Nearly 25 Years of Chemical Weapons Disarmament: What Have We Learned?

By Jez Littlewood | 2021-12-31 20:00:00

On 29 April 2022, it will be 25 years since the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force. The state parties have achieved significant progress towards disarmament, but the world is still not free of chemical weapons. It is worth noting the successes and the failures of the CWC as well as analysing what lessons chemical disarmament offers for other prohibition campaigns.

Successes of the CWC

Today 193 states are party to the Convention and 98.9 per cent of the declared stockpiles have been verifiably destroyed (71,511 metric tonnes). Only four states are outside the CWC: Israel signed the Convention, but has yet to ratify it, whereas Egypt, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and South Sudan have neither signed nor ratified the CWC.12

Eight states have declared a total of 72,304 metric tonnes of chemical agents to the CWC since 1997. As expected, Russia and the US declared their chemical weapons, but to the surprise of many, India and the Republic of Korea also declared stockpiles in 1997. As other states joined the Convention in the 2000s, more were revealed: Albania, Libya, Iraq, and Syria. By far the largest stockpiles were owned by the US and Russia, and only the US is yet to complete its destruction. It is expected to do so by 2023.

All eight possessor states found it more difficult and expensive to destroy their weapons than anticipated. Indeed, none of the initial four reached the official deadline of complete destruction within 10 years of entry into force (April 2007) and both Russia and the US missed the extended deadline to 2012. Russia completed destruction of its declared stockpile in 2017 and, while the US is still in the process of destruction, there are no real concerns about the US destruction process.

The first fifteen years of the CWC were marked by this remarkable achievement of verified destruction and actual disarmament. After 2012 the situation in Syria changed the calculus. Following the horrors of chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, in August 2013, Syria was persuaded by Russia to join the CWC. It did so in September of 2013 and the OPCW was faced with the task of getting Syria’s declared chemical weapons out of a country during a protracted conflict and destroying them under an extremely tight timeline of one year. With assistance from the United Nations and states who supplied equipment, expertise and money, Syria’s declared chemical weapons were removed by mid-2014 and destroyed in the following months at sea on a ship. Syrian use of chemical weapons catapulted the OPCW into public recognition and the Organisation was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.

Failures of the CWC

Despite these successes, chemical weapons have been used in four countries since 2012 and each use offers perspective on the failures of disarmament. By far the biggest issue has been the continued use of chemical weapons in Syria. Its declared stockpile of weapons had been destroyed, but over 300 alleged uses of chemical weapons have been documented in the Syrian conflict, many of them since 2014.3 Most of these remain allegations, but Fact-Finding Missions by the OPCW have investigated 77 allegations and determined 17 cases of use or likely use of chemical weapons in Syria.4 Some incidents have been attributed to specific perpetrators, either under a previous United Nations-OPCW Joint Investigation Mechanism or, since 2018, under the OPCW created Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) responsible for identifying the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Confirming use of chemical weapons is a separate process to determining who used them (i.e., attribution). In two cases, the perpetrator was the Islamic State; in seven the perpetrator was the Syrian government, all of which occurred after Syria joined the CWC. Syria is in non-compliance with its disarmament obligations under the CWC.5

Incidents in Malaysia, the United Kingdom (UK) and Russia present different challenges. In 2017 in Kuala Lumpur airport, Malaysia, Kim Jongnam, the half-brother of Kim Jongun, the Supreme Leader of the DPRK, was killed by a highly toxic nerve agent called VX.6 Over a year later in the UK, a highly sophisticated chemical nerve agent, “novichok,” was used in an attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Both survived, but two other individuals found a perfume bottle that was apparently used to deliver the agent; one of them died. Two Russian intelligence officers were in Salisbury at the time of the attempted assassination of the Skripals and Russia has been accused of orchestrating the assassination attempt.

Use of novichok for attempted assassination hit the headlines once more in late 2020 when Alexei Navalny fell ill on a flight in Russia and was subsequently rushed to Germany for treatment.7 Clinicial testing of Navalny revealed traces of a novichok type chemical and in March 2021 two UN rights experts called Russia responsible for the poisoning and attempted killing of jailed opposition figure.8

Disarmament is incomplete. The global community faces continuing challenges to exclude completely the use of chemical weapons, in line with the Preamble of the CWC.

Lessons for Others

The world is better off because of the CWC and the work of the OPCW, but three issues stand out. First, disarmament works, but is a lengthy and hard task. Verifiably destroying chemical weapons took longer, was more complex and far more expensive than expected. Implementation of disarmament obligations requires an inordinate amount of attention well after the treaty enters into force.

Second, an agreement must be detailed, but flexible. The CWC run over 150 pages. It was crafted during the Cold War, its mechanisms predominantly developed to address the stockpiles of two states: Russia and the US. By necessity, the OPCW has had to adapt to unforeseen events. More states declared weapons than expected. Events in Syria and Russian use of chemical agents for attempted assassinations have required a different approach. The Convention itself must be a living document and both its technical implementation staff (the Organisation) and its states parties (the political decision makers) must permit the evolution of practices to address challenges.

Third, there will be non-compliance and violations. Too often, the really hard questions of what to do when non-compliance is alleged or occurs are skipped over in the final compromises needed to reach an agreement. States lie, and any disarmament agreement must be able to uncover the facts and determine who is responsible for the violation of an agreement. Being able to determine non-compliance has occurred, conduct attribution investigations of known use of banned weapons and having procedures to hold perpetrators to account are not luxuries but necessities.

Finally, an agreement does not stand alone. The CWC is the heart of chemical disarmament, but it sits within a much broader anti-chemical weapons regime that stretches as far back as 1675 and was codified in the 1870s. Furthermore, the regime itself is embedded in a normative constraint against chemical weapons: the horror and revulsion from when chemical weapons are used. Each element, the treaty, the regime, and the norm, is essential.

Jez Littlewood studies chemical weapons affairs from Edmonton.

1 Jez Littlewood is a policy analyst based in Alberta.

2 Basic information on the CWC and the OPCW are available at the OPCW website. See the following for a basic overview: and

3 Global Public Policy Institute. The Scale and Logic of Chemical Weapons Use in Syria

4 OPCW. Statement by the OPCW Director-General, at the United Nations Security Council As delivered on 3 June 2021, The Hague, Netherlands

5 For an overview see: John Hart and Ralf Trapp. “Collateral Damage? The Chemical Weapons Convention in the Wake of the Syrian Civil War” Arms Control Today, April 2018, pp 6-13.

6 BBC. Kim Jong-nam killing: ‘VX nerve agent’ found on his face 24 February 2017

7 Oliver Meier, Alexander Kelle. 2021. The Navalny poisoning: Moscow evades accountability and mocks the Chemical Weapons Convention Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

8 United Nations. Russia responsible for Navalny poisoning, rights experts say. 1 March, 2021.

Peace Magazine January-March 2022

Peace Magazine January-March 2022, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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