A Chemical Reaction: Universalize the CWC

A diplomatic push for all countries to join and adhere to the Chemical Weapons Convention is the right response to the atrocities committed in Syria, argues Paul Meyer.
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September 11, 2013

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is a success story for multilateral disarmament.  Concluded in 1993, it sets out a comprehensive ban on the possession, production, and use of chemical weapons. The convention also provides for a robust international verification and control regime with a dedicated implementing agency (the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague).  Since the CWC entered into force in 1997, it has grown to include 189 state parties, making it one of the most widely adhered to international security treaties in existence. Also during this period, an estimated 81% of the world’s declared stockpile of 71,196 metric tonnes of chemical agent have been verifiably destroyed. Given the great toxicity of some chemical weapons – a mere drop of nerve agent on the skin of an adult can lead to death within minutes – the elimination of such a potentially devastating arsenal can only come as a relief.

The relative success of the CWC builds upon a long-standing moral repugnance towards chemical weapons that traces back to the First World War experience and subsequently codified in an early international accord prohibiting the use of poison gas in warfare (the 1925 Geneva Protocol). Even though great quantities of chemical weapons were generated by both sides during the Second World War, they were never deployed in battle. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked about possible deployment of chemical weapons in 1943, he replied that the “use of such weapons has been outlawed by the general opinion of civilized mankind”.  With very few exceptions, the most notable being Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, and against its own Kurdish population in 1987-88, this taboo against the use of chemical weapons has endured. The conclusion of the CWC and the subsequent systematic effort to destroy existing stockpiles gave the international community reason to hope that at least this weapon of mass destruction would be eliminated, its use confined to a painful memory from the past.

Alas, the scattered incidents of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria in the spring of 2013, followed by the blatant case of nerve agent use in the Damascus suburbs in the early morning of August 21, have shattered this hopeful scenario. This affront to international norms does require a firm response, but the use of military force is not the only manner by which the international community can convey its resolve.  If we want to keep the focus on the chemical weapons themselves, then taking steps to strengthen the scope and authority of the CWC represents a logical way forward.  Universal adherence to a legally binding treaty is the ultimate manifestation of global commitment. The CWC is only seven states shy of achieving this status. Five states (Syria, Egypt, Angola, North Korea, and South Sudan) have never signed the convention, and two states (Israel and Myanmar) have signed but not ratified the treaty.  A full-court press by leading states to bring these remaining outliers fully on board with the CWC should be a priority task for current diplomacy. If the prohibition norm for chemical weapons is really as important to the foreign and security policies of states as they claim, then they should be ready to condition their relations with others on the necessity of universal adherence. Indeed if states had been more engaged on behalf of universalization of the CWC over the 16 years it has been in force, the international community may have been spared the horrendous images of a chemical weapons attack. Whatever the intentions of those possessing weapons of mass destruction, human frailties being what they are, if weapons exist they are likely to be used one day. The only sure guarantee of the non-use of WMD is their total elimination.

International attention has now turned to the U.S.-Russian proposal for a transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons to international control and its adherence to the CWC as part of a process for the verified destruction of these stocks. This proposal is a welcome diplomatic initiative and a reminder that here, as with other aspects of Syria’s terrible civil war, military solutions are not the only ones available.  If this proposal is to be viable however it will need not only the cooperation of the Assad regime, but also the purposeful involvement of the United Nations and relevant specialized agencies. It may be a surprise to some that the UN has no standing verification capacity – the UN inspection team dispatched to Syria was comprised of nine staff from the OPCW and three from the WHO.  To effectively carry out such a challenging consolidation and destruction task would require a major UN system effort that will depend on the logistical and security support of member states. Let us hope that Canada, in concert with other UN member states, will be quick to offer practical support if such an operation is undertaken. This would constitute a firm and fitting response to the “outrage” of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.