Chemical Weapons Abolition: Are we there yet?

On Tuesday, 26 July, Green Cross International and the Geneva Environment Network came together before a packed audience to offer expert perspectives on the ongoing effort to ban and eliminate chemical weapons worldwide. Green Cross Executive Director Adam Koniuszewski and Henrik Slotte, Chief of UNEP’s Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch, opened the event by placing the issue in the context of their organisations’ work, and introduced the key speakers.

“This is the first time UNEP has been able to talk publicly about its work on chemical weapons in Syria,” said Slotte, noting the event was both timely and important.

“Green Cross has some 30 national offices, practical projects in over 50 countries and global advocacy activities. The Environmental Security and Sustainability (ESS) programme is one of the pillars of those efforts,” said Koniuszewski. “Education is at the center of all we do. For example, 2016 marks the 18th anniversary of GC Environmental Diaries that over 1.2 million kids participated in since its launch by GC Japan in 1998”. Koniuszewski added that today, 60 youth aged 14 to 17 from Chernobyl and Fukushima will visit UNOG, the IFRC and will put together a theatrical play to raise awareness about nuclear disasters”.

Paul Walker, Green Cross International’s Environmental Security and Sustainability Programme Director, spoke about the history of chemical weapons abolition and the next challenges on the horizon. Walker, who works out of Washington, DC, is one of the world’s leading advocates for the abolition of chemical weapons.

“It’s a pretty exotic field for an environmental organisation, and we’re pretty unique at Green Cross to be doing this,” Walker said.

He added that progress in eliminating chemical weapons stockpiles, the “most dangerous stuff,” has been impressive. But that means attention can be turned to other areas that have been ignored until now, such as old buried weapons.

“Most people don’t talk about this, but every country that researched, developed and produced chemical weapons buried most of their old weapons,” said Walker. “In the United States, for instance, we have upwards of 250 suspected burial sites for chemical weapons – one site we’ve been working on with the US Army Corps of Engineers since 1993 is in downtown Washington, DC, which has over 1,000 beautiful houses built over it.

“Sea-dumped chemical weapons are also a big issue that no-one has been willing to address up to now. I think that’s one of the next stages we’ll see coming up, mostly in the Baltic States where tens of thousands of tonnes were dumped after WWII.”

Muralee Thummarukudy, Senior Programme Officer at UNEP, spoke about his own experience eliminating chemical weapons in Syria, and the unique challenges of carrying out this dangerous operation in a war zone.

UNEP provided environmental expertise to the Joint UN-OPCW mission to destroy Syrian chemical weapons, advising on environmental safeguards for all steps of the process, starting from transportation from the storage site, loading in the port of Latakia, to the final destruction aboard the US Ship Cape Ray.

“This was the first time we had been asked to be part of a chemical weapons destruction process,” said Thummarukudy. “Because Syria was a very unusual case. In ‘normal’ chemical weapons destruction cases, there is no transport of the weapons from country A to country B – they are always destroyed in the country of origin. But these needed to come out, and so needed much closer UN supervision.”

The floor was opened to questions, on such issues as Depleted Uranium, Declaration Assessment Teams, and “Challenge Inspection” provisions within the convention to be activated by the member states (not initiated by the secretariat). There were also comments about the importance of education, and specifically education programs that take a longer-term strategic vision to help OPCW reach out to communities.

Green Cross International and the Geneva Environment Network agreed on the need to plan a follow-up session on obsolete pesticides and chemical pollution, which could be held in cooperation with the Basel and Stockholm Conventions.

Marie-Gaëlle Robles, Counsellor and permanent representative of France to the Conference on Disarmament, delivered the closing remarks.

“The environmental dimension cannot be taken in isolation from the security and disarmament process. These have to go hand-in-hand in order to be successful,” said Robles.

For more information (including the speaker presentations), click here.