The Chemical Weapons Prohibition Regime at Twenty

Published 23 November 2017
By Christopher Waters

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), established pursuant to the Chemical Weapons Treaty (CWC), turned 20 in 2017.  The OPCW has been feted for its work before. In 2013 it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons." Some observers were surprised at the timing of that award, noting that the Organisation was only weeks into its mission in Syria to assess and destroy chemical weapons. However, the OPCW has since more than justified the Nobel Committee’s recognition. By 2016 the Organisation had overseen the removal and destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons. More globally, it has near universal membership of states (Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan are not parties) and has overseen the destruction of roughly 96% of the world’s declared stockpiles. The robust verification and compliance regime established by the CWC works well.

Why No One is Cheering
Despite the effectiveness and successes of the Organization, however, no one is cheering. Chemical attacks in Syria have re-emerged, including a deadly sarin attack on Khan Shaykhun in April 2017. Although the OPCW’s inspections in Syria remain active, a recent Russian veto at the UN Security Council has meant that the joint UN-OPCW Investigative Mechanism (established by the UN Security Council on 7 August 2015 to identify perpetrators) is now defunct. Furthermore, some states have failed to adequately implement the CWC regime through domestic legislation and the use of chemical weapons by non-state actors has become an issue in Syria and elsewhere.

Maverick approaches to the Chemical Weapons Convention
Despite these challenges, the Organization has shown itself nimble, focused and flexible. For example, although the CWC does not allow the transfer of stockpiles –under the treaty destruction is to take place on the territory of the state holding the weapons- the OPCW oversaw the transfer and destruction of Syrian and Libyan stockpiles outside of those two countries (with UN Security Council approval). Furthermore, although the CWC does not address non-state parties, in October 2017, the Organization’s Executive Council took measures to combat the use of chemical weapons by terrorists and other non-state actors. Both these examples represent the OPCW acting squarely within the object and purpose of the CWC, but with evolving, perhaps even maverick, interpretations of the treaty.

A Century after the Use of Gas in WWI
During the centenary of the First World War, a conflict which witnessed mass human suffering caused by chemical weapons, we are tantalisingly close to eliminating an entire class of weapons of mass harm. Some of the challenges faced by the OPCW will be on display during the Conference of States Parties taking place in The Hague from 27 November to 1 December 2017. It is to be hoped that states will continue to support the OPCW in its efforts to further stigmatise and prevent the use of chemical weapons and, in other fora, press for accountability for the uses of these weapons.

Prof. Christopher Waters is a visiting research fellow at the Asser Institute, on leave from the Faculty of Law, University of Windsor.