Our Global Partnership Against Chemical Weapons Abuses

Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford, Assistant SecretaryBureau of International Security and Nonproliferation

Plenary Meeting

Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction

As Delivered

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a distinct honor to join you for another virtual plenary meeting of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (GP), and a pleasure to join my friends and colleagues, Susanne Bauman from Germany and Sarah Price from the United Kingdom, in addressing this important topic. 

As I noted to the June plenary, our work in the GP is more crucial than ever.  Then, I stressed the importance of collaboration in mitigating biological threats.  The COVID-19 pandemic is an apparently natural outbreak, but it continues to highlight the ways in which actual biological weapons could wreak untold mayhem.  In recent years, concern about biological weapons has focused on terrorists – but we must also remember that the specter of state-sponsored biological warfare has never left us.  In fact, in August of this year, the United States announced measures to block commercial dealings with certain Russian government institutes involved in the Russian biological weapons program  biological weapons program, thus publicly and officially making clear for the first time that there is still a Russian biological weapons program. 

Today, however, I’d like to say a few words about chemical weapons (CW) threats – another area in which the Kremlin has recently distinguished itself in odious and unlawful ways.  The GP has a vital role to play in helping to mitigate these threats, as part of a larger effort that requires all our governments to take robust steps to re-establish the global norm against CW use by calling out abuses where they occur, imposing consequences for such atrocities, and standing together to re-establish and reinforce global CW nonproliferation norms. 

The world has long recognized the terrible nature of chemical weaponry, and humanity has tried repeatedly to control it.  Initial efforts to prohibit the use of poison gas in warfare failed to prevent its use in World War One, but the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting use of chemical or biological weapons gained widespread adherence.  A number of states still maintained CW programs, but their actual use was thankfully very rare thereafter.  The few instances that did occur – such as Egypt’s use of CW in Yemen in the 1960s and the large-scale employment of chemical agents in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s – helped to drive progress toward a total ban, achieved with the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997.  After that, one hoped, CW would just be a thing of the past, and indeed the superpower adversaries, the United States and Russia, heir to the Soviet Union’s program, declared their Cold War CW stockpiles and production facilities and set about destroying them under international supervision. 

As I have said before, in some ways the CWC is structurally the most ambitious of humanity’s various efforts to control weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  The CWC, after all, does not just prohibit an entire type of WMD; it also provides a means for implementing the destruction of CW stocks, a means for verifying that such destruction had occurred, and incorporates mechanisms for investigating allegations of CW use and attributing that use to its perpetrators.  It is, one might say, humanity’s first and only “one stop shop” for all-aspect WMD prohibition and elimination, and one should never overlook what a tremendous achievement that was.   

In recent years, however, this laudable regime has come under threat in ways that not only directly undermine the global ban on CW but that could also threaten other hard-won gains in multilateral arms control and disarmament.  Countries such as Russia and Iran have been in violation of the CWC for some time, hiding certain aspects of their programs rather than eliminating them, but the worst of the modern ugly spiral of CW problems began with the use of sarin nerve agent by the Syrian regime against its own people.   

For a while, it was thought that the international community had met this threat, for Syria was persuaded to join the CWC, declare its chemical weapons to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and destroy that stockpile under international supervision, with Russia assuming responsibility as guarantor of Syrian compliance.  As it turned out, however, this was a scam, for Syria did not declare all its CW, nor destroy all of it.  Instead, it secretly preserved key elements of its chemical weapons program and was soon using CW once again, to further horrific effect, against the Syrian people.   

Making things worse, Russia swung into action as Syria’s protector in these atrocities, working diligently to shield its client from accountability, and making denial of CW use part of its disinformation narrative.  Today, far from protecting the CWC, Moscow is playing the disgraceful role of trying to undermine the OPCW’s work and legitimacy.   

Such atrocities by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces, moreover, have proven to be merely the beginning of a broader undermining of the norm against CW use.  In addition to well-documented uses of CW by Syrian regime forces and ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq, North Korea used VX nerve agent in an assassination in Malaysia in 2017.  Russia itself used one of the novichok nerve agents in an assassination attempt against the Russian expatriate defector and UK citizen Sergei Skripal in 2018, an attack undertaken on British soil.  (The Skripal attack, in turn, echoed Russia’s 2006 poison attack in London against Alexander Litvinenko – a defector from the Russian security service who had written about Vladimir Putin instigating false-flag terrorist attacks in Russia as a tool to justify his rise to power – with the difference merely that Russian government agents had then used radioactive Polonium-210, and that Mr. Litvinenko did not survive.)  This was the first known use of these sophisticated nerve agents, which serve no other purpose than to be used as a chemical weapon.  

Russian opposition figure and pro-democracy activist Aleksey Navalny was also poisoned, in August, with a nerve agent that German, French, and Swedish laboratories and the OPCW itself have confirmed is one of the chemicals in the novichok group – a class of chemical weapons that were developed in secret by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, at the same time it was negotiating the CWC, and remain in the hands of Russia as part of its continuing illegal CW program.  Let me be perfectly clear: there is no plausible explanation for Mr. Navalny’s poisoning other than Russian government responsibility. 

These proliferating examples of the undermining of norms against CW use and grave damage to the CWC regime illustrate the enormous task we have in front of us if we want to save these incredibly important institutions.  In this, we all must stand together.  We have a moral duty to hold the perpetrators of such outrages accountable for their crimes and abuses.   

But all is not lost.  Global Partnership countries can contribute to bringing things back under control, shoring up the global CWC regime, and re-establishing the norm against chemical weapons.    

Several GP countries are not yet participants in the Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, but nothing is stopping you from participating.  Indeed, your hanging back may be taken as a sign by Syria and Russia that you don’t really care about their CW use.  You can remedy this, and I strongly encourage you to join, and even to play an active role such as by serving as its rotating Chair or by hosting a Partnership event. 

Those of you whose governments are part of the Australia Group (AG) can work with us in continuing the AG’s excellent work to step up export controls against chemical and biological weapons-related materials and technology.  The AG has already implemented enhanced measures against chemical proliferation to Syria, and against novichok proliferation, and it has a key role to play in promoting global “best practices” in these areas on an ongoing basis. 

All countries who take seriously the dangers of chemical weapons and do not wish to be seen as helping the perpetrators of CW atrocities hide from accountability should also strongly support the OPCW itself.  In particular, they should maintain strong support for the OPCW Technical Secretariat’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which has already done such impressive work in documenting and attributing multiple instances of CW use to the regime in Syria.    

Your governments should also use their votes at the OPCW’s Conference of the States Parties (CSP) to send a strong message that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons is unequivocally, absolutely, and entirely unacceptable.  The OPCW Executive Council issued a strong decision in July 2020 making clear that Syria must take measures in response to its CW use, such as by declaring its remaining chemical weapons stocks.  The Assad regime, however, has failed to do this, and so the CSP must take a stand.  Countries should also continue to protest Mr. Navalny’s poisoning and call out Russia’s blatant violation of the CWC in CSP national statements.  

We also urge you to demonstrate your support for these principles in national practice.  We commend the European Union, for instance, for imposing sanctions against Russian entities for poisoning Mr. Navalny.  For its part, the United States has imposed state-level sanctions on all three of the countries to have used CW in the 21st century – Syria, North Korea, and Russia – as well as upon hundreds of individuals and entities involved in those CBW programs.   

This is also an arena in which partnership capacity-building can do much good, including through efforts such as the Global Partnership.  Through the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, for instance, we have provided chemical detection and decontamination equipment and training to security forces in Iraq for years, we have helped select laboratories in partner countries enhance their capability to conduct verification analysis of chemical warfare agents and related chemicals, and we have provided protective equipment and CW use attribution test kits to humanitarian medical first-responders in Syria who have been trying to cope with vicious chemical assaults by the Assad regime.  We have hosted conferences and trainings, local internships, and security upgrades for regional stakeholders, in order to promote chemical security and proliferation-prevention “best practices” in chemical distribution and trade, including assistance in how to identify front companies and other deceptive tactics commonly used by state-sponsored CW programs.    

ISN has also trained chemical safety and security experts in government, industry, and academia from across the Middle East, South and East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa – helping them improve their ability to uphold CWC norms by detecting, deterring, and disrupting CW attacks, helping them create cadres of experts and a “best practices” community to secure the chemical supply chain, assist high-risk institutions in adopting robust chemical security practices, and counter toxic gas plots.  We have been helping partner countries build effective legal and regulatory systems for items controlled by multilateral export control regimes.  ISN even recently held a training program of tabletop exercises for frontline states at risk from state-sponsored assassinations using chemical agents, helping them learn how to overcome active measures to obfuscate the origin of such an attack and how to protect the credibility of agencies investigating such incidents. 

We are immensely proud of all this capacity-building programming, and we will continue it, even if for now the pandemic means that a good deal of it must be in the form of virtual engagements.  But we also urge you to explore how your government’s efforts – including partnering through the GP – can also help do more against the horrors of CW use and the erosion of the CWC regime.  And when U.S. officials approach you with information about suspect proliferation shipments, we hope you will be willing to use all available legal and regulatory tools, including “catch-all” export controls against suspect end-uses and end-users, to stop them.  

The CWC, and the broader global nonproliferation regime of which it is a part, is today at a turning point.  We must not let the persistence of state-level CW programs in countries such as Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Syria – and indeed continuing episodes of outright CW use – destroy this regime.    

Fortunately, we don’t have to let this happen.  And your governments’ contributions – in diplomatic weight and resolution, in the use of its authorities to impose costs and consequences for CW abuses, and in ongoing programmatic commitments to capacity-building – can help turn the tide.  We can succeed together, and our collective work here in the Global Partnership can be a very important part of turning things around to ensure we uphold this historic treaty and the norm against CW use that it establishes. 

Thank you.

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    Federal agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE) and the separately organized National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) within DOE, and uranium industry representatives have identified risks to the commercial supply chain for uranium needed for defense purposes. Such uranium may need to be mined domestically and enriched using U.S. technology to be free of obligations for the peaceful use of uranium and certain technology imported under international agreements. Identified risks to the unobligated uranium supply chain include (1) possible loss of domestic uranium mining capabilities and (2) possible challenges in re-starting the only facility in the United States for converting natural uranium into a form suitable for use in enrichment operations. Further, the U.S. has not had an operating enrichment capability that uses U.S. technology since 2013. Idle Domestic Plant for Converting Uranium to a Form Suitable for Enrichment DOE and NNSA have initiated actions officials believe will mitigate such risks to the unobligated uranium supply chain. For example, DOE and NNSA have both taken steps to reestablish a domestic enrichment capability with U.S. technology. In addition, DOE has proposed creation of a domestic uranium reserve to help support the domestic uranium mining and conversion industries until market conditions improve. DOE's fiscal year 2021 budget request includes $150 million for the reserve. However, we cannot conclude that the estimate is reasonable because it is unclear how the funding needs for the reserve were determined. By providing a more complete analysis to support future funding requests for the reserve, DOE could better provide assurance that such requests would achieve objectives. The Nuclear Fuel Working Group's strategy to mitigate risks to the domestic uranium industry does not fully incorporate all desirable characteristics GAO has identified for a national strategy. For example, it does not identify (1) the level of resources needed to support proposed actions or (2) an interagency coordinating mechanism. DOE is developing an implementation plan for the strategy, but DOE officials provided conflicting statements about the extent to which the agency will coordinate interagency implementation. NNSA has several defense needs for enriched uranium, including low-enriched uranium to produce tritium for nuclear weapons. To meet these needs, NNSA relies on commercial sectors of the domestic uranium industry, such as uranium mining or enrichment, which make up a supply chain for unobligated uranium. However, this industry faces commercial viability risks. In April 2020, the President's Nuclear Fuel Working Group released a strategy to mitigate risks to the domestic uranium industry. This working group includes DOE, the Department of Defense, and other agencies. Senate Report 115-262 included a provision that GAO review NNSA's planning for the future supply of unobligated enriched uranium. This report examines (1) risks agencies and others have identified to the unobligated uranium supply chain and agency actions to mitigate those risks, and (2) the extent to which the Nuclear Fuel Working Group's risk mitigation strategy incorporates desirable characteristics of a national strategy. GAO analyzed key NNSA and DOE planning documents and interviewed NNSA and other agency officials and industry representatives. GAO is making three recommendations, including that DOE improve its cost estimate to support future funding requests for the proposed uranium reserve and ensure its implementation plan for the strategy addresses each of the desirable characteristics of a national strategy. DOE concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact at (202) 512-3821 or bawdena@gao.gov.
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  • Airport Funding: Information on Grandfathered Revenue Diversion and Potential Implications of Repeal
    In U.S GAO News
    According to the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) data for fiscal years 1995 through 2018, nine airport owners—also known as “airport sponsors”—lawfully diverted airport revenue amounts ranging from $0 to over $840 million by a sponsor in 1 year. These “grandfathered” airport sponsors are currently exempt from federal requirements to use all airport revenue solely for airport purposes (see figure). Together, these sponsors own 32 airports serving millions of passengers a year. Five of these sponsors are city or state governments, which regularly diverted airport revenue into their general funds for government programs and services. Four of these sponsors are transportation authorities, which diverted varying amounts for various transportation-related purposes, such as supporting maritime ports or transit systems. Three of the transportation authorities also secured bonds using revenue from their various activities, including airport revenue, to finance airport and non-airport assets. Airport Sponsors That Have Reported Grandfathered Revenue Diversion, as of 2018 According to selected stakeholders, a repeal of grandfathered revenue diversion would have complex legal and financial implications for transportation authorities. Transportation authority officials said that a repeal would inherently reduce their flexibility to use revenues across their assets and could lead to a default of their outstanding bonds if airport revenues could no longer be used to service debt; exempting outstanding bonds could alleviate some financial concerns. For city and state government sponsors, a loss in general fund revenue could result in reduced government services, though they said a phased-in repeal could help in planning for lost revenue. In 1982, a federal law was enacted that imposed constraints on the use of airport revenue (e.g., concessions, parking fees, and airlines' landing fees), prohibiting “diversion” for non-airport purposes in order to ensure use on airport investment and improvement. However, the law exempted “grandfathered” airport sponsors—those with state or local laws providing for such diversion—from this prohibition. Viewpoints vary on whether these airport sponsors should be allowed to continue to lawfully divert revenue. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 provides for GAO to examine grandfathered airport revenue diversion. This report examines: (1) how much revenue has been diverted annually by grandfathered airport sponsors and how these revenues have been used, and (2) selected stakeholders' perspectives on potential implications of repealing the law allowing revenue diversion. GAO analyzed FAA financial data on grandfathered airports' revenue diversion for fiscal years 1995 through 2018, all years such data were available. GAO also analyzed relevant documents such as state and local laws, and airport sponsors' bond documents. GAO interviewed FAA officials and relevant stakeholders, including officials from nine grandfathered airport sponsors and representatives from bond-rating agencies, airline and airport associations, and airlines that serve grandfathered airports that were selected based on those with the greatest passenger traffic. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or krauseh@gao.gov.
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  • Federal Oil and Gas Revenue: Actions Needed to Improve BLM’s Royalty Relief Policy
    In U.S GAO News
    In reaction to falling domestic oil prices due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) developed a temporary policy in spring 2020 for oil and gas royalty relief. The policy aimed to prevent oil and gas wells from being shut down in way that could lead to permanent losses of recoverable oil and gas. During March through June 2020, BLM gave companies the opportunity to apply for a reduction in the royalty rates for certain oil and gas leases on federal lands. BLM approved reductions from 12.5 percent of total revenue on oil and gas sold from those leases to an average of less than 1 percent for a period of 60 days. However, BLM did not establish in advance that royalty relief was needed to keep applicants' wells operating, according to BLM officials. BLM also did not assess the extent to which the temporary policy kept oil and gas companies from shutting down their wells or the amount of royalty revenues forgone by the federal government. By evaluating the extent to which the policy met BLM's objective of preventing unrecoverable loss of oil and gas resources–and likely costs, such as forgone revenues—BLM could better inform its decisions about granting royalty relief that provides a fair return to the government, should the agency decide to consider such relief in the future. BLM officials told GAO that BLM state offices implementing the temporary policy for royalty relief made inconsistent decisions about approving applications for relief because the temporary policy did not supply sufficient detail to facilitate uniform decision-making. The officials added that their state offices did not have recent experience in processing applications for oil and gas royalty relief. Several of the officials had never received or processed royalty relief applications. In addition, GAO found that ongoing guidance for processing royalty relief decisions—within BLM's Fees, Rentals and Royalties Handbook , last revised in 1995—also does not contain sufficient instructions for approving royalty relief. For example, the handbook does not address whether to approve applications in cases where the lease would continue to be uneconomic, even after royalty relief. As a result, some companies that applied for royalty relief were treated differently, depending on how BLM officials in their state interpreted the policy and guidance. In particular, officials from two state offices told GAO they denied royalty relief to applicants because the applicants could not prove that royalty relief would enable their leases to operate profitably. However, two other state offices approved royalty relief in such cases. The fifth state office denied both of the applications it received for other reasons. BLM's existing royalty relief guidance did not address this issue, and BLM's temporary policy did not supply sufficient detail to facilitate uniform decision-making in these situations. BLM's directives manual states that BLM should provide BLM employees with authoritative instructions and information to implement BLM programs and support activities. Until BLM updates the royalty relief guidance, BLM cannot ensure that future relief decisions will be made efficiently and equitably across the states and provide a fair return to the federal government. BLM manages the federal government's onshore oil and gas program with the goals of facilitating safe and responsible energy development while providing a fair return for the American taxpayer. In April 2020, oil and gas producers faced financial challenges from a drop in demand for oil during the COVID-19 pandemic. If oil and gas prices decline, it places financial stress on oil and gas companies, thereby increasing bankruptcies and the risk of wells being shut down. BLM developed a temporary policy to provide oil and gas companies relief from royalties that they owe to the federal government when they sell oil and gas produced on federal lands. This testimony discusses (1) BLM's development of the temporary policy for royalty relief and what is known about the policy's effects, and (2) BLM's implementation of this policy across relevant states. To do this work, GAO reviewed BLM documents; analyzed royalty data; and interviewed BLM officials from headquarters and the five BLM state offices with jurisdiction over states that account for 94 percent of royalties from oil and gas production on federal lands. GAO is making two recommendations. BLM should (1) evaluate the effects of its temporary royalty relief policy and use the results to inform its ongoing royalty relief program, and (2) update its guidance to provide consistent policies for royalty relief.  For more information, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or ruscof@gao.gov.
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  • Department of Defense: Eating Disorders in the Military
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Defense (DOD) screens for eating disorders for all applicants entering into the military but does not specifically screen servicemembers for eating disorders after entrance. However, after joining the military, servicemembers receive annual health screenings, and medical personnel may be able to diagnose eating disorders during in-person physical exams. Service branch behavioral health specialists told GAO that DOD medical personnel are trained to notice signs of eating disorders, such as changes in vital signs and emaciated appearance. DOD is examining ways to improve its screening of eating disorders in the military and recently expanded the available research funding for eating disorders in its Peer-Reviewed Medical Research Program (PRMRP). DOD provides health care services to approximately 9.5 million eligible beneficiaries, including services to treat those diagnosed with eating disorders, through TRICARE, DOD’s regionally structured health care system. Servicemembers can obtain these services at military treatment facilities—referred to as direct care—or receive care purchased from civilian providers—referred to as purchased care. DOD officials told us that the specialized level of care necessary to treat eating disorders is available to TRICARE beneficiaries through purchased care, rather than direct care. The Defense Health Agency (DHA), which oversees the TRICARE program, uses two contractors to develop regional provider networks. According to the two TRICARE contractors’ data for purchased care, as of spring 2020, there were 166 eating disorder facilities located in 32 states throughout the country and the District of Columbia. The facilities vary by geographic location, population served, and level of treatment provided: Geography: About half of the 166 facilities (79) are located in the following five states: California (24), Florida (18), Illinois (15), Texas (13), and Virginia (nine).  Population: Of the 166 eating disorder facilities, over three-quarters provide treatment to both adult (132 facilities) and child and adolescent (132 facilities) populations. Level of Treatment: Most facilities provide inpatient hospitalization programs, which are for serious cases requiring medical stabilization (81 facilities); partial hospitalization, which are day programs providing treatment 5 to 7 days a week (133 facilities); or intensive outpatient programs, which are treatment programs providing therapy 2 to 6 days a week (107 facilities). About one-fifth of the facilities (35) provide residential treatment services, which are living accommodations providing intensive therapy and 24-hour supervision. TRICARE contractors have met with some challenges entering into contracts with eating disorder treatment facilities in certain areas of the country, according to DHA officials and both contractors. However, both contractors told GAO they consider it their responsibility to ensure beneficiaries receive the care they need regardless of the location of the facility. No access-to-care complaints related to eating disorder treatment were reported by TRICARE beneficiaries, according to the most recent DHA data for years 2018 through 2019. Eating disorders are complex conditions affecting millions of Americans and involve dangerous eating behaviors, such as the restriction of food intake. They can have a severe impact on heart, stomach, and brain functionality, and they significantly raise the risk of mortality. Many with eating disorders also experience co-occurring conditions such as depression. Research has yielded a range of estimates of the number of servicemembers with an eating disorder, due to differences in research methods. For example, a 2018 DOD study concluded that servicemembers likely experienced eating disorders at rates that are comparable to rates in the general population, while other survey-based research suggested the number of servicemembers with eating disorders may be higher than those with a medical diagnoses of such disorders. The potential effects that eating disorders can have on the health and combat readiness of servicemembers and their dependents underscores the importance of screening and treating this population. GAO was asked to provide information on eating disorders among servicemembers and their dependents. To describe how DOD screens for eating disorders among servicemembers, GAO reviewed DOD policies related to health screening and interviewed behavioral health specialists from the military branches. To understand approaches and challenges with implementing screening in a military environment, any planned or ongoing DOD-sponsored research related to this topic, and available eating disorder treatment, GAO interviewed representatives from the Eating Disorder Coalition, Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, and the University of Kansas. To describe how DOD provides eating disorder treatment to servicemembers and their dependents, GAO interviewed DHA officials and TRICARE contractors and reviewed the TRICARE policy manual to identify the types of eating disorder diagnoses and treatments that are covered through direct and purchased care. GAO received data from the two TRICARE contractors related to the availability of eating disorder treatment services as of spring 2020. For more information, contact Sharon Silas at (202) 512-7114 or Silass@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
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