hoped we would never have to witness such scenes again.
One thing is crystal clear. The use of chemical weapons in Syria violated a well established international principle. A principle that was laid down in the first Hague Convention of 1899, which was universalised through the creation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and further reinforced by a verification mechanism - the first of its kind.
The events in Syria and their aftermath are abhorrent. And if there is one thing they show us, it’s that there is still, today maybe more than ever before, a need for an organisation that works to prohibit the use of chemical weapons. An organisation that, in cooperation with the UN, responds to violations by applying its expertise. An organisation that can serve as an independent centre of technical expertise.
The OPCW is that organisation.
Recent events in Syria have underscored the need for a neutral, reliable international organisation. An organisation that can make use of its own, independent research. Research that conforms to the scientific requirements of objectivity and verifiability. In these volatile times of increasing geopolitical tensions, where fake news only threatens to increase the confusion surrounding suspected chemical attacks – as it did in the aftermath of Khan Sheikoun - this objectivity is crucial.
That’s why I am glad the OPCW was able to offer its expertise in the aftermath of this terrible attack. And I call on all member states to ensure that OPCW experts can continue to carry out their important work - without unduly questioning its neutrality. So that their conclusions can be given the follow-up they deserve – including in the Security Council.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The Netherlands will continue to provide both political and practical support to the OPCW in its mission, as we have done ever since its inception. We are proud of the cooperation between the OPCW and the Dutch TNO Security Lab. And I would like to take this opportunity to express my great appreciation for the men and women of the Technical Secretariat. They are experts who carry out their work with great dedication, often in very difficult circumstances. With their impartiality and professionalism, they form the backbone of the organisation.
Our support, I wish to underline, also extends to international disarmament and arms control in a more general sense. Because, whether we’re talking about nuclear, chemical, biological or conventional weapons: worldwide non-proliferation and disarmament are key factors in global security. International disarmament and non-proliferation are generally high on the Dutch government’s policy agenda. And they’re also high on my own agenda: first as a Member of Parliament and now as Minister of Foreign Affairs. We’ll keep doing our part. For example, presently, as Chair of the NPT Preparatory Committee in Vienna.
Ladies and gentlemen, in closing:
Will there ever come a time, when we no longer need the OPCW?
Well, we need to be realistic. As long as there’s a chemical industry, and as long as there is conflict and war, there will be a need for the OPCW.
It needs to be defended, nurtured, and supported – in spirit and concretely – by all of us. I call on all member states to continue to do just that in the years ahead.
So that the organisation, in the words of its Director-General, can grow to become ‘the global repository for knowledge, expertise and technologies that benefits all nations’.
An organisation that acts as a hub for monitoring obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and helping states comply. A nerve centre, directing a network of cooperation and exchange, between scientists, industry and civil society.
An effective multilateral organisation that is strongly defended and supported by all of its member states, and thus helps the international community ensure that ‘the genie stays in the bottle’ – right where it belongs.