Toxic weapons made of chemicals are nothing new. They’ve been around for thousands of years as poisoned arrows, lethal smoke, or noxious fumes, but -- following their use-- they were eventually considered too cruel and unfair for ”civilized battle,” and efforts were made to ban them. Nevertheless during World War I toxic chemicals such as chlorine or mustard gas were released causing over 90,000 deaths from exposure. “Close to a million more men left battlefields blind, disfigured or with debilitating injuries.”
The public horror that resulted led to the drafting by the International Committee of the Red Cross of a new Geneva Protocol banning their use in 1925. However, what was missing was the prohibition to develop, produce, or possess chemical weapons. During the 1920s and 1930s, these weapons were actually used by a number of countries, and were supplemented by the discovery of powerful nerve gases. When World War II broke out, it was anticipated that they would be used again, but this did not happen in the European theatre. However Japan did use chemical and biological weapons extensively in China: “Japan used poisonous gases more than 2,000 times in 77 counties of 14 provinces in direct violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol.”
Stockpiles grew for “defensive purposes” during the Cold War with the United States and Russia maintaining thousands of tons. The use of agent orange by the United States in Vietnam (an herbal defoliant used in such large quantities as to have lethal and debilitating effects), nerve and blister agents in the Iran-Iraq War by both sides, Saddam’s use against Kurdish insurgents in Iraq, and Syria’s use in its current civil war are some examples.
How could these weapons of mass effect be controlled? At first international attention was directed towards the outlawing of biological weapons. In 1972 a Biological Weapons Convention was opened for signature and rather rapidly came into force in 1975 with comprehensive prohibition of use, but no verification mechanism. 180 countries have ratified this international law since then, agreeing to its domestic compliance.
The issue of outlawing chemical weapons presented a more difficult problem and took even more years of development given their prevalence and use. It wasn’t until 1993 that the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was open for signature. “In an unprecedented show of support for an international arms control treaty, 130 countries signed the CWC during the three-day Paris signing conference.”
By this time the number of chemical weapons that were addressed consisted of a wide range of (1) Harassing agents (tear, vomiting and malodorants), (2) Incapacitating agents (psychological and other incapacitants), and (3) Lethal agents (blister, blood, choking, and nerve gas). But the treaty contained the important addition of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an organization created for the monitoring and destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles and implementation of the convention.
The Treaty bans the development, acquisition, transfer, or use of chemical weapons, requires the destruction of all stockpiles, and obligates states parties to declare chemicals and production facilities that could be used in a manner prohibited by the convention, and authorizes the OPCW to enforce these provisions. The number of inspections conducted by the OPCW soon numbered in the hundreds (now over 6,600), and the efficiency with which they were carried out earned the Organization a reputation for professionalism and impartiality. The world’s declared stockpile of chemical agents that has been verifiably destroyed is 96.27% or 69,610 of 72,304 metric tons.
It is the world’s first multilateral disarmament agreement to provide for the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction within a fixed time frame—the most far reaching disarmament measure ever put into force. But deciding on the forms of punishment for those using chemical weapons in war is still not a clearly defined process.
As Rule of Power or Rule of Law explains, the CWC contains three basic obligations that each state party must undertake:
- Prohibition of Weapons: States parties agree to never develop, acquire or use chemical weapons or transfer them to anyone;
- Destruction of Weapons: States parties agree to destroy all their existing chemical weapons production facilities and stockpiles;
- Declaration and Inspection: Each state party must declare any chemical weapons facilities or stockpiles… They must allow routine inspection of declared “dual use” chemicals and production facilities that could be used in a manner prohibited by the convention.
When it became time for the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty in 1993, as much as President George W. Bush supported it, some senators found fault with some provisions and would only pass it with a list of conditions restricting the work of the OPCW in investigating the sites where U.S. was storing its chemical weapon supplies. “Those restrictions included a narrowing of the facilities subject to declaration and inspection; prohibition of transfer of samples outside of the country for analysis; and a presidential right to refuse inspections on national security grounds.” The U.S. did ratify the treaty with these conditions during President Clinton’s term in April 1997 a week before it entered into force. Nations are entitled to indicate concerns in their ratification process, but the purported U.S. restrictions went beyond that. None of the purported US restrictions have been operational issues during the 20 years or so CWC has been in force. The CWC “does not permit these limitations and contains thorough safeguards for the protection of confidential information.”
The work of this agency in destroying arsenals of chemical weapons throughout the world in very professional and effective cooperation with the host governments of those nations ratifying the Convention was so effective as to earn this agency the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.
States-parties that signed the treaty when it entered into force were supposed to destroy their entire stockpiles by April 29, 2012. However, the OPCW could extend these deadlines due to “exceptional circumstances,” and in December 2006, the OPCW Executive Council granted nearly all possessors extensions of differing lengths. Reports by the U.S. of its compliance with the CWC may be found in the 2016 Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments and in the 2017 Report. The US has until 2023 to destroy its total supply of chemical weapons stored in Colorado and Kentucky.
As we recently have read in the news, the OPCW “can conduct fact finding missions to determine if toxic chemicals were used as weapons, but that organization does not have the authority to determine attribution – that is, who launched the attacks. That was the job of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), created by the Security Council in 2015 to ’identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons.’ The JIM found the Assad regime responsible for multiple attacks with chlorine barrel bombs, including the attack on Sarmin in Syria, as well as the use of sarin in Khan Sheikhous last April.” (War on the Rocks)
Currently the Chemical Weapons Convention has 192 states-parties. One state has signed but not ratified (Israel). Three states have neither signed nor ratified (Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan). Commendations to all those involved in helping to make this world a safer place without chemical weapons. We have come a long way, but there is still more work to do to reach a world truly free of chemical weapons.
 Nicole Deller, Arjun Makhijani, John Burroughs, Editors: Rule of Power or Rule of Law: An Assessment of U.S. Policies and Actions Regarding Security-Related Treaties. 2003; Apex Press, New York, NY, p.67