In Geneva, Green Cross and Graduate Institute discuss the threat of chemical weapons – in history and today

Green Cross International and the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) jointly hosted a screening of the new film, “Winds of Chemical Warfare” in Geneva on 6 May, 2015. The film was produced with input and guidance from Green Cross Environmental Security and Sustainability Director Paul Walker and looks at the history of chemical weapons in the 100 years since their first use in 1915, and the on-going efforts to eliminate them today.

The screening was followed by a roundtable on the challenging issues raised in the film including the conflict in Syria, terrorism, the ongoing need for a strong Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and coordination with the global chemicals industry. The discussion, moderated by Adam Koniuszewski, COO of Green Cross International, featured Peter Sawczak, Head of Government Relations and Political Affairs at the OPCW in The Hague, Jean Pascal Zanders, IHEID Research Associate and Head of the Trench disarmament consultancy, and Sergey Batsanov, Director of Pugwash Geneva, former Soviet then Russian Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament.

IHEID is dedicated to the study of world affairs, with a particular emphasis on the cross-cutting fields of international relations and development issues. IHEID’s commitment to developing creative thinking on the major challenges of our time has included bringing Zanders in to their Centre for Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding programme, where he researched questions of armament and disarmament dynamics, terrorism, and contributed analysis of international security disarmament and arms control treaties.

Koniuszewski opened the session by describing the work of Green Cross in actively supporting and facilitating the chemical weapons destruction process, with a focus on ensuring safe and environmentally sound methods of destruction, promoting transparency throughout the process, and engaging with the local population and civil society. In late 2013, in recognition for this work, Walker and Green Cross were awarded the Right Livelihood Award – also known as the alternative Nobel Prize. Green Cross also spearheaded a movement to bring greater civil society support and advice to the on-going work of the OPCW in The Hague, assembling a group of some 150 civil society organisations into the CWC Coalition.

The full discussion between Jean-Pascal Zanders, Andrew Sawczak, Serguei Batsanov and Adam Koniuszewski can be viewed here.

The OPCW is the organisation responsible for implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the international agreement banning all use or stockpiling of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone. It is very close to achieving universal state membership. According to Sawczak, of the remaining non-member states Angola and Myanmar are expected to join the treaty soon. For South Sudan it is mainly a question of government capacity, but they may be able to join in the near future as well. Egypt and Israel remain unwilling based on their respective regional security concerns, and North Korea has yet to be engaged at all.

“This is arguably the most successful disarmament treaty in the history of such negotiations,” said Sawczak. “It is a non-discriminatory treaty – all states have the same obligations and access to the same rights, and we have a verification regime that is perhaps the gold standard. This unique combination of provisions has helped us to build a great deal of transparency and confidence among member states.”

At the same time, it must be remembered that as new threats emerge it will be necessary to maintain a strong commitment to the work of the OPCW. If the world community allows itself to become too complacent, it might not be in a position to respond to the next incident or crisis.

“We have come a very long way,” said Zanders. “However, at the same time, we cannot and we should not imagine that the task is complete. We still have many years of work ahead of us, and it will be very difficult – there is no funding for civil society, there is no funding for academic research, and yet that fundamental work behind the scenes still needs to be done to keep pressure on governments to fulfill their commitments.”

According to Batsanov, one of the things that make the CWC an effective model is its remarkable adaptability to new challenges.

“The convention was not about preventing terrorist use – and that was not the intention of the drafters. However, it is adaptable to that task. The convention’s mechanism relies heavily on national action – the laws and regulations governments put in place to enforce it. Governments are obliged to take responsibility for their citizens – wherever they are, including working in other countries – and have the duty and authority to prosecute all violations.

“This was what was missing when the Aum Shinrikyo cult (in 1995, in Japan) assembled their weapons. The authorities knew well what that cult was doing, but couldn’t intervene until the terrorists actually started killing people. But this was before the convention. If it had happened after Japan joined the convention, the police would have had the authority to arrest the cultists just for making and possessing those weapons.”

Equally, the CWC and the OPCW were not specifically designed to manage chemical disarmament in a country torn apart by civil war. Yet, the Syrian crisis and Syrian chemical disarmament amply demonstrated what the OPCW is capable of when it can rely on cohesive support from key players and on cooperation with the United Nations. Since Syria declared its stockpile, some 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents have been destroyed.

The Geneva screening was one of several events organised in Europe and the United States. The film was also also broadcast on ARTE Television on 28 April, preceded by a 15-minute interview with Walker and Andrea Fies. A further event will be organized later in the year when Walker is in Geneva to participate.

Koniuszewski added that facilitating the process of eliminating chemical weapons is only one of Green Cross’ activity areas. Green Cross is active in addressing chemical pollution and environmental contamination, including the human consequences of pollution such as from Agent Orange in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and nuclear contamination in Chernobyl and Fukushima. Green Cross also provides access to water and sanitation, spreads environmental education and addresses climate change.