Friday, 15 November 2019

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Chemical weapons sail off for destruction

UN Photo: Evan Schneider

24 February 2014 - When it was brought to light that chemical weapons had been used against the civilian population in Syria, it stirred massive international attention and a general outcry. After the Syrian regime agreed to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal, Denmark and Norway joined forces in a shared UN operation to remove the chemical warfare agents.

The chemicals will be taken from a Syrian port to a US navy vessel, the Cape Ray, which is equipped with tools to destroy them at sea. The Danes and Norwegians were joined by Finnish experts in mid-December, who stand ready to operate on board of the Danish vessel in case problems would occur during transport.

The removal was due to take place before December 31, but Syria's worsening conflict, logistical problems and bad weather had delayed the operation.

The operation is led by Denmark, with Norwegian officer as second in command. In addition, the Chinese and Russians are stepping in with the vessels “Yan Cheng” and “Peter the Great”. Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is responsible for overseeing and facilitating the packing and shipping of the warfare agents, in collaboration with the UN.

Eskil Grendahl Sivertsen, senior adviser at the Norwegian Defense Department, says that the collaboration between the Nordic countries is working out very well. “As members of NATO, Norway and Denmark operate, in large, with the same framework for planning, procedures and routines for command and control. We have a coinciding understanding of the mission and how it should be executed”.

The fact that they are neighboring countries, and share both linguistic and cultural similarities, is mentioned as a reason for why the collaboration is working so smoothly. In addition, the Nordic countries are also familiar with collaborating in various military missions, such as the ISAF operation in Afghanistan.

In regard to the operation in Syria, Sivertsen explains that the chemical warfare agents, which, if put together would constitute chemical weapons, are being transported onboard cargo ships in secure containers.

According to Sivertsen, the mission is fairly uncomplicated, militarily speaking. “We have a modern frigate force with skilled and motivated people. Escort mission is a central part of the frigate force, and we have gained valuable experience from, amongst other missions, our participation outside the Horn of Africa”.

Norway’s Foreign Minister Børge Brende and the former functioning Danish Foreign Minister Rasmus Helveg Petersen expressed their support for the operation in a joint statement, saying that “the use of chemical weapons is a threat to international peace and security. It is a central task for the international community to remove these horrendous weapons from Syria”. The ministers also encouraged other member states of the UN to contribute with all possible support to the OPCW/UN operation.

Siversten expresses that the most challenging aspect of the operation is the time frame. On 31 January, two shipments of chemicals have been transported. Director-General of OPCW Ahmet Üzümcü stated in a press release that “the need for the process to pick up pace is obvious”.

Despite the challenges, the Nordic countries taking part in the mission are motivated for the task at hand: “We all have a responsibility to create a more secure world and do what we can when the UN requests it. Contributing in removing the chemical warfare agents from Syria is both a meaningful and important mission”, Sivertsen concludes.

A third shipment of chemical weapons material took place from the Syrian Arab Republic on 10 February. The material is on board of a Norwegian cargo vessel accompanied by a naval escort from the People’s Republic of China, Denmark, Norway, and the Russian Federation.

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