U.S. Plans Walkout as Syria Takes Reins of U.N. Disarmament Forum

The United States will stage a walkout in protest at Syria’s presidency of the Conference on Disarmament at the United Nations in Geneva, U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood told reporters on Tuesday, Reuters reports.

“We are going to walk out at some point this morning and we will be taking other actions that you will see over the course of Syria’s presidency, so please stay tuned. Washington did not plan a boycott of the four-week presidency but wanted to hold Syria to account for its use of chemical weapons,” Wood said.

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

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.

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.

“The Syrian regime has caused immeasurable suffering – through massive bombardment, oppression, starvation and repeated use of chemical weapons. Therefore, the regime has no credibility whatsoever to carry out the presidency in a substantive and adequate manner,” a German Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Berlin as quoted by South China Morning Post.

Syrian government forces are suspected of using chemical weapons several times in that country’s civil war, according to UN human rights investigators. Syria’s Geneva envoy, Hussam Eddin Ala, has denied the charges. Ala said it was important that his country leads the conference, “despite the opposition of the US and the failure of the Israeli media campaigns that have worked in recent weeks to cast aspersions on Syria’s new role,” he told the state-run SANA news agency.

The Conference on Disarmament negotiated the 1996 global nuclear test ban and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, but it has not produced any breakthroughs on the other key item on its agenda, including nuclear weapons and the peaceful use of outer space. Ala said Syria’s disarmament priorities include making the Middle East a nuclear weapon-free zone and fighting against chemical and biological terrorism.

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 U.S. 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. 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”.

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”.