Libya Sets Date to Destroy Chemical Arms

Daniel Horner

Libya has set a target date of December 2013 for complete destruction of its most potent chemical weapons, according to documents circulated at a May 1-4 meeting on the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The meeting of the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) came days after the date by which all parties to the treaty were to have destroyed their holdings of chemical weapons. It had been known for years that Russia and the United States, which held the vast majority of the chemical weapons that were declared when the CWC entered into force in 1997, would not meet the deadline of April 29, 2012.

In a document adopted at their annual meeting last year, the treaty parties essentially recognized that those two countries and Libya would miss the deadline, but said they should complete the work “in the shortest time possible.” The document also spelled out reporting and monitoring requirements for the destruction work, including a requirement for a “detailed plan” that specifies “the planned completion date.” (See ACT, January/February 2012.)

Under the regime of Moammar Gaddafi, Libya joined the CWC in 2004. It began destroying its chemical stockpiles in October 2010 and was able to destroy about 13.5 metric tons—slightly more than half—of its supply of Category 1 chemical weapons before a heating unit in the disposal facility broke down in February 2011. Under the CWC, Category 1 covers agents, such as the chemicals sarin, soman, and VX, that are considered to pose the highest risk.

The breakdown occurred at about the same time as the beginning of the protests that ultimately toppled the Gaddafi regime. Chemical weapons destruction has not yet resumed, OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said in a May 29 e-mail to Arms Control Today. “The destruction facility has been repaired but additional infrastructure work and security arrangements must be completed by the Libyan authorities before OPCW inspectors can be deployed on-site and operations resumed,” he said.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü discussed the destruction program in a May 27 meeting in Tripoli with Libyan Foreign Minister Ashour Saad Ben Khaial, “who expressed his strong commitment that Libyan authorities will continue to closely coordinate with the OPCW on these operations,” Luhan said.

Last November and this February, the new Libyan government declared additional quantities of Category 1 and Category 3 chemical weapons to the OPCW. Luhan said the newly declared weapons included “several hundred” munitions loaded with sulfur mustard agent together with a few hundred kilograms of sulfur mustard stored in plastic containers.

Libya has declared a total of 26.3 metric tons of Category 1 weapons and has destroyed 13.5 metric tons, according to the documents distributed at the meeting. The remaining 12.8 metric tons are to be destroyed by December 2013.

According to the documents, the Category 3 weapons—a category that includes unfilled munitions, devices, and equipment designed specifically for use with chemical weapons agents—would be destroyed by May 2013. Category 2 weapons, precursor chemicals, would be destroyed by December 2016. Libya, which already has destroyed 556 metric tons of Category 2 weapons, has another 846 metric tons to destroy, according to the documents.

Russia has previously said it plans to complete its destruction by the end of 2015. (See ACT, July/August 2010.) The United States recently extended its timetable by two years, from 2021 to 2023. (See ACT, May 2012.)

According to OPCW figures circulated at the meeting, the United States had, as of April 29, destroyed 24,924 metric tons of its 27,769 metric tons of declared Category 1 weapons. That figure does not include another 1,434 metric tons that the United States destroyed prior to the CWC’s entry into force. Russia had destroyed 24,961 metric tons of its declared total of 39,967 metric tons.

The documents circulated at the May meeting also provide a timetable for the destruction of so-called abandoned chemical weapons in China, which are a legacy of Japan’s occupation of the country during World War II. Under that schedule, the goal is to destroy by 2016 the chemical weapons at locations other than Haerbaling in northeastern China. The target date for the weapons at Haerbaling, where more than 300,000 chemical munitions are estimated to be buried, is 2022.