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Regional security and the Chemical Weapons Convention: Insights for the Middle East (Part 1)

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In November 2019, the first annual meeting exploring the possibility of creating a zone exempt of non-conventional weaponry in the Middle East took place. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the second meeting in 2020. Conditions permitting, the session is now scheduled for this autumn. Meanwhile, the conference has organised two informal workshops, the second one of which was held virtually on 23-25 February. Entitled ‘Good Practices and Lessons Learned with respect to the implementation of Treaties establishing Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones’, the workshop’s third session looked at the core obligations governing chemical and biological weapons (CBW). It aimed to glean useful insights from the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

I was invited to address chemical weapon (CW) disarmament. In my presentation, I summarised the core obligations for states parties and outlined the division of labour between the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and states parties, which must transpose the international obligations into domestic legislation and regulations. The final slides described how states in regional security complexes prepared for the endgame of CWC negotiations by concluding regional agreements jointly committing themselves to sign the treaty and potential actions states in the Middle East could undertake to build confidence and reciprocal trust in the disarmament enterprise.

This posting describes the current status of the norm against CW in the Middle East and summarises the regional agreements agreed prior to the finalisation of the CWC negotiations.

The next blog contribution will analyse how the Middle East followed a different course with regard to the CWC in the early 1990s.


Status of the CW prohibition in the Middle East

Presently, two international agreements determine the legitimacy of CW, namely the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the CWC.

The former document is not part of disarmament law like the CWC. Rather it proscribes CBW use in armed conflict. It was the first successful multilateral agreement to constrain chemical warfare after the First World War. However, since the original objective was to ban the trade in CW and diplomats and national experts were unable to address the newly discovered dual-use characteristics of many toxic chemicals, delegates decided on a provisional protocol in anticipation of comprehensive disarmament negotiations during the 1930s. Today, 145 states are party to it, the latest one to have acceded being Kazakhstan on 20 April 2020. 35 other states have signed it; their ratifications are till pending.

The CWC bans not only use, but also the development, production, and stockpiling of CW and orders their destruction under international supervision. As a disarmament treaty, its end goal is the global elimination of CW. It is non-discriminatory in this respect as no state, big or small, can retain a single piece of chemical munition. All states parties also have equal rights under the convention, meaning that no one holds veto power. Today, 193 out of 197 UN members and observer states are party to the CWC, making this the most successful of all weapon control treaties. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty stands at 191 and the BTWC comes third with 183 parties.

The conference exploring the possibilities for regional disarmament in the Middle East comprises 24 countries from North Africa and Southwest Asia, essentially all members of the League of Arab States (Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen) plus Iran and Israel. Participants also refer to the region with the politically more neutral ‘Middle East and North Africa’ (MENA) although no formal consensus exists as to which countries should be included under the group name.

The League of Arab States + Iran and Israel. (Map prepared by Tsering Wangyal Shawa, Map and Geospatial Information Center, Princeton University. Used with permission.)

In the MENA region, six states are not party to the Geneva Protocol: Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, Oman, Somalia, and United Arab Emirates.

Two are not party to the CWC, namely Egypt and Israel. Israel is a signatory state.

Taken together, all MENA states are bound by at least one international agreement prohibiting CW use, which is already a good foundation for regional disarmament.


Regional security and global disarmament

Rather intensive, often antagonistic or competing security interactions among members of a geographic area characterise a regional security complex. Tensions may occasionally flare into armed conflict.

As the CWC negotiations were progressing with a reasonable anticipation of success at the dawn of the final decade of the 20th century, states began considering the security implications of joining the future convention and seeking treaty-relevant security guarantees from potential competitors. The outcome were several regional or sub-regional agreements and declarations basically pledging not to use CW against each other, not to acquire or retain CW, and to join the CWC. Four saw the light during the final year of negotiations: two for South America, one for Southeast Asia and Oceania, and a bilateral pledge between India and Pakistan.

A fifth agreement, the memorandum of understanding between the Soviet Union and the United States on a bilateral verification experiment and data exchange, was signed at Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 1989. Its goal was to build trust between the cold war adversaries and explore whether the envisaged treaty could offer the required security guarantees after committing to eliminating CW. The document was crucial to the finalisation of the CWC negotiations.

The five documents are in chronological order (the full texts are available via the links):


On 23 September 1989 the two sides signed at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the Memorandum of Understanding Regarding A Bilateral Verification Experiment and Data Exchange Related to Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Soon afterwards they announced proposed cuts in the respective CW stockpiles.

In the 1980s the Soviet Union and the United States were by far the world’s largest CW possessors. Towards the end of the decade bilateral relations improved considerably, which raised hopes for successful completion of the multilateral CWC negotiations. Both countries intended to join the CWC, suspicious as they still were of each other. To build confidence – both bilaterally and in the proposed verification machinery for the future disarmament accord – the memorandum sought to allow for CW-related data exchanges, exchange visits, and an agreed number of challenge inspections.

The document foresaw in two phases. Phase 1 consisted of data exchanges and reciprocal visits. It was completed in 1990. The second phase comprised additional detailed data exchanges and five inspections by each country in the course of 1994 (i.e. after the CWC’s opening for signature while the signatory states were preparing for entry into force).

South America

By the end of 1991, that is 10 months before the finalisation of the CWC negotiations, all South American states, except for the small states of Guyana and Suriname (French Guyana is a department of France), had entered into at least one multilateral agreement in which they committed themselves not to develop, produce, acquire in any way, stockpile or retain, transfer directly or indirectly, or use CW.

The Mendoza Agreement

On 5 September 1991 Argentina, Brazil and Chile signed the Joint Declaration on the Complete Prohibition of Chemical and Biological Weapons in Mendoza, Argentina. Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay also signed the document afterwards.

The Cartagena Declaration

On 4 December 1991 the five Andean countries – Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela – signed the Declaration on the Renunciation of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Cartagena de Indias, Columbia.

Southeast Asia and Oceania

At conclusion of the Third Chemical Weapons Regional Seminar in Sydney (21 – 23 June 1992) participating states issued a statement in which they noted that they did not possess CW and declared that they had no intention of acquiring such weapons. They also expressed their abhorrence of CW, their use or threat of use. Furthermore, they called upon states in the region to mutually exchange statements based on the types of declarations they would have to submit under the future CWC as an exercise in building confidence.

The 21 participating states were Australia, Brunei Darussalam, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Indonesia, Kiribati, Laos, Malaysia, the Federated States of Micronesia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore, the Solomon Islands, Thailand, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Vietnam and Western Samoa. Nauru, which did not attend, associated itself with the statement.

India and Pakistan

India and Pakistan signed the Joint Declaration on Complete Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on 19 August 1992. They committed themselves not to use CW or engage in the development or production of such weapons, and not to assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in development, production, acquisition, stockpiling or use of CW.

In hindsight, it is striking that ‘stockpiling’ (or any other term for possession) appeared only in the context of assisting others with CW acquisition and not in their own disarmament undertaking.

India ratified the CWC on 3 September 1996, more than a year before Pakistan, but declared its possession of CW after the convention’s entry into force. This declaration provoked shockwaves because India, a vocal defender of the interests of the Neutral and Non-Aligned Countries and critic of superpower armaments, had always professed its non-possession of such weapons.

Notwithstanding a sense of betrayal in view of the bilateral declaration and many internal debates, Pakistan’s ratification followed on 28 October 1997. India ultimately destroyed its CW under international supervision in line with its CWC obligations.


Overview of commitments in the pledges


Agreement No use No retention No acquisition Transfer prevention Data exchange Verify Join CWC
Wyoming x x x
Mendoza x x x x x
Cartagena x x x x x
SE Asia & Oceania x x x x x
India – Pakistan x x x x




Part 1: A new process for the Middle East
Part 2: Treaties governing chemical and biological weapons
Part 3: Defining the Middle East, a loaded question
Part 4: Clear legal definitions at the core of the future treaty
Part 5: Regional security and the Chemical Weapons Convention: Insights for the Middle East (Part 1)
Part 6: Regional security and the Chemical Weapons Convention: Insights for the Middle East (Part 2)


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