Introduction of a formal authorisation requirement for exports of chemicals to Syria

Bern, 01.06.2018 - On 1 June 2018, the Federal Council adopted an amendment to the Ordinance on Sanctions against Syria to clarify and formalise the authorisation processes with regard to certain chemicals, materials and other goods. This measure is being taken in conjunction with the export of isopropanol to Syria in 2014. The review of this transaction showed that SECO acted correctly in not preventing the shipment. The substance was used entirely in the manufacturing process of a drug for the Swiss client. However, the Federal Council wants to ensure that in future all shipments of goods to Syria that could potentially be misused for the production of warfare agents, instead of for their intended, legitimate use are subject to an authorisation procedure. The EU also has a similar export restriction for such goods. The amendment will enter into force at 6pm on 1 June 2018.

Since 24 April, various media outlets have reported on a shipment of the chemical isopropanol by a Swiss company to a private Syrian manufacturer of pharmaceutical products in 2014. The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) was criticised for not having prevented the export of this commercially available chemical substance, which is used in the manufacture of disinfectants and pharmaceutical products, but which can also be misused.

Correct decision by SECO

The clarifications conducted by SECO, together with other agencies of the DDPS, confirm that there are no indications that the exported isopropanol was misused, for example for the production of sarin gas. The isopropanol delivered to the Syrian company was entirely used in the manufacturing process of a drug, as confirmed by the client. Reputed manufacturers of pharmaceutical products from Switzerland still work with the Syrian recipient company today.

In addition, the applicable provisions of the Goods Control Ordinance would only have allowed the export to have been refused had there been reason to believe that the product was intended for the manufacture or use of chemical weapons. This was not the case. Based on the information available today, the decision taken by SECO in 2014 was therefore correct.   

Selective amendment of the ordinance

Nevertheless, the aim in future is to exclude the possibility that a supply of isopropanol or any other goods which the European Union (EU) has placed under an export restriction can be exported to Syria without the knowledge of the Swiss authorities. For this reason, the Federal Council is now introducing a formal authorisation requirement for goods that the European Union has also declared to be subject to authorisation. At the time of the isopropanol shipment in 2014, however, such transactions were only subject to examination by the authorities if the exporter declared them voluntarily. The amendment of the ordinance is also appropriate in light of the criminal proceedings opened in Belgium against three companies that exported isopropanol in violation of the EU authorisation requirement. The introduction of the authorisation requirement is therefore also intended to prevent the law from being circumvented.

In future, the sale, shipment, export and transit of certain chemicals (including isopropanol), materials and other goods to Syria, or for use in Syria, will therefore require authorisation by SECO. Services in connection with such goods, including financing, are also subject to authorisation. Authorisation will be refused if there is reason to believe that the goods will or could be used other than for their intended purpose. SECO will grant such authorisations after having consulted the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) and the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS).The amendment of the ordinance will therefore serve to clarify and formalise the authorisation process. However, in accordance with Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition, the export of chemicals and goods for medical purposes to non-sanctioned entities should remain possible.   

Sanctions against Syria since May 2011

The Federal Council first adopted sanctions against Syria on 18 May 2011. Switzerland thereby endorsed the measures imposed by the EU on Syria on 9 May 2011. Swiss sanctions against Syria have been modified by the Federal Council on a number of occasions in line with EU decisions.

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