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Chemical weapons in international law

January 24, 2014 at 5:47 am

One of the blunders of modern science was the creation of weapons that can spread toxins and disease within a matter of minutes. However international awareness about the dangers of using chemical weapons was high from the very start. As far back as February 1918, the International Committee for the Red Cross summarised the many dangers of using chemical weapons in an appeal. They deemed chemical weapons as “barbaric inventions that could only be described as criminal.”

After the use of poison gas during World War I, the international community agreed to explicitly ban the use of chemical weapons in the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which is considered to be the first international agreement of its kind. It prohibited the use of smothering, poisonous, or bacterial methods of warfare during armed conflict.

The 1925 ban on chemical weapons was reconfirmed in 1972 and again in 1993, when the international community decided to prevent the development, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons, as well as to destroy existing stockpiles.

International Agreements

189 countries have signed the agreement prohibiting the development, stockpiling, production, and use of chemical weapons. They pledged not to develop, produce, store or transfer any chemical weapons both directly and indirectly to any other location. The countries that did not agree to sign were Syria, South Sudan, Korea, Angola and Egypt. Although Israel and Myanmar have signed the agreement, they have not yet ratified it.

It is important to note that the protocol agreed in 1925 represents a quantum leap within the framework of setting benchmarks in the domains of international and humanitarian law. The protocol later set the stage for legal agreements implemented by the international community in 1972 and 1993.

The Biological Weapons Convention, which is the agreement that was reached in 1972, worked towards eradicating biological and chemical weapons completely. While the use of these weapons was prohibited by the Protocol of 1925, the updated convention insisted on not only preventing the development, production, stockpiling, possession, and transfer of these weapons, but also calling for their complete eradication. The agreement called upon all countries to impose national legislation that would ensure that the ban was enforced in their countries. It also called on all countries to hold monthly meetings in order to monitor compliance with the ban and to find ways to enhance the protocol’s effectiveness.

The 1993 Convention on Chemical Weapons also called for the complete eradication of these weapons. However since the field of chemistry has many benefits for mankind, the convention encourages and supports all peaceful chemical production around the world and monitors the developments found in this field.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is a Hague-based institution, monitors and verifies all chemical production on the global level. It provides numerous countries with the tools necessary to implement the provisions of the convention. Each state establishes a national authority that serves as the liaison with the organisation while also implementing the provisions set for by the convention.

Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

The OPCW held two meetings over the course of the last three years in which international experts gathered to explore the repercussions of harmful chemical substances. The first meeting was held in 2010 and the second meeting in 2012. Both meetings resulted in a consensus among the attendees that the use of chemical weapons endangers the lives of those who are exposed to them and places their health in danger. Any one use of chemical weapons also places the international community on a slippery slope as it threatens to undermine international law by encouraging countries to once again use chemical weapons during armed conflicts.

In an attempt to confront the many risks of using chemical weapons, the OPCW launched an appeal to all countries, urging them to use tools that would help them to enforce security measures and state law, rather than resorting to the use of toxic chemicals. The OPCW launched this appeal for the second time in 2013.

In addition, there is also the Chemical Weapons Conference (CWC), which aims to limit the spread, transfer, and stockpiling of chemical weapons. This organisation, whose full name is the Conference for the Reduction, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons, is an independent organisation located in the Hague and has managed to reach an international agreement that prevents the use and production of chemical weapons.

The main objective of this conference not only seeks to prevent the production and use of chemical weapons on the global scale but also seeks to completely obliterate all chemical weapons. As a result of this conference, many international organisations have taken on the initiative of destroying all stored chemical weapons and have reportedly managed to reduce all stored chemical weapons by 71 per cent as of November 2011. In 2010, the CWC also managed to empty out military chemical facilities and hold all parties responsible for the production of such weapons accountable. It is also important to note that the CWC has been held at the United Nations since 3 September 1992.

The terms of the agreement highlighted the consequences of using chemical weapons by binding all acceding countries to work together to prevent the production of these weapons. The countries are also required to work together in the event that any one country uses chemical weapons in an armed conflict. The conference also sought to implement a screening system for all chemicals that could potentially be used as weapons in chemical warfare. There is also the possibility that chemistry could be used to find a solution to this threat in the countries who consented to this agreement. Virtually every country consented to the Convention with the exception of Syria, South Sudan, Angola, North Korea, Somalia, Myanmar, Egypt and Israel.

Ways to achieve the goals of international law

After careful consideration of various international decisions and agreements that call for banning chemical weapons on the global scale, it is now imperative to devise new ways to ensure international security and the security of peaceful civilians. This requires working towards convincing all countries to sign an international convention prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in armed conflict and wars. In this regard, it becomes important to criminalise the use of chemical weapons and to respond to any event in a timely manner by using the United Nations as the umbrella organisation.

The question that remains is will the OPCW succeed in eliminating chemical weapons on a global scale and prevent their use? The question is particularly important considering that the mission statement of the OPCW proposes a world that is free of chemical weapons. Will this organisation be able to take the measures that are necessary for preventing the production of chemical weapons? What are some ways that we can ensure the implementation of international law and the objectives of this organisation?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.