“Chemical weapons must not be used anywhere in the world”

Dennis Leenman (Dutch Customs) and Gerlof Kruidhof (Foreign Affairs) on the non-proliferation of chemical and biological weapons and their components.

Dutch Customs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs monitor non-proliferation of the components, and possible components, of chemical and biological weapons. When it comes to resources that can be used for civilian as well as military purposes, export controls cannot be too rigorous: consider, for example, certain chemicals destined for a country such as Syria.

 “The founding principle of our policy is that the Netherlands wants to avoid making any contribution to the production of weapons of mass destruction, anywhere in the world”, says Gerlof Kruidhof (right on the photo), senior policy officer for Export Controls and Strategic Goods at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We base our approach on the Chemical Weapons Convention, which has been signed by nearly all the countries in the world. In addition, there is the Australia Group: like-minded countries who have made agreements about countering the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. Supervision of the entire programme is conducted by Dutch Customs’ POSS team (Precursors, Strategic goods, Sanctions legislation); formal direction is in the hands of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Utilising the list of dual-use materials – resources, software or technologies that have a military as well as a civilian purpose – we control all shipments as regards five aspects: the destination country, the exporter, the end user, the ultimate application and the nature of the goods. In fact, not all products are created equal: enriched uranium is more sensitive than an industrial pump that could also be used for military purposes.”

“A licence is obligatory for exporting dual-use materials to all destinations outside the EU”, explains Dennis Leenman (left on the photo), account manager of the POSS team. “Monitoring therefore focuses on goods, not on countries. After all, we don’t want chemical weapons to be used anywhere in the world. The application for such a licence must be submitted to Customs’ Central Import and Export Office, the CDIU. Obviously, they take a different view of countries like Iran and Syria, who are under trade sanctions, than a country like Canada.”

Surprise inspections
“International monitoring of chemical weapons stands on two pillars: notification and verification”, Leenman continues. “Producing, importing or exporting any material named in the Chemical Weapons Convention requires a declaration from the CDIU. They forward this statement to Foreign Affairs, who subsequently submit it to the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). The latter uses random inspections to control whether companies or member states are not secretly using materials for chemical weapons after all. The Dutch national authority, Foreign Affairs, issues notifications of such inspections a few days in advance. The POSS team then accompanies the OPCW delegation.”
Kruidhof: “Companies never view such surprise inspections as a good thing. Employees have to be prepared to answer questions. Maybe they happen to be on holiday or at a training course that day. But the inspection can’t wait: no one gets an opportunity to conceal suspicious goods.”      

Strange transactions
International inspections are only one part of a larger whole. Leenman: “Regular monitoring is also important. We check what a company sells, and to whom. Are there any strange or unacceptable transactions? On top of that we do ad-hoc inspections based on signals from our own people and from Foreign Affairs. It also regularly happens that a customs officer encounters a suspicious shipment during a physical inspection. That colleague then asks for specialised knowledge from an expert in our organisation. If they determine that something isn’t right – such as the lack of a licence – then they contact the CDIU who decide, sometimes in consultation with Foreign Affairs, to intercept that particular shipment. In these cases further investigations are carried out by the POSS team. Other countries are a bit envious of this approach. There’s a good reason the World Customs Organisation cites our experts as best practice.”          

Acetone for Syria
“When determining the list of materials for control, you always look for a balance between security and commerce”, Kruidhof says. “The raw materials for making Sarin or mustard gas are all on the dual-use list. Preferably, you would monitor everything, but some chemicals are shipped all over the world in large quantities – that’s beyond control. Naturally, using them for chemical weapons is prohibited. In addition, for some countries we think it’s important to control even the forerunners of certain substances. For example, since 2013, acetone has been on the sanctions list for Syria.”

This particular chemical played the leading role in a recent case. Leenman: “During a routine investigation a colleague found that one company had exported large quantities to a Syrian end-user. The necessary licence according to specific regulations was lacking. Also, because the export was routed through a sister company in Antwerp and not shipped directly from the Netherlands, we shared this information with our Belgian colleagues. On these grounds they initiated an investigation which resulted in a criminal legal action and fines reaching many tens of thousands of Euros. We later got a message from Belgium that the company in question kept going with their shipments, but now routed them through Russia. For that reason we started a new investigation here, which will shortly be brought before a court. It’s great that we can identify such things during our regular controls.”

Helping hand
It must be said that when irregularities occur, it isn’t always because of malicious intent, Leenman says. “The majority of all businesses comply with the rules and absolutely do not want to be associated with chemical weapons. It’s just that the rules are sometimes quite complicated. Business people have to do a lot studying themselves. But when they are in doubt, we are always willing to help. We don’t want people to go down the wrong path due to ignorance.”
Kruidhof: “Foreign Affairs organises a seminar twice a year on export controls, in collaboration with the CDIU and the POSS team. These sessions always fill up in no time. Look, in a lot of ways, export controls are a pain in the neck for many businesses. That’s why we prefer to provide information, and we are happy to tell market players what it’s like in countries where controls are less well organised. That way, we usually promote understanding.”        

This interview also appeared in our recently issued overview ‘Dutch Customs in 2018’. Click here to read the full publication.

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