OPCW field mis­sion

Kuwait Times - - International -

THE HAGUE: Sci­en­tists, paramedics and ex­perts from the OPCW chem­i­cal watch­dog are in Syria to in­ves­ti­gate al­le­ga­tions of last week­end’s poi­son gas at­tack. Af­ter last month’s probe in the Bri­tish town of Sal­is­bury, it is the sec­ond time in just a few weeks that in­ves­ti­ga­tors from the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons (OPCW) have been de­ployed to a site of a sus­pected toxic arms at­tack. Here are a few ques­tions and an­swers about the ex­perts’ work be­hind the scenes.

How is OPCW team de­ployed? Nor­mal prepa­ra­tion time for a fact-find­ing mis­sion takes be­tween two to four weeks. But the OPCW’s chief Ah­met Uzumcu told AFP in 2016 that amid in­creas­ing al­le­ga­tions of chem­i­cal weapons use in Syria he had set up a spe­cial team of up to 15 peo­ple who de­ploy within 24 hours. Once a mis­sion is agreed upon, the equip­ment store team at the OPCW’s fa­cil­i­ties in Ri­jswijk gather and check a wealth of in­stru­ments and gear needed to pro­tect the ex­perts and aid their anal­y­sis. While in­spec­tors want to travel as light as pos­si­ble, they also need to en­sure they carry the nec­es­sary equip­ment.

This can vary from air cylin­ders, to sam­ple vials for gath­er­ing such things as soil, blood, or plants from the area of an al­leged at­tack. Chem­i­cal va­por de­tec­tors, sam­ple scrap­ers and de­tec­tion pa­pers for test­ing wa­ter, are also all packed into hard-shell plas­tic cases for safe trans­port. More so­phis­ti­cated equip­ment in­cludes de­tec­tors us­ing flame pho­tom­e­try, in which an air sam­ple is burned in a hy­dro­gen-rich flame com­monly used for de­tect­ing gas. Each team mem­ber is fit­ted with gas masks, or in­dus­trial res­pi­ra­tors, as well as haz­mat pro­tec­tion suits or air-tight de­con­tam­i­na­tion suits. Satel­lite phones and emer­gency med­i­cal kits equipped with var­i­ous an­ti­dotes are also es­sen­tial.

Who are the team mem­bers?

A typ­i­cal team could be com­posed of two med­i­cal doc­tors, two chem­i­cal weapons mu­ni­tions spe­cial­ist in­spec­tors, one or two an­a­lyt­i­cal chem­i­cals in­spec­tors, in­ter­preters and se­cu­rity. They can be of all dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties and are ex­perts in their field, who will have un­der­gone ex­ten­sive train­ing. Once at the site, the team seeks to carry out in­ter­views with wit­nesses, doc­tors and first re­spon­ders as well as re­view any hos­pi­tal records. Apart from en­vi­ron­men­tal sam­ples, they will also col­lect biomed­i­cal sam­ples, some­times from those killed in an in­ci­dent, but more prefer­ably from sur­vivors.

Dif­fi­cul­ties in a war zone?

OPCW ex­perts had never de­ployed into a war zone be­fore they were called on in 2013 to help the United Na­tions probe al­le­ga­tions of chem­i­cal weapons use in Syria. This is the first OPCW mis­sion to de­ploy out­side of Da­m­as­cus since 2014 when a team was am­bushed with a road­side bomb and then came under at­tack, be­fore two were briefly de­tained. Both Syria and its ally Rus­sia have said they will en­sure the Douma mis­sion’s safety and se­cu­rity. But the na­ture of the con­flict means teams have tight dead­lines to work under, in con­stantly evolv­ing sit­u­a­tions. They have been work­ing closely with UN se­cu­rity staff to eval­u­ate the sit­u­a­tion on the ground. In the 2013 mis­sion which con­firmed that sarin gas had been used in an Au­gust at­tack which killed hun­dreds of peo­ple out­side Da­m­as­cus, the team only had about 45 min­utes to col­lect sam­ples be­fore pulling out for safety con­cerns.

What hap­pens next?

Once the sam­ples are taken from the site they are brought back to The Nether­lands for anal­y­sis. “Our in­spec­tors take the sam­ple, they wit­ness it, they log it, they seal the sam­ple, they keep track of the sam­ple all the time un­til the anal­y­sis is done,” for­mer head of the OPCW lab Hugh Gregg said in a 2016 in­ter­view with an on­line news por­tal. “So a com­plete 100 per­cent chain of cus­tody is ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal.”

The sam­ples are split back in Ri­jswijk, on the out­skirts of The Hague, and sent to part­ner lab­o­ra­to­ries for fur­ther anal­y­sis. The watch­dog has about over a dozen labs around the world which it works with, de­scribed as “the lynch­pin of the OPCW’s ver­i­fi­ca­tion regime” but which are “bound by se­crecy agree­ments.” They of­fer the “nec­es­sary as­sur­ance” for mem­ber states that chem­i­cal analy­ses are “car­ried out com­pe­tently, im­par­tially and with un­am­bigu­ous re­sults,” a spokesper­son said.—AFP

THE HAGUE: Photo shows the head­quar­ters of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, The Nether­lands. —AFP

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