Andreas PersboChoosing a new OPCW head

On Thursday this week, seven candidates hoping to replace Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü will present their candidacies to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). They have been asked by Ambassador Sheikh Mohammed Belal, the chair of the Executive Council, to focus on two pertinent questions: the priorities and future challenges of the OPCW and the management of the Secretariat itself.

These questions are similar to those answered by Mr Üzümcü in his July 2009 presentation to the Council. He discussed the challenges of industry inspections, the Chemical Weapon Convention’s relationship with the Biological Weapons Convention, as well as National Implementation. Not knowing what was around the corner, Mr Üzümcü also highlighted the need for public diplomacy—the need to raise the organisation’s profile with the media and civil society. He got unexpected help. In 2013, the OPCW received the Nobel Peace Prize “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.” The organisation is now in the public spotlight, and with that comes new challenges.

Notwithstanding how candidates choose to address the work of the OPCW today, they are advised to remember that directorship requires vision, resolve, and sometimes hands-on leadership. This is especially true for the OPCW, the guardian of a treaty which—in Mr Üzümcü’s own words—bridges the “space in disarmament between passion and practicality, between sentiment and action, between noble ambition and concrete achievements.” One day, the war in Syria will be over, but the organisation and its mission will remain.

Thursday’s presentations are strictly regimented; they should not exceed ten minutes (that’s around 1,400 words for the professional speaker). After that, each of the five regional groups will ask one question (not exceeding two minutes). The candidate has no more than three minutes to deliver an answer. While the schedule is not entirely set, the Council is likely to hear four presentations in the morning: Spain, Iraq, Hungary and Denmark. In the afternoon, the remaining three: Burkina Faso, South Korea and Lithuania.

So who are the candidates?

The council will first hear from Ambassador Fernando Arias Gonzalez of Spain. Mr Gonzales, a lawyer, is a relative newcomer to international security. He has served previously as the Permanent Representative of Spain to the United Nations, and is the present Permanent Representative to the OPCW.

The second presentation will be delivered by Saywan Sabir Mustafa Barzani of Iraq. At 45, he’s one of the youngest candidates. He got his law degree from the University of Orléans in 1995. He has previously served as Iraq’s Permanent Representative to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and have served on the World Food Programme’s Executive Board Bureau.

The third presentation will be delivered by someone with solid arms control credentials, Ambassador Tibor Toth of Hungary. He served as the Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) from 2005 to 2013. Before that, he did two tours as the Permanent Representative of Hungary to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, and between those postings he served as Hungary’s representative to the CTBTO. Throughout the 1990s, Mr Toth was both involved in the negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, as well as chairing the effort to bring into being a verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention. He is the only candidate with experience of running a relatively large intergovernmental organisation.

Ambassador Jesper Vahr of Denmark will then take the floor. He is presently serving as the ambassador to Israel, but has also represented his country to Turkey and Azerbaijan. In between posts, he’s served as the Director for Security Policy. His most notable position to date has been Chef de Cabinet to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (the equivalent rank is Assistant Secretary General).

The fifth presentation will be by Professor Abdouraman Bary of Burkina Faso. He is the only scientist in the lineup and presently works for the UN Environment Programme as the Waste Regional Coordinator for the Africa Region. Mr Bary has two doctorates: one in Materials Science and one in Chemistry, both from the University of Caen. Previously, he has served as the head of Burkina Faso’s CWC National Authority, and so brings a practitioner’s perspective.

The penultimate address will be from another international relations veteran, Ambassador Kim Won Soo of the Republic of Korea. After a long and distinguished national service—principally focusing on multilateral affairs—he was appointed UN Under-Secretary-General and Acting High Representative for Disarmament Affairs in 2015. From New York, he oversaw the activities of the UN-OPCW Joint Investigatory Mechanism (JIM) in Syria. Mr Kim holds a Bachelor of Law from Seoul National University in Korea and a Master of Arts from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Finishing the day, Ambassador Vaidotas Verba of Lithuania will take the floor. Mr Verba has been the project coordinator in Ukraine for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Before that, he was Lithuania’s Permanent Representative to the OPCW. Mr Verba holds a Master’s Degree in Law from Vilnius University.

So who is it going to be?

All candidates have their strengths and weaknesses. While there are two arms control heavyweights in the lineup, the final selection will be based on experience, vision, and (unavoidably) the political preferences of the Executive Council. Ambassador Belal will first try to identify a consensus candidate; a delicate task. All states are likely to critically scrutinise the candidate’s positions on the on-going verification mission in Syria. During consultations, powerful governments may lean on Mr Belal to encourage some individuals to withdraw (even though they may have majority support). A selection process of this kind could lead to the common denominator candidate getting the job, and he (as no women are standing) would not necessarily be the most suitable leader.

Balloting to iteratively eliminate candidates, a common practice in many other organisations, appears to be an action of last resort within the OPCW; and this is a shame. The head of the OPCW may—perhaps unavoidably—have to take difficult and unpopular decisions. It is important to elect a leader that does not shy away from this. At the same time, the Director-General must be able to serve all the members of the organisation, not just the few and powerful. This balancing act requires a person with experience, credibility and integrity, and I leave it to you, the reader, to draw your conclusions as to who that might be.


  1. Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress (History)

    Excellent post Andreas. But let me state the obvious. They are all men! I have my favourite, but there seems to be a serious gender imbalance there.

    • Andreas Persbo (History)

      You’re not alone in so thinking: “Sweden will favour a candidate who, in addition to having the necessary competence successfully to guide the work of the organisation, will also have a plan for addressing the skewed gender balance of OPCW senior management and the top-heaviness of the Technical Secretariat.” (See

  2. Tariq Rauf (History)

    The OPCW is entering a critical period — it is under attack for its role in the Syria CW-use allegations, including for its methodology and leadership. Regardless of the merit of certain allegations, the OPCW needs restoration of leadership and credibility. As such, strong criteria relevant for the selection of a new DG of the OPCW should include, inter alia: (a) experience in management of an international arms control treaty verification organization; (b) direct experience in negotiations and diplomacy on chemical (and related biological) weapons non-proliferation and disarmament matters; (c) experience in multilateral arms control negotiations; (d) credibility and standing among UN, OPCW, NPT, CTBT, BTWC and CD member States; (e) nationality of a State independent of military alliances; (f) experience in and support of empowering civil society organizations in multilateral arms control and disarmament; (g) fortitude to defend the independence and impartiality of the OPCW against influence of and intervention by member States; (h) track record of independence and impartiality as an international civil servant; (i) commitment to promote gender balance in staff appointments; and (j) an engaging personality.

    It is high time that heads of international organizations (IOs) are appointed strictly on merit and qualifications, and NOT as a result of “deals” between States. Unfortunately, “wheeling and dealing” still is prevalent in the appointment of heads of IOs, including financial inducements at the State level, “vote swapping” (i.e., a State promises to vote for the IO candidate in exchange for the candidate’s home State’s vote for membership in the Security Council, Human Rights Council, etc.) And, the five permanent members of the Security Council also are implicated in distorting and corrupting senior IO appointments. Yes, this does take place and is taking place all the time.

    International diplomacy needs to be rid of its corrupt byzantine unaccountable corrupt practices. Let the member States of the OPCW set a new standard of transparency, honesty, accountability and competence in their selection of a new DG for their Nobel-prize winning IO.

  3. Josef Dorer (@jdorer1) (History)

    Your last paragraph reminded me of how auf certain member state treated Mr. Bustani…

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