Investigative Science and Technology


Andreas Persbo

(1:30-minute read)

Efforts are underway in The Hague to learn lessons from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) verification and monitoring activities in recent years. During 12-14 February, a Temporary Working Group (TWG) on Investigative Science and Technology (reporting to the organisation’s Scientific Advisory Board) met to discuss its upcoming work. Its mission is to ‘review the science and technology relevant to investigations such as those mandated under Articles IX and X of the Chemical Weapons Convention.’

The OPCW’s recent work has, in the words of the working group, ‘increasingly required investigations, analysis, and fact-finding, with collection and evaluation of oral, material, and digital evidence of the use of chemical agents’. One method that surfaced several times in the TWG’s deliberations was ‘impurity profiling’. Here, trace impurities detected in a synthesised nerve agent by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry can be matched to a precursor source. In Syria, impurities in collected samples ‘became chemical markers.’ These markers then informed the conclusions reported by the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM).

The TWG discussed the need to have multi-disciplinary investigation teams. It noted that the work of entities such as the JIM could be politicised (and although the group does not touch on it, this was also a lesson learned during the operation of the United Nations Special Commission and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission in the run-up to the Second Gulf War). Therefore, the TWG notes that reports ‘cannot be written without substantive legal expertise’. Moreover, ‘the standard of evidence must remain at the highest level, such that information which cannot be corroborated, cannot be used to draw conclusions’.

Other areas of interest to the TWG are data and sample management, confidentiality, and the authentication of documents and digital evidence. The TWG will meet again on 14 November 2018.

Further reading Summary of the First Meeting of the Scientific Advisory Board’s Temporary Working Group on Investigative Science and Technology, OPCW SAB-27/WP/1, 26 February 2018.

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