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A Boom for Chemical Weapons in 2018?

This post has originally been published on 25.11.2018.

After quite a troublesome year for the ‘Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) the state parties to the ‘Chemical Weapons Convention’ (CWC) are currently meeting in The Hague during two outstanding high-level events: (1) the Conference of the States Parties to the CWC which according to art. VIII is the central organ of OPCW and meets annually (19-20 November); and (2) the Review Conference of the CWC which meets every five years to outline major policy objectives (21-30 November).

Especially after the open use of chemical weapons by Syria earlier this year and the attacks on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury (UK), allegedly by Russia, this year’s conferences promise hot debates. Normally, the OPCW operates without much media attention and under a fair degree of confidentiality. But during the last months, some OPCW-related headlines appeared on the international newscast when Russian hacking attacks were detected by Dutch, Swiss, and British authorities targeting the OPCW itself and associated laboratories. The most memorable incident included the Dutch police finding a foreign car filled with intelligence equipment and Russian officers (with diplomat passports) in the car park of the Marriot hotel across the street of the OPCW’s headquarters in The Hague – They were expelled immediately.

One major topic which is currently dominating the conferences is the question of attribution of chemical weapons attacks by the OPCW. The background mainly relates to resolution 2235 (2015) of the Security Council which instituted a so-called “Joint Investigative Mechanism” (JIM) between the UN and the OPCW to examine the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria and identify the perpetrators. Earlier this year, the JIM attributed to Syrian government forces the use of sarin and chlorine, two highly toxic chemical agents, in the region around Douma. The Russian as well as other governments immediately criticized those investigations as flawed and biased. Another consequence was that Russia vetoed the renewal of the JIM under resolution 2235 and thus impeded the ongoing investigations in Syria. In reaction to this, a special conference of the state parties to the CWC was held in June which expressly allowed the OPCW to attribute the use of chemical weapons to a perpetrator. This decision was adopted by a clear majority and the OPCW is now launching a special ‘office for attribution’ consisting of its senior investigators. To date, a few states including Russia, Syria, or Egypt have harshly criticized and rejected the idea of the OPCW being responsible for the attribution of chemical weapons incidents. Therefore, we can expect this to be one of the major points of discussion. Apart from that, the new director-general since July, Fernando Arias, wants to focus on the reemergence of chemical weapons and how verification mechanisms can be enhanced.

Generally, the ban of chemical weapons included in the CWC is exemplary in the area of arms control, especially in relation to weapons of mass destruction. As early as during the First World War did the international community realize the horror and large-scale suffering caused by chemical weapons. Accordingly, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 mandates its parties not to use any chemical weapons but remains silent about the production and stockpiling of such. Moreover, many states did not ratify the protocol or accepted it only with far-reaching reservations. Remarkable historical coincidence kept the fighting parties in the Second World War away from chemical weapons, but asphyxiating gases were heavily employed during the Holocaust. Other instances (e.g. China in Abyssinia in the 1930s, the US in Vietnam since 1965, or the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s) aptly demonstrated the devastation caused by chemical weapons.

The Biological Weapons Convention was signed in 1972 and intense negotiations on a Chemical Weapons Convention started soon under the auspices of the UN Disarmament Conference. Bargaining continued until the Convention was finally adopted and opened for signature in Paris in 1993. The Convention came into force very quickly and a preparatory conference was set up to establish the organization envisaged in the CWC. The OPCW started working in 1997 and was entrusted with a very ambitious mission and a broad mandate: it oversees the goal set out in art. I CWC: “the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and their destruction.” To ensure this goal, all member states had to declare their stockpiles and destroy them according to a schedule under the verification regime of the OPCW. As of today, the OPCW has 193 members (only missing North Korea, Egypt, South Sudan, and Israel) and has achieved that 96% of the world’s stockpiles are verifiably destroyed. This is an unprecedented success story unfortunately unique to the category of chemical weapons.

The last declared stockpiles exist in the US and are scheduled to be destroyed in 2023. But keeping in mind the incidents of this year, the mission of the OPCW is far from being over. Maybe the most difficult challenges are ahead – or as director-general Fernando Arias put it in an interview with “Arms Control” in October: “As the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, our mission to verifiably destroy declared stockpiles has a conceivable end point. But our mission to prevent the re-emergence of chemical weapons requires constant vigilance in perpetuity. As we move into the postdestruction phase, our mission will be far from complete. In fact, it will only grow in significance and complexity.”


Jan-Phillip Graf, Geneva


Credit: Podium Opening of RC-4, CC BY 2.0.

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