International experts and advocates on the destruction of chemical weapons are urging the United States government to back an intensified awareness campaign, particularly in Europe, amid public concerns over efforts to dismantle Syrian chemical warfare material.
In a letter sent 3 February 2014 to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, experts from a wide range of groups, including Green Cross International (GCI), Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, the Arms Control Association, Friends of the Earth-United States, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also called for a speeding up of the scheduled at-sea destruction process of about 22 tons of mustard agent and 540 tons of key binary chemical weapons components.
The letter, also copied to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), acknowledged that the destruction of chemical weapons material onboard the US merchant ship, MV Cape Ray, was a “less-risky approach” than attempting to destroy them inside conflict-wracked Syria, and that the system to be used “will minimize any potential risks to public health and the environment.”
Still, concern over public and environmental safety has already been raised in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. “Such opposition could clearly delay or prevent the timely and important mission to safely eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile in 2014,” the letter stated.
To offset such concerns, and prevent misunderstandings, the letter’s signatories said a major awareness-raising effort was needed to stage public dialogues in countries like Italy and elsewhere in the European and Mediterranean regions to explain the destruction process and discuss the risks and benefits involved.
The signatories also called on U.S. authorities leading the at-sea neutralization process to provide daily updates on disposal operations, including any air and water data readings, via a dedicated website linked with the United Nations and the OPCW. Also, live 24-hour webcams onboard the ship should be installed to document the demilitarization activity as part of confidence-building measures.
Lastly, communities in the U.S., Britain, and in Europe that could receive precursor chemicals and/or effluent from the demilitarization process should be notified, again, through forums and regulatory hearings of proposals to handle or destroy the materials in their areas.
“Full transparency, public outreach, and inclusive engagement of all stakeholders must be a central part of any toxic waste management process, especially with components of a chemical weapons programme,” said Dr Paul Walker, Director of GCI’s Environmental Security and Sustainability programme, and coordinator of the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition.
GCI was founded in 1993 by President Mikhail Gorbachev and is an independent non-profit and nongovernmental organization working to address the inter-connected global challenges of security, poverty eradication and environmental degradation through advocacy and local projects. GCI is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and has a network of national organizations in around 30 countries.