CHEMEX Africa 2023: Interview with H.E. Ambassador Salima Abdelhak, P.R. of Algeria to OPCW


By CBNW Magazine

Taking place from September 23 to October 5, 2023, in the Algerian capital of Algiers, CHEMEX Africa was the first ever large-scale chemical emergency response exercise for African countries organized by the OPCW. CBNW Magazine Editor Patrick Norén spoke to the Permanent Representative (P.R.) of Algeria to the OPCW, H.E. Ambassador Salima Abdelhak, about the exercise and Algeria’s commitment to implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). A full article on CHEMEX Africa containing extracts from this interview will be published in April.

CHEMEX Africa 2023 was the first large-scale OPCW chemical emergency response exercise for African countries. What did hosting this landmark event mean to Algeria, and, as Algeria’s permanent representative to the OPCW, to you personally? 

CHEMEX Africa held particular significance as it contributed to the capacity-building of experts from 33 States Parties from the five African regions. It represented a milestone in OPCW capacity-building strategy, which is one of the main priorities now that all declared stockpiles of chemical weapons have been destroyed, totally accomplished about three months before this event. 

I would like to express my gratitude to the OPCW Technical Secretariat for entrusting my country with the honor of hosting this significant event. This holds immense meaning for Algeria. 

It illustrated international recognition of Algeria’s readiness and commitment to uphold the implementation of the CWC at the national, regional, and international levels. It also underscored Algeria’s dedication to fostering South-South cooperation, particularly in addressing risks related to chemical weapons in Africa given the challenges and the threats our continent faces. By hosting experts and several stakeholders, Algeria contributed to the OPCW’s efforts in promoting global dialogue, exchange of knowledge, and regional coordination.

Furthermore, this event has allowed Algeria to showcase its infrastructure, expertise, and resources on a global stage. It served as a platform to demonstrate our country’s capacity to organize and execute large-scale initiatives, further enhancing our standing in the international community.

It was also a privilege that our Permanent Mission in The Hague played a facilitating and coordinating role for over a year, working closely with our National Authority in Algiers and the OPCW Technical Secretariat team, throughout the entire preparatory process that led to the realization of this exercise. 

This landmark event held personal significance for me. It represented a substantial achievement in my track record and a tangible result of dedication,  hard work, and perseverance, as well as underscoring the importance of teamwork. It is a source of personal pride that Algeria could contribute to a meaningful and impactful event. Hard work always pays off, doesn’t it!

Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army General Saïd Chanegriha and Director General of the OPCW Fernando Arias attended the VIP Day of CHEMEX Africa on October 3, 2023, © OPCW

What were your impressions of the overall event? Was there anything in particular that stood out? 

The exercise was comprehensive in more than one way. In fact, there are many outstanding elements to retain from this pioneering and multi-component exercise. CHEMEX Africa is unique as it brought together an important number of first responders from different regions in Africa serving as an exemplary model of peer-to-peer and South-South cooperation. Their common goal was to enhance collective efforts, foster collaboration, and facilitate the exchange of experiences to effectively tackle the complex challenges associated with addressing chemical emergencies.

The event also engaged decision-makers through a VIP Day, welcoming top officials from Algeria, including the Prime Minister, the Chief of Staff of the National Army, and ministers; the Director General and the Deputy Director General of the OPCW; as well as ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps accredited in Algiers. Together, they attended a live demonstration where participants simulated a terrorist chemical attack to increase their awareness of the threats of chemical incidents and the necessity to collectively counter them. 

Besides strengthening cooperation among Africans, it was at the same time a good illustration of a successful expanded collaboration with external partners such as the European Union, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America, who contributed instructors, evaluators, and observers. Meanwhile, Canada provided generous financial support.

To ensure maximum outreach, the event involved the chemical industry community through the international exhibition of protective equipment. It welcomed 42 national and international companies and 7000 visitors. 70 scientists and academics also took part in a discussion forum. 

A special section dedicated to CHEMEX Africa 2023 on the OPCW official website and a webpage of the National Authority ensured large-scale communication and information dissemination. This was in addition to other media that were largely streamed in Algeria, and an OPCW video on the event.

The exercise provided valuable learning opportunities for participants, highlighting both strengths and areas for improvement in their national emergency and protection plans. This hands-on experience has been particularly beneficial for countries in establishing or assessing their national plans and methods to ensure a full and effective implementation of the Convention.

I was also impressed by the means and resources that Algeria mobilized in supporting the exercise, notably, substantial logistical and material assistance. A total of 329 representatives from diverse sectors in Algeria actively participated in its organization. Among them were Algerian experts and instructors trained at the OPCW who played crucial roles in the various training phases in collaboration with their African fellows under the supervision of experts and observers from the Technical Secretariat, States Parties, and institutions. This enhanced its overall effectiveness and global perspective.

The live CHEMEX Africa 2023 exercise simulating a chemical attack took place on October 3, in the Algerian capital of Algiers, © OPCW

How would you describe Algeria’s commitment to the eradication, prevention of use, and preparedness against chemical weapons? What steps is Algeria taking to prevent the re-emergence of chemical weapons on its own territory and internationally?

I would describe Algeria’s commitment to the eradication, prevention of use, and preparedness against chemical weapons as unwavering and proactive. 

Algeria has always supported global and complete disarmament and has actively worked towards disarmament and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, in accordance with its international commitments and its position in favor of international peace and security. Algeria considers the CWC as a key component of global disarmament architecture.

Ensuring its full and effective implementation is the best way to eradicate and prevent the re-emergence of chemical weapons at the national and the international levels. For this reason, Algeria has undertaken several measures in its domestic policy and contributes to global and regional efforts. We can mention in this regard:

  • Adoption of legislative and institutional measures including national laws and regulations that enable the implementation of the Convention and compliance with its provisions. Since the entry into force of the CWC, my country has also set its institutional framework by establishing the national authority in 1997, which is a multi-sectorial committee consisting of all the departments involved in the matter. To prevent and ensure adequate response to any threat of chemical weapons, Algerian authorities have also adopted national protective and responsive plans.
  • Building capacities and raising preparedness of its national institutions and staff is at the center of our national policy. Algeria has invested in building its capabilities for chemical emergency response, including the establishment of specialized training institutions, the adoption of training programs, the constitution of specialized response teams, and the development of protocols for handling chemical incidents.
  • To develop its national expertise, Algerian representatives from several departments – including Interior and National Security, Energy, Industry, Finance, and Customs – participate regularly in OCPW capacity building activities. In addition, training programs and seminars are organized at the national level to disseminate new knowledge and share expertise.
  • My country is also contributing to the organization of several regional capacity building events in Africa, especially for North Africa and Sahel sub-region, in collaboration with the OPCW Technical Secretariat. Algeria has organized training activities on various aspects related to the Convention on a regular basis for the benefit of African States Parties. Among others, these include the mentorship programs between our national authority and those of Burkina Faso and Niger in 2012 and 2014, the annual training on conducting sampling and analysis in a highly contaminated environment for the African States Parties, the training-for-trainers on the role of customs authorities in the cross-border transfer of chemicals, the regional seminar on the CWC and the management of chemical safety and security, and, of course, CHEMEX Africa 2023. In this regard, we can observe a return on investment from these experiences as the Algerian instructors at CHEMEX Africa were former trainees of the OPCW.
  • Communication, outreach, and public awareness: Aware of the importance of communication, Algeria promotes public awareness and education regarding the threat of chemical weapons and the importance of chemical safety measures. This includes outreach programs, awareness campaigns, and educational initiatives aimed at raising awareness among relevant stakeholders and the wider public.
  • Promoting international cooperation and universality: on an international level, Algeria is one of the first countries that ratified the CWC, and continues to play an active role in OPCW policy making organs.

In addition, my country participates actively in international agreements, organizations, and initiatives aimed at promoting chemical disarmament, non-proliferation, combatting the misuse of chemical products, and chemical terrorism. This includes cooperation with other States Parties to the Convention, as well as collaboration with international and regional organizations such as the African Union and its specialised institutions, inter alia, the African Union Mechanism for Police Cooperation (AFRIPOL) and the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT), which are based in Algiers.

Moreover, Algeria has always advocated for the universality of the Convention to avoid re-emergence at the global level. We commend in this regard the presence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of South Sudan, Hon. James Pitia Morgan, to CHEMEX Africa who during the event in Algiers signed a joint communiqué with the OPCW Director General on the accession of his country to the Convention.

Director-General of the OPCW Ambassador Fernando Arias (left) and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of South Sudan, Hon. James Pitia Morgan (right), met on the sidelines of CHEMEX Africa to discuss South Sudan’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention, © OPCW

Following CHEMEX Africa 2023, what in your opinion must Algeria do to improve its own preparedness against chemical weapons attacks? How can African nations support each other, and how can the international community support Algeria and the African continent is this endeavor? 

In my opinion, Algeria must continue working to strengthen the capabilities of its institutions taking into account new evolving threats, including chemical terrorism and the challenges posed by the development of science and technology that make no country safe from such risks. In this regard, prevention stands as a key element. 

Indeed, to face any of these risks, Algeria already sees prevention a key element and can rely on robust institutions and skilled experts such as the National Institute for Criminalistics and Criminology of the National Gendarmerie (INCC/GN) that devotes efforts to develop its capabilities especially in chemical warfare analysis and detection. The INCC/GN is also working towards joining the OPCW designated laboratories network with the support of the OPCW Technical Secretariat and our partners. Enhancing international and regional cooperation is very important through promoting exchange of knowledges, experiences, and technologies. 

CHEMEX Africa demonstrated that African Sates Parties can support each other by fostering regional cooperation and knowledge sharing. Furthermore, developing regional frameworks and mechanisms for responding to chemical emergencies collectively would facilitate coordinated responses and mutual assistance in times of crisis. African nations can create a more robust and interconnected network for addressing chemical safety challenges by leveraging their collective expertise and resources. 

The OPCW Technical Secretariat remains a key player in supporting developing African countries, as well as other partners who contribute by sharing their valuable experiences and expertise. CHEMEX Africa showed the importance of technical assistance, training, and capacity-building support delivered by the OPCW with the involvement of several partners.

I also would like to highlight the ongoing twinning project between the laboratories of the Algerian National Institute for Criminalistics and Criminology of the National Gendarmerie (INCC/GN) and the Research Institute for Protective Technologies and CBRN Protection (WIS) of Germany with the support of the Technical Secretariat. This is a good example of a successful international cooperation project.

Algeria supports the OPCW initiative to create Regional Centers of Excellence especially in Africa. We are convinced these centers are likely to contribute to strengthening cooperation between African countries and improving the performance of their national entities. My country has offered to host the Centre for the North Africa and Sahel region, a region extremely exposed to several security challenges including terrorist attacks.

Notably, almost half the participants in CHEMEX Africa 2023 were women, which is very unusual for this kind of exercise. What steps did Algeria take to achieve this? 

Indeed, the significant participation of women, including from Algeria, in CHEMEX Africa 2023 is one of the worthy points to highlight. The involvement of women not only promoted gender balance but also enriched the diversity of perspectives in CHEMEX Africa, contributing to its overall success. It has definitely set a positive example for future international events. Algeria continues to enhance the role of women in implementing the Convention, and we could notice this through the significant number of Algerian women participants in CHEMEX Africa.

A large proportion of the first responders taking part in CHEMEX Africa were women, © OPCW

Any further comments, remarks, requests, or acknowledgements? 

CHEMEX Africa stands out as a positive achievement in the OPCW’s 2023 accomplishments, particularly in terms of international cooperation and assistance. This success is largely attributed to the commitment of African countries, the cooperation of the OPCW Technical Secretariat, and the solidarity of our partners within the Africa Program. Given the success of CHEMEX Africa, I am of the view that it is worth duplicating in other regions.

Special recognition goes to the OPCW Technical Secretariat for the exemplary collaboration of its staff under the leadership of the Director General. I would like to express sincere thanks to theDirector General and the Deputy Director General for their personal presence at the CHEMEX Africa VIP Day.

I also want to convey special appreciation to our partners within the Africa Program and the Government of Canada for its generous financial support to CHEMEX Africa 2023. 

Finally, allow me to use this platform to express my gratitude to the highest authorities of my country, who have made me proud by providing all the necessary resources honoring Algeria’s commitment to ensure the success of this exercise. My appreciation goes to the national authority that has led the operation of CHEMEX at the domestic level, involving all the stakeholders and to the staff of the Embassy of Algeria especially my Deputy for her unwavering efforts to ensure the completion of this comprehensive exercise.

H.E. Ambassador Salima Abdelhak, Permanent Representative of Algeria to OPCW (center), Ghalia Benziouche, Deputy Permanent Representative (far left), and representatives of the OPCW Technical Secretariat and others at CHEMEX Africa 2023 in Algiers.

This interview was conducted by the Editor of CBNW Magazine, Patrick Norén.

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