Category Archives: Chemical

After 99 years, back to chlorine

Today is the 99th anniversary of the first massive chemical warfare attack. The agent of choice was chlorine. About 150 tonnes of the chemical was released simultaneously from around 6,000 cylinders over a length of 7 kilometres just north of Ypres. Lutz Haber—son of the German chemical warfare pioneer, Fritz Haber—described the opening scenes in his book The Poisonous Cloud (Clarendon Press, 1986):

The cloud advanced slowly, moving at about 0.5 m/sec (just over 1 mph). It was white at first, owing to the condensation of the moisture in the surrounding air and, as the volume increased, it turned yellow-green. The chlorine rose quickly to a height of 10–30 m because of the ground temperature, and while diffusion weakened the effectiveness by thinning out the gas it enhanced the physical and psychological shock. Within minutes the Franco-Algerian soldiers in the front and support lines were engulfed and choking. Those who were not suffocating from spasms broke and ran, but the gas followed. The front collapsed.

The impact of this gas attack surprised the German Imperial troops too. Their cautious advance behind the chlorine cloud, their hesitation in the confusion about what was happening despite having secured their initial objectives within an hour, and their halt after darkness fell meant that they almost immediately lost the strategic surprise. They would never regain it.

A first generation warfare agent in worldwide industrial application

How ironic it is that today, almost a century later, the latest chemical warfare allegations in the Syrian civil war concern chlorine once again. Everybody knows about the dangers of the chemical element, but nobody really considers it any longer as a militarily useful agent. At least not in standard warfare scenarios.

Chlorine and derived products are in massive industrial production. According to the World Chlorine Council, there are more than 500 chlor-alkali producers at over 650 sites around the globe, with a total annual production capacity of over 55 million tonnes of chlorine. Based on the low threat assessment and its wide relevancy to the chemical industry and trade, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) does not even list it in Schedule 3 of toxic chemicals (Phosgene, another widely used chemical and World War 1 agent, is).

An oversight by the CWC negotiators? Hardly. Books on the toxicology and treatment of chemical warfare agents published between 1992—year of successful conclusion of the negotiations—and 1997—year of entry into force of the CWC—hardly mention chlorine. Chemical Warfare Agents, edited by Satu Somani (Academic Press, 1992), presents a few scattered references, mostly in relation to other agents or public health. Another book featuring the same title, written by Timothy Marrs, Robert Maynard and Frederick Sidell (Wiley, 1996), gives it a four-line acknowledgment in the opening historical section. And the monumental Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare, edited by Frederick Sidell, Ernest Takafuji and David Franz (Office of the Surgeon General, US Army, 1997), accords it about two pages out of 721 in a subsection entitled ‘Historical War Gases’.

Today, chlorine is mostly viewed as a public health or environmental hazard resulting from occupational exposures, industrial accidents or the malfunctioning of pool chlorination systems.

Back to World War 1

It goes without saying that during and after World War 1 perceptions of chlorine as a combat agent were quite different. Despite having been replaced by much more potent toxic chemicals, belligerents released chlorine gas until the final month of the war. Considering that the first contingents of the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Europe in June 1917, but saw their first major military engagements in May/June 1918, the US War Department registered and examined 838 ex-service men who had been gassed with chorine (and survived their experience). A closer medical examination of 98 victims to assess the long-term effects of exposure suggests that all US chlorine casualties were affected between July and October 1918. It is interesting to note that Maj. Gen. Harry Gilchrist, Chief of the Chemical Warfare Service, and Philip Matz, Chief of the Medical Research Subdivision of the Veterans’ Administration, devoted half of their medical study, The Residual Effects of Warfare Gases (War Department and US Government Printing Office, 1933), to chlorine, mustard being the other agent of their investigation.

Their description of chlorine remains interesting, because it departs from its utility as a warfare agent, rather than as a public health hazard. The element is almost 2.5 times heavier than air, which means that it will cling to the surface and sink into depressions. At 15° C liquefaction requires 4-5 atmospheres pressure. Upon release at 25° C, one litre of liquid chlorine will yield 434 litres of chlorine gas. Moisture stimulates the element’s chemical action, so the liquid gas must be thoroughly dehydrated for storage in steel cylinders.

Concentration and length of exposure both play a role in the physiological action of chlorine and their effects on humans and animals. The authors noted that ‘a concentration of 1–100,000 of chlorine gas is noticeable, 1–50,000 may cause inconvenience, while a concentration of 1–1,000 may produce death after exposure for five minutes’. (The numbers correspond to 0.01 mg/ml; 0.5 mg/ml and 1mg/ml respectively.) Experimental studies on dogs (carried out to determine the types of lesions various concentrations of chlorine will produce) showed that the animals died within 72 hours from acute effects at concentrations of 2.53 mg/l and higher. These concentrations were labelled as lethal. A small percentage of the animals recovered within a week. A concentration of 1.9–2.53 mg/l increased the recovery rate markedly, whereas dosages below the 1.9 mg/l were rarely fatal. Recovery rates were markedly faster at lower concentrations.

Concentrations required for injury and death are relatively high. For comparison, in the section on mustard (dichlordiethyl sulphide) Gilchrist and Matz deemed this oily compound to be 50 times more toxic than chlorine. It can be deadly in concentrations from 0.006 to 0.2 mg/l, but they considered 0.07 mg/l at an exposure of 30 minutes to be the lethal concentration.

Rewind to March 2013

Syria, just like any other country with a relatively advanced chemical industry, produced chorine in large quantities before the civil war. Readers will recall that early reports of chemical attacks at Khan al-Assal, west of Aleppo, in the middle of March of last year mentioned a strong smell of chlorine. To the east of Aleppo, there was a chlorine production facility (which the Jubhat Al Nusra, a jihadist rebel group ideologically similar to Al Qaeda, reportedly took over in December 2012). However, accounts also mentioned scores of fatalities, which would be inconsistent with a chlorine-filled rocket warhead. I have always been sceptical about those claims, precisely because of the agent’s chemical properties and physiological action. At the time, descriptions did not fit the claimed agents, whichever these might have been.

The need to compress the agent into a liquid has ramifications for delivery: the container must be sufficiently strong to withstand several atmospheres of pressure, and if dropped from an aircraft, sufficiently thin for the skin to break open. It must also be large enough so that a lethal concentration can be built up for a sufficiently long time. Given that humans smell chlorine at very low concentrations, the chances that they will remain at the site of impact are remote. The element is also not colourless; in fact, its name derives from the ancient Greek ‘khloros’, meaning pale green.

The same goes for rocket delivery of the warfare agent. Shells were attempted during World War 1, but this method for chlorine discharge was quickly abandoned in favour of much more potent munition fillings, such as phosgene.

So, it would be good to get more details on the recent incidents and review them in the light of possible chlorine delivery. Please note that I do not deny the possibility of toxic incidents over the past few weeks, but I would just like to see the various facts reconciled with the claimed chain of events. Given that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and French President François Hollande have once again waded into the controversy, politicisation of the ‘truth’ cannot be far away, alas.

Back to where it all started

So, as we reflect on that fateful 22 April in 1915, the sad thought is that chlorine is back, or at least, that people feel that chlorine is back as a possible lethal combat agent.

Allegations fly, but if confirmed, the incidents would be the first acts of chemical warfare committed involving a state party to the CWC. If Syria’s accusation of insurgent use is correct, then the government has every opportunity to demand an investigation from the OPCW and request assistance. If the insurgents’s claim of government use is correct, as non-state actors they cannot request the OPCW anything. However, any state party to the convention can demand an investigation of alleged use by the OPCW, and the Syrian government has no right of refusal (Verification Annex, Part XI). The opposite would be a serious material breach of its treaty obligations and tantamount to an admission of guilt. Or, the states parties can determine that the claims are insufficiently substantiated to warrant an investigation. In which case, it would be nice if they all were to sing the same tune.

So, which way shall the international community have it? The principal long-term casualty of those political games might be the CWC, even though, admittedly, we are still far away from the death knell that 22 April 1915 sounded for the 1899 Hague Declaration (IV, 2) concerning asphyxiating gases.

Postscript

Several recent reports have suggested that because chlorine or other toxicants, such as riot control agents or incapacitants, are not listed in one of the schedules, they are not covered by the CWC. This is a major error. Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals is a chemical weapon, according to Article II of the CWC. This is the default position. There are only four categories of purposes (Art. II, 9), under which a toxic chemical would not be considered a weapon.

Talking disarmament for the Middle East

Last month Noha Tarek from Egypt commented on my reflection that neither members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), with the exception of India, nor Arab League members have contributed financially or in kind to the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons (CW). Syria participates in both groupings. She linked disarmament elements to a host of intra-regional and external politics and considered the relationship between Syria’s (read: Arab) CW and Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

It has taken me a while to reply. I could have easily registered my disagreement with several elements, but that does not open new perspectives for disarmament in the Middle East. Moreover, any ‘correctness’ of a viewpoint would depend entirely on whether Noha and I share a common taxonomy of issue interrelatedness, which we do not. On the contrary, I am absolutely convinced that the public discourse on disarmament in the region must change if any progress is to be made. By governments, to make negotiated solutions acceptable to their respective citizens. By the public to allow politicians and diplomats the space to back out of entrenched positions held for so many decades. Security, of course, remains paramount. However, it can be organised differently. Disarmament is after all the continuation of security policies by alternative means.

Can we move beyond the endless, anaemic exercises to describe every conceivable obstacle in their minutest detail? Is it possible for issue experts from international civil society to design from a purely technical viewpoint some first practical steps to offer substance to the disarmament debate ? This blog posting sketches a few possibilities. I am far from certain that I have the right answers (or even the right analysis for that matter), but the thoughts can hopefully foster a problem-solving discourse.

Linking issues

Nobody denies that the Middle East is riven by geopolitical rivalries, domestic intrigues, and political upheaval. The cleavages are many: economic, ethnic, inter- and intra-religious, political, sub-regional, and so on. Moreover, many of those divisions are reproduced on the micro level within countries, pitting one part of society against another. The respective dynamics easily allow personal identification with one group or side of an issue. International grievances nurture personal vexation and vice versa. Pain becomes very tangible after suffering loss of kin or property, adding frustrated anger to the mix. As a net result, any fresh incident, however small and whatever its cause or nature, will resonate across this vast meshwork of crosscutting cleavages, thereby reinforcing prepossessions on any given set of issues. In addition, a positive development in one issue area will be discarded as irrelevant for its lack of direct remedial impact on other ones.

Noha’s commentary points to several such linkages. Egypt’s relationship with Israel is determined by the latter country’s possession of nuclear weapons and its oppression of the Palestinians. She also noted that the international community privileges Israel, as attested by the different standards applied by the IAEA to Israel compared to Iran. Instead of addressing the real risks posed by the nuclear weapons, she continued, the US, Israel, the UN and the IAEA have forced the problems surrounding a Middle East Free Zone into a framework of strategic interests and power balance.

Hence, from a strategic viewpoint Syria’s CW disarmament must be viewed as a loss as the CW offered a modest balance to Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Egypt, she wrote, ‘now stands alone (from the group of Arab countries) with its chemical weapons in order to singularly pressure the West to take serious steps in regard to Israel’s nuclear weapons’. The dismantling of Syria’s chemical warfare capacity is equally not beneficial to the Syrian population, who continue to suffer from daily war atrocities and the lack of humanitarian aid. The failure of the recent negotiations in Geneva underscores the plight of the Syrians. The CW disarmament, so she concluded, removes ‘much needed productive pressures on the US and Israel who currently form the major obstacle ahead of establishing a nuclear and WMD Free Zone in the Mideast’.

Talking disarmament, instead of about disarmament

As noted in the introduction, I disagree with several issues. The commentary also reflects an ill-defined belief that the past—that is, an idea of status quo—was somehow a better engine for change. It is an intriguing position to take. But it is also one that continues to nurture grievances over taking positive action. We need to find a way to take the disarmament question outside the sphere of personalised grievances and start having technical discussions on basic questions irrespective of the (lack of) political and diplomatic progress. In my mind, being able to offer diplomats substance to cut their teeth on might actually start a ball, however small, rolling.

The envisaged technical working group would be made up of non-governmental experts, from the region and some outside experts. They can start out with laying the foundation for common understandings and preparing blueprints for realistic solutions. The experts have the advantage that they to not have to imagine the unimaginable. Disarmament treaties in the fullest sense of their meaning (i.e., going to zero) exist and experiences with the negotiation of weapon reductions (both arms control and disarmament), the design and implementation of compliance verification, and the prevention of future (re)armament are available. This is not to suggest that existing agreements ought to be simply copied. However, the independent experts could, for instance, debate the general applicability of the CWC and BTWC to the Middle East, possibly supplemented with provisions adapted to the regional security conditions. With regard to nuclear weapons, they should give due consideration to the circumstances under which Israel might renounce its nuclear deterrent with the least discomfort. (I shall return to both aspects.)

Define the scope of the disarmament arrangements

Irrespective of the agreements under consideration, the non-governmental experts will have to consider the scope of an arrangement specifically designed for the Middle East. Will it be limited to state weapon programmes, or must it cover possible non-state actor activities, such as preparations or use by terrorist and criminal entities? If one were to follow the model of the BTWC and the CWC, then the treaty’s focus would be on state-run weapon programmes. The CWC’s verification regime recognises the potential role of the private industry in CW armament programmes. The BTWC, being of much earlier vintage, lacks verification machinery. However, through a series of expert and state party meetings between the quinquennial review conferences since 2001, states have come to appreciate the contribution of other stakeholders in the life sciences to the prevention of BW acquisition by states, terrorists or criminals. As a result, a division of labour between the international community and individual parties to the treaties has emerged. The CWC defines such complementary roles for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and its individual members most clearly.

Thus, the CWC demands not only the domestication of international prohibitions and obligations, but also the enactment of domestic criminal and penal legislation. In addition, other types of regulation, such as technology transfer controls, are required. Those laws and regulations cover all activities by any natural or legal person on territory of the state party and apply the principle of extra-territoriality to its own nationals. Despite the absence of an implementing organisation, the BTWC imposes corresponding obligations. UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (2004) has reinforced this appreciation with regard to all three major categories of non-conventional weaponry (irrespective of wether a UN member is party to the BTWC, CWC or NPT).

This question about what the multilateral treaty arrangement should cover and which responsibilities should be exclusively assigned to states is not a trivial one. It queries perceptions of what constitute the gravest security threats to individual societies. The sustainment of low-intensity conflict by some regional states through proxies in other parts of the Middle East compounds the issue further. First, those proxy entities are often capable of assimilating more sophisticated weaponry (particularly if they do not have to develop and manufacture the weaponry themselves) than what an even rather advanced terrorist entity (e.g., Aum Shinrikyo) could ever achieve. Second, any regional disarmament arrangement will have to ensure that no proscribed arms are being transferred to the proxy agents or that these entities otherwise acquire such weaponry. The BTWC and the CWC both prohibit the transfer of outlawed technologies to any recipient whatsoever. However, the first point heightens threat perceptions for those states affected by proxy conflict, which will raise their demands for guarantees on the non-possession and non-transfer in the disarmament treaty and from the treaty partners. Add to this matter the consideration that proxy agents operate from territories suffering from weak or no central government control, or actually represent the territorial power, and the neat division of labour in the BTWC and CWC appears far less invitatory in a regional framework characterised by complex security interactions.

This issue area clearly holds the potential to derail the Middle East disarmament process even before the train has left the station. And it is precisely one of the areas where the independent, non-governmental experts might make a huge difference. They could, of course, discuss the security guarantees extended by existing treaties in the light of various threat perceptions and come up with various options for supplementary measures to be included in a regional agreement. However, they might opt for an indirect route, for example, by trying to delimit the weaponry to be covered by the future agreement(s).

Definitions are defining

Proponents of nuclear arms control have few problems with the mandate set forth in the final documents of the 1995 and 2010 NPT Review Conferences: the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction. Interestingly, neither ‘nuclear weapon’ nor ‘weapon of mass destruction’ are legally defined in an internationally binding document. ‘Weapon of mass destruction’ has meant different things over the past six decades or so. However, in order to avoid losing the main thread of this posting, let us assume that the notion ‘other weapons of mass destruction’ encompasses chemical and biological weapons (CBW).

Both weapon classes are defined in the CWC and BTWC respectively. Since both conventions are likely to weigh on regional disarmament negotiations (either by having all Middle Eastern powers join them, or by using them as a reference framework for regional security arrangements), the state parties to the NPT have adopted a mandate that stretches from the almost 60 megaton hydrogen device detonated by the Soviet Union in 1961 at one extreme to tear gas and salmonella (deployed by the Rajneesh cult in Oregon in 1984) or ricin at the other extreme. People will be tempted to retort (as nuclear experts tend to do, alas) that in the Middle East context, nobody is considering incapacitants or irritants. If that view were to prevail, then the next question is what role, if any, those people discern for the CWC and the BTWC? And it leaves them with the additional task of delimiting and defining CBW, not an easy thing if the regional agreement is to be buttressed by a verification and compliance enforcement machinery.

The issue to be submitted to the proposed technical working group of non-governmental experts, however, is quite different for defining the arms categories is an exercise in identifying which types of weaponry regional actors perceive to be the most threatening and destabilising.

At first sight, this activity may seem banal. However, try to view a piece of weaponry not as an artefact deprived of context. A deployed weapon has been assimilated into military doctrine, i.e., it plays a certain role in the way the military organise and prepare themselves to implement the security policies set by a nation’s highest political authorities. In other words, the security goals and derived military doctrine shape the types of required weapon technologies, just as much as the available or possible weapon technologies help to frame both doctrine and security policies.

This process of assimilation—the reconciliation of political and military imperatives with each other so that the weaponry becomes an integral part of mainstream military doctrine—is the armament dynamic. If military doctrine evolves, weaponry may become obsolete and require replacement. However, disarmament—removing an arms category from military doctrine (weapon destruction is just one, very visible aspect of this process)—leaves a gap in that military doctrine, and consequently in the national security posture. That gap needs to be filled by alternative, but legitimate security means.

So, through the process of identifying and defining the types of weaponry that should be at the heart of the envisaged disarmament regime for the Middle East, the members of the technical working group will acquire deep understanding of the different ways their removal from national arsenals may affect security policies and threat perceptions. For each state in the region, the consequences will be seen to be different, even when considering similar types of weapon technology.

Understanding those gaps with all their implications for national security and military doctrine of the states in the Middle East may enable the technical experts to propose various measures to enhance confidence in the disarmament process and its outcomes. Such measures can operate on different levels, e.g., verification of compliance with the various elements of the regional agreement, confidence and security-building steps to demonstrate that updates to national security policies and military doctrine are not intended to destabilise the agreement, and so on. If the initial discussions could yield such an outcome, the technical experts would be in a position to lift their considerations on to the next level.

Verification too is defining

Setting up a verification system is a long and complex process, during which technical feasibility and political ambitions need to be reconciled with each other. During the negotiation process people will test ideas in the field. Evaluation reports will influence proposals at the negotiating table, and the outcomes of the discussions need to get tested again in practice. States with antagonistic relationships towards each other have to get their hands dirty—together. The whole exercise is one of building confidence, not just among nations or their the diplomats and technical experts, but also in the system they are trying to set up. Determining what can be verified; calibrating the need of intrusiveness of the process in order to achieve a relevant level of deterrence against cheating; building a layered system of procedures to address compliance concerns at the lowest possible level of confrontation, but with the necessary teeth to establish the facts of non-compliance and to compel the transgressor to restore the integrity of the regional disarmament treaty.

These tasks are not easy, and politically fraught, particularly if one of the negotiating partners demands 100% verifiability up front. Furthermore, just as definitions of weapons (if they exist at all) are framed in support of the treaty objectives, the verification regime will be unique to a specific treaty, and—one may say—to the moment when the treaty was being negotiated. And just to add to the complexity: whereas current global treaties focus on a single weapon category, the disarmament framework for the Middle East will have to address unequal distribution of weapon capacities and asymmetrical doctrinal functions assigned to the respective arms categories simultaneously.

Here too, the independent working group of technical experts could undertake important preparatory intellectual work. In the previous section, I already outlined how trying to define the weapon categories would already yield important insights into threat perceptions and the ways in which disarmament might affect national security policies. These insights lay out the foundations for a regional verification system: what would be needed to convince states that at a minimum they will not incur a security deficit from participating in the disarmament process? They are to guide the experts’ discussions on verification throughout.

The three core global treaties—the NPT, BTWC and CWC—operate different systems of verification or confidence building, and each system serves different goals. The NPT even relies on an already functioning organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose original goal was the promotion of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, rather than stopping weapons proliferation or eliminating them altogether. As a consequence of the periods during which they were being negotiated, the three treaties differ widely in their verification ambitions. Consequently, the perception of their utility to disarmament in the Middle East today will vary considerably.

Notwithstanding, the non-governmental technical experts would be able to draw on a rich body of negotiation and implementation experience in both bilateral (US–Soviet/Russian treaties on nuclear weapons reductions) and multilateral frameworks, including regional agreements (e.g., nuclear weapon-free zones) and global conventions (e.g., CWC). One way for them to try and determine the requirements for a treaty eliminating non-conventional weaponry in the Middle East might be to formulate clusters of questions.

The most advanced and developed disarmament treaty, the CWC, could serve as departure point. A possible outline might thus look as follows:

  • What does ‘disarmament’ entail?
    • Comprehensive prohibition on the (research?), development, acquisition, possession and use of a discrete weapon category
      • Zero: no residual stockpiles allowed (e.g., for deterrence)
      • Backward dimension: destruction of existing weapon holdings
      • Forward dimension: prevention of future armament
    • Equal rights and obligations for all States Parties
      • Balance between disarmament and development? This is a important dimension of global disarmament, (e.g., for universalisation by offering states that do not possess the weaponry in question tangible absolute gains in return for joining the prohibition). The question has to be raised whether this dimension has any utility in the Middle East context, and if so, in what areas proposed measures could be the most useful.
      • Security guarantees (defence, protection, assistance). In the CWC framework this is a right for all states parties, and the assistance is offered and delivered by other states parties via the international organisation or through bilateral cooperation arrangements. In the Middle East setting, arrangements will have to made to ensure that no party feels discriminated against. In addition, to what extent can extra-regional guarantees can be incorporated into the regional disarmament framework? Once again, one must remain conscious of the fact that in this domain the CWC is far more advanced that either the BTWC or NPT, and that the guarantees must cover all weapon categories and be extended to all Middle Eastern states signing up to the regional disarmament agreement. However, if an arrangement could be drafted, it would be one way of addressing potential threats posed by, among others, proxy fighters.
    • Mechanisms to enhance transparency and ensure compliance with treaty provisions
      • International, treaty specific organisation with its own inspectorate
      • Shared responsibilities between international organisation and states parties (national authority)
      • Domestic legislation for verification implementation
      • Confidence and security-building measures; voluntary transparency measures
  • What does one wish to verify?
    • Weapon destruction
      • Warheads, bombs, shells and other means of dissemination + their payload?
      • Delivery systems? This will require demarcation of what is specific to the weapon. For instance, will verification apply only to a chemical munition, or will it also cover the artillery piece or warplane?
      • Other specifically designed equipment for use with the weapons (e.g., filling equipment for chemical munitions)
    • Facilities and installations
      • Storage and launch sites
      • Research & production facilities
      • Testing sites
      • Any other elements to ensure termination of the weapon programmes
    • Conversion of facilities to peaceful uses?
      • May require special verification provisions
    • Non-military weapon-relevant activities and facilities
      • Essential for prevention of future armament: this should cover possible civilian production plants with capacities relevant to the proscribed weapons, even if they have no previous link to armaments
      • Equitable application to all states in the region
      • Applicable not just to the transfer of dual-use materials

These questions just outline the contours of a multilayered framework for discussing transparency, verification and compliance in a regional disarmament treaty. They need further elaboration, supplementation and assessment of relevancy. The independent technical experts could thus already progress significantly in identifying feasible measures useful to the Middle East. Their suggestions will still require practical testing in real-life situations or simulation exercises, which in turn will lead to further refinement.

In addition, whether to design a single integrated treaty covering all weapon categories or separate arrangements for each arms class could well be one of the experts’ most consequential recommendations.

And what about the existing global treaties?

In working groups or at seminars I have often wondered whether proceeding from the existing weapon control treaties—the NPT, BTWC and CWC—is the best way forward to achieve the disarmament objective laid out in the final documents of the NPT Review Conferences. This is not to suggest that those treaties have no role to play. Quite on the contrary, all states in the Middle East should join them eventually—sooner, rather than later.

The previous sections have already touched upon the different goals and the different toolboxes they each have. Irrespective of the uneven practices these have created over the years and decades, the crucial point to bear in mind is that all the states that are currently party to the respective conventions have determined each for themselves that the weapon categories in question have no role in their respective military doctrines. Either they did not possess those types of weapons and had no intention of acquiring them or they proceeded to adjust their security policies and military doctrines during the negotiations or while preparing to join the treaties. These adjustments some states in the Middle East have not yet made with regard to certain arms categories, and hence ratifying or acceding to the treaties will appear too great a security risk to take. Several steps outlined above are intended to clarify and foster mutual understanding of the thinking about those weapons, and hence to come to possible solutions that do not compromise core security requirements of each of the regional partners involved.

A second reason why my current thinking favours to bring in the treaties at a later stage of the diplomatic process is that they do not necessarily strive for the goals ambitioned by the Middle East disarmament agreement. The NPT is a case in point: if the nuclear disarmament of Israel is a central objective of the whole exercise, is a non-proliferation treaty the best way forward? On the surface, the issue appears straightforward: Israel joins the NPT, which it cannot do as a nuclear weapon state, hence it must disarm. That disarmament process Israel must therefore necessarily complete before acceding to the NPT. However, what are the modalities for such disarmament, particularly since it would be a unilateral process? Should Israel declare its stockpile in advance, but how would this match its standing policy of opaqueness (which implies no declared numbers or types of nuclear weapons)? Who would oversee the disarmament process, as the IAEA, of which Israel is a member, is not competent to supervise weapon destruction? Who would certify that the totality of Israel’s arsenal has been destroyed? And so on.

Some nuclear experts have suggested in working group discussions that the most feasible political and technical solution would be a process analogous to South Africa’s joining the NPT: unilateral destruction of the weapon holdings without any formal declarations of the nature of the stockpile, and an almost instantaneous verification of Israel’s initial declaration of all its nuclear materials and facilities under the comprehensive safeguards agreement that would immediately follow Israel’s deposit of its instrument of accession.

However, South Africa’s nuclear weapon stockpile had far less to do with sub-regional geopolitical or military competition than Israel’s in the Middle East. So, the question about supplementary security guarantees arises again. The working group of non-governmental experts could again look into various types of modalities, perhaps taking some of their inspiration from the present P5+1 discussions on enhancing transparency for Iran’s nuclear activities. If successful, that agreement might in fact hold the keys to various solutions for disarmament questions in the Middle East.

Other small steps to advance the disarmament agenda

In addition to the various elements outlined above, the technical experts could conceivably also look into a variety of confidence and security-building measures that prepare the ground for disarmament in the Middle East.

  • A regional multilateral or plurilateral ‘no use’ agreement (which is different from a no first use accord often discussed in the context of nuclear weapon control) with regard to each and all of the weapon categories to be included in zone free from non-conventional weaponry. Such an accord or series of accords would have the value of the 1925 Geneva Protocol that prohibits the use in armed conflict of chemical and biological weapons, but also cover nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. In and of themselves they would not amount to arms reductions or disarmament, but push the weapon categories in question towards the periphery of military doctrine, i.e., less likely to be considered for use in case of a conflict between one or more states in the Middle East. Before rejecting the suggestion as wishful thinking, one should take into consideration that before signing up the Chemical Weapons Convention in January 1993, several continents and sub-continents with regional tensions signed up to such a ‘prenuptial’. These include the Mendoza Declaration on the Complete Prohibition of Chemical and Biological Weapons of 5 September 1991 between Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the Declaration on the Renunciation of Weapons of Mass Destruction signed by Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela in Cartagena De Indias, Columbia, also on 5 September 1991, and the Indo-Pakistani Joint Declaration on Complete Prohibition of Chemical Weapons of 19 August 1992. The latter agreement is particularly instructive for the Middle East, because India eventually declared a CW stockpile of some 1,000 metic tonnes to the great surprise of global public opinion, Pakistan and, for that matter, many Indian diplomats and officials.
  • A second type of security and confidence-building measure could be a non-aggression pact among the negotiating partners. While it might not be able to prevent altercations among the negotiating parties, it could erect sufficient barriers to prevent provocations from sliding into armed conflicts.
  • Several Arab states have added the reservation that their adhesion to multilateral weapon control treaties (1925 Geneva Protocol, NPT, BTWC) does not imply the recognition of the state of Israel. They could offer to withdraw them, a symbolic gesture that better reflects relations in the region today, but would take away a source of Israeli opposition to regional disarmament. Iran too could drop the standard practice of making the final intervention at each of the BTWC and CWC meetings (and likely other ones too) that the decision by all states parties authorising Israel’s participation as an observer does not amount to the recognition of the state.
  • The working group of experts might even exploit existing cross-border initiatives (civil society, industry, science) that contribute to trust and confidence building, transparency enhancement, many of which exist in one form or another if the field of the life sciences (e.g., disease surveillance, vaccine development, etc.).

By way of conclusion

I personally think that if we are to move ahead in securing a Middle East free from non-conventional weapons we must focus on a few outcomes that appear within reach and yet avoid pre-set end goals. There is no paradox in the thought. The focus on  attainable and conceivable outcomes avoids mental, emotional and political gridlock. The avoidance of pre-set end goals allows for the plotting of a more general course, whereby the dialogue may uncover so-called ‘enabling platforms’, i.e., intermediate achievements that create options not previously thought of, or previously considered impossible.

Even ahead of any formal disarmament process for the Middle East, I am convinced that civil society constituencies—particularly international science and technology-based initiatives, such as the Pugwash Conferences, among others—can address purely technical (rather than political) questions on the foundations for regional disarmament. And come up with useful suggestions.

Taking stock of the chemical weapon ban

On 20–21 March the University of Rome III hosted a roundtable discussion to reflect on the current status of the prohibition on chemical weapons (CW) and the future challenges to that ban. Although convened by the Law Department, the speakers represented an eclectic group of experts with backgrounds in international law, political sciences, chemistry and biology, as well as practitioners. Notwithstanding, the meeting yielded considerable coherence in arguments, with questions, challenges and supplementary insights contributing further to an already rich multi-disciplinary texture.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is at the heart of today’s prohibition on CW and their use in armed conflict. However, it does not stand in isolation. In fact, one could build a case that the norm against CW has a variable geometry. Approach it from the ban on chemical warfare, and the 1925 Geneva Protocol and its links to the International Criminal Court or the United Nations—in particular, the UN Secretary-General’s mechanism to investigate alleged use of chemical or biological weapons (CBW)—may take centre stage. Approach it from the angle of scientific and technological developments, and the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) emerges as a possible point of entry. Approach it from the threats posed by terrorism and UN Security Council resolutions, including 1540 (2004), with their demands for national legislative action come into play. And so on. The various tools available today have created mutually reinforcing bridges. However, they are also the source of contradictions and large gaps remain between them. As the Rome roundtable brought out, it is not always clear how they can be reconciled or filled.

And then, of course, there are the politics. As we are about to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and are just eight days before the 99th anniversary of the chlorine attack near Ypres, Syria’s civil war shows that humanity still has not been fully able to relegate these weapons to history. And while political leaders of the great powers loudly invoke the inhumanity of poison weapon use, their actions today—just like those during the Abyssinian war in the 1930s, the Yemen war in the 1960s, the Iran–Iraq war of the 1980s—demonstrate once again that other geopolitical considerations, national security interests or domestic political agendas trump halting chemical warfare and holding the culprits accountable under international law. (True, some would argue that the 2003 invasion of Iraq served such a purpose, but alas, few are those who believe the proffered unbelievable unbelievables.)

Unsurprisingly therefore, Syria made up one of the main threads tying the various sessions together. But it was not the only one: other recent issues pose remarkably similar challenges to the future of the prohibition on CW. This blog posting summarises the presentations and offers a few personal reflections on points raised during the discussions.

Chemical bonds in a love triangle

Sarah Cleveland (Columbia Law School) discussed the legal implications of prosecuting the criminal poisoning of an amorous rival under the national law implementing the CWC in the United States. The case, now before the US Supreme Court, revolves around Carol Anne Bond. She attempted to poison her husband’s mistress, Myrlinda Haynes, by applying potassium dichromate on the rival’s car door handles and mailbox. Local law enforcement officials were reluctant to investigate. Since Bond was using a letterbox as an instrument of transmission and had been stealing her rival’s mail, the US Postal Service conducted the criminal probe, which led to an indictment under federal rather than state law. Hence the recourse to the US CWC implementing legislation. The case, as it stands now before the US Supreme Court, deals primarily whether Congress can act on an international treaty and thereby supercede states’ sovereign authority over local crimes. As such, the issue has entered into an ideologically divisive debate about overreach by the federal government and usurpation of state powers. However, if Congress does have that authority, then the next questions become whether the CWC was intended to address such criminal cases and what broader implications the Bond case may have for the disarmament regime.

Cleveland contended that the Framers of the US Constitution always wanted Congress to have the power to ensure US compliance with international commitments (even then understood to cover both customary and treaty law) on the national level in order to avoid different treatment of the offence in each individual state. The Offenses Clause enumerates express authority to enforce punishment (whether civil or criminal) on individuals. As over the decades interpretation and character of international and domestic law have evolved, Congress has assumed and justified responsibilities with regard to international agreements, and the Supreme Court has ruled consistently in pertinent cases brought to its attention, the Offenses Clause grants Congress the power to impose civil or criminal punishment under a treaty, such as the CWC. Article VII, 1(a) of the CWC requires states to ‘prohibit natural and legal persons anywhere on its territory or in any other place under its jurisdiction as recognized by international law from undertaking any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention, including enacting penal legislation with respect to such activity’. Taken together, the elements refute Bond’s claim that her prosecution under federal law intruded on state power, so Cleveland argued.

Whichever way the Supreme Court rules, its decision will have significant ramifications. If it were to accept the applicability of federal law to the Bond case, the next question becomes whether the CWC was intended to deal with crimes of passion, even if they involve poisoning. After all, the convention grew out of a long evolution that began with the codification the customary prohibition of the use of poisons and poisoned weapons in the 1899 Hague Convention with respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land and the contemporaneous Declaration (IV, 2) on asphyxiating gases. The latter document was the precursor to the Geneva Protocol, which in turn laid the foundation for the BTWC and the CWC. In short, the backdrop to the convention is the comprehensive prohibition of the preparation and execution of chemical warfare in armed conflict between or within states. The 6th preambular paragraph underscores this ambition by declaring that the CWC seeks ‘for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons, through the implementation of the provisions of this Convention’, adding that this complements the obligations assumed under the Geneva Protocol.

After conclusion of the treaty negotiations, the threat of acts of terrorism with CW acquired greater saliency. States responded to the challenge by emphasising national responsibility in the prevention and criminalisation and penalisation of such attacks, inter alia, through national implementation legislation. Thus, UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (2004) reinforced Article VII of the CWC and extended the obligation to all UN members irrespective whether they are a party to the treaty or not. This resolution too places its obligations in the context of preventing the use of non-conventional weaponry in armed conflict or by terrorist entities by affirming in its 1st preambular paragraph ‘that proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as their means of delivery, constitutes a threat to international peace and security’. The 4th and 5th preambular paragraphs affirm the Security Council’s resolve ‘to take appropriate and effective actions against any threat to international peace and security caused by the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their means of delivery’ and its support ‘for the multilateral treaties whose aim is to eliminate or prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and the importance for all States parties to these treaties to implement them fully in order to promote international stability’. The CWC was clearly designed to address international security questions, rather than domestic crime.

As noted earlier, the whole matter arose because the victim, Myrlinda Haynes, had turned to the postal authorities with her complaint based on the contamination of her letterbox and theft of correspondence, and they could only file charges under federal law. Bond’s arrest followed after a postal inspector recorded her applying the toxic chemical on the mailbox with a video camera. However, no other federal statute than the CWC implementation legislation appears to exist under which deliberate poisoning could have been prosecuted.

Article II of the CWC defines a CW very broadly based on the so-called ‘general purpose criterion’. The convention in essence prohibits all use of toxic chemicals and their precursors, except for four categories of purposes under which a toxic chemical and its precursors are not considered to be a chemical weapon (Art. II, 9). Incorporating the CWC’s definition of a CW into national law without bounding the sphere of its application therefore implies that any malicious use of a ‘chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals’ (Article II, 2) can be prosecuted through that law, as has been the case with Carol Anne Bond.

This, however, raises a host of other questions. If one can be prosecuted for using a poison against another person, then what about the prosecution of manufacturing, acquiring and possessing any type of industrial or commercial poison whose purpose falls outside one of the categories of non-prohibited uses listed in Article II? After all, the CWC’s default position is that any toxic chemical that can harm humans or animals is a chemical weapon.

In a previous posting, I commented on Princess Anne’s advocacy to poison badgers as a humane way to prevent cattle herds from being infected with TB. On Arms Control Law, where I cross-post most of my contributions, former CWC negotiator, Sergey Batsanov noted that implementation of the proposal would violate the CWC—Article II explicitly mentions death and harm to animals. He added that he could not recall a single instance during the CWC negotiations when negotiators contemplated culling animals with gas as a legitimate agricultural purpose, in contrast to their consideration of legitimate uses of herbicides, pesticides, defoliants and fertilizers. So, in the wake of Bond v. the United States may we see people in the UK, Europe, etc., invoking national CWC implementation legislation when taking a neighbour to court over poisoning of their cats or dogs? In the United States the move may still require a federal offence, but as always, a stream starts out as a trickle of water springing from the soil that seeks the path of least resistance or greatest opportunity.

Crime and punishment in disarmament

If the Bond case illustrates that disarmament obligations can move in mysterious ways, then the civil war in Syria demonstrates that disarmament and justice may make strange bedfellows. When after the chemical attacks in Ghouta last summer parliamentary democracy effectively blocked retaliatory military intervention and opened the door to disarmament, many people in the Middle East and the West (including international human rights organisations) were up in arms because of deferred justice. Amid all the clamour, disarmament proponents faced the uphill struggle of explaining why weapon elimination is a far more effective option than dropping a few bombs and contributes more to justice by preventing recurrence of the events. Unfortunately, the disarmament message necessarily exceeds the 140 characters of a tweet or the visual impact of a colourful fabricated map.

Beyond the additional mayhem of bombing for the local people and the primal satisfaction of seeing fire and smoke columns caused by screeching jets on 24-hour news reels, what does justice actually entail? As it turns out, bringing the Syrian president and his associates to court for violating international prohibitions on CW use may not be that easy. As the Rome Statute stands now, Thilo Marauhn (Justus Liebig University, Gießen) discerned a fair number of problems as to whether chemical warfare could be part of possible charges before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Marauhn’s first point concerned the usage of the phrasing in the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions (poison and poisoned weapons) and the Geneva Protocol (asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials or devices) rather than the CWC’s more comprehensive definition to refer to chemical weapons. In the final stages of negotiating the Rome Statute, the explicit reference to chemical (and biological) weapons in Article 8 was apparently dropped because some states felt that excluding nuclear weapons from the enumeration was hypocritical. Another phrasing referring to ‘weapons causing unnecessary suffering’ was limited to a listing in an annex, this time to avoid inclusion of nuclear weapons at the demand of the nuclear weapon states. The annex, however, was never agreed. This has left open the question whether phraseology in the Rome Statute and the definition of a CW in the CWC refer to te same thing. Both documents, however, have different purposes. The latter serves a disarmament objective, whereas the former establishes an international institution with the power to prosecute individuals under international criminal law. Therefore it is not possible to accept the definitional scope of one treaty, which has its list of parties, for application by another institution with different membership. In the opposite case, nationals of a state not party to the CWC might have to be tried under a different understanding of a chemical weapon than those from a CWC party. Criminal law does not allow for uneven standards—a principle also underlying the Offenses Clause mentioned by Sarah Cleveland.

Next, he wondered whether Article 8, 2 of the Rome Statute refers only to the use of the toxicants in ‘international armed conflict’, whereas the CWC exhorts states parties to use CW ‘never under any circumstances’, a condition that covers civil wars and other forms of internal armed conflict. The 2010 Kampala Conference extended the coverage of Article 8, 2 to non-international armed conflicts, but the amendment has yet to enter into force. Even so, an amendment to Article 8 only enters into force for the state that has ratified it, regardless of the number of states that have adopted it. The situation again allows for uneven standards.

Finally, Marauhn pointed out that Syria is not party to the Rome statute, which means that according to Articles 12 and 13 of the Rome Statute only the UN Security Council can refer the country to the ICC. Even if such a referral were to take place, it remains an open question whether the Kampala amendment on internal conflicts could be applied to Syria’s CW use against its own population. Indeed, Article 121, 5 of the Rome Statute stipulates that ‘In respect of a State Party which has not accepted the amendment, the Court shall not exercise its jurisdiction regarding a crime covered by the amendment when committed by that State Party’s nationals or on its territory.’ It could thus be argued that Security Council referral must also exclude crimes covered by the amendment. On the other hand, so Marauhn reasoned, an argument could also be made that the provision only applies in cases of state referral to the ICC or the prosecutor investigating on his own initiative. On this basis, he concluded that the ICC could as yet have jurisdiction to prosecute CW use.

Disarming Syria and the Middle East

The roundtable heard three presentations on the process of eliminating Syria’s chemical warfare capacity and one on the problems to convene a meeting to consider ways to remove nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, as well as their delivery systems from the Middle East.

Valeria Santori (Technical Secretariat, OPCW) sketched the legal foundations of the OPCW-UN mandate relating to the destruction of the chemicals Syria had declared to the OPCW, including as regards removal and destruction outside of the country. She went into the details of the decisions by the OPCW Executive Council and UN Security Council Resolution 2118 (2013), and other legal tools relevant for the establishment of the OPCW-UN Joint Mission. A detailed timeline of decisions and deadlines offered insight into the time pressures under which the Joint Mission is to accomplish its tasks under unprecedented conditions of war. It also highlighted how Syria missed some of those timelines by long margins. Santori described the nature of the international disarmament collaboration and ended with a summary of the envisaged destruction operations once the chemicals have been removed from Syria’s territory.

My own presentation discussed Syria’s declarations and looked into the possible reasons for the delays. I expressed my concern about the consequences for the disarmament process from breakdown of US-Russian relations over the crisis in Ukraine, which may take off the pressure from Syria to meet is various obligations in time. I ended with a note of caution on the poor public outreach operations with regard to the elimination of the precursor chemicals at sea in the light of increasing populist comments on harm to the environment.

Mirko Sossai (Rome University III) wondered whether UN Security Council Resolution 2118 challenges international law. After the Ghouta attacks the international community faced different responsibilities with regard to the civil war in Syria: humanitarian concerns, determination of international criminal responsibility, and trying to find an end to the conflict. The US-Russian agreement created the framework for removing Syria’s chemical warfare capacity, which included Syria acceding to the CWC. While the CWC provisions were to provide the overall legal foundation for subsequent actions, the bilateral accord recognised the extraordinary character of the undertaking. The OPCW Executive Council decision of 27 September took those exceptional circumstances into consideration. Resolution 2118 endorsed this decision and set further requirements, but it did not refer explicitly to Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Both documents created a hybrid collaborative–coercive disarmament regime. Sossai argued that as a consequence inspections, rather than building confidence in compliance, became tools to detect non-compliance. To emphasise his point, he referred to the requirement for Syria to allow OPCW inspectors unfettered access and what appears to be a modified challenge inspection procedure in the Executive Council decision. The coercive disarmament dimension can also deduced from the prominence of procedures to address non-compliance. Whereas the CWC has its own compliance enforcement tools, which include possible recourse to the UN General Assembly and Security Council, the Security Council plays a much more important role in the permanent oversight of progress (for instance, by means of monthly reporting by the UN Secretary-General) and responses to possible non-compliance.

Sossai next zoomed in on the destruction of Syria’s CW outside of the country, a process that the CWC does not authorise. Whereas the US-Russian framework agreement and the Executive Council decision of 27 September refer to destruction operations outside of the country ‘if possible’, in Resolution 2118 the Security Council ‘decides to authorize [UN] Member States to acquire, control, transport, transfer and destroy chemical weapons …’. The OPCW Executive Council therefore had resolve the discrepancy in subsequent decisions, including, inter alea, determining that the CWC state party receiving the chemicals for destruction would not be considered a CW possessor. Other decisions addressed Syria’s responsibilities as owner once the weapons have left its territory.

He noted that the UN Security Council can have the authority to override provisions of multilateral treaties—notably through Articles 48, 2 and 103 of the UN Charter—but expressed by way of conclusion his concern that increasingly decision-making on disarmament and arms control matters is shifting towards the Security Council.

Nico Frandi (European External Action Service), also presenting personal views, analysed the impact of the efforts to remove Syria’s CW on the prospects for a zone free of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East. After a brief historical review of the idea to create such a zone and the status of regional participation in global arms control and disarmament treaties, he noted the opposing Arab and Israeli views on how to approach regional security. The former envisages the creation of the zone as a precondition to further discussions, whereas the latter departs from a regional peace and security structure before disarmament can be contemplated. Visions on what types of weaponry need to be included also differ as a consequence of the asymmetric nature of the conflicts.

The current initiative for the zone stems from decisions taken at the 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). A meeting due to be held in Helsinki in 2012 has not yet materialised. With the next review conference looming in 2015, the lack of progress thus far risks to have severe negative impacts on global arms control in general and the NPT in particular. Notwithstanding, Frandi discerned some glimmers of hope, including advances in the negotiations with Iran on ensuring the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities, opportunities emerging from the Arab Spring, and the CW disarmament process in Syria. He noted the EU’s significant financial and diplomatic support in all these efforts.

However, the various areas in which some movement forward can be discerned have not yet been integrated into a broader, region-wide goal of achieving a zone free of non-conventional weaponry. In particular, given that the Syrian CW disarmament initiative rests on a bilateral framework, the deepening US–Russian standoff over the Ukraine and other areas of growing friction may have adverse effects on the successful completion of the project and on regional disarmament as a whole. He therefore hoped that a series of lower-level diplomatic meetings in the Swiss town of Glion could still yield a date for the Helsinki conference before the NPT review conference in May 2015.

Technical challenges to the legal regime

The question of non-prohibited purposes—that is, the circumstances under which a toxic chemical is not considered a chemical weapon under the definition used in the CWC—has already been touched upon. One of those purposes is law enforcement, including domestic riot control. Neil Davison (International Committee of the Red Cross) began his presentation by pointing out that the military and law enforcement interest in riot control agents (RCAs) and so-called incapacitating agents remains. A major distinction between RCAs and the types of chemicals investigated as incapacitating agents exists: whereas the former are characterised by temporary effects that cease as soon as the victim is no longer exposed to the agent, the latter group causes unconsciousness or severe incapacitation by impairing brain function. Incapacitants can pose serious health risks, not in the least because some of the chemicals have a toxicity that approaches the levels of warfare agents, including neurotoxicants. Their use for law enforcement purposes is further complicated by the difficulties of controlling the dosage to which person may be exposed and delivering adequate medical care after usage.

Whereas the CWC defines ‘riot control agent’ and clearly identifies riot control as a non-prohibited purpose (Article II, paragraphs 7 and 9), the use of incapacitating agents is not sanctioned. Given that the convention does not include a definition of ‘incapacitating agent’, any type of toxicant could ultimately be conceived as a law enforcement agent. Such a development would seriously erode the convention. Analysis of various legal instruments and rulings by the international courts have led the ICRC to the conviction that the international legal framework leaves little room for the legitimate use of toxic chemicals as weapons for law enforcement other than of RCAs, as defined in the CWC. It therefore calls on all states parties to confirm a national policy of ‘riot control agents only’ for law enforcement purposes and to have this commitment reflected in national implementation legislation.

In the final presentation of the roundtable, Ralf Trapp (independent disarmament consultant) addressed the challenges to disarmament regimes posed by the convergence of chemistry and biology, and their convergence with other disciplines (such as information technologies and engineering). In the past, CBW were considered under a single banner, but at the end of the 1960s disarmament diplomacy separated both weapon categories as a consequence of differences in perceived military utility. The CWC and the BTWC cover similar scopes, overlap partially, but are completely differently equipped with regard to verification and compliance enforcement. With today’s progress, there is a growing realisation that biology is but another form of chemistry. This is increasingly being reflected in research and industrial production methods.

From a disarmament perspective convergence raises several questions about future regime development, and whether there should also be a growing convergence of the legal regimes prohibiting CBW development and acquisition. Trapp recommended increased consultation between the two disarmament communities and called for growing responsibility of stakeholder communities in industry, research and academia in accompanying the progressing conversion in science and technology in order to preserve their peaceful uses.

When did you last hear ‘gas’ and ‘humane’ in the same sentence?

This morning, I came across an item on the BBC website entitled: Princess Anne: Gassing badgers is most humane way to cull.

According to the piece, Princess Royal’s comments came after the British government said it would not expand badger culling from two pilot culls aimed at reducing TB in cattle.

Interest groups of course welcomed her remarks. As a representative of the National Farmers’ Union said in a BBC radio interview ‘The Princess Royal is noted for outspoken views and her forthright honesty. I think it’s an option that needs looking at. And provided we can tick all the boxes as far as humaneness goes then it would certainly be an option to consider.’

When was it the last time you saw ‘gassing’ and ‘humane’ juxtaposed?

The humanitarian argument was definitely advanced after the end of the First World War to justify the continuation of the chemical warfare programmes in Allied countries. (Germany lost its sovereign right to armament with the 1919 Versailles Treaty.)

Just check this little item in the The Lewiston Daily Sun of 4 June 1932:

Gas is championed as a humane weapon of war by Maj. Gen. Amos A. Fries, who was chief of chemical warfare for the United States during the world War. [...]

General Fries said the humaneness of gas lies in the fact that, while it disables an enemy temporarily, it makes possible a high percentage of recoveries.

The irony shall not escape the badgers.

 

From Flanders’ entrenched politics

[Updated: 9 March 2014]

Next month, on the 22nd, it will be the 99th anniversary of the start of modern chemical warfare. The salient around the Flemish town of Ieper offered the perfect location: its northern edge was the only place along the Western front where German troops did not face the prevailing south-westerly winds that could have blown back the chlorine cloud. Later, of course, shells replaced gas cloud attacks.

Shells imply depots, including ones close to the trenches. In Flanders it is not uncommon to still uncover duds—shells that failed to detonate because of malfunction or simply because they got buried in very soft mud. Each year, some hundred metric tonnes (give or take a few tonnes) of unexploded ordnance is recovered and taken to a demolition site near the village of Poelkapelle. About five percent of that volume is filled with a chemical warfare agent. However, statistics usually shoot up when a former underground storage bunker still full with munition is discovered. Such was the case earlier this week, when a farmer in Moorslede, next to the infamous town of Passendale (Passchendale), was transforming a meadow to grow crops. Since then the bomb disposal unit of the Belgian Armed Forces have already recovered over 300 German shells, a large portion of which are chemical (mostly mustard agent). They expect to unearth plenty more. Some press accounts suggest thousands of shells. That figure may not be exaggerated: almost ten years ago to the day, the bomb disposal unit unearthed 3,242 British and German artillery shells in another part of the same municipality. Presumably they had been buried in the field after the war.

Nothing new really, if the story did not have a typical Belgian twist in the tale. It also emerged that the installation to dismantle liquid chemical warfare agents from the First World War broke down in the summer of 2012 and has not yet been repaired. As a consequence, some 3,200 chemical shells have since then been stockpiled at the Poelkapelle site. And the number is steadily growing. Typically, nobody outside the Ministry of Defence was aware of the breakdown. Not even the Mayor of Poelkapelle (who belongs to the same party as Minister of Defence Pieter De Crem, the Flemish Christian Democrats).  Or so, the Flemish press reported earlier this week…

Actually, a few small articles on 29 and 30 August 2012 referred to a small explosion that destroyed the installation to dismantle munitions filled with liquid agent. As nobody got injured, all safety measures had functioned perfectly and no agent had escaped from the demilitarisation unit, there was little else to write about. In addition, as farmers living just outside the perimeter of the military base housing dismantlement installations never faced any risk from escaping toxic agents, the incident never triggered the local emergency plan called ‘Ieperiet’ (reference to mustard agent ‘Yperite’). That perhaps explains the mayor’s ignorance.

A new twist

The discovery of the potentially large volume buried (presumably chemical) munition at Moorslede naturally raised questions about the Belgian Armed Forces’ capacity to dismantle them. In passing, the Defence Ministry mentioned that the destroyed installation to dismantle shells filled with liquid warfare agents had not yet been replaced. The ministry’s spokeswoman assured that the Poelkapelle site has sufficient safe storage space until 2016 (which is probably true, given the way the munition had been stored before the construction of the dismantlement facility). However, she also immediately engaged in a typical Belgian blame game: the regions did not cough up the money to have the installation repaired.

Just a little word of explanation here. Virtually everybody is aware of the linguistic divisions in Belgium. One way of managing conflicts has been to create three regions: the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels regions. They enjoy considerable autonomy in the organisation of economic affairs and have exclusive competences in environmental matters. The latter aspect explains why Belgium required four ratifications of the Chemical Weapons Convention by the federal and the three regional parliaments. However, the chemical weapon problem is essentially a Flemish one as the First World War frontline ran almost exclusively through the province of West Flanders. Now of course, why should the two other regions assist the wealthiest region of the three?

In addition, the Ministry of Defence is a federal department and it bears responsibility for the dismantlement of the old chemical munitions. A unit of the Armed Forces undertakes the task inside a military domain. So, why should Flanders chip in? Net outcome: installation out of action for more than 20 months.

Supposedly without public knowledge.

A reader of my original blog posting alerted me to the reply to a parliamentary question by Defence Minister De Crem of 21 January 2014, who explained that a German 150mm shell filled with a chemical warfare agents detonated while being bored. Estimated cost to repair the installation was €1.7 million; having it replaced with the latest technology carried a price tag of up to €4 million. He added that the Defence Ministry did not have such funds available, hence the request to the three regions. De Crem noted that only the Walloon region has expressed its willingness to discuss the issue.

Dismantlement of shells with solid chemical warfare agents continues without any hindrance.

And yet another twist

Last September Belgium had been approached to destroy some of Syria’s chemical precursors and possibly its 20-tonne stash of mustard. The Defence Minister declined. One—very plausible—reason circulating last autumn was that even under the best of circumstances issuing an environmental permit takes at least a year, which was far too long in view of the tight deadlines adopted by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN Security Council. However, in a reply to a second parliamentary question also on 21 January, the Defence Minister asserted that the installation in Poelkapelle was not suited for modern warfare agents, such as the nerve agent VX. Yes, probably true (even though by that time everybody knew that the elimination concerned precursors and not warfare agents, and that in the context of Belgian involvement we were thinking of the commercial incinerator near Antwerp, which, incidentally, was a consortium partner that bid for the OPCW contracts). He did not refer to Syria’s mustard agent, which the installation could no longer process, as he indicated in the earlier reply concerning the accident.

The fascinating part of this reply is, however, that the Americans never inquired about using the dismantling installation in Poelkapelle. Their request was whether they could set up the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) inside the military domain.

Getting by with a little help from my friends

Ridding Syria of its chemical weapons (CW) is a costly undertaking. It is projected to cost many tens of millions of Euros. To this end both the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have set up trust funds in support of the Syrian CW disarmament project. The OPCW has already managed to collect close to €60 million. International financial and in-kind support were required as Syria had notified the organisation upon its accession to the CWC that it was not in a position to pay for the CW destruction operations. Despite the international community’s assumption of responsibility for the disarmament project via the decisions taken by the OPCW Executive Council and the UN Security Council on 27 September, analysis of the list of donors reveals that neither Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) members (barring a single exception) nor Arab League states have come to the assistance of its fellow member state. Yet both bodies do repeatedly declare their full commitment to General and Complete Disarmament or a region free of non-conventional weapons for the Middle East.

Sponsoring CW disarmament

In line with Security Council Resolution 2118 (2013) the money in the UN trust fund pays for the purchase and transport of  non-military logistical equipment, water transportation, power generators, port shipping fees, drivers, food, fuel expenses, and other related services. According to a fact sheet released by the Joint Mission earlier this month, $7.014 million (€5.1 million) has been received from Denmark, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Russia and the United States. Japan has pledged an additional $9 million (€6.55 million).

The OPCW operates two trust funds, one to cover operations in Syria and one to pay for the destruction of Syria’s CW. The fact sheet reports that they total €8.66 million ($9.049 million) and €42.4 million ($58.5 million) respectively in actual contributions and pledges. Last Tuesday the OPCW announced that Japan has donated €13.25 million ($18,2 million)—almost doubling the €7.1 million ($9.7 million) the country had initially pledged to both OPCW trust funds—to support operations related to the destruction of Syria’s CW programme. The grand total of funds available to the OPCW now stands at around €57.3 million ($78.74 million). As important are the in-kind contributions offered by several states and the European Union to both the UN and the OPCW. These include a variety of services and logistical support or the making available of special equipment.

The combined totals of funds entrusted to the OPCW represent the equivalent of over two-thirds of the organisation’s annual regular budget, a clear indicator of the magnitude of the undertaking. Adding the in-kind donations, the total value of contributions may actually exceed the OPCW’s annual regular budget. In addition, the OPCW is to recoup the verification costs from Syria. To this end the Council of the European Union decided to unfreeze funds from the assets blocked under EU sanctions against the Assad regime.

Those figures undeniably testify to the sizeable international support for eliminating Syria’s chemical warfare capacity. Closer examination, however, shows that the burden is carried mainly by the Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and Turkey. Russia, Byelorussia, China and three other Asian states—India, Japan and South Korea—make up the remainder. In other words, not a single country from Africa and Central and South America, and a majority of CWC parties from the Asia–Pacific region contribute in any way to the project. Even tiny Andorra has managed to transfer €15,000.

The friend of my friend is my … frenemy?

Of the 120 members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which always calls for general and complete disarmament, the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, and international cooperation and development, only India has pledged €736,000 in support of the destruction of CW from fellow NAM member Syria. Iran, a close ally of the Syrian government, currently chairs the group.

Even more striking is the total lack of any form of contribution from the Middle East. (Turkey belongs to the Western Europe and Other States Group of parties to the CWC.) Iran, for instance, actively promotes chemical disarmament. Each year during the Conference of the States Parties it organises an event commemorating the chemical warfare victims of the 1980–88 war with Iraq. Since November 2012 a memorial sponsored by Iran adorns the garden of the OPCW headquarter building. The statue represents a victim gradually losing his/her life from the effects of chemical weapons whose body is simultaneously converted into peace doves. Without concrete action today to safeguard the Syrian people from the consequences of the chemical attacks (irrespective of who might be the perpetrator), Ypres, Sardasht and Halabja are reduced to mere incidents in the history of warfare and denied meaningful commemoration. Being close, Iran may want to press the Syrian government to speed up the removal of the precursor chemicals and intervene to offer its expert medical assistance in the field. Chairing the NAM, it may wish to press members to actively contribute to the international CW removal effort in Syria. For a government trying to reconnect with all constituencies of the global community, active and demonstrable participation might send many positive signals about its political commitment to disarmament in all its national and international dimensions.

None of Syria’s Arab League partners (all of whom except Egypt are parties to the CWC) have even made a token contribution. Some members may have deep-rooted issues with President Bashar al-Assad, but the money does not actually go to him. It contributes to eliminating the possibility that civilians do not have to face another Ghouta amid all the ongoing carnage. Yet, the regional organisation will undoubtedly profess its absolute commitment to a Middle East free from non-conventional weapons at the Preparatory Committee of the NPT Review Conference starting in New York next April. Particularly, it will express its profound frustration with the fact that no meeting to rid the region from biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and missiles has yet been convened as requested by the final document of the 2010 Review Conference. And for sure it will blame precisely those countries that contribute the most to the elimination of Syria’s CW.

Will somebody point out that by supporting the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, Middle Eastern states may actually change the security calculations in their region (including those by Israel), and that therefore they, rather than outsiders, could contribute greatly to their desired goal of regional disarmament?

Hybrid disarmament framework and slowdowns

The publication of the 4th monthly report by the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month drew worldwide attention to Syria missing important interim deadlines for the removal of chemicals from its territory. US Ambassador Bob Mikulak’s head-on criticism of Syria’s procrastination at the latest OPCW Executive Council meeting reflected  frustration shared by many states. The responsibilities Syria assumed under the US-Russian Framework agreement of 14 September, as a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and under UN Security Council Resolution 2118 (2013) include the removal of the Priority 1 chemicals by 31 December and the shipment abroad of all other declared chemicals with the exception of those it must destroy by itself (essentially isopropanol and the mustard agent residue in the original containers) by 5 February. The tripartite status-of-mission document, which stipulates the operational roles for Syria, the OPCW and the UN, was finally signed on 6 February. According to Resolution 2118, this agreement should have been concluded by 1 November. Being critical to organising the whole destruction process within the tight deadlines, the UN and the OPCW had already handed the Syrian government a proposal on 16 October.

Such developments should hardly come as a surprise. Ample historical evidence suggests that states will attempt to thwart coercive measures towards relinquishing weapon capacities, particularly if they do not view themselves as having been defeated. The key question, however, is how to appropriately counter such brinkmanship or gamesmanship. Past cases also illustrate how inconsiderate responses defeat the original disarmament design and shift the goal posts for all involved.

Hybrid disarmament and its consequences

While securing and eliminating a chemical warfare capacity in the midst of an armed conflict is without precedent, the hybrid disarmament framework set up to organise the endeavour is equally unique.

One aspect of the OPCW-UN joint project falls undeniably under the header ‘coercive disarmament’: the international community, spearheaded by the United States and Russia, demands Syria’s chemical disarmament. The original Geneva Framework Agreement of 14 September came about as an effort by Russia to avoid the military strikes threatened by France, the UK and the USA in retaliation for the chemical attacks against the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August. Bashar al-Assad’s government acquiesced, fully realising that the bombardment of its conventional military formations and command and control infrastructure would irreparably weaken its military strength. The imminency of such air attacks has receded considerably, but their possibility in case of non-compliance with the disarmament obligations was not excluded from Resolution 2118. Paragraph 21 envisages measures in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN Charter. At the end of January, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Damascus of military punishment under the resolution if it failed to speed up the removal of the chemicals from its territory. (Russia almost immediately rejected the warning.)

Coercive disarmament arrangements typically call for no-refusal, intrusive verification measures, such as comprehensive declarations and anytime, anyplace inspections. This characteristic is less salient in Syria’s case because of its accession to the CWC. Nevertheless, in its decision of 27 September (§2(d)) the OPCW Executive Council authorised the inspection at the earliest possible opportunity of any undeclared site identified by another party to the CWC. By assigning the Director-General responsibility for determining the seriousness of the claim, rather than reserving this task for itself (as with a challenge inspection), the Executive Council acknowledged the exceptional circumstances surrounding Syria’s disarmament. Similarly, should the Director-General report delays by Syria in fulfilling its disarmament requirements or lack of cooperation, the Executive Council is to meet within 24 hours and could decide on swift referral of the recalcitrant to the Security Council (§3(b)). The very tight final destruction deadline of 30 June—a mere nine months after the Geneva agreement—and the monthly requirement to report to the Security Council also testify to the coercive nature of Syria’s obligations.

The second dimension of the disarmament project is cooperative, the typical framework for treaty-based weapon elimination activities. Syria’s joining of the CWC as part of the deal underpinning the Framework Agreement ensured that the international community (rather than bi- or plurilateral actions, as initially favoured by the US) would assume responsibility for the dismantlement of the country’s chemical warfare capacities. The decision by the OPCW Executive Council of 27 September (shortly thereafter endorsed by UN Security Council in Resolution 2118) guaranteed that the verification of CW destruction and determination of intermediate deadlines would happen in line with relevant CWC provisions. Moreover, the cooperative framework has also opened the doors to international cooperation, financial assistance and operational support to secure, transport and eliminate Syria’s declared chemicals. Given the difficult circumstances of securing CW in war zones, the UN’s role in Syria also exemplifies the collaborative dimension. Whereas the OPCW bears prime responsibility for technical matters, the UN takes the lead in areas such as security and safety, diplomacy, logistics, communications, and so on. The OPCW–UN Joint Mission in Syria, which was set up on 16 October, guarantees unity of coordination.

The hybrid disarmament framework creates interesting pathways for enforcing compliance. On the one hand, the UN Security Council monitors progress through the monthly reports submitted by Ki-moon and briefings in New York by the Special Coordinator for the OPCW–UN Joint Mission, Sigrid Kaag. It has various options to compel Syria to meet its disarmament obligations at its disposal, including sanctions or the authorisation of military force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. However, as illustrated by Russia’s prompt reaction to Kerry’s warning last week, consensus among the veto-wielding permanent members is unlikely under the present circumstances.

On the other hand, the CWC has its own compliance enforcement mechanisms (Article IX). These include bilateral consultations between states parties and options to involve the OPCW decision-making organs, the Executive Council and the Conference of the States Parties. Among the tools available are clarification requests and challenge inspections (neither of which has been invoked thus far). Article VIII determines the powers and functions of both organs, including their respective responsibilities in reestablishing compliance. In cases of particular gravity and urgency, the Executive Council shall bring the matter directly to the attention of both the UN General Assembly and Security Council. (However, note the different pathway in §3(b) of the Executive Council decision of 27 September, as mentioned earlier.) The big difference is that before referral to the UN, consensus would have already been achieved in the Executive Council, making a veto in the UN Security Council most unlikely.

While the CWC suggests some possible actions, the Executive Council has considerable leeway in determining appropriate measures to redress non-compliance. Such measures need not necessarily be punitive. For example, having missed the ultimate destruction deadline of April 2012, Russia and the US are required to submit regular detailed updates to the Executive Council and a detailed annual report to the Conference of the States Parties. To further ensure ongoing commitment to CW destruction, an Executive Council delegation each year alternately visits Russian and US destruction sites. The OPCW, however, has not yet faced non-compliance with state-party refusal to cooperate. It would enter uncharted waters in such a case because the CWC does not prescribe specific corrective or punitive measures.

Resistance to coercive disarmament

Coercive disarmament is typically imposed by victors on the vanquished. Through the 1919 Treaty of Versailles the Allies compelled Germany to dismantle its chemical warfare capacity (which included handing trade and manufacturing secrets) and surrender its machine tool production equipment and heavy weapons. After Iraq’s eviction from Kuwait in 1991, UN Security Council Resolution 687 ordered the destruction of any weapons, infrastructure and equipment, and materials related to its nuclear, chemical, biological and ballistic missile programmes under supervision of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In neither case did the party who lost the war feel vanquished. The Allies did not occupy German territory. In fact, on Armistice Day their troops had not even crossed into the country. In 1991, the US-led coalition ceased combat operations 100 hours after the start of the ground offensive without fully occupying Iraq and removing those in power. As a consequence, neither country felt defeated. The coercive disarmament measures felt unjust, and from the start—unconsciously or by policy design—resistance built up. In Germany, the industry led efforts to defeat the Allied design to confiscate its heavy machinery by destroying factory equipment and smelting the steel. While incurring the loss of their capital investments, they nonetheless preserved precious raw materials to rebuild the machinery at some future point. Meanwhile, as an unintended consequence, Allied verification of the dismantlement of Germany’s war production capacity collapsed and had to be abandoned.

In the belief that the UNSCOM activities would last for months only, Iraq immediately set out to thwart as much as possible any operations to uncover the nature and full scope of its chemical and biological weapon programmes. However, as the inspectors persisted and began to build an increasingly accurate picture, Saddam Hussein’s regime stepped up its obstruction and provoked a succession of political crises that required Security Council decision making. As the UN repeatedly sought to avoid recurrence of air strikes by the US-led coalition, Saddam Hussein was able to exact concessions that hollowed out the original Security Council mandate. In addition, US vacillation between enforcing Resolution 687 and removing Saddam Hussein from power challenged regime security from Iraq’s perspective, which took away any willingness to have the weapon files closed. For Saddam Hussein, resistance was not just a question of demonstrating steadfastness and resilience in the face of adversity. Preserving ambiguity about his weapon holdings became a matter of deterrence against hostile neighbours. Western doubts about UNSCOM’s efficacy in uncovering and dismantling the CBW and ballistic missile programmes paradoxically assisted Saddam Hussein’s survival strategy.

Al-Assad’s gamesmanship

Despite the circumstances that led to the international effort to dismantle its CW, Syria does not feel vanquished nor, for that matter, that it is losing the war. Al-Assad’s decision to relinquish his CW was a short-term, but nonetheless strategic one to ensure regime survival. He views all follow-on actions through the same prism. At the Conference of the States Parties last December—Syria’s first as a party to the CWC—its delegation responded obstreperously to any suggestion of responsibility for the war carnage. That included the chemical attacks in Ghouta. Indeed, it almost presented its accession to the convention as a favour to the global community. With this mind-set, Syria does not consider it excessive that the global community is paying for the elimination of its CW. (Under the CWC a possessor state should bear the cost of disarmament.) Quite on the contrary, it even requested the OPCW to pay for the verification activities, a move that was strongly resisted by several states parties.

Syria’s regained assertiveness on the international stage is in no small measure due to the US-Russian Framework Agreement and the country’s subsequent accession to the CWC. As I have argued previously, multilateral disarmament presumes that all parties involved regard each other as equal partners. Syria consequently exerts its full sovereign rights as an OPCW member. For better or worse, a disarmament framework creates an environment that allows a perpetrator of war crimes to receive full consideration as a party to the treaty, while disengaging it from the consequences of its actions on the battlefield. In many respects Syria’s position recalls Iraq’s ability to address the Paris conference to restore the authority of the 1925 Geneva Protocol convened by French President François Mitterrand in January 1989, while Kurdish representatives were denied access.

Under those circumstances, it should cause little surprise that al-Assad seeks to challenge the coercive elements in the CW disarmament arrangements. He will not defy the overall obligations assumed under the CWC, but he is already thinking about his and Syria’s position after the war. Presidential elections are due to follow on the heels of the June CW destruction deadline. He realises that once the chemical precursors have been removed, Syria will no longer enjoy its current privileged situation. War crime allegations and international calls for justice will dominate the international agenda once more, and acute threats of military intervention will return. Engagement in the Geneva II negotiations may remain his only means to retain equal status with other members of the international community.

In order to avoid being seen as weak, domestically or internationally, he cannot cave in too easily to Western demands. Seeking concessions from the international community, whether by requesting various types of equipment, proposing alternative destruction methods for its former CW-related infrastructure, or trying to obtain delays beyond the pre-agreed deadlines, can easily be viewed as part of al-Assad’s broader strategy. The more he can provoke the West—the United States, United Kingdom and France, in particular—to issue warnings and threats of military strikes, the more he ensures the backing from the two other permanent members of the Security Council and hence his own survival. However, as said, he cannot afford to fall foul of the CWC lest he lose his (limited) international support.

Still disarmed

This analysis does not wish to discount the real problems on the ground posed by the war fighting and the various technical and logistical challenges inherent in all complex undertakings. They are the objective explanations for the delays. Disarmament, however, also entails many little political games to frustrate the goals of another party. Such games are neither rare, nor unexpected. There are reasons why the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva remains deadlocked, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention hobbles along without a verification machinery, and the OPCW cannot adopt a long-term vision for the post-destruction phase of the CWC. In instances of coercive disarmament, elements of state or regime survival interfere with the demands to relinquish particular arms categories.

Outside of the CW or broader disarmament communities, questions will persist whether granting Syria partnership status in order to eliminate its chemical weapons weighs up against the ongoing massive human suffering. As argued in this posting, the partnership status enables certain types of political manoeuvring to achieve a better bargaining position at the negotiation table, and hence ensure regime survival.

While attention is currently focussed on some interim deadlines, one must not forget that Syria already lost its capacity to wage chemical warfare when installations, equipment and munitions necessary to prepare and deliver the toxic agents were rendered unusable. Within two months after the Geneva Framework agreement a recurrence of Ghouta became impossible. One cannot deny that preventing a war crime from occurring is preferable to decrying its consequences.

It remains my view that the deal on eliminating Syria’s chemical warfare capacity has helped to open the doors to formal diplomatic negotiations. It gave the international community common cause and it directly engaged various parties on multiple levels in order to set up and sustain the disarmament process:

  • Globally:
    • US-Russia
    • UN Security Council
    • OPCW-UN Joint Mission
  • In the field:
    •  International community (UN and Joint Mission) – Syria
    • International community (UN and Joint Mission) – Insurgents (mostly via their respective proxies)
    • Syria – Insurgents (for local cease-fires related to disarmament activities)
    • Insurgents – Insurgents (idem)
  • Formal framework for international assistance, with regard to financial support, removal, destruction, and security (the process currently involves about 40 countries).

It is a complex and delicate framework, which could easily be brought down by an inconsiderate move by any one of the parties involved. The agreed interim destruction deadlines intend to keep Syria under continuous pressure to meet its obligations. The country’s gamesmanship should be countered, but military threats should not be issued carelessly. Syria’s bluster was also on full display during the UN-sponsored meetings to seek an end to the civil war in Montreux and Geneva last month. Knowing their foe, opposition representatives retained their composure in the face of the verbal onslaughts. And they were even able to set the tone of one session by proposing at its start to share a moment of remembrance for all war victims. That is hope, the first spark of which was ignited by the international collaboration to rid Syria of its toxic weapons.

Public Outreach in Destruction of Syrian CW

Open letter to Secretaries John Kerry and Chuck Hagel

 

February 3, 2014

Secretary of State John Kerry

US Department of State

2201 C Street, NW

Washington DC 20520

 

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel

US Department of Defense

1400 Defense Pentagon

Washington DC 20301-1400

 

RE:  Public Outreach and Stakeholder Involvement in Destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons

Dear Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel:

We the undersigned environmental, public health, nonproliferation, and arms control experts have been closely following all aspects of the Syrian chemical disarmament process.  We believe that the most urgent issue today is to make sure that all relevant chemicals from the Syrian stockpiles are speedily delivered to the port of Latakia and loaded onto the Norwegian and Danish ships.

But at the same time we consider it important to ensure the success of the follow-on destruction phase, where the US, for good reasons, has taken the lead.  We have reviewed the plans for the destruction of Syrian chemical warfare materiel (CWM) on the MV Cape Ray, a US roll-on-roll-off merchant marine ship, and we support the planned technical approach.  We understand that sea-based destruction may be a less-risky approach at the current moment than in-country destruction in Syria, reflects the urgency of the matter, and also offers a workable alternative in view of the reluctance of other countries to destroy Syria’s toxic chemicals and binary precursors on their own territory.

We also believe that use of the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, as installed on the Cape Ray, will minimize any potential risks to public health and the environment.  It is important, in our view, to recognize that there are no loaded chemical munitions in the stockpile to be destroyed, thereby eliminating the need to deal with explosives, rocket propellant, and weapons systems; and there is no live nerve agent, only 22+/- metric tons of mustard agent, and some 540 metric tons of key binary chemical weapons components planned to be processed on board the ship.  These facts are not secret and are known to the experts, but in order for the public to be reassured, there is a need for a targeted effort to bring this information and knowledge to local communities.

Those of us who have been actively involved in the U.S., Russian, and other chemical demilitarization programs over the past two decades can testify that the initial absence of active dialogue with local communities and the public at large has resulted in serious misunderstandings and, in fact, reluctance to host destruction facilities; this, in turn, has become a major factor behind the long delays in implementing national obligations of both the US and Russia under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Although our review has persuaded us to conclude that the risk of toxic effluent releases to the atmosphere, land, or sea from this operation will be low, we understand why people in the Mediterranean region and elsewhere might respond with suspicion or even opposition to this unique demilitarization of toxic chemicals at sea and in foreign countries.  There are already clear signs of discontent and anxiety in this respect coming from Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus.  Such opposition could clearly delay or prevent the timely and important mission to safely eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile in 2014.  We therefore suggest the following three steps to help address this challenge:

1) Multilateral organizations, participating national governments, and non-governmental organizations should immediately schedule public dialogue/forums in Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region to explain the technical processes, to discuss the potential risks and benefits of the Syrian chemical weapons destruction program, and to respond to the questions, concerns, and suggestions of local citizens, regulators, and experts.

2) The United States agencies operating the neutralization process on board the MV Cape Ray should provide daily updates, including any monitoring data of air and water, via a dedicated website, on disposal operations; this could be linked with both the United Nations and OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) websites as well.  In addition, live, 24-hour webcams on board the ship should be considered as a confidence-building measure, consistent with security and safety requirements, in order to document and make available the demilitarization activity to the public via a website.

3) Communities, likely in the U.S., Britain, and other European countries that may receive precursor chemicals and/or effluent from the Syrian chemical weapons demilitarization program, should be notified of any proposals to handle or destroy the chemicals and toxic effluent in their areas prior to the start of operations.  The OPCW and the United Nations Joint Mission, along with national governments and private industry, should be encouraged to support and cooperate with any national, regional, or local public dialogue/forums and regulatory hearings that are established to review or oversee these toxic chemical disposal operations.

We all believe that full transparency, public outreach, and inclusive engagement of all stakeholders needs to be an integral part of any toxic waste management process, and especially with components of a chemical weapons program.  Engaging potentially impacted communities in a timely and transparent way will not only strengthen the protection of public health and the environment, but it will help alleviate public concerns that could otherwise undermine this historic and important demilitarization mission.  In a wider sense, it will be an important contribution to the much needed success of this unprecedented cooperative international project for WMD disarmament in a country engulfed in a costly civil war and in one of the most sensitive areas in the world, the Middle East.

Thank you for your timely attention to this matter.  Responses can be addressed to Dr. Paul F. Walker, Director, Environmental Security and Sustainability, Green Cross International, 1100 15th Street, NW, Suite 1100, Washington DC 20005, USA, tel +1-202-222-0700, pwalker@globalgreen.org.

Sincerely,

Dr. Paul F. Walker, Director, Environmental Security and Sustainability, Green Cross International, and Coordinator, Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition (Washington DC, USA)

Ambassador Sergey Batsanov, Director, Geneva Office of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, Member of Pugwash Council, and former chief Soviet and Russian negotiator of the Chemical Weapons Convention (Geneva, Switzerland)

Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association (Washington DC, USA)

Irene Kornelly, Chair, Colorado Citizens’ Advisory Commission for Chemical Demilitarization (Pueblo, Colorado, USA)

Finn T. Longinotto, Senior Fellow, Environmental Security and Sustainability Program, Global Green USA (Washington DC, USA)

Erich Pica, President, Friends of the Earth-United States (Washington DC, USA)

Elio Pacilio, President, Green Cross Italy (Rome, Italy)

Lenny Siegel, Executive Director, Center for Public Environmental Oversight (California, USA)

Sharon Squassoni, Director and Senior Fellow, Proliferation Prevention Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington DC, USA)

Dr. Ralf Trapp, Consultant, CBW Arms Control and Disarmament (Chessenaz, France)

Craig Williams, Co-Chair, Chemical Destruction Citizens’ Advisory Board (Blue Grass, Kentucky, USA)

Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, Director, The Trench, and Council Member, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (Ferney-Voltaire, France)

Organizational affiliations listed for identification purposes only.

 

Cc:       His Excellency Dr. Sa’ad Abdul Majeed Ibrahim Al-Ali, Permanent Representative of       Iraq to the OPCW and Chairman, OPCW Conference of States Parties

His Excellency Mr. Francesco Azzarello, Permanent Representative of Italy to the             OPCW

The Honorable Thomas M. Countryman, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of    International Security and Nonproliferation, US Department of State

His Excellency Dr. Olexandr Horin, Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the OPCW   and Chairman, OPCW Executive Council

Ms. Sigrid Kaag, Special Coordinator, OPCW-United Nations Joint Mission

Ms. Angela Kane, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, United Nations

The Honorable Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology   and Logistics, US Department of Defense

His Excellency Mr. Roman A. Kolodkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian            Federation to the OPCW

His Excellency Dr. Robert Mikulak, US Ambassador to the OPCW

Mr. Carmen J. Spencer, Joint Program Executive Officer for Chemical and Biological        Defense, US Army

His Excellency Mr. Ahmet Uzumcu, Director-General, Organization for the Prohibition     of Chemical Weapons

The Honorable Andrew C. Weber, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, US Department of Defense

Italy to the rescue

Reuters reported two days ago that Italy has agreed to provide a port to enable the safe transfer of Syria’s priority 1 chemicals from the Danish and Norwegian ships arriving from the Syrian port of Latakia to the US vessel Cape Ray for hydrolysis and neutralisation, most likely in international waters.

Speculation about the proposed port arises now. Italian officials have thus far refused to identify it. According to the daily Corriere della Sera, as cited by The Voice of Russia, the chemicals will be kept in one of the Italian ports until the transfer to the Cape Ray. It cited an unnamed source in the Italian Ministry of Defence, who suggested that the harbour might be in Sicily or Sardinia. Both islands have cargo ports. However, with the exception of the container and oil terminals in Cagliari in the south, those on Sardinia appear small and mainly offer connections to southern France and northwest Italy. Sicily has some larger commercial harbours, particularly the ones of Augusta on the east coast and Pozallo on the southern tip. However, the Foreign Ministry source in the Reuters report stated that the chemicals would not touch Italian territory at any point.

The ‘free port’ concept

The only way that I can reconcile the latter point with the general idea of Italy’s offer is the concept of a ‘free economic zone’ or a ‘free port’. These are areas with less stringent customs regulations and virtually no oversight from public authorities on transshipments. From the perspective of the Chemical Weapons Convention, free economic zones and free ports pose implementation challenges as a state party might not be able to certify the total absence of illicit transactions there. Furthermore, they contribute to discrepancies between the amounts of chemicals declared by exporting states parties and the amounts declared by the recipient states parties in respect of the same shipments. Free ports also raise some hurdles with regard to the Proliferation Security Initiative.

I, of course, do not know the exact words used in the interview for the Reuters article. The term ‘territory’ may cause some confusion. In the legal sense it covers not just land, but also territorial waters and the airspace above Italy. Whichever port the Scandinavian ships may call at, they would have to travel through Italian territorial waters. However, if ‘territory’ were to mean ‘soil’ or ‘land’ in the sense that the goods would be transferred from ship to ship without first being brought onto Italian soil, then perhaps ‘terreno’ rather than ‘territorio’ might have been used. ‘Territorio’, however, also translates as ‘jurisdiction’, which opens an interesting channel for speculation.

Trieste comes into view

Trieste’s harbour has several free port areas exempt even from European Union regulations. They include zone for mineral oils and an industrial one. I would not be surprised if they can handle industrial toxic substances. Its description on the internet by the port authority contains the following interesting passages (emphases added):

The Free Port of Trieste is political territory of the Italian State. Italian and European Union laws cannot, however, restrict the freedoms relating to customs duties and operations guaranteed by the Peace Treaty and its instruments of implementation. The legal status of the Free Port of Trieste is essentially embodied in two regimes: unrestricted access and transit and customs clearance exemption.

With regard to unrestricted access to the port, Annex VIII establishes free movement of goods and services and freedom of access and of transit without any discrimination and without customs duties or charges other than those levied for services rendered (see articles 1, 5, 10, 16 of Annex VIII; articles 2, 3, 6 and 7 of Commissarial Decree 29/1955; articles 6 and 7 of Commissarial Decree 53/1959). […]

[…]

ADVANTAGES OF THE FREE PORT OF TRIESTE

  •  non-discriminatory right of entry of ships and cargo, irrespective of their destination, origin and nature, with the possibility of staying there for an indefinite period, free of duty, taxes or other charges other than those levied for services rendered, with no need for authorisation for loading, unloading, transhipment, movement and storage, and with no obligation to identify a customs destination for such cargo, which can be decided by the operator at a later date
  • prohibition on customs intervention (and thus customs control of goods entering and leaving the Free Zones, which takes place only at the free-zone crossing points) when loading and unloading goods, except for specific exceptions under economic, health and public safety regulations (some goods, such as those under monopolies, weapons, drugs, pocketable items, must be placed in special warehouses supervised by Customs). Community goods are treated as leaving customs territory when they cross into the Free Zones, with the entry of EU goods into the Trieste Free Zones representing an export transaction not subject to VAT.

[...]

In sum, the Trieste port has the capacity and is used to working with large volumes of interesting goods, all the while a government official can claim that it does not control what comes into the port.

Still, this is pure speculation on my part, but admittedly an interesting option to entertain.

Not so dead lines ‒ some updates and corrections

In my posting of 24 November Not so dead lines I tried to assess the composition of Syria’s chemical weapon (CW) arsenal based on official statements, the decision of 15 November by the Executive Council of the Organisaton for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the publication of the Request for Expression of Interest (EOI) inviting commercial companies to participate in the disposal of chemicals and resulting effluent. Given that several elements were based on conjecture, deduction and rough calculations, I offered them with caution pending confirmation.

This post supplements, updates and corrects the previous entry. I have retained the relevant section headers.

A, B and BB

  • I referred to the informal use of ‘Priority 1′ and ‘Priority 2′ chemicals relating to the respective removal dates of 31 December 2013 and 5 February 2014. The reaction mass resulting from neutralisation and hydrolysis is referred to as ‘Priority 3′ chemicals, and their complete elimination is envisaged for the second half of 2014.
  • The codes for the V-agent precursors A, B, BB and BB salt were identified correctly.
    • The reaction of A with B produces the nerve agent VX.
    • The reaction of A with BB yields the lesser known nerve agent VM.
    • The declared volume of BB salt is small: 29 kg.

What do we now know?

This section had a lot of speculative calculations. With one exception ‒ the volume of mustard agent ‒ the proposed figures approach actual data. These, however, remain confidential.

  • The volume of DF is around 570 metric tonnes.
  • Sulphur mustard amounts to 20.25 metric tonnes.
  • Syria’s declared volume of precursors is 1,045 metric tonnes and that of raw materials is 290 metric tonnes, making for a combined total of 1,335 metric tonnes.

I expressed some surprise to find 120 tonnes isopropanol listed in the Request for Expression of Interest in view of the Executive Council decision that all isopropanol must be destroyed inside Syria. This turned out to be an error in the earlier versions of the EOI. The item has now been removed from the list. The figure, however, reflects Syria’s actual declared volume.

The Hexamine, which could have had several applications, was declared by Syria as a precursor in the manufacture of sarin. So, that cancels speculation about the production of the explosive RDX.