MODERATOR: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us today for the virtual press briefing. We are very honored to be joined by Ambassador Michael Manso – Joseph Manso, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
With that, let’s get started. Ambassador Manso, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Okay. Thank you so much. And I’ll start my opening remarks with the four most dreaded words in the English language: I will be brief. Today we expect to wrap up the Conference of the States Parties, the CSP, which is the governing body for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW. For us, the OPCW and the treaty that underlies it – the Chemical Weapons Convention – are both extremely important, and the convention and its healthy functioning is essential to ensuring that we reach our goal of a world free of chemical weapons.
And there is some good news here, and I’ll start with the good news, which is 99 percent of the world’s declared stockpiles of chemical weapons have been destroyed. This is tens of thousands of tons of highly toxic weapons that have been destroyed. Ninety-eight percent of the U.S. stockpile is destroyed and we’re on track to destroy the rest of it by 2023. So there is a good-news story here that this has been a highly effective treaty that has gone a long way toward eliminating an entire category of weapons of mass destruction, and the vast majority of the world’s states support this. We have 143 countries that are attending this conference of states parties, and there are about 193 countries that have signed the convention and ratified it. So there is large worldwide acceptance of this norm against the use of chemical weapons and a lot of progress in destruction of the world’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
So having said that, then, the obvious question is, well, why are we still here working on this and aren’t we about to work ourselves out of a job? And the answer to that is, I wish that we were – that the ideal would be that in fact everyone is living up to the requirements of the convention and that we are going to work ourselves out of a job in the next year or so. Unfortunately, there are a small number of countries that continue to produce and use chemical weapons, and this presents a threat, I think, to all of us. And there are some that the cases are quite well known. So in Syria, the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its own population. You have a number of investigations by the OPCW and by a joint UN-OPCW team that have documented eight instances of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime against their own population.
The work of the investigative team of the OPCW, the IIT, continues, and we expect a couple more reports next year. And this is a matter that continues to be in the front of the OPCW agenda. Syria has been stripped of its right to vote and others rights and privileges in the OPCW, and there is an ongoing effort to get the Syrian Government to comply with all their obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and to hold accountable those that have used chemical weapons in Syria.
And then of course it’s no surprise that the Russian Federation has supported and protected the Assad regime, and that the Russian Federation itself has used chemical weapons in a different way. The two most famous instances are the attack in Salisbury in 2018 and the assassination attempt against Mr. Navalny. And I do want to underline the Navalny case because of the information we have that Mr. Navalny has been moved to solitary confinement in his penal colony, and to me it is a matter of amazement that the Government of the Russian Federation is so afraid of a man that wants to speak the truth that even when they have him in prison, they have to move him to solitary confinement.
So these are the challenges we face: the vast majority of countries that want to abide by the norm of not producing or using chemical weapons, and then a small number of countries that do. And with that, I’ll conclude my opening remarks and I’m very happy to take questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Ambassador. The floor is open now for questions, if anybody would like to ask them live. First I think we’ll start out with a pre-submitted question from Momchil Indjov from Club Z Media in Bulgaria. Momchil asks, “Your Excellency, does the U.S. have proof that Russia is or will use chemical weapons in Ukraine? If so, could you provide details?”
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Okay. I can say this: we are concerned because the president of the Russian Federation and senior Russian officials have threatened the use of weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine, and I think that is the basis for concern. There have been some reports of chemical weapons use, but I do not have any confirming information. So I can just say that, one, we, the United States and many of our allies and the Ukrainians, are all concerned about this, and largely, of course, on the basis of both the history of use by the Russian Federation – as I said, in the Navalny and Salisbury cases, and also the statements of their senior officials.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We have a hand raised. Can we go to Mike Eckel, please? Mike, you have the mike.
QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Can you hear me okay?
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Yes, I can hear you.
QUESTION: Thanks very much for doing this. Last year there was a push, a nascent push to try to move the question of the Navalny Novichok poisoning forward and to get a challenge inspection of certain Russian manufacturing facilities as provided for in the Chemical Weapons Convention. Best as I can tell, that didn’t happen. So three related questions. One, can you clarify the circumstances of that challenge inspection push? Why did it fail in the end, assuming it did? And is there any other effort underway currently in connection with the state parties gathering to push for a new challenge inspection of Russian facilities? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Okay, thank you. Well, first I have to say I’m not aware of any push at the OPCW for a challenge inspection. If you look at the convention and the verification annex, you will see that there is a very tight timeline, and you don’t have to push or have a vote for a challenge inspection; if a state requests one it begins a ticking clock with certain deadlines that have to be met in order to do a challenge inspection. So I don’t quite understand your question about the push because the – it’s not something that you need to do in connection with a challenge inspection.
There are, however – I mean, the challenge inspection was designed in another time basically to inspect military facilities or suspected facilities for manufacture of CW. So in the case of Mr. Navalny, it’s a little bit difficult because you have to be very precise in terms of the area that you would inspect, and I’m not sure what you would inspect in terms of this assassination attempt. Also, given the amount of time that has gone by, the thought of finding something useful in his hotel room or the airplane seems to have passed. So, I mean, this is a long way of saying it’s not clear to me that the challenge inspection is the best or right tool for the Navalny case.
What we did do last year is under another article of the convention, Article IX, a group of countries – somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 countries; I now don’t recall the exact number – presented questions to the Russian Federation about the Navalny case, and unfortunately, the Russian Federation has not provided any substantive answers to those questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We have another question that’s been submitted by Alex Yanevskyy, who is with the Voice of America. His question is a bit brief, but I’m wondering if I might expand on it a little bit. He’s asking – he says, “Ambassador, Russian media reported multiple times that Ukraine has in fact used chemical weapons.” And if I can just expand that a little bit, I expect that that might be what the Russian statement is coming out of your meetings over the past couple days. Can you react to that, please, Ambassador?
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Sure, and I have to say that this strikes me as completely noncredible. Ukraine has been a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the OPCW for decades. Russia has never had a complaint about Ukrainian compliance and never raised an issue of possible Ukrainian chemical weapons manufacture until the very eve of the invasion, when it clearly became part of their disinformation program.
So I would say that – and Russia continues to spread this disinformation, which is really a disservice both to the OPCW and to all the other members, and it is a deliberate attempt to undermine, I think, the credibility of the organization. So here they are, neighbors with Ukraine. Ukraine more than 25 years in the OPCW, never a complaint until the eve of the invasion. It’s just not credible.
MODERATOR: Understood. Thank you, Ambassador. We have another question from Alex Raufoglu. Alex, you have the mike.
QUESTION: Yes, John. Thank you so very much. I appreciate the opportunity. Ambassador, can you please lay out the potential U.S. response if Russia indeed ends up using chemical weapons in Ukraine? What kind of reaction will that invite from the U.S. and allies? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Okay. Well, what I can confirm is that the United States and its allies are carefully monitoring the situation, as is the OPCW. The director-general indicated that they are monitoring the situation in Ukraine in terms of potential use of chemical weapons. And I can say – and this is very much in line with what President Biden has said – any use by the Russian Federation of weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine will be met with a consequential response.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. The floor is open if we have any other questions. I’ll give it 30 seconds or so to see if any of our other journalist colleagues would like to chime in.
Alex, would you like to ask a follow-up or —
QUESTION: Just a follow-up, if I may. I just wanted to give the ambassador a chance to expand a little bit on the consequential response. What does that mean in practice? Thank you so much.
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Okay. Well, let me talk a little bit about this. I mean, first of all, you have to understand: if the President of the United States has said something, then that’s our policy. So I in no way am going to elaborate on the President’s intentions.
I can say a little bit about what we do specifically at the OPCW. So what we’re working to do is to ensure that the Ukrainians have the necessary defensive equipment to promptly detect such an attack, to protect themselves and civilian populations, to have trained first responders to respond in the case of such an attack. So we want to make sure that Ukraine is prepared in the eventuality that the Russians were to use chemical weapons.
And then I think the question of consequential response is left deliberately open, because the last thing we want to do is signal precisely what we’re going to do.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. The floor is back open if there are any other questions from our colleagues. Give it 30 more seconds.
Great. Well, thanks, everybody. Ambassador, thank you so much for taking the time today. We thank our journalist colleagues for their questions. Before we close the call, Ambassador, I’d like to see if you have any final remarks for the group.
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Simply to say that I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but there is a good-news story here in that so many countries do agree to the norm against chemical weapons. We do have a RevCon coming up, a Review Conference next year in May, where we will take stock of the progress we’ve made in implementing the convention over the past five years and provide strategic guidance for our work in the upcoming five years. A new ChemTech Center, which is a lab and training center for the OPCW, will be opened in the next few months – a €30 million facility – which will allow us to really start an exciting new era both in terms of international cooperation for peaceful uses of chemistry and more sophisticated lab capabilities and better training capabilities.
So there is a good-news story here as well as the challenges that I’ve discussed. So thanks, everybody.
MODERATOR: Thanks very much, Ambassador. Shortly we will send the audio recording of the briefing to all the participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub, one word, @state.gov. Thank you again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing in the near future. This ends today’s briefing.