When pro-Kurdish political parties or organisations are advocating for their cause on the world stage, it is important to know how the levers of power operate. For example, when the Syrian Democratic Council calls for international recognition of the autonomous regions of North and East Syria or the establishment of an ‘international court’ for ISIS members, it is vital to specify which international bodies can actually be called on to take concrete steps towards these political goals. On the other hand, it is important not to place blind faith in institutions often hamstrung by geopolitical or ideological constraints.
The same is true with calls for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use by Turkish troops to attack the Kurdish movement in both North and East Syria and northern Iraq. If the Kurdish movement wants to seek the support of the OPCW, understanding how the international watchdog operates is crucial.
Particularly when compared to some more moribund international bodies, the OPCW has been able to achieve major steps forward in its fight against the scourge of chemical warfare. The body descibes itself as having led the world’s most successful-ever disarmament treaty, “covering 98% of the world’s population and responsible for the verified destruction of 99% of declared chemical weapons stockpiles.” In 2013, the organisation was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its destruction of the vast majority of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile.
The challenges facing the OCPW are similar to those facing other bodies bringing together multiple global power blocs. If states do not ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, the OPCW’s powers remain highly limited – Israel, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan do not grant OPCW investigators access to their military bases. In and of itself, the OPCW can only report on whether chemical weapons were used, search for evidence of chemical weapon production, and – since 2013 – assign blame for attacks using chemical weapons. Albeit that Russian allegations of pro-US bias are themselves politically motivated, such bodies can indeed become political battlefields for the implementation of realpolitik which has little to do with genuine humanitarian concern.
All of this relies to a significant extent on the cooperation and declarations of signatory countries. The USA has still not completed the destruction of its entire chemical weapons stockpile as declared in 1997, and of course clandestine and undeclared chemical weapons remain a risk. Other countries are also generally known to have undeclared chemical warfare capabilities.
And of course, the OPCW’s mandate is entirely derived through the power and participation of international states. This leaves the Kurdish movement in a difficult position. As a representative of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War recently highlighted in a Medya News interview, the Kurdish movement will never be able to force the OPCW to act on allegations of chemical weapons usage since only member states have the ability to escalate such allegations to the organisation.
The OPCW itself rather made this point rather crudely in a recent video reminding viewers that “An investigation of alleged use of #ChemicalWeapons can only be triggered at the request of an #OPCW Member State.” Self-evidently published in response to allegations of chemical weapons attacks against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Northern Iraq. The video was seen by many as insulting at best, cynical and calculated at worst, underscoring the fact that the Kurds have no state representatives nor yet any state allies likely to challenge Turkey by calling for an investigation into alleged attacks.
There are times when the Kurdish movement must play by the rules of the state system it seeks to replace with a more truly democratic and decentralized approach. But the game is rigged, and any state actor has rights, powers and influence the Kurdish movement can only dream of. In particular, Turkey’s influence with both pro-NATO and pro-Russian blocs means the Erdogan government is able to act with impunity.
It would only take one of the 193 OPCW member states to step up to the plate and demand an investigation into Turkey’s alleged attacks. Many of these states profess to stand for values of human rights, transparency and justice. And yet, when the time comes to hold Turkey to account, they are once again nowhere to be found.
Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist, poet and activist. He writes for VICE, Medya News, the New Statesman and the New Arab; his prose has been published by The Mays, Anti-Heroin Chic and Plenitude; and his poetry by the National Poetry Society, the Independent, and Bare Fiction. His work was displayed across London by Poetry on the Underground, and he is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year.