The Great Lakes Invitational Conference Association

Re-Evaluating the Chemical Weapons Convention

Re-Evaluating the Chemical Weapons Convention

The international community has long deemed chemical warfare to be a crime against humanity. In the largest multilateral effort to restrict the use of chemical weapons, all but four UN member states have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Since taking effect in 1997, the CWC has prohibited the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons by states that are party to the treaty. As of 2016, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which ensures CWC compliance, has verified the destruction of over 90 percent of declared chemical weapon stockpiles. During the ongoing Syrian Civil War, several parties have allegedly engaged in chemical warfare. In September 2013, the Syrian government agreed to become a party to the CWC and, per United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118, eliminate its stockpile of chemical weapons such as sarin, VX nerve agent, and sulfur mustard. News reports accuse Syria of reneging on this deal and non-state actors, including the Islamic State and rebel groups, of repeatedly using chlorine and sulfur mustard in attacks in Syria and Iraq. North Korea has also allegedly amassed large stockpiles of nerve agents such as sarin and VX, and recently used VX to assassinate the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Malaysia.


On the 20th anniversary of the CWC, the treaty has shown signs of age and arguably struggles to address how state and non-state actors currently produce and deploy chemical weapons. The relatively narrow definition of a chemical weapon under the CWC regulates chemicals that serve only to kill or harm people. Under the CWC, states may legally stockpile chemicals that can serve both a commercial and a military purpose. A wide variety of commercial industries use chlorine, a chemical element, for peaceful purposes. However, chlorine is highly toxic in its gaseous form and, although states may legally stockpile the chemical agent, warring parties have used it as a weapon since World War I. The CWC also allows states to stockpile incapacitating chemical agents (ICAs), which can provide a non-lethal means of crowd control, and illumination devices, such as highly toxic white phosphorus munitions. Although the CWC prohibits states from using ICAs and illumination devices as offensive weapons, states have released lethal doses of ICAs, such as when Russian special forces killed 130 civilian hostages with an ICA in the 2002 Moscow theater siege.


Recent developments in chemistry have blurred the line between chemical and biological weapons. Biological processes can now yield toxic compounds. The CWC does not regulate these processes, and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) does not require states to verify if they have destroyed the compounds. To address this gap in arms control, policymakers have proposed merging the CWC and BWC in an updated treaty that more closely regulates biotech industries and sales of chemicals and reactor technology. The proposal would broaden the remit of the CWC beyond member states, restricting non-state actors’ access to chemical weapons and equipment, such as compact reactors, necessary to produce toxic compounds. This body must decide whether to move forward with this proposal, direct the OPCW to more proactively regulate emerging innovations in chemistry, and more forcefully penalize actors who breach the CWC. In addition, delegates should consider how a broader definition of chemical weapons would affect the use of chemicals for commercial and non-lethal purposes.

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