29 April 2013
Patricia Lewis

Dr Patricia Lewis

Research Director, International Security


Thanks to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), 188 states have committed to never using, developing, producing, acquiring, stockpiling, transferring or retaining chemical weapons.

29 April marks the Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare, the anniversary of the CWC, which came into force in 1997. The first massive use of lethal poison gas was on 22 April 1915 in Ypres on the battlefields of World War I and by Armistice Day some 124,000 tonnes of chemical agents had been used resulting in nearly 100,000 deaths and approximately one million soldiers wounded and disabled. 

Since then the taboo of chemical weapons has grown considerably and they have thus been subject to a number of constraints on their use (such as the 1925 Geneva Protocol), acquisition (such as the Australia Group export control guidelines) and possession (the CWC).

Nonetheless, several countries have stockpiled chemical weapons throughout the twentieth century. Some have done so in part as a form of in-kind retaliatory capability, and others have acquired them as a form of weapons of mass destruction; during the cold war they were often dubbed the 'poor man's nuclear bomb'. Although chemical weapons were not used on the European battlefields of World War II, poison gases were used by Germany in the gas chambers and by Japan in China.

Various uses of chemicals and poisons were used in conflict in the post-war period, including the use of herbicides in Vietnam and poison gases in Yemen. The worst examples of use in recent decades were the attacks by Iraq against Iran during the 1980-1988 war and by the Iraqi government against the Iraqi and Iranian Kurds as part of the Anfal campaign in 1988. The attack against the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988 resulted in the deaths of approximately 5,000 people with about 10,000 immediate injuries. 

Syria's 'complex' weapons situation

Today, concerns are focused on Syria. Although not a member of the CWC, Syria has full membership of the 1925 Geneva Protocol that prohibits the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases. Over the last few weeks, there have been accusations that chemical weapons have indeed been used in the Syria conflict; each side blaming the other.

Because Syria is not party to the CWC, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is not allowed to conduct an inspection as a matter of due procedures as it would normally be entitled. Instead the UN's Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has invoked a special power at his disposal: the Secretary General's Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. The mechanism, which was first established by the UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/42/37C in 1987 as a response to the use of chemical weapons by Iraq, requests the Secretary-General to 'carry out investigations in response to reports that may be brought to his attention by any Member State concerning the possible use of chemical and bacteriological (biological) or toxin weapons'.

In 1988, the UNSG's powers were cemented by the UN Security Council Resolution 620 that encourages prompt investigations in response to allegations. Furthermore it commits the Security Council to consider appropriate effective measures immediately, with regards to any future use of chemical weapons. The Secretary General has at his disposal an updated roster of experts and laboratories, trained to technical guidelines and procedures so that he is able to act speedily in response to alleged use.

In response to the allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, Ban Ki-moon has swiftly assembled a fifteen-member team of experts from the UN roster, headed by a Swedish scientist, Ake Sellström. 

Professor Sellström is highly qualified. He was an inspector for UNSCOM's work under Rolf Ekeus in finding and destroying Iraq's chemical weapons following the 1991 ceasefire and under Hans Blix and UNMOVICs work in 2002-3 in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq war. The team requires consent from the Syrian government however. Without that consent all that the UN investigatory team can do is take samples outside the country. Those samples could be from water and soil, from clothes, hair, skin, blood and urine. However, such samples suffer from lack of certainty in attribution - they would surely be challenged as to whether they were fakes. Even if their provenance could be verified, the delay in taking the samples would increase uncertainty and vulnerability to challenge. 

As time passes, even direct access becomes less useful with the residues of agents and chemical breakdown products being diluted and washed away. It is possible to do ultra-low concentration sample analysis in certain laboratories, including one in the UK, but as the delays accumulate, the likelihood of finding a 'smoking gun' reduces. 

International efforts

Whatever the truth about who has used or not used chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict and whether the evidence will ever be found, the bigger issue is to prevent massive use - of the sort seen in Halabja twenty-five years ago. In addition, and not unconnected, the securing of the Syrian chemical weapons stocks in a post-conflict Syria is also of the utmost priority. In Libya, the incoming authorities discovered clandestine, undeclared stockpiles from the Gaddafi regime that were immediately reported and then dismantled by the OPCW, with the assistance of Iraq. 

On this day of commemorating the victims of chemical weapons, we would do well to remind ourselves of the horrors of chemical weapons and redouble efforts, in their honour, to bring in the few remaining states that remain completely outside the CWC, namely Angola, DPRK, Egypt, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria.