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On 21 August 2013, the world was shocked to see images of Syrian civilians, including many children, who appeared to have been the victims of a gruesome chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta area of Damascus. The United Nations investigation of the incident confirmed that chemical weapons were used there on a relatively large scale, in the context of the ongoing conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic.
The attack served as an impetus to diplomatic efforts to find a way to eliminate the chemical weapons programme of the Syrian Arab Republic. Those efforts produced the Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons dated 14 September 2013, agreed upon between the Russian Federation and the United States of America in Geneva.
On the same day, the Syrian Arab Republic deposited with the United Nations Secretary-General its instruments of accession to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction (Chemical Weapons Convention), and declared that it will comply with its stipulations and observe them faithfully and sincerely, applying the Convention provisionally pending its entry into force in the Syrian Arab Republic.
On 27 September 2013, the OPCW Executive Council adopted a historic decision EC-M-33/DEC.1 on the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons programme. This decision was endorsed by the unanimous adoption of United Nations Security Council resolution 2118 (2013) on the same day.
The Executive Council decision set out an accelerated programme for achieving the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons by mid-2014. It required inspections in Syria to commence from 1 October 2013 and called for ambitious milestones for destruction which were to be set by the Executive Council by 15 November.
The decision was informed by the preceding Framework Agreement on the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons, reached by the Russian Federation and the United States of America on 14 September, and facilitated the request by the Syrian Arab Republic that the Chemical Weapons Convention be applied ahead of the formal entry into force of the Convention for Syria on 14 October.
Following the adoption of EC-M-33/Dec.1 and Resolution 2118 (2013), UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü worked in close consultation to develop recommendations on the setting-up of the Joint Mission and to plan for the implementation of OPCW Executive Council decision EC-M-33/Dec.1 and UN Security Council resolution 2118 (2013). These recommendations were presented by the UN Secretary-General to the Security Council in a letter on 7 October and subsequently endorsed by the Council.
The OPCW-UN Joint Mission in Syria was formally established on 16 October 2013. On the same day, Ms. Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands was appointed Special Coordinator of the Joint Mission. Both the establishment of the Joint Mission and the appointment of the Special Coordinator were made in close consultations with the OPCW Director-General. The Special Coordinator’s mandate entailed to report to both the Secretary-General and the Director-General, provide overall coordination of the Joint Mission activities, and liaise and coordinate with the Syrian Government, opposition groups and the international community.. To support the Joint Mission’s operations, separate but complementary Trust Funds were also established by the two organizations.As mandated by the Security Council, the Joint Mission’s main tasks were to oversee the timely elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons programme in the safest and most secure manner possible.
On 1 October 2013, an OPCW-UN advance team arrived in Damascus where the Joint Mission had its operational base to start carrying out the Mission’s activities.
The process of transfer of chemical materials outside of Syria started on 7 January, when a first consignment of priority chemical materials was removed from two sites to the Syrian port of Lattakia. Speaking to reporters after briefing the Security Council on the following day, Special Coordinator Sigrid Kaag noted that this movement was very important because it was the first important step in an expected process of continued movement for the destruction out of Syria.
In line with resolution 2118 (2013), the Joint Mission continued to report to the Security Council on a monthly basis on progress achieved by Syrian in meeting the requirements towards the destruction of its chemical weapons programme.
In a briefing the Council on 4 June, Ms. Kaag warned that the 30 June 2014 deadline set for the destruction of Syria’s full arsenal of chemical weapons would not be met. She stressed, however, that “significant” progress had been made since January in dismantling most of Syria’s declared chemical weapons programme. She also said that the mission would focus on the urgency of removing the remaining 7.2 percent of the declared material still held at one site, which had been hampered by volatile security conditions.
By 23 June, a final consignment of declared chemical weapons was shipped out of Syria for destruction at sea, bringing the total of declared chemical weapons materials destroyed or removed from Syria to 100 percent In addition, all declared stocks of the Category 1 chemical isopropanol had been destroyed in the country.
A further milestone in the international community’s unprecedented efforts to eliminate the chemical weapons programme of Syria was reached on 20 August 2014 with the completion of the destruction of all declared chemical weapons materials aboard U.S. ship Cape Ray.
In a letter dated 25 August, the Secretary-General welcomed this critical stage of the operations and told the Security Council that with the completion of all declared priority chemical weapons materials, and following consultations with the OPCW Director-General, he would bring the Joint Mission to a close on 30 September. He also encouraged the Syrian authorities to proceed expeditiously with the destruction of the remaining 12 production facilities.
Further updating the Security Council on 26 September, the Secretary-General announced that arrangements were being finalized between the OPCW and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) to enable OPCW to continue its remaining inspection and verification activities in Syria beyond 30 September.
While the OPCW-UN Joint Mission successfully completed its work under extremely challenging and often dangerous conditions, the United Nations has consistently stressed that conventional weapons continue to kill while Syria’s conflict goes on and urged the international community to step up efforts to end the fighting through a peaceful political solution.
The Secretary-General has also repeatedly stressed the need for a world free of chemical weapons and reiterated his call to those States that have not done so to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention.