The chemical-weapons ban: test of practice

Ron G Manley
26 April 2007

Following the large-scale use of chemical weapons during the first world war, several attempts were made to ban the use of these terrible weapons with very little success. The extensive use of chemical weapons in the late 1980s by Iraq, during the Iraq-Iran war, however, served as a final spur to those seeking such a ban. After many years of negotiation, it finally became a reality with the entry into force of the chemical-weapons convention (CWC), on 29 April 1997.

This groundbreaking international treaty not only bans the development, production, and use of these weapons by its states-parties but also requires that they destroy any stockpiles of these weapons and their associated production facilities that they own or possess. The primary objective of the CWC is to achieve universal adherence to its principles thus ensuring the global elimination of this class of weapon. The CWC's secondary aims are to provide, should the need arise, assistance to any state party threatened by the use of chemical weapons and to foster the development of chemistry and the trade in chemicals for peaceful purposes.

Ron G Manley was born in Cornwall, United Kingdom. He joined the ministry of defence in 1960, and worked there for over thirty years in a range of fields related to the development of effective defensive measures against the use of chemical weapons. From 1991-94 he served with the United Nations commission in Iraq responsible for the technical oversight of Unscom's operations. From 1993-2001, he worked at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), ultimately as director of its verification division (2000- 01)

Also by Ron G Manley in openDemocracy:

"Iraq and chemical weapons: a view from the inside"
(10 July 2003)

"The Iraq weapons report: a review"
(9 October 2003)

"The Butler report: where did Iraq's weapons go?"
(21 July 2004)

To oversee its implementation, including the comprehensive verification regime, the CWC established the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which is located in The Hague, the Netherlands. Inspectors from the OPCW's technical secretariat carry out the on-site inspections that form a vital component of the convention's verification regime.

"States-parties" to the CWC undertake to declare and destroy, within an agreed timeframe, any chemical weapons or chemical weapons production facilities that they own or possess. Once declared these weapons and facilities are subject to regular inspection by OPCW inspectors until they are destroyed. During these first ten years six states have declared the possession of almost 8.7 million chemical weapons. Destruction of these weapons is ongoing on a daily basis and, so far, around 2.7 million have been safely destroyed. In addition, twelve countries declared a total of sixty-five chemical-weapons production facilities; all of these have been inactivated and the vast majority have already either been destroyed or converted to peaceful purposes.

A five-year challenge

A unique aspect of the CWC is that, in addition to declaring any chemical weapons or chemical weapons production facilities that they possess, states-parties also agree to declare and allow routine inspection, by OPCW inspectors, of those parts of their civilian chemical industry that produce "dual-use" chemicals. These are chemicals that have both a legitimate commercial use but also have the potential to be diverted for use either as chemical weapons or as intermediates in the production of these weapons. Reaching agreement on this particular provision of the CWC was particularly difficult and only proved possible because of the support given to the negotiations by the global chemical industry. Despite the potential inconvenience and costs involved, it saw the long-term benefits that could arise from being able to demonstrate that it was not involved in the production of chemical weapons.

OPCW inspectors have so far carried out in excess of 2,800 on-site inspection in seventy-seven countries. More than 1,100 of these inspections have taken place at commercial chemical industry plants and have successfully demonstrated that these inspections can meet their objectives and be carried out without placing too great a burden on the industries concerned.

Over these ten years the membership, which at entry into force stood at eighty-seven states, has steadily increased and currently 182 states are states-parties to the CWC. A further six states have signed the convention but have yet to complete the formal ratification process. Only seven states remain completely outside the CWC. Achieving this level of membership in the first ten years of its life is, in itself, a remarkable achievement and demonstrates the commitment of the majority of states to the CWC's aim of the complete eradication of chemical weapons and the threat that they pose.

Some important challenges remain. The safe destruction of the stockpiles of chemical weapons is proving more complex and time consuming than was anticipated. It is clear, despite the continuing commitment of those states that possess these weapons to their timely destruction, that it will take several more years to achieve this goal and thus ensure that the CWC's final deadline, of April 2012, for the completion of the destruction of these weapons is met.

States and non-states

Of the thirteen states remaining outside the CWC, five (Egypt, Iraq, Israel, North Korea and Syria) are known or suspected of having or having had a chemical-weapons programme. Clearly, as long as these five states remain outside the fold the aim of the complete elimination of this class of weapon cannot be achieved. Efforts are, therefore, continuing to encourage them and the others who remain outside the CWC to come on board. The new government of Iraq has committed itself to acceding to the CWC and discussions between the OPCW and the Iraqi government on implementing this decision are currently in progress.

During these ten years the spectre of the potential use of chemical weapons by non-state actors, such as terrorists, has gained prominence. The CWC is a treaty between states and as such is primarily aimed at the activities of states. Despite this, it still has an important role to play in the prevention of the use of chemical weapons by non-state actors. Its effectiveness in this area, however, rests on each state party meeting one of the CWC's core obligations: that is, to put in place effective national implementing legislation or administrative arrangements to meet fully its obligations under the CWC.

It is also important that such legislation contains provisions that criminalise the preparation, possession, use or intent to use toxic chemicals for terrorist or criminal purposes as this is the most effective means of strengthening the CWC's impact on the activities of non-state actors. It will also provide individual states with a valuable tool in their fight to prevent the diversion and misuse of toxic chemicals by non-state actors.

While, in the early years, a number of states-parties took action to meet this particular obligation others saw it as a low priority and either took limited action or no action at all. The OPCW, recognising the importance of effective national implementation in helping to prevent non-state actors gaining access to chemical weapons, put in place an action plan to encourage all states parties to the CWC to comply fully with this important obligation. While this has led to considerable progress being made in this area, much still needs to be done and the pressure to meet this key obligation must be maintained.

The first decade of the chemical-weapons convention has been a resounding success. It serves as example of what can be achieved when governments band together to address the global threat posed by a weapon of this nature.

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