Today, 17 June, the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare celebrates its 90th anniversary. Short as the document is, it laid the foundations for the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). How critical that document was to disarmament—the total elimination of a given weapon category—the global community can only appreciate through the growing frustration with the lack of progress in the elimination of nuclear weapons. As the negotiators of the Geneva Protocol came to understand in 1925, without a global ban on use, no other weapon-related activities could legally be curtailed.
In the Greater Manchester area a 16-year old boy stands trial for having tried to buy 10 milligrams of abrin on the dark web. Abrin is a toxin found in the seeds of Abrus precatorius, otherwise known as jequirity or rosary pea.
UK authorities arrested him in February and have charged him under the Biological Weapons Act 1974 and Criminal Attempts Act 1981. In particular, the charge refers to the General Purpose Criterion (GPC) as framed in Article I of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and transposed into British criminal law. As reported in The Guardian on 19 February:
In its situation report of 11 March 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) tallies a death toll of 9,961 out of 24,247 cases (41% mortality rate) in the three West-African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. While the overall rate of new infections seems to be slowing down, the numbers nevertheless continue to rise. Infectious disease is the greatest threat to mankind, far higher than any imaginable terrorist plot. According to WHO statistics from about 10 years ago, infectious diseases are responsible for over 13 million deaths worldwide each year. That is 25% of all deaths worldwide each year. Distribution across the planet is highly uneven: in developing countries that percentage rises to half of all deaths. What does more than 13 million fatalities per year represent? Well, it corresponds more or less to the number of people who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 every two hours.
Using the Momentum of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Dismantlement and Identifying Spill-Over Potentials
Discussion note prepared for: Academic Peace Orchestra – Middle East (APOME), Tackling the Middle East WMD/DVs Arsenals in the Context of Military Asymmetries Towards Zonal Disarmament, Berlin, 11–12 March 2015
- Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on 14 September 2013 and formally became a state party on 14 October. This was the outcome of a framework agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capacities between Russia and the United States reached in Geneva on 14 September. This accord averted military strikes by France, the United Kingdom and the United States as reprisal for the use of chemical weapons (CW) in the Syrian civil war. In particular the attacks against the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August represented a major escalation in the conflict. The sarin nerve agent killed hundreds of people and injured many more. At the time of the attacks a UN team comprising experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) were in Damascus in response to an earlier request by the Syrian government to investigate alleged CW use during the spring of 2013. After modification of its mandate, it investigated the Ghouta attacks and issued their preliminary report on 16 September, two days after the Geneva accord. The findings all but blamed the Syrian government. The team submitted its final report covering all chemical warfare allegations from the original mandate as well as some additional attacks after the Ghouta incident on 12 December.
- After becoming a party to the CWC the verification activities have consisted of four types of activities:
- Syrian declarations on CW holdings, CW-relevant infrastructure (production and storage sites), and on the history of its chemical warfare programme since 1 January 1946. Given the special circumstances that have led the country to accede to the convention, Syria was requested and has (or is in the process of ) providing information on the destruction of CW before becoming a CWC party. As illustrated by the cases of France and Iran, a state party is not normally required to declare this type of information. However, in order to ensure that Syria is not hiding secret stashes of CW, the requested data contribute to establishing a baseline for its past capacities.
- The OPCW verifies those declarations, resolves anomalies and where required requests amendments to those declarations.
- The OPCW conducted inspections at the declared production and storage sites. It oversaw the removal of chemical warfare and precursor agents from Syrian territory and the destruction of delivery means, relevant equipment and installations, and precursor chemicals. It also oversaw the hydrolysis of mustard agent and the neutralisation of a range of precursor chemicals aboard the US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean and the destruction of the resulting effluents in incinerators in Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. At present the OPCW is also overseeing the destruction of the former Syrian CW production facilities. To date, two out of twelve buildings have been destroyed and completion of this task is envisaged for this summer.
- The OPCW carried out field investigations into the alleged use of chlorine during the spring and summer of 2014.
Adaptation to specific circumstances
- Nobody anticipated that the OPCW would ever have to evacuate CW from a state party under conditions of war. Such a situation never occurred before. Even the disarmament of Iraq during the 1990s took place after a cease-fire agreement, endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). Syria joined the CWC as a CW possessor state, which was also a first after the treaty-defined destruction deadlines had expired. As a consequence, the responsibility to determine Syria’s interim and final destruction deadlines fell to the Executive Council. Its decision of 27 September 2013 was an adaptation of the US-Russian framework agreement. That same night the UN Security Council endorsed the decision in Resolution 2118 (2013). However, given the virtual impossibility to destroy the CW inside a country at war and the extremely tight deadline to complete destruction operations, the EC adopted several exceptional measures in a second decision of 15 November, none of which are precedent-setting.
- A first major departure from the standard CWC process concerns the initial declaration. Under Article III this document is due within 30 days after the convention enters into force for a state party and establishes a baseline for the country’s status as CW possessor, plans for the destruction of CW and related installations if so required, a description of any CW-related activities after 1 January 1945, the types of chemical facilities on its territory and the types and quantities of treaty-relevant chemicals they produce. Following that submission OPCW inspectors will verify the accuracy of the initial declaration, upon which the state party can submit amendments if so required. In practice OPCW staff will assist a country preparing to join the CWC with compiling the initial declaration and other measures to be undertaken (e.g., national legislation). In the case of Syria inspectors entered the country even before it had formally become a state party (i.e., 30 days after accession) and such an initial declaration was submitted. The Syrian government had agreed to the accelerated pace. While it enabled the OPCW to quickly secure key CW sites that were accessible (some were in combat zones or under the control of insurgents), prepare inventories and render the delivery systems and special equipment useless, it also created a situation in which the OPCW received a lot of information piecemeal. Combined with the chaos of war, Syrian claims of poor bureaucratic administration of the chemical programmes and quite possibly reluctance to cooperate in full, this led to quite a few corrections of the initial declaration and submission of fresh data. Within the Technical Secretariat a small Declaration Assessment Team was set up to raise questions based on the initial declaration, to identify the gaps, find discrepancies, and so on, in order to correct the declaration. In this way, the OPCW has been able and is still continuing to develop the full picture of Syria’s past CW capacities and programmes.
- Under the terms of Article IV of the CWC, each state party remains the owner of the CW that must be destroyed, destroys those CW on its own territory, and pays for the destruction operations and the OPCW verification activities. Given the inability to destroy the CW inside a country at war and the extremely tight deadline to complete destruction operations, the EC adopted several exceptional measures, none of which are precedent-setting:
- With the exception of one precursor chemical that had to be destroyed in-country, all warfare agents and other precursors were evacuated by sea from Syria.
- Once they had left the territory, the international community as represented by the OPCW assumed responsibility for the toxic substances. The legal status of the weapons outside of Syria, and therefore the liability in case of a mishap, was never precisely determined.
- The toxic substances were neutralised or hydrolysed aboard the specially adapted US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean, and then transferred to commercial incinerators in Finland, the United Kingdom and the United States and a dedicated CW destruction facility in Germany.
- Both the UN and the OPCW set up special trust funds to finance the operation as Syria claimed to be unable to pay for the destruction and verification costs. Many countries offered funds or contributed in kind.
The emerging challenge of opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals
- Opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals occurs when a particular entity resorts to a mode of chemical warfare using toxic chemicals that are readily available at a chemical plant or storage site, but does not undertake steps to develop and produce such weapons. The types of agent thus used can range from extremely common chemical substances, such as chlorine (often used in liquid form for water purification), to compounds such as insecticides and pesticides that, just like sarin or VX, belong to the family organophosphates. A typical characteristic of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals is that the attacks cease as soon as stores have been depleted or access to other sources of supply cut off. Delivery is extremely crude, but some indicators suggest a development process for dissemination devices may take place to enhance the impact of the attacks.
- Through the spring and summer of 2014 there were several reports of chlorine strikes in Syria. Barrel bombs filled with liquid chlorine were dropped on villages from helicopters, strongly suggesting that government forces were responsible for them. As chlorine (or any other toxic chemical) falls under the General Purpose Criterion (GPC) of the CWC, any use as a method of warfare is prohibited. With Syria a state party to the CWC, the OPCW launched an investigation of alleged use. The fact-finding mission arrived in Damascus on 3 May, five days after its creation by the OPCW Director-General. During an onsite investigation on 27 May the team’s vehicle convoy was hit by an explosive device and came under fire. While this part of the mission had to be discontinued, the investigators were able to collate considerable data by means of other techniques, including victim and witness interviews, analysis of medical records and discussions with medical staff, and the analysis of flight paths of helicopters and correlating them to the precise time and site of the barrel bomb attack. It presented three reports in June, September and December 2014. On 4 February 2015 the OPCW Executive Council’s decision formally determined that chlorine had been used as a method of warfare and condemned the acts as a major breach of the CWC. Even though the conclusion did not identify the culprit, it is clear that as a state party Syria bears responsibility for preventing any violation on its territory.
- Other allegations of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals attributing responsibility to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) emerged during the second half of 2014. One such claim related to the intense fighting at Avdiko village, 12 km east of Kobani in northern Syria; the other incidents came from Iraq. These occurrences pose a special problem under the CWC. While a state party is responsible for the implementation of the CWC on its territory, the reported events took place in areas not under the control by the government. Moreover the way the alleged use was described in Avdiko, both the perpetrator and the victims were non-state actors, a situation that may potentially create a legal and practical vacuum. Under the terms of the CWC (Verification Annex, Part XI, §27), if use has been alleged on territory not under the control by the government of a state party, then the UN Secretary-General’s mechanism will apply. However, in view of the attacks on the OPCW investigative team in May 2014 and the reliance on the Syrian military for the security and safety of UN and OPCW personnel inside Syria, the question arises how a UN investigation would be able to access an area of intense fighting in which the government military play no role. Thus far no concrete ideas suggestion an international military force to be inserted into a UN member state for the sole purpose of protecting an investigative team have been put forward.
From September 2014 on several reports have alleged chlorine use by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq. The claims began shortly after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had released its first report on its investigation into the chlorine attacks in Syria earlier in the year. In a politically highly charged atmosphere in which supporters and opponents of the regime of President Bashir al-Assad use any incident to blame insurgent forces of atrocities or call for regime change, one must necessarily view accusations of chemical warfare with a healthy dose of scepticism. This is particularly the case if allegations disappear as quickly as they surface.
On 4 December I addressed a workshop on Nuclear Safety, Security and WMD Non-proliferation. The event was organised by Atomic Reporters and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP), together with the Stanley Foundation and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). The target audience consisted of more than 20 journalists from or working in the Middle East.
My presentation ‘Responding to chemical weapon use in Syria’ addressed the allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria since early 2013 and the international CW disarmament operation over the past 15 months.
It is true that pressure for Israel to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is steadily mounting. Presently 190 states are party to the treaty. Besides Israel, only Angola, Egypt, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan have not ratified or acceded to it. As participants in the 2014 Jonathan Tucker Conference on Chemical and Biological Arms Control heard yesterday from Dr Peter Sawzcak, Head of Government Relations and Political Affairs Branch of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Myanmar is expected to ratify the CWC in its forthcoming parliamentary session in January. The Council of Ministers of Angola, which will take up a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council next year, is to decide on joining the Arms Trade Treaty, Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and CWC really soon. South Sudan may also become a party to the CWC in the near future as part of a broader package deal under development. As was pointed out by some other speakers at the Jonathan Tucker Conference, being in the company of North Korea is not good for a democracy such as Israel.
The Israeli Disarmament Movement together with the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition (CWCC) and Green Cross convened two days of roundtable discussions on Chemical Weapons, Israel and the Middle East in Tel Aviv. The third day, 12 November, a briefing was held in the Knesset. In a region where (existential) security and the nuclear weapons stand central to any debate on arms control strategies, the exclusive focus on chemical weapons (CW) was a rare occurrence.
The meeting goals were twofold: promote ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) by Israel and to have Israel take a more positive stance in the diplomatic engagements to establish a zone free of non-conventional weaponry in the Middle East. The conveners viewed CWC ratification as a potential significant step towards achieving the latter goal.
The last day of October, a sunny Friday in The Hague, I met with Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü to reflect on the previous year and a half, during which the civil war in Syria suddenly thrust the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into the spotlight.
In March 2013 United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requested technical assistance from the OPCW to investigate alleged chemical weapon (CW) use in the war-torn country. Six months later, after a serious incident in which sarin nerve agent killed and poisoned many hundreds of people in the Ghouta district of Damascus, Syria unexpectedly joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. And so began an urgent and perilous disarmament project. The announcement that the OPCW was to receive the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize just knocked international expectations from the organisation several notches higher.
Over the past few weeks several press reports have suggested that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have resorted to chlorine use in attacks in Iraq and Syria.
The grouping is no stranger to chlorine. In some earlier incarnation it was known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later it rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq when it explicitly began trying to control territory. Harsh imposition of its strict interpretation of Sharia law and extreme violence towards anybody refusing total subjugation to its rule soon had Sunni tribal leaders uniting in resistance early in 2007. They also began cooperation with forces of the US-led coalition occupying Iraq since 2003 and the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. AQI started mounting large-scale operations involving several hundreds of fighters to capture local seats of power. During the first half of 2007 suicide attacks with lorries rigged with a large quantity of explosives evolved from isolated incidents to terrorise and destabilise societies to a tool integrated in assaults against government centres and fortified positions. After an isolated attempt in October 2006, AQI launched almost 20 chlorine attacks in the first half of 2007.