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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Stage Set for Meeting on Chemical Arms
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Daniel Horner

As the 188 states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) prepare for the next treaty review conference in April, current and former officials of the international body charged with implementing the pact say treaty members and that body have overcome some of the most difficult issues facing the 1997 treaty but should take additional steps to strengthen the CWC regime in the years ahead.

The CWC parties hold review conferences every five years, in addition to having yearly meetings. The upcoming meeting is scheduled for April 8-19 in The Hague, the home of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

In 2011 the parties addressed one of the most difficult issues the regime has faced, the inability of some parties that possess chemical weapons, notably Russia and the United States, to meet the treaty-mandated 2012 deadline for stockpile destruction. Officials from the two countries, as well as OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü and independent analysts, have said the delays were largely due to the need to ensure that the destruction work met health, safety, and environmental standards.

According to the decision document from the 2011 meeting, the chemical weapons possessors that missed the deadline—Libya, as well as Russia and the United States—have to complete the destruction “in the shortest time possible.” The decision required those countries to submit detailed plans for the destruction of the remaining weapons and spelled out reporting and monitoring requirements for that work. (See ACT, January/February 2012.)

The vote on the 2011 decision was 101-1; Iran was the dissenting vote.

In a report on treaty operations that was distributed at the 2012 annual meeting last November, the OPCW Technical Secretariat said the 2011 decision “demonstrated the spirit of cooperation which characterizes the work of the OPCW.”

In a Jan. 9 interview, Ralf Trapp, a former senior OPCW official, said resolving the issue of the 2012 deadline was important because failure to do so could have “derailed” the review conference and other aspects of the CWC regime. Although “at the moment, everyone is more or less content,” the 2011 decision does not necessarily mean there is universal agreement that the issue of having missed the 2012 deadline is “off the agenda,” as some countries will press to speed up the weapons destruction process, he said. But he cautioned against “overstat[ing]” the significance of Iran’s opposition to the decision and ultimate vote against it.

Some issues have proved more intractable. Eight countries are not parties to the CWC, with three of them—Egypt, Israel, and Syria—in the Middle East. Syria’s chemical weapons, which are now a source of international concern as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad appears to be losing ground to opposition forces, were seen as a counterweight to Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal. Israel is the only country in the region that is not a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Egypt has made its accession to the CWC contingent on certain Israeli actions, including accession to the NPT.

Even in the long term, those countries will “pose difficulties” for the goal of universal membership as “they have all made a conscious political decision to stay out” of the CWC, the OPCW report said.

Trapp, who now is an independent consultant on chemical and biological weapons disarmament, said in the interview that he is “quite skeptical” about the prospects for the three countries to join the CWC “in isolation” from other steps in confidence building and arms control. Putting the issue in the context of a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would at least “provide a way into the discussion,” he said, although he acknowledged that pursuing that route would mean that success, if it ever came, would lie far in the future.

A conference on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East was supposed to take place last year, but has been postponed. (See ACT, December 2012.)

With regard to the overall approach to the review conference, Trapp said it was important to make a clear distinction between the work of the review conference and that of the annual meetings. At the review conference, the CWC parties should step back, take a strategic view, and designate priorities, he said. For example, the parties could focus on the OPCW’s ability to investigate potential indications of national noncompliance or on enhancements of the system to verify that industrial chemical facilities are in compliance with the treaty, but should concentrate on agreeing on broad objectives rather than trying to resolve all the fine details needed to reach these goals, he said.

Üzümcü’s concluding remarks in the secretariat’s report list several goals to pursue, including the establishment of a more “effective and efficient verification mechanism.” Trapp said Üzümcü’s list represented the approach that he had in mind.

Other issues highlighted by the OPCW, Trapp, and other analysts include the use of incapacitating chemical agents, which are sometimes used by law enforcement agencies, and the OPCW’s need to keep pace with scientific and technological advances.