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Chemical Weapons Inspectors Still Awaiting Access To Site Of Alleged Chemical Attack


Chemical weapons investigators are not being allowed into the scene of the alleged attack in Syria that happened nine days ago. Officials from Russia and Syria have blocked a team with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW. This is after Syria and Russia said they wanted an investigation. Peter Wilson is the U.K.'s ambassador to the OPCW, and he joins us now. Welcome.

PETER WILSON: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Can you investigate an alleged attack like this without access to the scene?

WILSON: It is extremely difficult to do that. The OPCW has just finished its session here in The Hague. And what we've been discussing is the director general's own report about how the investigation is going. The inspectors have been able to deploy to Damascus. They've got clearance from the U.N. security services to move. But the director general told us this morning that Syria and Russia were not yet able to guarantee their security.

SHAPIRO: Do you believe that security is the real reason that Russia and Syria are keeping this team out of Douma?

WILSON: Look. The director general didn't go into that. But I have to say it is very hard for the inspectors to do their job without being able to go to the site. And we obviously hope they can go to the site as soon as possible. The other thing the director general told us all in the OPCW was that the Syrian government had offered to provide 22 witnesses to the inspectors in Damascus. That is obviously, to put it mildly, suboptimal.

SHAPIRO: Well, whether or not security is the actual reason for the team being denied entry, your American counterpart has expressed concerns that Russians are using this extra time to tamper with the scene and thwart the investigation. Russia denies this. What do you think is happening?

WILSON: Well, I mean, I think there's been a catalog of Russian denial, Russian misinformation. And frankly, today, we heard a lot of Russian filibustering in the organization itself. We've had numerous occasions where we've sought to resolve these issues diplomatically. All the time, the Russians have blocked this. They've blocked it repeatedly in the Security Council, including vetoing a resolution to keep the independent investigation mechanism that we established with their support last year. They vetoed that last week. So yes, it's a catalog of obfuscation and denial and lies.

SHAPIRO: And what gets lost with each hour, with each day that your team is denied access to Douma?

WILSON: Well, I mean, the longer you leave it after an investigation, the harder it is to establish what really happened on the ground. We are very clear, from the numerous eyewitness accounts, from a large amount of open-source material and our own intelligence, that the Syrian government was responsible.

SHAPIRO: If this team is allowed into Douma, what specifically will they be doing? Are we talking about soil samples, blood tests, interviews with witnesses? What actually goes on?

WILSON: Well, all of the above. So what they want to be able to do is they want to see the site. They want to test for substances. They want to be able to talk to witnesses on the site. They want to be able to choose who they are. And they also want to be able to find some of those casualties and investigate the bodies of those who are deceased. All of that is very important work. It's very technical work. The inspectors are highly trained and very, very professional. And that's why we're so keen that they get allowed in to do their job.

SHAPIRO: Just to try to view things for a moment from the perspective of the Syrians or the Russians, I could imagine somebody saying Western countries have already reached a conclusion about this chemical attack. They've already retaliated with strikes on Syria. What is the point of allowing investigators in if the U.K., France and the United States have already made up their minds?

WILSON: Well, I'd say to them, if you believe that we have reached conclusions ourselves, and you don't accept them - and that is the case - they don't accept them. They put out a number of completely bizarre accusations, including that the United Kingdom staged the accusations. My Russian opposite member made that accusation directly in the OPCW in the session this morning. If they are going to make allegations like that, then they should not be afraid of an investigation by the chemical weapons inspectors. So my question would be, what have you got to hide?

SHAPIRO: Do you think these inspectors ultimately will be given access to Douma?

WILSON: I think that's an open question, Ari. And I wouldn't like to prejudge it. I mean, obviously, we continue to talk to the Russians here in the OPCW in The Hague and in the Security Council in New York. I hope that the inspectors will be allowed to do their job. They ought to be allowed to do their job. And I hope that we can return to the very strong international consensus that use of chemical weapons is a taboo and must be stopped.

That is the point that we had reached when the United States and Russia reached agreement in the Security Council in October 2013. Since then, that agreement has been fractured over and over again. There is no reason, without the right political will, why we should not return to that very strong international consensus if that is what the Russians want.

SHAPIRO: Peter Wilson is the U.K. ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Thank you for joining us today.

WILSON: Thank you so much, Ari, a pleasure to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.