"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
OPCW Director Seeks Middle East Inroads

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Michael Nguyen

Efforts to win universal support for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) have foundered because of resistance from key countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. But the head of the international organization charged with implementing the CWC told Arms Control Today that some limited progress has been made in getting Middle Eastern countries to discuss the subject.

Maintaining the viability of challenge and industry inspections also is essential in ensuring the long-term relevance and credibility of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said Director-General Rogelio Pfirter in a Sept. 23 interview. A lawyer and longtime diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Argentina, Pfirter has headed the OPCW since July 2002. He was appointed during a special meeting of the CWC’s states-parties following the U.S.-led ouster of his predecessor, José Bustani, in 2002. (See ACT, September 2002.)

More than eight years after its entry into force, 175 states have ratified or acceded to the convention prohibiting the production and stockpiling of chemical weapons, while an additional 19 states have not ratified or acceded to the convention. The CWC’s rapid pace toward universality is particularly remarkable when compared with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s (NPT) history: the NPT had only 104 states-parties eight years after its entry into force, although it currently has 189 members. Pfirter noted, however, that substantial obstacles remain. “In terms of numbers, it’s not too large, but in terms of quality, it might be quite a daunting task for us still,” he said.

In the Middle East, neither Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, nor Israel have ratified the CWC, although Israel has signed it. The United States has accused both Egypt and Syria of maintaining stockpiles of chemical weapons. “Unfortunately, chemical weapons are hostage to nuclear weapons,” said Pfirter, referring to the refusal of Egypt and Syria to accede to the CWC until Israel accedes to the NPT.

But Pfirter remains optimistic, noting that the issue has advanced some after having been largely “inert” until two years ago. Since then, the OPCW has met both bilaterally and collectively with officials of each state, and these countries have assured Pfirter that they agreed with the underlying principle of the convention that chemical weapons should not exist or continue.

Still, Pfirter says that he sees greater willingness among the three states to revisit the CWC in a “dynamic fashion, not just take for granted that there will always be a stalemate.” Officials from all three countries attended a July OPCW workshop in Cyprus seeking universal adherence in the Mediterranean region. He said he looked forward to Egypt and Syria sending official observers to future formal meetings of OPCW states-parties.

But Pfirter also acknowledges that the odds are long. “The security question in the Middle East,” he says, “will play a key role ultimately in any decision that countries might take.” For example, he predicted that security concerns would trump any economic considerations raised if CWC states-parties choose to punish these non-state-parties by restricting their ability to trade in Schedule 3 chemicals, which are defined as chemicals used in large quantities by commercial industries that also pose a nonproliferation risk as chemical weapons or precursors. Such restrictions might have a significant impact on important industries in Egypt and Israel. In the convention, states agreed that they would decide whether to bar trade in Schedule 3 chemicals with non-states-parties five years after its entry into force but took no action on the matter at the appropriate review conference in 2003. More than two years later, Pfirter said he did not believe there was the necessary consensus among the states-parties to move forward on the issue.

The internal strife of several states also is an obstacle to universality. Nonetheless, the Democratic Republic of Congo acceded to the convention Oct. 12, and Iraq has pledged to accede in the near future. One troublesome holdout has been North Korea, where efforts to seek a diplomatic opening have generated no response, according to Pfirter.

Beyond universality, ensuring that CWC states-parties are free of chemical weapons is essential to ensuring the convention’s success. Pfirter argues that doing so requires loosening states’ inhibitions to take advantage of the treaty’s provision for challenge inspections. He describes such inspections as “one of the key components of the credibility and deterrent capacity” of the convention. No such inspections have been conducted to date. To ensure that the challenge inspections remain a viable instrument of the convention, Pfirter has worked to ensure that the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat maintains a high-level of readiness, including surprise drills and observation of and participation in mock challenge inspections and workshops dedicated to the process.

Pfirter also sees the nonproliferation aspects of the convention as essential to its long-term mission. The convention itself has a well-defined industry inspection regime, placing chemicals into three schedules based on their military and commercial value. Schedule 1 facilities, which use chemicals with high military but low commercial value, have received repeated inspections. But he believes that OPCW needs to be conducting more inspections of Other Chemical Productions Facilities (OCPFs) that produce unscheduled chemicals. Less than 300 of the 4,834 declared OCPFs have been inspected.

The ability to maintain these inspections depends on the OPCW’s limited budget. Pfirter has steered the organization out of the financial crisis that led to substantial reductions in its inspections activities in 2001-2002, but the OPCW is still dependent on payment by chemical weapons possessor states for inspections conducted during destruction activities. The unpredictable nature of the destruction schedules has caused budget shortfalls in the past.

Another nonproliferation concern is the failure of many states-parties to follow through on their Article VII obligations, which require states-parties to designate a national authority and implement the convention through administrative and penal legislation. The 2003 Eighth Conference of States Parties adopted an action plan two years ago to provide technical assistance, but it is clear that many states-parties still have not acted. “Implementation is of the essence,” said Pfirter, and the upcoming Tenth Conference of States Parties Nov. 7-11 will revisit the issue.

Chemical weapons destruction deadlines established in the convention also loom on the horizon. Pfirter appealed to the developed world to provide all the support necessary to help Russia meet the convention’s ultimate 2012 deadline for destroying its chemical stockpile. If Russia and the United States fail to destroy their stockpiles, “I think it will have a devastating effect,” Pfirter said.

Today, Russia, with the largest declared stockpile, has destroyed less than 3 percent, while the United States, with the second-largest stockpile, has destroyed less than 40 percent. Both states have asked for and received extensions to the three interim deadlines established by the convention. By December 2007, the United States is committed to destroying 45 percent of its stockpile, the third and final interim goal. At the upcoming conference, the United States has said that it will push to establish a firm target date for Russia to destroy 45 percent of its stockpile. Countries generally have supported extending Russia’s deadline, but no new date has been set.

Click here for a complete transcript of the interview.