Recent events from the Middle East to Northeast Asia have once again highlighted the unsatisfactory state of affairs with respect to the tool kit available to the international community for responding to the challenge of weapons of mass destruction. This makes it all the more curious as to why more attention is not paid to the one area where success is more clearly demonstrable.

Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons can inflict mass casualties in a single attack. The first two have been outlawed. The Chemical Weapons Convention, in force since 1997, is the jewel in the crown of global treaties regulating weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Unlike the more familiar Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the CWC is universal and does not create a world of chemical apartheid in which a small group of countries is in legitimate possession of weapons that are banned for all others. Unlike the Biological Weapons Convention (BMC), the CWC contains rigorous provisions on monitoring and verification that routinely reach into the private sector to a depth and breadth neither contemplated before nor emulated since. Universality, equality, nondiscrimination and the promise of effectiveness have helped secure near-total adherence to the CWC, embracing 95 and 98 percent of the world’s population and chemical industry respectively.

The use of chemicals as weapons — poisoned arrows, arsenic smoke, noxious fumes — is as old as human history. Their range, accuracy and lethality increased exponentially with the efficient harnessing for large-scale deployment, utilizing modern industrial processes and organization.

There has been a matching interest in limiting the use of chemicals as tools of war. The CWC was the product of 20 years’ negotiations for a treaty-based ban on the production, possession, proliferation, transfer and use of chemical weapons, and their total elimination. It is the only multilateral treaty to ban an entire category of WMD, provide for international verification of their destruction and the conversion of their production facilities to peaceful purposes, and actively involve the global chemicals industry in treaty negotiations and ongoing verification. The CWC also promotes international cooperation in the peaceful uses of chemicals and provides for assistance and protection to countries under chemical weapons (CW) threat or attack.

The convention requires destruction of all declared CW arsenals and production facilities. Unlike the NPT and the BWC, it establishes an implementing secretariat. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is required to oversee and verify the total destruction of all declared chemical weapons; inactivate and destroy or convert to peaceful purposes all CW production facilities; and inspect the production and, in some cases, the processing and consumption of dual-use chemicals, and receive declarations of their transfer, in order to ensure their exclusive peaceful use.

The OPCW membership totals 186 countries. It has developed a database of over 1,500 CW-related compounds. It works also to improve our capacity to respond to chemical attack and protect civilian populations.

All declared CW production capacity has been inactivated, with 55 of the 65 CW production facilities certified as destroyed or converted to peaceful purposes. Inventory of all declared CW stockpiles has been completed, though only 2.5 million of the 8.7 million munitions have been destroyed. Just a tiny drop of nerve agent the size of a pinhead can kill an adult within minutes, yet under 14,000 of the 71,000 tons of declared CW agents have been destroyed. Over 6,000 industrial facilities around the world are liable for inspection.

Although the “architecture” for banning chemical weapons is complete and effective, many critical components of the inspections regime remain untested, and efforts are in train for achieving universality, reporting of dual-use exports and imports, and ensuring effective verification and enforcement. With the verified destruction of only one-fifth of declared weapons agents, the goal of destruction of all CW stockpiles by the agreed extended deadline of 2012 may not be met.

The OPCW has conducted 2,500 inspections at 200 military and 700 industrial sites in 76 countries. But it is yet to refer a case of possible noncompliance to the U.N. Security Council. This curious oddity, of a distinctively strong challenge inspection system that has never been utilized, may indicate that the convention’s deterrent effect has been perfect. But the effectiveness of a system yet to be tested must remain under question.

Is the CWC a dinosaur, a relic left over from the Cold War? Or a model for multilateral undertakings to build global consensus on security through arms control, create confidence and deter treaty violations? The international challenge inspection system is reinforced by national legislation and measures on criminalization of proliferation activities, effective protection of proliferation sensitive personnel, materials and equipment, control and accounting systems for monitoring materials and stocks, and regulation and surveillance of dual-use transfers.

In these respects, the OPCW shows the way for the NPT and the BWC in addressing proliferation threats. But it must continually adapt to an evolving situation where chemical weapons are part of the bigger picture of possible use of hazardous materials by terrorists and criminal organizations. The challenge is as real as the stakes are high.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.