Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal has rightly galvanized international attention. The chemical attacks against civilians have prompted Russia and the US to put aside diplomatic tensions to devise a plan to eliminate the Syrian regime’s stockpiles, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has been tasked with executing the Russian-US plan, has just been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Obviously, the dangers that such weapons pose do not end in Syria. In addition to the possibility of governments launching chemical attacks against their own people, there is the risk of terrorists using toxic agents, as they did in Iraq in 2007.
Indeed, for both state and non-state actors, chemical arms are the easiest weapons of mass destruction to create, acquire and use, owing partly to their ingredients’ widespread availability.
Many countries possess industries capable of manufacturing large quantities of such chemicals, and terrorists have proved that they, too, have the resources to produce and use dangerous chemical agents.
Chemical attacks are attractive not only for their lethality, but also because they can have a major psychological impact (“shock effects”) on survivors and others.
While the chemical weapons threat has clearly not been eliminated, the OPCW has made tremendous strides in mitigating it, especially through the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical weapons. In some respects, the convention has been one of the most successful nonproliferation agreements in history.
Ratified by all but a handful of countries, the CWC has maintained a commitment to consensus-based decisionmaking, even when addressing contentious issues, and has managed to expand training and education, despite budget cuts.
More important, since it entered into force in 1997, the CWC has played a pivotal role in preventing chemical warfare in state-on-state conflicts. It is on target to accomplish within a few years its primary goal of eliminating the massive stockpiles of chemical weapons developed during the 20th century.
However, the CWC faces major challenges, including incomplete national implementation of its requirements and some signatories’ repeated failure to meet deadlines for chemical weapons destruction.
States that raise proliferation concerns continue to refuse to join the CWC, and clashes over chemical technology sharing and export controls have intensified.
There are also doubts about the effectiveness of the CWC inspection regime, especially its ability to manage a global chemical industry that is being transformed by scientific and technological breakthroughs.
And disputes about the use of non-lethal chemical and incapacitating agents persist.
Moreover, there is an emerging debate about the OPCW’s trajectory after the remaining declared chemical weapons stockpiles are destroyed. Most developing countries are urging the organization to allocate more resources to help them expand and modernize their domestic chemical industries. Achieving this would require transfers of knowledge and technology from the countries with the most sophisticated chemical industries.
However, developed countries want the OPCW to retain a strong security focus and are championing its evolution from an institution focused on destroying stockpiles to one capable of responding to threats of chemical-weapons proliferation, and use by states and non-state actors, especially terrorist groups.