A Guide to The Hague: the weapons inspectorate at the centre of world attention

The eyes of the world are on the inspectors of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who have travelled from The Hague to Syria to investigate the deadly attack allegedly perpetrated by President Bashar al-Assad on his own people.

The inspectors from the chemical weapons watchdog have finally been able to enter Douma on 21 April, scene of the alleged gas attack on 7 April, to collect samples for analysis. The team is relying on colleagues from the UN Department of Safety and Security to guarantee unhindered access to the sites.

The suspected gas attacks, which led to the deaths of dozens of people, sparked retaliatory missile attacks by the United States, France and the United Kingdom on Syrian government military installations.

Syrian and Russian forces have control over Douma, after rebel forces withdrew from the town.

At an emergency meeting of the OPCW last week, Western diplomats accused Syria and its ally Russia of denying inspectors access to Douma. Damascus and Moscow both deny that a chemical attack took place.

The crisis has focused global attention on the OPCW, which was established to police the Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997 and is signed by 192 countries (North Korea, Egypt and South Sudan are among countries that have not signed).

The convention is designed to prevent the production and stockpiling of chemical weapons and their precursors. The OPCW has had considerable success and by the start of this year 96% of the world’s chemical weapons, had been destroyed, according to OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu. This amounts to 67,851 metric tonnes of material and means that 2,643 metric tonnes remain.

The OPCW is also investigating the attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, United Kingdom, on 4 March. The UK has accused the Russian government of involvement in the attack, which it says involved the nerve agent Novichok.

At the OPCW emergency meeting, the UK’s envoy accused Russia of showing “disdain for international law and for the work of the OPCW”. In turn, Russia’s envoy accused the UK of following “the path of deception”. The OPCW has confirmed the UK’s findings and rejected Russian claims that traces of a second nerve agent had been discovered.

In 2013 the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the “remarkable success” of its work. In its citation, the Nobel Committee referenced the words of former UN Secretary General, Nobel Peace laureate and One Young World Ambassador Kofi Annan at the time of the OPCW’s inaugural meeting in 1997. “It is not merely a great step in the cause of disarmament and non-proliferation,” said Mr Annan. “It is not merely a signal of restraint and discipline in war. It is much more. It is a momentous act of peace.”

Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of OPCW receiving the Nobel Prize medal and diploma.

The OPCW is one of 150 international organisations based in The Hague, including the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.

The city was chosen as the location for the headquarters of the OPCW over competing bids from Geneva and Vienna. The building, which was designed by the American architect Gerhard Kallmann and opened by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1998, is situated next to the World Forum Convention Centre in the centre of The Hague. The OPCW also operates a laboratory facility in Rijswijk, a town in the west of the Netherlands.

The organisation operates an OPCW-The Hague Award to recognise and honour individuals and institutions that have made an outstanding contribution towards the goal of a world permanently free of chemical weapons. The award, which carries a €900,000 monetary prize, is backed financially by the City of The Hague. Past winners have included the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism, based in Algiers.