Grounds for Optimism and Action on Chemical Weapons Convention’s 10th Anniversary

Note for Reporters

For Immediate Release: May 4, 2007

Press Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association, (202) 463-8270 x107; Alex Bollfrass, Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow, Arms Control Association (202) 463-8270 x103

(Washington, D.C.): May was supposed to be the first month of a chemical weapons-free world. Despite the successes of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), almost 49,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agent remain stockpiled in six countries. Some states are also feared to be researching such compounds in secret, while new chemical manufacturing technologies could make it more difficult to detect noncompliance.

An evaluation of the convention at the 10-year mark inspires optimism for the future and cautions against complacency. The CWC has no doubt successfully established an effective norm against the stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, but needs to be made more effective and adapted to today’s chemical threats. With additional members, smarter verification, and faster destruction, the CWC can be decisive in finally ridding the world of chemical weapons.

Stockpile Destruction

Six signatories have declared that they possess chemical weapons: the United States, Russia, South Korea, India, Albania, and Libya. International inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have been monitoring the destruction of these weapons. A total of 18,145 metric tons have been eliminated so far.

The CWC set April 29, 2007 as the final deadline for the destruction of all declared chemical weapons. But it allows each signatory a maximum extension of five years, which all states except Albania have requested. Neither the United States nor Russia, which together have about 98 percent of the remaining global stockpile, will meet the extended 2012 deadline.

Various factors have delayed the destruction schedule of the possessor-states. Russia, the holder of the largest arsenal, has been hampered by financial difficulties. It received aid to address the problem, but has quarreled with donors about the terms of their assistance. Russia maintains unrealistically that it will observe the 2012 deadline.

In the United States, management snags, transportation complications, underfunding, and the sheer magnitude of the problem has delayed the U.S. chemical weapons destruction effort. After funding cutbacks in each of the past three years, the Defense Department announced in Nov. 2006 that the final two U.S. chemical weapons disposal sites would likely complete operations in 2020 (Pueblo, Colorado) and 2023 (Blue Grass, Kentucky). Increased funding for both of these last two CW stockpile sites in Kentucky and Colorado, starting in fiscal year 2008, are important because it would accelerate facility construction and hasten the demilitarization schedule; improve compliance with the CWC and encourage other declared possessor states to meet their destruction deadlines; and reduce risks to local communities.

Albania, which did not request an extension, set the unfortunate precedent this past weekend of not meeting its final deadline. The CWC members’ response to this violation will set the tone for the international reaction to the probable U.S. and Russian failure to meet their own deadlines. The coming months will demonstrate whether it is enough for a state to be working in good faith or if there will be calls for penalties. While CWC states- parties that still possess chemical weapons are clearly committed to destroying their stockpiles, they lack an appropriate sense of urgency to get the job done.

Moreover, the Russian stockpile is a serious security concern. Blister and nerve agents are stored in easily portable artillery shells, often in poorly secured warehouses. The United States has provided security upgrades and helped to build destruction facilities, but the Bush administration has not requested enough money in its fiscal year 2008 budget to finish the job. Construction of the major Russian chemical weapons destruction facility Shchuch’ye is only half completed. Now it is up to Congress to add funds and make it harder for rogue elements to obtain chemical munitions. An additional $100 million for fiscal year 2008 would ensure a timely completion of the cooperative effort. (See the May 2007 issue of Arms Control Today for more details.)


The CWC has attracted many signatories within a short period. In addition to the 182 states that have ratified, six more have signed. Bringing the remaining seven states into the convention will be difficult. Several of the non-signatories are suspected of possessing or developing weapons. The most worrisome countries are in the Middle East, especially Egypt and Syria. Israel has signed, but not ratified the CWC. North Korea is suspected of having an active program and has shown no interest in signing the convention.

The OPCW is actively courting these countries with regional conferences and other means. Iraq and Lebanon are reported to be close to signing, but are stalled by internal discord. Some cases are obviously more difficult than others, but each new CWC member further magnifies the pariah status associated with chemical weapons.


Compared with their biological and nuclear counterparts, chemical weapons are cheaper to develop and easier to acquire. Recent chlorine bomb attacks in Iraq highlight the problem. The convention has promising nonproliferation mechanisms in place to contain chemical bomb aspirants, whether they are states or terrorists. The treaty created the OPCW, which oversees stockpile destruction and conducts routine inspections of chemical sites to ensure that no weapons agents are produced.

Jonathan Tucker warned in a January 2007 article in Arms Control Today that “the narrow scope of the routine verification regime risks creating false confidence in compliance.” The OPCW may be looking in the wrong places. While they conduct industrial-site inspections, the vast majority of the inspectors’ time is spent verifying the destruction of declared stockpiles. This could allow states to produce novel chemical agents in secret locations while appearing to be in full compliance with the treaty.

The authors of the CWC anticipated this problem and built in several features to counteract it. The most potent is a state-party’s right to demand a challenge inspection if it suspects a violation. So far, no challenge inspections have been requested. States are reluctant to request a challenge inspection because it would be politically sensitive, they might be proven wrong, and because they fear they could divulge their intelligence sources.

There are several ways of making challenge inspections more palatable. Tucker suggests that “CWC member states should use them initially to resolve ambiguities, such as whether a particular facility should have been declared.” Another option would be to request inspections of suspected terrorist laboratories, helping countries enforce their own norms and laws. This is less confrontational and applies the 10-year-old CWC to today’s challenges.

The framework for approaching the chemical weapons threat is in place. It must be reinforced with a strengthened commitment to stockpile destruction, broadened in membership to include the last holdouts, and armed with a smarter verification system. If states take these steps, they can fulfill their promise of a chemical weapons-free world.

For more resources, news, and analysis on the Chemical Weapons Convention see the Arms Control Association’s chemical weapons resource page at <>. The April edition of Arms Control Today contains an interview with OPCW Director-General Rogelio Pfirter, available at <>.