Chemical weapons ban in the spotlight


On Monday, 14 October 2013, the Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force for the Syrian Arab Republic, where hundreds of civilians were killed by the weapons less than two months earlier. The arrival of the convention’s 190th state party caps off a remarkable month for international efforts to eradicate chemical weapons and marks another milestone in what has been a busy year for advocates of humanitarian disarmament.

Just days earlier, on Friday, 11 October, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that it had awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the inter-governmental entity established by the Chemical Weapons Convention to assist states to implement the convention and verify the destruction and non-proliferation of chemical weapons in accordance with the 1993 treaty.

The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General has the legal authority to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons, but the UN does not have the technical resources to do so. Therefore, as provided for in the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Secretary-General asked the OPCW to provide its expertise and resources to the UN investigation into the reports of the use of chemical weapons in the conflict in Syria between government forces and armed opposition groups.

On the morning of 21 August–just after the inspection team had arrived to investigate the alleged use–there was an apparent chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, a few kilometers from their Damascus hotel. Yet the inspectors were not permitted access to investigate until five days later, after the area had been repeatedly shelled by Syrian government forces using conventional weapons.

Human Rights Watch conducted its own investigation into the attacks using information provided by contacts on the ground and its expertise in weapons identification and satellite imagery. It soberly concluded that  “available evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government forces were responsible” for using a weapons-grade nerve agent in the attack, most likely Sarin. A week later, on 16 September, the UN issued the report of its investigation, confirming the use of Sarin-filled rockets in Ghouta.

The subsequent work by Russia and the US to secure Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention has paved the way for the unthinkable as the Syrian government cooperates with the OPCW to dismantle and, by mid-2014, destroy the country’s stockpile of chemical weapons, all in the middle of an armed conflict.

The expensive and dangerous process of stockpile destruction may be proceeding, but what about aid for the victims of the Ghouta attacks, who remain in a dire humanitarian situation? While Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds in the Anfal campaign should have made it clear, the drafters of the Chemical Weapons Convention envisaged the treaty’s assistance provisions for the scenario of helping a state party attacked by another state and not a state attacking its own citizens.

Article X (8) of the Chemical Weapons Convention allows states parties to request assistance, but will Syria request assistance for the chemical weapons victims of Ghouta, and could it even do so if it was not a state party at the time of use? The OPCW’s International Support Network for Victims of Chemical Weapons has a trust fund that contained just 20,000 euro in September 2013.

This could be the moment to operationalize the emergency assistance provisions contained in Article X (11) of the Chemical Weapons Convention that state “If the information available from the ongoing investigation or other reliable sources would give sufficient proof that there are victims of use of chemical weapons and immediate action is indispensable, the Director-General shall notify all States Parties and shall take emergency measures of assistance, using the resources the Conference has placed at his disposal for such contingencies.”

Update – At an UNGA event on 29 October, an OPCW representative responded to a question from Human Rights Watch on operationalizing the convention’s victim assistance provisions that the provisions are for states parties only and because Syria was not a state party at the time of use, it was likely not possible for the OPCW Director-General to provide assistance under the convention. The UN disarmament chief, Angela Kane, said that the “hardest part” of the OPCW-UN joint investigation mission was that they were unable to provide assistance to the victims requesting help from them. She said, “we were helpless in seeing the people suffer.”

Syria joining the Chemical Weapons Convention does not resolve the conflict raging across the country that has killed more than 100,000 people, resulted in millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, and created a humanitarian catastrophe. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has been a major cause of injury, death, destruction and displacement throughout the conflict. The Syrian government has shown no interest in stopping its use of banned cluster bombs and acceding to the treaty banning cluster munitions or halting its airforce’s illegal use of incendiary weapons in populated areas areas and ratifying the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons.

But Syria’s accession and the OPCW’s Nobel Peace Prize reinforce the international norm against the use of chemical weapons and the central role of the Chemical Weapons Convention as the framework for eradicating these weapons. Pressure is building for the handful of nations that remain outside the Chemical Weapons Convention to join without delay: Israel and Myanmar have signed, but not yet ratified, while Angola, Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan have not acceded.

The spotlight of the Nobel Peace Prize may pressure the three nations that failed to finish dismantling their chemical stockpiles by the deadline established under the convention to speed up completion of that task. With the OPCW’s assistance, Libya is expected to complete destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile shortly, but many, including the Norwegian Nobel Committee, are concerned by the failure of major stockpilers Russia and the US to meet their “final extended” destruction deadline in 2012. At the convention’s Third Review Conference in April 2013, states parties reluctantly accepted that it will take Russia until 2015 and the US until 2023 to complete destruction of their stockpiled chemical weapons.

While the OPCW is the body that serves the nations that are party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are involved in practical efforts to eradicate the weapons. Most notable is Green Cross International, established by former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, which together with its national affiliates has helped safely dispose of more than 55,000 tons of chemical weapons since the end of the Cold War in Russia, the US, India, Albania, South Korea and Libya.

Green Cross International’s Dr. Paul Walker, recipient of the 2013 Right Livelihood Award, chairs the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition, a network that coordinates civil society action in support of the Chemical Weapons Convention, including NGO involvement in meetings of the convention. Other civil society representatives working on chemical weapons come from the epistemic community, universities, research institutes, and think tanks, while some are former diplomats and government officials. While all are experts, the “discrete and restrained character” of this community has, according to one view, reinforced “the process-minded, state-centric approach” to disarmament of chemical weapons.

Indeed, states parties have been reluctant to acknowledge civil society interest in the Chemical Weapons Convention, blocking NGO access until only recently. The Third Review Conference earlier this year marked the first time that NGOs had been permitted to address government representatives in a plenary session, a moment described by one member of the coalition as a “major coup for global civil society.”

Within the humanitarian disarmament community there is some bemusement at the media’s descriptions of the OPCW as a “relatively small” organization (of 500 staff) with a “modest” annual budget (of approximately $100 million) housed in a “spartan” headquarters in the Hague, compared to the tiny implementation units for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, and 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. The civil society-based Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor verification system and the BioWeapons Monitor system operate annually on a tiny fraction of the OPCW’s budget.

But to be fair an inter-governmental body and an implementation support unit are not the same thing. The OPCW’s operation is dwarfed by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the preparatory commission for Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

All NGOs working to tackle humanitarian disarmament concerns will benefit from the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to return to its disarmament roots with the 2013 Peace Prize. And from documenting the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, Halabja, and elsewhere to advocating for their swift destruction, civil society will continue to play a valuable role in the international movement to eradicate these weapons and NGOs will continue to work together with victims of chemical weapons, governments, the OPCW, the UN, and the International Committee of the Red Cross to achieve the shared goal of a world free of chemical weapons.
Photo: Third Review Conference of Chemical Weapons Convention, April 2013 (c) OPCW 

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