Remembering the Victims of Chemical Warfare

Above: OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu (center in the black overcoat and dark scarf, looking down) and representatives of State Party delegations, including Iran and Iraq, and NGOs.

Sunday 29 April is the annual Day of Remembrance for All Victims of Chemical Warfare. This day was established in 2006 in The Hague by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international agency that implements the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which today includes 192 States Parties representing 98% of the world’s population.

Dr Paul F. Walker, director of the Green Cross International’s Environmental Security and Sustainability (ESS) programme, commented that “while we have been able to safely eliminate 96% – over 69’000 metric tons – of all declared chemical weapons stockpiles in eight countries to date, we nevertheless still witness victims of chemical attacks in Syria; in Salisbury, UK; and in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We should not underestimate the widespread suffering of these thousands of victims, nor the long-term suffering of many victims in Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere from the inhumane use of now-outlawed chemical agents thirty or more years ago.”

Fortunately, the CWC inspectorate has overseen and verified the safe and irreversible destruction of declared chemical weapons stockpiles in Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia, South Korea, Syria, and the United States since the CWC’s entry into force in 1997. Russia declared 40’000 metric tons at seven stockpiles and destroyed these, at least in its first-stage process, from 2002 to 2017. The US declared 28’600 metric tons at nine stockpiles and has destroyed 91%, about 26’000 tons, since 1990, and projects it will be finished in 2023.

The OPCW stated in 2006: “For over a century, chemicals have been used as weapons to kill and injure en masse. This cruel and universally condemned form of warfare has taken millions of lives. Victims that survive such attacks suffer painful lifelong disabilities and disfigurement. We remember the victims of chemical warfare to honour their memory and to ensure that the torture they endured will not be forgotten. An effective global ban on these weapons will serve as the most fitting memorial to these victims. The scourge of chemical weapons will be lifted when all States join and implement the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

Article X of the CWC covers “Assistance and Protection Against Chemical Weapons,” and the OPCW continues to build support for victims in the many countries where deadly chemical agents have been used, produced, dumped, and/or buried. In World War I, for example, estimates of injured and dead victims from chemical attacks are well over one million soldiers and civilians. In Syria today, where over 200 alleged incidents of chemical use have been reported, it is estimated that thousands have been killed and injured.

Walker commented: “We welcome the OPCW’s recent establishment of a “Victims’ Fund” for support of medical care, and for research and development of better responses to long-term respiratory, skin, and other chronic injuries from chemical weapons.” The OPCW is currently organizing a two-day “International Symposium on Medical Treatment of Chemical Warfare Victims” in late June, at which Walker and other experts will speak.

Green Cross International’s Environmental Security and Sustainability programme (formerly called the Legacy of the Cold War Program) has helped facilitate every safe and timely elimination of chemical weapons in the US, Russia, and elsewhere since 1996; has advocated technologies and methods protective of the environment and public health; has worked closely with national governments, militaries, the US Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, and with the OPCW; and has established the CWC Coalition in 2009 to facilitate and advocate the involvement of civil societies, including industry and academia, in the OPCW. Today over 200 non-governmental experts and advocates register annually for the CWC Conference of States Parties, over ten times the number prior to the CWC Coalition’s establishment.