Interview with Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on 12 December 2013.
What were you doing when you got the message of being awarded the Nobel Prize?
Ahmet Üzümcü: I was at a meeting with members of the delegations and the meeting starts at 10 o’clock and we got the news at 10:15, but we were asked not to announce it before 11 o’clock when the official announcements would be made by the Nobel Peace Prize Institute. This was really something very special and I was really looking forward to announce it while the meeting was going on, so finally I asked the chairperson to give a break of 15-20 minutes towards 11 and I went to my office to prepare a statement for the announcement to give the good news to all member countries. When I came back there was an applause, so everybody learned through the news of course during that break, it was all over so that was fantastic.
What is the OPCW?
Ahmet Üzümcü: The origins of the OPCW is in fact is a ban of chemical weapons which was in fact envisaged by the international community, by the states parties, by the countries for years. Especially after the massive use of chemical weapons during the first world war, there were several attempts to ban, to prohibit the production of those weapons, especially their use, but those at times unfortunately failed and there was again use of those weapons in 1980s. Finally the states decided to negotiate very comprehensive legal document, the Chemical Weapons Convention in Geneva in 1980s and the negotiations ended in 1992 and it was open to signature as it happens to all treaties and the signatures were completed. Then the vocation process was entered into force in 1997. This is the Chemical Weapons Convention and in order to oversee and monitor the implementation of the convention, the countries decided to establish an organization, so this is the organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons. Our task is to verify, to monitor the implementation of the convention whether the countries are doing the right thing or the wrong thing, if they do wrong things we just warn them, you should not do that, but you should do this. So far, the implementation was very satisfactory, to my pleasure. There are still six countries which are not yet members. We want to get them onboard as soon as possible of course and this prize, Nobel Peace Prize, we hope it will help us in fact to sensitize those countries and to raise awareness also in general. We have to persuade them, there is no reason from my point of view for not taking such a decision and join the convention and the organization.
What is OPCW’s definition of chemical weapons?
Ahmet Üzümcü: A chemical weapon is defined in the Commission and there are different substances which are considered as chemical weapons, but in general it is also added that any chemical substance which could be used against human beings or environment against nature and which could be harmful to human beings should be considered as chemical weapon. This is a very general definition, which I welcome, that I think gives also a clear signal to individuals as well as countries that they should not misuse the chemistry, that they should not misuse anything which might be used for peaceful purposes, but at the same time which could be harmful to the people so this is strictly prohibited by the convention so they have to abide by their obligations.
What is OPCW’s mission?
Ahmet Üzümcü: The OPCW functions on the base of declarations by member countries so they have to declare whatever activity is relevant to the convention and our task as the secretariat of the OPCW is to verify those declarations whether they are correct or not. Sometimes they make mistakes, not intentionally, but we ask them to correct them and the overall purpose is in fact to fully implement the Commission so that every country in fact can have enjoyed the security and safety provided by this convention and we didn’t detect any violation of the convention so far which is encouraging. It has been already 16 years now since 1997 and we have 196 and all of them are in fact fulfilling their obligations implementing the conventions properly and so on. We have also various activities of capacity building, as we call them, so we train the experts so that they can learn how the provisions should be implemented. We have a network of laboratories where we analyze some samples because all it depends very much also on technical means. These experts has to know how to analyze those samples and when there is an allegation of use of chemical weapons as it happened this year in Syria, our experts went there to collect samples and they brought them to laboratories including Sweden and they were analyzed and they determined unfortunately that chemical weapons were used. This is a very technical, very scientific process which is very reliable and we hope of course that such incidents will not be repeated again, but it happened, so our task is really to verify them, to determine them and so that the international community can act and take the necessary measures to prevent them to happen in the future.
What is OPCW’s most challenging task today?
Ahmet Üzümcü: The most challenging task … Actually we have been very focused on the destruction of existing stockpiles. The destruction activities should have been completed last year, but it didn’t happen. There were several reasons for that, technical, financial and other and the destruction will continue in the coming years. The progress is quite steady, I expect that in three, four years maximum we will only have 1% of existing stockpiles. So far we have been able to verify destruction of 82%, but we will reach the level of 99% in three, four years. That is a development that I would very much welcome. I have been Director-General of this organization for 3,5 years and since I am re-elected now I am going to stay 4,5 years more so I hope to see this achievement in the coming near future. The second challenge, and which is very important at the moment, is the operation, the joint mission with the United Nations in Syria and due to difficult conditions on the ground, this is a country which is in the middle of civil war and our experts are verifying and actually working there in very risky conditions. They have done so far a very successful, very satisfactory and very corageous mission, job, and when I asked them, those who came back, whether they would like to return, they said all: “Yes, we are ready to go back if necessary” and they are doing an excellent job, I am actually very proud of them.
Which is OPCW’s definition of peace?
Ahmet Üzümcü: OPCW’s definition of peace, clearly we have a limit mandate focused on elimination of chemical weapons and prevention of their emergence, but also we are focused on the promotion of peaceful use of chemistry and in the coming years, once we will make further progress on the distraction of chemical weapons, we intend to focus more on education and outreach. We want to address to university students, we want to address to high school students, we want to sensitize and raise awareness among them, about the risks of using chemistry. Of course chemistry has always been in service of the humanity. There have been many inventions which served our interest, but there are also some risks so they should be aware of those risks. We want to cooperate with them in the future, there will be some seminars, conferences, workshops and we are using more the social media network, we are on Facebook, Twitter and I would really encourage in fact the youth, the high-school students as well as university students to go on our website and to better understand what we are doing and also how we are serving the global peace through our contributions in disarmament and non-proliferation and in fact so that they can share their thoughts in relation to our activities.
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