Engaging Israel on CWC Ratification – Part 1: Outsider Perspectives

The Israeli Disarmament Movement together with the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition (CWCC) and Green Cross convened two days of roundtable discussions on Chemical Weapons, Israel and the Middle East in Tel Aviv. The third day, 12 November, a briefing was held in the Knesset. In a region where (existential) security and the nuclear weapons stand central to any debate on arms control strategies, the exclusive focus on chemical weapons (CW) was a rare occurrence.

The meeting goals were twofold: promote ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) by Israel and to have Israel take a more positive stance in the diplomatic engagements to establish a zone free of non-conventional weaponry in the Middle East. The conveners viewed CWC ratification as a potential significant step towards achieving the latter goal.

Each day had different ambitions. Day 1 sought to broaden knowledge of CW issues and the functioning of the CWC among a diverse group of Israeli civil society constituencies and  reporters. Day 2 followed Track II approach, engaging representatives from Israeli academic institutions and think tanks, and other policy shapers. On the final day the invited speakers briefed parliamentarians in the Knesset.

This report summarises external arguments why Israel should ratify the CWC. The next posting will focus on Israeli views.

Engaging Israel in the world

Striking in the opening addresses by the Israeli conveners was their appeal for greater Israeli engagement in global arms control and disarmament. Israel is not a party to any of the big treaties (besides the CWC, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty(CTBT)).

Israel negotiated the CWC in the UN Conference on Disarmament, signed the convention in 1993, and actively participated in the Preparatory Commission tasked with preparing entry into force. However, it never ratified the convention, and its influence on internal decision-making and strategic policy planning ended when the ban entered into force on 29 April 1997. Since then Israeli government officials have occasionally hinted at possible ratification. While visiting The Hague in September 2013, then President Shimon Peres stated that Israel would seriously consider joining the treaty after the successful elimination of Syria’s CW capacities. Peres, then in his capacity as Foreign Minister, was also the person who signed the CWC on behalf of Israel at the special ceremony in Paris on 13 January 1993.

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Roundtable discussion, 10 November 2014

As a signatory state Israel is committed to the overall prohibition on the acquisition, possession and use of CW. However, without ratification it enjoys none of the privileges and other rights. These include options for assistance and protection in case of threats with or use of CW. Furthermore, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) or other States Parties may offer various types of assistance after an accidental release of a toxic chemical. Israel attends the annual meetings at the OPCW headquarters as an observer. An Israeli representative habitually delivers a statement to the Conference of the States Parties. However, those statements tend to focus on regional security issues and do not specifically address the CWC.

The observer status also implies that the Israeli delegation must leave the conference room whenever the CWC States Parties hold a closed session. Last year one such session addressed the elimination of Syria’s CW capacities. Consequently, Israel denied itself access to debates and participation in decision-making on a matter of great import to its national security.

The CWC as a security regime

Disarmament enhances state security. It removes the threat posed by a particular weapon class by ordering destruction of all existing stockpiles and prohibiting the maintenance of current or acquisition of future proscribed weapons. Furthermore, it creates a security regime by fostering common patterns of behaviour and generating transparency about activities that otherwise might appear suspicious. The CWC has been effective on both counts. Introduced on the first day and elaborated in the various sessions, this core message offered the backdrop for all discussions in Tel Aviv and the Knesset.

Since its entry into force in 1997, 190 states have ratified or acceded to the convention. It now equals the NPT, but no arms control or disarmament treaty has matched the CWC’s growth rate. Two more states—Angola and Myanmar— are on the brink of joining the convention. Optimists speculate they may move before the end of 2014. Both the OPCW Technical Secretariat and high-level representatives from key states parties have intensively prepared the Burmese authorities to meet all requirements that follow deposit of the instrument of ratification. In January, Angola will take up its seat in the UN Security Council (UNSC), which is a powerful incentive to be compliant with all major weapon control treaties. This leaves four other countries outside the convention. Besides Israel, they are Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan. North Korea has so far remained unresponsive to diplomatic demarches. South Sudan, the most recent state whose independence the international community has recognised, remains embroiled in a civil war. Given the immediate demands of its society, the best hope is to insert accession or succession to the CWC (as Sudan is already a state party) in a broader package of offers to help the country overcome its troubled legacy. The CWC’s near universality has already created a powerful global norm, which among other things was responsible for the universal condemnation of Syria’s chemical warfare operations in 2013, the country’s accession to the convention, and the international cooperation to disarm the country.

As of 31 August 2014, eight States Parties have declared possession of CW for a total weight of 72,524 metric tonnes of chemical agent. 84.95% has been destroyed under international verification (61,608 mt). Russia and the United States have both incurred serious delays because of domestic politics, a deep economic crises, or local demands for new destruction technologies to meet the highest possible public health and environmental standards. They should complete their destruction operations no later than 2022–23.

Declared possessor Estimated weight (agent tonnes)
Albania 16
India 1,000
Iraq not available
Libya 26
Republic of Korea 1,000
Russian Federation (Soviet Union) 40,000
Syria 1,300
United States 28,600

OPCW inspectors have also verified the destruction of 4.97 million (57.32%) of the 8.67 million declared chemical munitions and containers. Fourteen States Parties have declared 97 CW production facilities: Bosnia and Herzegovina, China, France, India, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Libya, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Serbia, Syrian Arab Republic, United Kingdom, and United States. All have been inactivated. Fifty-six have been destroyed and 23 converted for peaceful purposes. The OPCW also inspected other sites and facilities formerly linked to CW programmes (including destruction installations). The global chemical industry has received about 2,500 inspections.

The CWC has now entered a phase of transition away from the initial focus on destruction to preventing the re-emergence of CW. Small-scale production, convergence of biology and chemistry and potential use of toxic chemicals by non-state actors are just a few among the rising challenges. The OPCW is renewing its partnerships with the chemical industry and opening pathways to education with a view of increasing awareness about the dangers of CW and their underlying technologies among relevant student communities. It enhances international cooperation in the peaceful application of chemistry. It builds national capacity to address CW threats and respond to the deliberate or accidental release of toxic chemicals. All efforts are geared to making current and future achievements irreversible.

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Hugh Chalmers (VERTIC), Paul Walker (CWCC) and Jean Pascal Zanders (The Trench) offering some outsider views

No strategic rationale not to ratify the CWC

An acute threat could incite a country not to join a particular international treaty. It was therefore noteworthy that over the three days not a single Israeli participant raised the spectre of chemical warfare. With the elimination of Syria’s CW capabilities—all precursor chemicals for nerve agents and mustard gas were evacuated from the country and 98% has already been destroyed abroad— chemical warfare has become unacceptable under any circumstances. CW no longer threaten Israel.

During the 1990-91 Kuwait war, Iraq’s Scud missiles forced Israeli citizens to huddle in their sealed shelter room wearing gas masks each time the air-raid siren went off. The security landscape has shifted considerably since then. Three developments have reshaped the menace of CW: the almost universal adherence to the CWC, the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capacity, and the changing nature of the CW threat.

Impact of the universalisation of the CWC

Even though Egypt and Israel remain outside the CWC and, together with Syria, the BTWC, all three countries are parties to the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use in armed conflict of chemical and biological weapons (CBW). The two states that have not signed up to the Geneva Protocol—Oman and the United Arab Emirates—have joined both disarmament treaties. Therefore every country in the Middle East has renounced CBW in armed conflict.

Treaty Participation in the Middle East
Status: 10 November 2014
Geneva Protocol BTWC CWC
Algeria 08/01/1992 22/07/2001 29/04/1997
Bahrain 20/10/1988 28/10/1988 29/04/1997
Egypt 06/12/1928 [Sign: 10.04.1972] [-]
Iran 03/08/1929 22/08/1973 03/12/1997
Iraq 07/04/1931 19/06/1991 12/02/2009
Israel 22/01/1969 [-] [Sign: 13/01/1993]
Jordan 10/10/1976 30/05/1975 28/11/1997
Kuwait 03/01/1971 18/07/1972 28/06/1997
Lebanon 03/03/1969 26/03/1975 20/12/2008
Libya 17/10/1971 19/01/1982 05/02/2004
Morocco 27/07/1970 21/03/2002 29/04/1997
Oman [-] 31/03/1992 29/04/1997
Qatar 18/04/1976 17/04/1975 03/10/1997
Saudi Arabia 10/01/1971 24/05/1972 29/04/1997
Syria 11/09/1968 [Sign: 14/04/1972] 14/10/2013
Tunisia 15/05/1967 18/05/1973 29/04/1997
UAE [-] 19/06/2008 28/12/2000
Yemen 26/01/1971 01/06/1979 01/11/2000

For Israel, this represents a major change since the late 1980s when at least three Arab countries—Iraq, Libya and Syria—were known to have active CW programmes and Iran was widely believed to be seeking such weapons. Except for the Viêt-Nam War, all major instances of chemical warfare after 1945 occurred in the Middle East. Even though Israel was never the target of such attacks, several of its sworn enemies had the ballistic missile capacity to deliver chemical agents onto any Israeli city. After the 1980–88 Gulf War, which had witnessed the largest chemical warfare operations since World War 1, the first release in combat of nerve agents and the genocidal chemical attacks against the Kurds, CW transformed into a political and diplomatic power tool.

In view of Egypt’s preoccupation with removing Israel’s nuclear arsenal from the regional security equation, it offered CBW disarmament both as an incentive and as an instrument of coercion. In January 1989 France convened a major conference in Paris to restore the authority of the Geneva Protocol in the wake of the Iran–Iraq war and accelerate the CWC negotiations. Iraq was treated with all the respect of a state party, despite its violation of  the international agreement. Egypt furthermore threatened with a united Arab boycott of the future convention unless Israel became a party to the NPT. The Arab League formally adopted this position after finalisation of the CWC in 1992. It never held as most Arab states quickly joined the treaty within the first years after entry into force (a reflection of the economic and other interests dominating policy preferences of countries in the periphery of the Arab–Israeli conflict). Except for Egypt, all Arab countries have joined the CWC.

Contrary to 25 years ago, none of Israel’s antagonists in the region now possess CW.

Impact of Syria’s disarmament

The OPCW’s success in disarming Syria has arguably had the most direct impact on the CW threat to Israel. The decision to cease distribution of gas masks to the population in January 2014 recognised the reduced threat level. OPCW inspectors are now verifying Syria’s declarations. They press the Syrians to fill in remaining gaps and pursue inconsistencies. They oversaw the destruction of empty chemical munitions and CW-specific equipment in research, production and storage facilities. As of October 2014 all declared mustard gas and most precursor chemicals to nerve agents have been evacuated from Syria. (Syria bore responsibility for eliminating isopropanol, a sarin precursor.) 97.6% of these materials have been destroyed. From a security perspective, the disarmament project demonstrated the OPCW’s flexibility and ability to adaptability to meet a major challenge under extreme circumstances at short notice.

A diminishing chemical threat

The final development that should affect Israel’s perceptions is the continuous downsizing of the chemical threat since the CWC’s entry into force. At the end of the Cold War, the threat was calculated in terms of tens of thousands of agent tonnes—in 1990 the USA and the USSR released figures in the order of 30,000 and 40,000 agent tonnes respectively. With Syria the arsenal was in the 1000 tonne range; Libya’s declared stockpile was around 25 tonnes. The degradation of Syria’s chemical warfare capacity after the intervention by the OPCW and the United Nations is evidenced by limited use of an industrial chemical, chlorine, in some barrel bomb attacks earlier this year. If the regime has hidden some weapons, as some Israeli sources allege, these may harm individuals, but no longer pose a strategic or even a tactical threat against Israel.

One of the sessions on the second day looked into possible threats from terrorism with CW. The main argument presented described the low likelihood of a terrorist campaign involving the release of a sophisticated toxicant or even of a single incident resulting in mass casualties. Past experience points to a greater likelihood of introducing poisons into the food chain, thus potentially affecting individuals. Most strikingly, Israeli security experts participating in the meeting scoffed at the suggestion of terrorism with CW in the ensuing debate. They pointed to the far greater psychological impact of terrorist suicide bombings and random shooting or stabbing incidents.

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Sharon Dolev (Israeli Disarmament Movement)

In closing …

No participant suggested that Israel faces a strategic threat with CW after Syria’s disarmament. CW have now essentially been removed from the region. Its security issues with neighbouring countries and Iran are in different areas, leading to several suggestions that nothing really blocks Israel’s ratification of the convention.

Israelis, however, tend to view the question of ratification in terms of regional security, whether as part of broader peace and security negotiations or in the context of a Middle East zone free of non-conventional weaponry. The second part of the meeting report will discuss those viewpoints.

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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.