World War I taught the horrors of using chemicals against adversaries, but it was not until 1997 that the international community agreed to a treaty that aimed to outlaw this entire category of weapons. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) took effect in 1997, and today, 193 countries count themselves as adherents. The treaty encompasses 98 percent of the global population and has resulted in the destruction of more than 98 percent of the world’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles.
Yet, concerns are rising that some desperate leaders have become newly emboldened to use chemical weapons, which generally cause slow, agonizing deaths. Russia, for instance, has been accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny, opponents of President Vladimir Putin. In 17 cases, Syria was found to likely or definitely have used chemical weapons, according to the head of the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Arms Control Today interviewed Susanne Baumann, German commissioner for disarmament and arms control, by email on the status of the global norm against chemical weapons and how it can be strengthened.
Arms Control Today: The global norm against chemical weapons use is eroding. In the past five years, chemical weapons have been used in violation of the CWC in the poisoning of political dissidents or high-level officials and in numerous and indiscriminate attacks against civilians. Violators of the treaty have done so with relative impunity. What is the reason for this trend? Has the world become numb to such weapons? Are nuclear weapons viewed as so much more lethal that chemical weapons are dwarfed?
Commissioner Susanne Baumann: Nuclear and chemical weapons are both weapons of mass destruction that could cause horrible human losses and suffering. At the same time, chemical weapons are in many respects different from nuclear systems. Access to chemical weapons is easier, and their manufacturing, handling, and use are technically less demanding compared to nuclear weapons. In addition, correct and rapid attribution can be a challenge if chemical weapons are used in asymmetric conflicts or for the targeted assassination of individuals. In my view, it is exactly these characteristics of chemical weapons that have led to their use in a number of cases in recent years, ranging from the notorious and appalling chemical attacks in the Syrian civil war to the infamous cases of Skripal and Navalny. These incidents come with new challenges for the international community and the rules-based order. It is now extremely important that we strengthen the notion that the CWC is not only about banning the use of chemical weapons in international conflicts. On the contrary, the CWC is based on the principle that the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, and under any circumstances constitutes a violation of international law. That is why the German government cooperated very closely with the OPCW after the attack on Navalny. That is also why we actively support the efforts of the OPCW to shed light on chemical weapons use cases in Syria.
ACT: What specific steps could be taken within the next five years to reinforce the global norm and strengthen compliance with the CWC?
Baumann: It is obvious that norms have to be enforced in order to really be effective. In today’s international environment, this is often easier said than done. Yet, the recent cases of chemical weapons use clearly show that the international community is not willing to accept the erosion of the CWC. Within the OPCW framework, a number of new mechanisms have been established in order to clarify the circumstances of the chemical attacks in Syria and to attribute responsibility. This evolution has not been self-evident. The OPCW became the central player on the Syrian file because Russia vetoed several decisions at the UN Security Council that would have allowed further clarification and investigation into the issue of responsibility for the attacks. As a consequence, a growing majority of OPCW state-parties supported the creation the OPCW’s own investigative instruments.
ACT: Moving forward, how can the treaty be strengthened to provide for stronger accountability mechanisms against CWC violators?
Baumann: With the new mechanisms, the OPCW has successfully started not only to determine whether, when, and where chemical weapons were used in Syria, but also, based on reports of the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), to identify the guilty parties. Given the circumstances, that is an almost revolutionary step forward for the CWC and, in more general terms, for the international rules-based order. In times of hybrid warfare and disguised attacks, the notion of accountability and impunity becomes increasingly central. That is also why initiatives like the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons are of great importance for raising international awareness and generating support for international bodies like the OPCW. It is also essential that the UN Security Council continues to deal with chemical weapons use in Syria on a monthly basis despite opposition from some Security Council member states.
ACT: What additional steps could be taken to deter would-be CWC violators?
Baumann: Deterrence is closely linked to the concept of individual accountability. The OPCW has investigative mechanisms at its disposal but no judicial means to penalize individuals. To this end, states-parties are required by the CWC to put effective national legislation in place, explicitly penalizing any activity banned by the CWC. Roughly two-thirds of OPCW states-parties, including Germany, have translated the CWC into their respective national legislation. Although having laws on paper is an important first step, what counts is implementation. Training and education of experts is key. In this field, international cooperation, including with the OPCW, remains essential. Here too, Germany is supporting the organization very strongly.
ACT: CWC states-parties have voted to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under CWC Article XII, which states that a noncompliant state’s rights and privileges may be suspended until it returns to full compliance under the treaty. Syria has been called on to declare the entirety of its chemical weapons stockpile and affiliated facilities to regain its rights and privileges. In your view, what next steps should the CWC states-parties and the international community writ large take if Syria fails to cooperate with the OPCW and return to compliance with the CWC?
Baumann: With the decision to suspend Syria's rights and privileges under the CWC, the conference of states-parties in April 2021 for the first time made use of the sanctions mechanism provided for by the CWC, thus making clear that chemical weapons use is not tolerated by the international community and will not avoid consequences. In a next step, this decision will be submitted to the UN Security Council and General Assembly through the secretary-general. If Syria does not return to compliance with the CWC, the international community might decide on further steps in the UN framework. It should not be overlooked that the European Union, as a consequence of the chemical attacks in Syria, established a sanctions mechanism specifically to react to violations of the CWC. The EU used this mechanism to impose sanctions on Syrian individuals and institutions and, more recently, on Russian individuals and institutions in connection with the Navalny case.
ACT: In the latest progress report, the OPCW identified a new issue with Syria’s stockpile declaration, which was described as an undeclared chemical warfare agent. As the OPCW works to clarify inconsistencies with Syria’s dossier, how can the organization ensure the completeness of Syria’s stockpile declaration?
Baumann: Ensuring the complete declaration of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is the mandate of the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team. The team has worked in a very thorough way since its inception in 2014. There have been numerous rounds of consultations with Syria. The next visit to Syria is planned for early this summer. The detection of a newly undeclared chemical warfare agent by the team in samples taken in September 2020 shows that there are still open questions and, what is even worse, there are new inconsistencies. What is also obvious is that the team experts are extremely able and cannot be easily fooled by Syria. Even if progress is very slow and not without setbacks, the work has to continue. The Syrian case cannot be closed. The more imminent worry remains, of course, to ensure that the Syrian regime does not embark on the use of chemical weapons again.
ACT: Nearly nine months have passed since Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, was poisoned in Russia with a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent. Despite strong evidence of Moscow’s involvement, the Kremlin has yet to be held accountable for violating the CWC’s prohibition on developing, possessing, or using chemical weapons. What can be done to ensure that Russia is held accountable for violating the CWC?
Baumann: The use of a chemical nerve agent against Navalny, a Russian citizen, represents an outrageous breach of the taboo against using chemical weapons. The attack happened on Russian territory. It is up to Russia to clarify the circumstances of this attack, which raises a number of questions on Russia’s compliance with the CWC. Russia has all necessary evidence to start criminal investigations into this attack. In this regard, it is also regrettable that Russia has so far not cooperated with the OPCW, which stands ready to provide technical assistance to Russia. The pressure has to be maintained by CWC states-parties in order to assure that Russia actually fulfills its obligations under Article VII of the CWC.
ACT: Can the CWC ever really be a credible restraint on chemical weapons use if Russia, a nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, violates it?
Baumann: International efforts on disarmament and arms control are uphill battles by nature. Enforcing arms control norms is the biggest challenge. Arms control and nonproliferation arrangements like the CWC provide only limited tools for sanctioning or penalizing the guilty party. That is why concerted action taken by different international organizations and bodies is needed. In the case of the poisoning of Navalny, the EU has reacted very rapidly by imposing sanctions. We have to uphold this pressure together, with and through other international forums like the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, the UN International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, and human rights bodies. Progress is possible when we put the necessary commitment to the task and cooperate with one another. The latest decisions at the OPCW on creating investigative mechanisms and taking measures against Syria show a growing support for the concept of attribution or the notion of accountability. This is encouraging.
ACT: The OPCW IIT is an important mechanism to ensure that instances of chemical weapons use in Syria are properly attributed and that the perpetrators of those attacks are identified. In your view, are there benefits to expanding the IIT’s mandate beyond Syria to investigate instances of chemical weapons use on the territory of any CWC state-party?
Baumann: The decision of the conference of states-parties in 2018 already foresees support by the OPCW for investigations of chemical weapons use beyond Syria. The director-general, if requested by a state-party to investigate possible chemical weapons use on its territory, can provide technical expertise to identify those who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors, or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons. Hence, there is a path to broadening the mandate of the IIT for other cases. It would require further detailing and, first of all, the consent and the cooperation of the state-party concerned.
ACT: What role do you see the IIT playing in future efforts to strengthen compliance and accountability under the CWC?
Baumann: The IIT plays an essential role because it identifies those responsible for the use of chemical weapons and thus prepares the ground for holding them accountable. Professional, independent investigations and the identification of perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks send out a clear message: chemical weapons use will not be without consequences. More IIT reports are to come, as only four of nine incidents that the IIT planned to investigate have been addressed up to now.
ACT: During a recent UN Security Council Arria Formula meeting, several nations, including Russia, expressed concern over what they view as “politicization” of the OPCW, despite offering little concrete evidence. Those states reiterated their concerns during the CWC Conference of States Parties and voted against the call to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the treaty. How would you respond to this and similar remarks that the OPCW’s work is politicized?
Baumann: Claims of a politicization of the OPCW have been pronounced by states-parties who apparently fear naming and shaming and, quintessentially, fear attribution and the establishment of accountability. In a very blunt and absurd manner, they try to question the professionalism and the impartiality of the OPCW experts. The current problem in this respect is the state-sponsored chemical weapons use by Syria. Very few allies of Syria seem determined to shield Syria against consequences in international forums. The camp of those who want to slow down the evolution toward stronger attribution and stronger norms remains small. The Syria attacks and the cases involving Skripal and Navalny have shown the growing strong support for the OPCW and the CWC.
ACT: What is your view on the role of the OPCW in identifying perpetrators of chemical weapons use?
Baumann: The OPCW has the necessary instruments and expertise at its disposal to identify guilty parties, including individuals. Yet, it does need the cooperation of the respective state-party to fulfill its mandate. Moving from attribution to judicial accountability remains one of the biggest challenges in fighting the use of chemical weapons. But again, here the OPCW and the states-parties have made significant progress over the last decade, which gives reason for optimism that the OPCW can become a driving force in the overall fight for more accountability.