September 26, 2020

OPCW Executive Council Chairmanship in Pandemic Times

The Ambassador of El Salvador, H.E. Mr. Agustin Vasquez Gomez.

H.E. Mr. Agustín Vásquez Gómez, Ambassador of the Republic of El Salvador, assumed the Chairmanship of the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on 12 May 2020 for a term of one year, facing in the middle of the pandemic, as different multilateral organizations have done around the world, the challenge of continuing to carry out their work effectively by keeping the health and safety of all participants from the States Parties, as well as the members of the OPCW staff, as a high priority.  

Recognizing the main responsibility ahead, the Chairperson communicated the States Parties that “the conditions set worldwide and in the host country to prevent the spread of the virus will require creative and innovative approaches and practices, in order to fulfill as much as possible the mandates delegated by the Convention and by the Conference of States Parties to the Executive Council”.

Coordination among the Director General, the Bureau members representing each of the regional groups and the Chairperson, has been a paramount for achieving success on procedural matters. In many respects, the Organization was not prepared to manage a scenario whereby a safety distance has to be observed among participants, many thematic and substantive consultations have to be developed through virtual means and six languages live streaming have to be ensured, among others.

Along with a very professional Technical Secretariat team, planning started considering all available options and keeping ahead, as supreme aim, three main premises: first, health and safety of all participants have to be observed at all times, second, all measures adopted and recommend by the host country authorities must be fulfilled and third, either modality to be proposed must comply with the letter of the Convention and the rules of procedure of the Executive Council, leaving no space for interpretation.

To compress all of the above in one efficient formula ahead, a great number of consultations were developed, not just internally with the different divisions of the Technical Secretariat, but also with all States Parties through the valuable support of the Bureau members, in order to ensure full transparency of the process and that all participants would be talking and understanding the same language.

Understanding the complexity of the pandemic context but also the nature of the topics to be discussed at the Executive Council level, the Chairperson encouraged all States Parties to put in practice the following working principles: a permanent search for consensus, keeping objectivity based on the letter of the Convention and the decisions of the policy-making organs, as well as a genuine effort to address all issues with full transparency and good faith, having mutual respect, and overcoming the divergence of views through dialogue, common understanding and a collective quest for reasonable and consistent solutions, in line with the object and purpose of the Convention.

The 94th session of the Executive Council was held from 7 to 9 July 2020. The modality and measures adopted in view of the pandemic demonstrated that the right decision was taken. Nevertheless, aware that there is always room for improvement, the Bureau members along with the Director General, held afterwards an assessment meeting of the different activities carried out before and during the 94th EC session. A number of lessons learned and good practices were identified, which undoubtedly will be a worth source of knowledge and experience in the future. 

While preparing this article in early September, Ambassador Vásquez Gómez was already conducting consultations in view of the 95th session of the Executive Council to be held during the first week of October 2020. Unfortunately, the conditions related to the pandemic have not fully improved to consider holding the meeting under normal circumstances. However, there is a previous experience that constitutes a safe path to follow in view of preparing the States Parties encounter and accomplishing the delicates tasks of such important body within the Organization.

The world is changing and so are we. Many things in our daily life must adapt to new conditions. This is not the first global challenge in history but it is probably the one that has affected the life we knew the most simultaneously and globally. Having had this experience in the Chairmanship of the OPCW Executive Council, the 2020 – 2021 Executive Council Chairperson can conclude that every challenge in life is an opportunity to build new horizons, improving the most our personal and collective prospects. Together as world citizens, we will overcome the pandemic, renewed and strengthened.

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Photography by Naldo Peverelli for Diplomat Magazine.

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