One hundred years ago today, at 17:00 on April 22, 1915, The Kaiser’s Germany undertook the first major attack with toxic gas when it opened 5,700 compressed gas canisters of chlorine, allowing clouds of “yellowish-green hellish haze” to drift down on French, Algerian, Canadian, and British Allied troops in Flanders Fields. Over a thousand soldiers were gassed and killed that tragic day around the Belgian towns of Ieper and Langemark-Poelkapelle. Soon thereafter more deadly chemical agents – primarily mustard, lewisite, and phosgene – were developed by all sides and eventually killed an estimated 90,000 soldiers and injured another million in the First World War.
The horrors of inhumane and indiscriminate chemical warfare in WWI led to the signing of the Geneva Protocol in 1925, prohibiting use of biological and chemical agents in war. The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), now joined by 190 countries, successfully bans not just use but also development, testing, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons, requires all states -parties to declare chemical weapons stockpiles, and to safely and irreversibly destroy them (Biological and toxin weapons are prohibited by a separate convention, concluded in 1972).
Dr. Paul Walker, director of the GCI Security and Sustainability Programme and the recipient of the prestigious 2013 Right Livelihood Award, stated that “April 22nd is a solemn day to remember the thousands killed in chemical warfare over the last century, but it is also a day to strengthen our commitment to the Chemical Weapons Convention and to finally establishing a world free of chemical weapons.”
Since the CWC’s entry into force in 1997, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague has verified the destruction of 63,600 tonnes of declared chemical weapons, or 87% of the total declared by eight countries: Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, the Russian Federation, Republic of Korea, the Syrian Arab Republic, and the United States of America. Only Russia and the United States still have stocks of Category 1 chemical weapons slated for destruction (5,200 and 2,800 tonnes, respectively). Small stocks of toxic industrial chemicals associated with past weapons programmes from Syria (19 tonnes) and Libya (850 tonnes) are in the process of being destroyed, and plans for destroying unusable remnants of chemical weapons from Iraq are being finalised.
According to Dr. Alexander Likhotal, President of Green Cross International, “the CWC and the OPCW offer an excellent example of how a whole category of weapons of mass destruction can be outlawed and then gradually eliminated in a pragmatic, flexible, non-discriminatory, and cooperative way, based on the principles of undiminished security and effective international verification, and with special attention to protecting the environment and human health.”
“Almost 20 years of CWC implementation and OPCW operations have been a remarkable success,” stressed Likhotal. “However, in order to be continuously up to the highest standards, the OPCW should move decisively to speed up the implementation of its initial tasks, some of which are overdue, and respond to new challenges.”
To that end, Green Cross International calls for the following three interrelated steps:
(1) Completing the safe, irreversible, and verified elimination of all remaining chemical weapons stockpiles of Russia, the US, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
(2) Bringing in the remaining seven non-member countries – Angola, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, Palestine, and South Sudan – into the Chemical Weapons Convention in order to make it truly “universal.”
(3) Strengthening the CWC and its implementing multilateral agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, by upgrading and modernizing its verification capabilities, developing further projects for cooperation and assistance, public outreach and education, inclusion of civil society, and promotion of peaceful uses of chemistry. It should also develop and implement new strategies to prevent the risks of circumvention of the CWC resulting from developments of science and technology (in particular convergence of chemistry and biology), and raise barriers against military use of incapacitants, riot control agents, and certain toxic industrial chemicals, such as chlorine, including by non-state actors. Only a strong and effective OPCW will help to prevent the reemergence of chemical weapons.