Chemical weapons were first used on a large scale during the First World War, and have been widely condemned since. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which allows for the stringent verification of compliance by State Parties, prohibits the large-scale use, production, and transfer of chemical weapons and their precursors. It was adopted by the Conference on Disarmament in 1922. The following year, the CWC opened for signatures, and was finally enforced in 1997, alongside the establishment of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Chemical weapons can be divided into three categories: toxic chemicals and their precursors, munitions or devices, and equipment connected with munitions or devices. Whilst the CWC states that the first of these is a chemical weapon, it allows an exception for instances in which toxic chemicals and their precursors are used for purposes permitted by the Convention, and then must still be in quantities consistent with such a purpose.
Currently, one of the main topics concerning chemical weapons is the situation in Syria. For example, this April, the OPCW stated that there were ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ that a military helicopter, belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force and under the control of the Tiger Forces, had hit eastern Saraqib in February 2018. This was done by dropping at least one cylinder, which ruptured and released chlorine over a large area, and affected twelve individuals. Following this report, member states decided to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, meaning that Syria is no longer allowed to vote or hold office in the Conference. This demonstrated the consequences of opposing the CWC’s aims, and made it clear that states would take action and remain firm in their campaign against chemical weapons.
The USA is known to have a large stockpile of chemical weapons, albeit by 2016, almost 90% of these had been destroyed. Russia was accused of using chemical weapons in August 2020, by poisoning Alexei Navalny with a Novickok nerve agent, but it had destroyed around 92% of its stockpile in 2015. Moreover, Russia has defended Syria’s use of chemical weapons, including use of chlorine gas that was confirmed by the OPCW in 2014. Despite the regime’s claims that they have no chemical weapons, it is estimated that North Korea has the world’s largest stockpile of chemical weapons after the USA and Russia.
Other states have taken a stance against chemical weapons. All EU countries represented in the OPCW conference voted to suspend Syria’s voting rights within it. This initiative was spearheaded by France, which has been deeply involved with eliminating chemical weapons.
Possible solutions to this include chemical weapons destruction technologies, which have been developed to destroy chemical weapons such as binary munitions, bulk chemical weapons agents, and assembled unitary chemical weapons. A second solution could be the prevention of a re-emergence of chemical weapons, by ensuring that all toxic weapons and their precursors are only used for purposes allowed by the Convention, controlling international transfers of chemicals, and verifying that states using chemical weapons follow the Hague ethical guidelines. These solutions would follow the CWC’s aims and finally reduce the amount and damage caused by chemical weapons.
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