June 21, 2019

Takeaway lessons from the Executive Council’s Chairmanship in the OPCW

H.E. Sheikh Mohammed Belal, Ambassador of  Bangladesh to the Netherlands.

By Roy Lie Atjam.

His Excellency Ambassador Sheikh Mohammed Belal is the Bangladeshi Ambassador to the Netherlands, as well as Bangladesh’s Permanent Representative to the OPCW. From May 12th, 2017 to May 11th, 2018, H.E. Ambassador Belal has fulfilled the role of Chairperson of the Executive Council of the OPCW.

On May 29th, the Ambassador agreed to share some of his insights with Diplomat Magazine

Your Excellency, thank you very much for accepting this interview. As your mandate as Chairperson of the OPCW Executive Council recently came to its end, how do you evaluate your tenure?

It surely was a lot more exciting than what I anticipated at the time of assuming my duties as Chairperson on 12 May 2017. This duty taught me well on how to swim against the tide. It’s all about perseverance, tenacity, determination and will-power not to give up – especially when the things are going wrong. It vindicated, on more than one occasions that there are seeds of success in every failure, and that’s why we mustn’t quit.

My election as the Chairperson of the Executive Council was the first-time for Bangladesh to be elected in a high post in the OCPW in its twenty years of existence. It indeed manifests appreciation by the international community of Bangladesh’s continued contribution to the world peace and signifies international recognition of our efforts to attain global disarmament and stem proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Ambassador Belal is handing over the hammer to the new chairperson, the Ambassador of the Czech Republic H.E. Mrs Jana Reinišová.

As you are aware, in the Executive Council, 41 state parties work together, on behalf of 192 state parties, to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and deal with the reports of alleged use of chemical weapons or toxic chemical as weapons. The Executive Council is probably the most vital of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)’s three organs-Executive Council, Conference of StatesParties (CSP), Technical Secretariat-to make sure that OPCW is on track to achieve the goals of CWC.

Coming from a coastal city named Chattagram (formerly Chittagong) in Bangladesh, I think I was resilient and tenacious enough not only to deliver what is expected of me, also to see that legacy is upheld for a world lot more liveable for our children and grandchildren than what was for us.

During my tenure, alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria, Malaysia, United Kingdom, and discovery of huge caches of chemical weapons in Iraq etc were hugely challenging exercises to deal with. So, it was much more eventful than I would have liked it to be.

However, as we all are be holden to the tenets of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), at the end of the day, it was as human an exercise as one would expect it to be. More importantly, the conduct of the hugely challenging process of the election of a new Director General was an experience that I am going to cherish for a long time to come.

I take the privilege to convey my sincere thanks to all the Vice Chairpersons, to the Asian regional group for their confidence in Bangladesh to represent them in the OPCW, to the Coordinators of the Regional Groups in the OPCW, to the members of Executive Council, in particular, and to all States Parties of the OCPW, to the Director-General H.E. Mr Ahmet Üzümcü, for their full support in discharging my mandate as the Chairperson of the Executive Council.

Of course, I am also grateful to our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and our leadership in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for nominating me as the candidate of Bangladesh for this coveted post.

H.E. Sheikh Mohammed Belal, Ambassador of Bangladesh to the Netherlands. Executive Council in session.

Which were the most significant events that happened under your tenure as Chairperson?

The most significant event was the unanimous nomination of His Excellency Fernando Arias, Ambassador of Spain to the Netherlands as the new Director-General of the OPCW by the Executive Council.

Moreover, during my tenure four regular sessions of the Executive Council and five sittings of the Executive Council were held, which among others, witnessed fruitful discussions on the use/ alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. Adoption of the decision on “Addressing the Threat Posed by the Use of Chemical Weapons by Non-State Actors” by the Executive Council during my tenure should also be considered as an important event.

Which were the most significant events that happened under your tenure as Chairperson?

One of the highlights of my tenure was the process of appointing a successor of incumbent Director General. Using only three rounds of straw polls, we have been able to zoom in a formidable list of seven candidates into one His Excellency Fernando Arias, Ambassador of Spain as the consensus candidate as the successor of hugely successful His Excellency Ahmet Üzümcü, incumbent Director General of the OPCW.

I am extremely happy to see that the appointment process was fair, open, and transparent. One of the prominent features of this exercise was the involvement of almost all the States Parties, not merely member States of the Executive Council, through a process of continuous consultations with the regional groups and the Chairperson.

While only member States of the Executive Council were entitled to participate in the polls, but other States Parties to the CWC also have had their chances of mutual consultations with member States representing their respective regional groups in the Executive Council. As a result, the eventual nominee became a consensus candidate to be the next Director General of the OPCW with effect from July 2018.

Do you think that representing a developing country has put you in a difficult position when dealing with major world powers in the OPCW?

Precisely, the contrary is the fact. Coming from a developing country, like Bangladesh, where development challenges are far more exciting than many others, the eventful Executive Council worked to my benefits. If you go back to the blood soaked pages of our history, in Bangladesh, you would know how high a price of three million martyrs had us to pay to earn our independence in 1971 under the leadership of our Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

So, it is in our DNA to work for peace even at the toughest of times. Bangabandhu’s mantra of “friendship to all, malice to none” was my guiding principle to deal with all issues with utmost objectivity and in a spirit of consensus.

How do you foresee the future of the OPCW in chemical disarmament?

The missions of the OPCW is to implement the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in order to achieve our shared goal of a world free of chemical weapons and of the threat of their use, and in which cooperation in chemistry, for peaceful purposes, for all, is fostered. In doing this, the OPCW’s ultimate aim is to contribute to international security and stability, to general and complete disarmament, and to global economic development.

Therefore, upholding the CWC is a promise that we are expected to uphold under any circumstances. As the chemical weapon is perhaps abhorred by each and every individual of the earth, the OPCW should strive to bring the remaining States to accede to the CWC to make the world safer from the scourge of chemical weapons. On the other hand, over 96% of the world’s declared stockpiles of chemical agents have already been destroyed and the destruction of the remaining stockpiles is expected to be completed by 2023.

However, the threat of re-emergence of such weapon in any form may not be over with the destruction of all of the declared stockpiles. In such a context, the OPCW would need to make itself a vanguard against the threat of the re-emergence of chemical weapons and the use of chemical weapons by ‘rouge’ States and the non-state actors including terrorist organisations.

I believe the Fourth Review Conference of the OPCW, under the leadership of Chairperson the Ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia to the Netherlands His Excellency I Gusti A. Wesaka Puja, to be held in November this year, would duly consider the challenges the CWC is facing today and chart out pathways for the complete chemical disarmament.

Ambassador Belal at the OPCW / Executive Council in session.

From Bangladesh’s viewpoint, what could the OPCW do in order to benefit the developing world?

I don’t think Bangladesh is any different from any other peace loving countries in their aspiration to see the OPCW as the vanguard of CWC.

What pains me is to see that a sinful amount of resources are being spent on how to kill than on alleviating the people from the gorges of poverty. Using a fraction of what we spent, to kill each other, we could have eradicated hard-core poverty long before. As disarmament is our ultimate goal, we should be extra cautious to see whether our efforts are shielding the perpetrators, instead of cementing the elements of CWC.

As a developing country, Bangladesh would like to expect that the OPCW is the lighthouse of innovative ways and means to provideinternational cooperation among States Parties in the pursuit of chemistry for peaceful purposes and in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including SDGs.

As the capacity of developing world is not at a level to address fully the threat of chemical terrorism, the OPCW should come forward to promote vigorous international cooperation in many areas: from sponsoring chemical research to capacity building in verification regime to guaranteeing legal assistance; from developing and improving laboratory capacity to specialised internships/fellowships, and exchange of knowledge and technology towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), etc.

Extensive outreach to younger generation, all over the world, through wider collaboration with the national authorities, to motivate them to speak out against the horror of uses of chemical weapons.

The OPCW was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 2013 for its “extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons”. I hope the OPCW would continue to preserve this spirit to uphold our promise of “never again” to the use of chemical weapons, and foster achieving SDGs for the States Parties, especially the States Parties from the developing regions.

Wherever we arrive at a stalemate where consensus is challenging, we should take pause and look for the clues and seed of successes as we continue our partnership for world peace. I urge all to do their human part of upholding the promise of “never again” anywhere, at any time and under any circumstances and thereby saving the humanity from scourges of chemical weapons.

What would be your advice to the next Chairperson?

I would dare not advising the next Chairperson as she is competent enough to do her job. I would, nonetheless, like to urge all, in the Council, to make some space for “humour” as they deliberate on issues which are inhumanly dry and dull.

Talking about humour, I must take this opportunity to seek forgiveness of any States Parties if I unknowingly hurt anyone’s feelings and sentiments. As I stated during my concluding session that, to me, humour is part and parcel of my survival kit. It is my way of being resilient as well as humane. To me humour was and shall always be my response to the ironies that would otherwise overpower me. To the least, for me, humour helped me to make challenging moments bearable.

Humour is my way of showing to you that I tried to do this duty from my heart, not from head. As I considered, it is my human duty to remind myself and you, as a body, that life is what we would make of it.

What is life if we fail to bring an end to the mountainous climb of corpse in Syria? Iraq? In Halabja, Sardasht, and sitting there in the Ieper room of the OPCW, we will be failing as a human being, not may be as Bangladeshi or from wherever you are, if we pause and allow the rouges to unleash the venom and vapour of chemical weapon.

Allow me to quote an anonymous poem, that I recited during my concluding session at the OPCW, for your readers.

Don’t Quit

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit-
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
Success is failure turned inside out –
The silver tint in the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It might be near when it seems afar;
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit –
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

I thank you, Diplomat Magazine, and your readership for making this space for the cause of a world free of chemical weapons.
The above is a personal reflection of Ambassador Sheikh Mohammed Belal, Bangladesh Ambassador to the Netherlands and Permanent Representative to the OPCW, in rendering his role as the Chairperson of the Executive Council of the OPCW for the period from 12 May 2017- 11 May 2018.

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