Geneva: The United States led a protest Tuesday against Syria taking over the Conference on Disarmament, calling it “a travesty” at a time when Damascus is widely accused of using chemical weapons.
The US ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), Robert Wood, briefly walked out of the room in protest when the Syrian representative took the floor.
“Syria’s presence here is a travesty,” he told AFP just before the session began.
“This regime has committed countless crimes against its own people through the use of chemical weapons, and it is just unacceptable for them to be leading this body,” he insisted.
Syria’s ambassador Hussam Edin Aala meanwhile slammed the protest as “sensational propaganda” and “characterised by double-standards.”
Syria on Monday took over the rotating presidency of the CD, according to a decades-old practice among the body’s 65 members following the alphabetical order of country names in English.
But despite the mechanical nature of Syria’s arrival at the helm of the CD, following Switzerland and Sweden, a number of country representatives voiced their outrage that a representative of Damascus was presiding over the body that negotiated the chemical weapons ban.
More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s civil war began in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
After hundreds of people died in chemical attacks near Damascus in 2013, a deal with Russia was struck to rid Syria of chemical weapons, staving off US air strikes.
But the United Nations and Western countries have accused Damascus of carrying out a number of chemical attacks since then.
A suspected chlorine and sarin attack in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7 this year triggered punitive missile strikes against alleged chemical weapons sites in Syria by the US, Britain and France.
– ‘Sad, shameful day’ –
During the first open CD session of Syria’s presidency on Tuesday, the United States led a number of diplomats in protest.
Wood briefly left the room when Syria’s ambassador Aala opened the session, before returning to voice Washington’s displeasure from the floor.
“Today marks a sad and shameful day in the history of this body,” he told the assembly.
“Simply put, it is a travesty that the Syrian regime, which continues to indiscriminately slaughter its own people with weapons banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, should presume to preside over this body,” he said.
Wood stressed that the US would not “permit ‘business as usual’ in the CD while Syria presides over this body.”
He said his country would be represented “in this hall to ensure that Syria is not able to advance initiatives that run counter to the interests of the United States.
“But we will fundamentally alter the nature of our presence in the plenaries,” he said, before moving in protest to a seat usually reserved for assistants.
Wood’s words were echoed by a number of ambassadors from other countries, including Britain and Australia.
“The UK deplores the fact that Syria will assume the presidency of the Conference on Disarmament, given the regime’s consistent and flagrant disregard of international non-proliferation and disarmament norms and agreements,” British ambassador Matthew Rowland said in a statement Monday.
But he pointed out that all CD members including Syria had to agree to change the rotating system.
The French representative also said Syria “does not have the moral authority to lead this body.”
Others, like the representatives of China and North Korea meanwhile offered their “congratulations” to the new president of the CD, while the representative of Syrian ally Russia slammed the US and other critics for “poisoning the atmosphere” at the CD.
In the following volley of accusations, Wood countered that he was “more concerned about the poisoning of the Syrian people”.
The CD, which is not a UN organisation but meets at UN headquarters in Geneva, is a multilateral disarmament forum that holds three sessions a year. It negotiates arms control and disarmament accords and focuses on the cessation of the nuclear arms race.