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In praise of the Chemical Weapons Convention

Jenny Nielsen

Published: Updated:

Those of us who follow the review process of the inherently flawed, vague and discriminatory Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) often look envyingly at the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The CWC really is the Rolls Royce of non-proliferation and disarmament treaties, with its non-discriminatory architecture and extensive verification regime. As Daniel Feakes pointed out at IISS last week, the treaty’s blanket ban on the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer and use of chemical weapons – for all countries and under strict international control – makes the CWC “a unique multilateral agreement.”

Feakes is an adviser at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body that polices the CWC. He was speaking shortly after the agency had been awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, and as OPCW inspectors continued to verify and destroy chemical-weapons production facilities in Syria.

“Never in the history of our organization have we been called on to verify a destruction program within such short timeframes – and in an ongoing conflict,” OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü has said of the Syrian mission. Indeed the Assad regime only agreed to allow in inspectors on August 18 under international pressure about alleged use of chemical weapons during the country’s two-year civil war, and Damascus only acceded to the CWC on Sept. 14 after outcry over a reported mass chemical-weapons attack, which killed hundreds, in a Damascus suburb.

Yet despite the extraordinary challenges, the mission was going smoothly, Feakes reported. On the day of the IISS discussion, he revealed, Syria had submitted its initial declaration to the agency about its chemical-weapons program, three days ahead of the Oct. 27 deadline set by the OPCW Executive Council. Eighteen of 23 disclosed chemical weapons sites had already been visited and almost all production facilities at these sites rendered inoperable.

Feakes noted the OPCW’s efforts in Syria were an example of effective multilateralism, as he highlighted the OPCW–U.N. Joint Mission established on Oct. 16 under Special Coordinator Sigrid Kaag. Through this, the OPCW’s 27 staff members in Syria, who are working in three teams, have logistical support from other OPCW/U.N. staff.

Success

Echoing the Nobel Committee’s Oct. 11 announcement of its award of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the OPCW for its “extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons,” Feakes stressed the prize was not just for the organization’s recent work in Syrian disarmament, but for “what the OPCW has been doing for the 16 years since the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997.” Feakes also paid tribute to those who paved the way for the organization, including the late Ian Kenyon, executive secretary of the OPCW Preparatory Commission from 1993–97.

Feakes noted the OPCW’s efforts in Syria were an example of effective multilateralism

Jenny Nielsen

Although chemical weapons have not been entirely eradicated nearly 100 years after their first large-scale use in 1915, the CWC has been a very successful non-proliferation and disarmament instrument. The treaty has been signed by 192 countries, two of which have not yet ratified and acceded to it. Excluding the Syrian stockpiles, “to date, almost 82% of chemical weapons declared by seven states parties have been destroyed,” said Feakes.

Seen optimistically, the recent global attention and action on chemical weapons, because of developments in Syria, might persuade some of the six states that have not ratified the CWC (two signatories and four non-signatories) to do so. With Syria’s recent, albeit unconventional, accession to the treaty, the two remaining parties in the Middle East – Israel and Egypt – may find it increasingly uncomfortable and difficult to remain outliers.

With any luck, the broader non-proliferation community discussing nuclear disarmament and other issues at the 68th Session of the U.N. General Assembly’s First Committee in New York until Nov. 7 might use public abhorrence towards the use of non-conventional weapons in Syria to further highlight the humanitarian initiative on nuclear disarmament. At the UNGA last week, 125 states sponsored a statement to the First Committee insisting that the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons” should be made central to any discussion of nuclear disarmament.

This article was first published on the IISS blog on Oct. 31, 2013.

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Jenny Nielsen is a research analyst at the IISS. She is project managing the second EU Non-proliferation and Disarmament Conference on behalf of the EU Consortium as well as supporting research on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Prior to joining IISS, she was a Program Manager for the Defense & Security Program at Wilton Park and a Research Assistant for the Mountbattten Center for International Studies (MCIS) at the University of Southampton.

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