Needed Governance on Weapons of Mass Destruction

Bojana Radan

On Tuesday April 4, 2017 more than 80 people were killed in a suspected chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in north-western Syria. At 06:30, witnesses say they awoke to the sound of an explosion followed by a yellow mushroom cloud that left those who inhaled, immobilized on the floor with constricted pupils. When charity ambulance services arrived to the site 20 minutes later, which is about 50km south of the city of Idlib, they found people, many of them children, choking in the street, foaming from the mouth, and experiencing severe shortness of breath and asphyxiation.

Authorities have blamed the attack on current Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who has had a history of using chemical weapons against his civilians. On August 21, 2013 at 02:45 local time on the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus, Assad’s government used the nerve agent sarin in a chemical attack that killed 1,300 civilians. GPS information and satellite imagery showed at least eight rockets strike the region during that time and within hours, dozens of videos showed large numbers of visibly sick and distressed adults and children lying on the ground with no signs of external injuries. Sarin gas, the chemical weapon used allegedly in both attacks is a nerve agent that causes excessive muscle contraction leading to shortness of breath, disorientation, nausea, general weakness, and eventually loss of consciousness and death.

Turkish health authorities have found traces of sarin in the blood and urine of victims wounded in the most recent attack in Idilb, which they use as “concrete evidence” of the use of chemical weapons in the attack. However, President Bashar Al-Assad claims the accusations are “fabrications” and blamed the attack on rebels who he claims had chemical weapons stored in a nearby facility. Russia, who has supported the Assad regime both militarily and politically, has also blamed the attack on the rebels.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is a United Nations (UN) Convention created in April 1997. This Convention was the first disarmament agreement negotiated in a multilateral framework under the UN Charter. This treaty ensures that chemical weapons are not, and will not be developed, produced, stockpiled, used or transferred within states or globally. Since its implementation, 98 percent of the world lives within territories where CWC is law and 90 percent of the world’s chemical weapon’s stockpile has been verifiably destroyed. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is the treaty-based international organization responsible for the implementation of CWC and inspects military and industrial sites in dozens of countries to protect against chemical weapons threats, and investigates current accusations. In response to the April 4th attack in Syria, the OPCW has launched a Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) to determine the accountable party in the attack.

FFMs have been launched before in Syria after the 2013 attack through an UN-Joint Investigative Mechanism. In 2014, the OPCW launched a FFM to determine Syria’s compliance with CWC and determine if they had eliminated all declared stocks of chemical weapons or removed them from their territory. The FFM reported that all declared stocks of Category 1 chemicals (chemical agents and munitions) had been destroyed, with only one Category 2 chemical (munitions filled with other toxic chemicals not covered in Category 1) that still needed destruction leading to a 98% reduction in their chemical stockpile reserves. In 2016, another FFM was launched to investigate a potential chemical weapons attack that occurred on August 2 that killed 69 people. Again, OPCW stated that based on the evidence presented by the National Authority of the Syrian Arab Republic, they could not confidently determine weather or not a specific chemical was used as a weapon in the investigated attack. However, even with these previous and continuing FFMs, chemical weapon attacks are still occurring in Syria and the guilty parties are not being held accountable to prevent against future misuse.

On this most recent attack in Syria, Western powers lashed out heavily against Russia after it vetoed a UNSC resolution that would have condemned April 4th’s suspected use of chemical weapons, and mandated a speedy investigation into the event. The resolution would have required Assad’s government to provide investigators access to military information such as flight plans, and Russia argued the resolution was unnecessarily since Western powers had already pre-judged that the Syrian government was responsible. China abstained from the vote.

This failure to adopt a resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons is likely to set a dangerous precedent moving forward in the international security system. Russia voting against the resolution can be seen through two lenses. First, some may view the decision to postpone the investigation as valid, considering Western states have already imparted the guilty verdict on Assad’s regime as witnessed by the US military air strike that was applauded by most Western states on April 7th on the Syrian government airbase allegedly responsible for holding the chemical weapons. Similarly, the US along with other Western powers have made their dislike for Assad very public through both press conferences and calling for his removal and resignation in multiple peace talks; therefore, they would want to him to be found guilty under CWC, which would further cement the need for his permanent removal in negotiations. Others however, argue that this move by Russia ignored international obligations under CWC and instead was a self-interested political decision considering the stakes Russia has in the Syrian conflict. If the latter is true, this can create a dangerous ripple effect in the international community where political desires begin to outweigh international obligations, especially those as universally codified as disarmament treaties.

UNSC decision making has always tended to fall alongside political lines with China and Russia tending to favour sovereignty rights over interventionist polices, while the US, France and the UK tended to favour the reverse. This is one of the many reasons why a resolution to the Syrian civil conflict has not occurred. However, when it has come to international obligations under disarmament treaties, all P5 members have historically tended to agree on protocol, especially those regarding weapons of mass destruction including chemical weapons.

For example, the UNSC has adopted resolution 2325(2016), Calling for Framework to Keep Terrorists, Other Non-State Actors from Acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction. This resolution seeks to strengthen the national anti-proliferation norm of resolution 1540 (2004), which seeks to keep non-State actors from acquiring nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. This resolution focuses on the prevention of proliferation to keep weapons at bay and out of the hands of terrorists, but tends to vaguely discuss invasive investigative measures. It also called for international cooperation to increase State capacity to monitor, destroy and end a world of weapons of mass destruction.

Another example of consensus among CWC enforcement is the UNSC adopted resolution 687 (1991) that declared “Iraq shall unconditionally accept, under international supervision, the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless of its weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles…and related production facilities and equipment,” after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. This mandate was restated in resolution 1441 (2002) which gave Iraq a “final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations.” In these UNSC resolutions, no P5 member was heavily invested in the political arena of Iraq, but if they were, would these two resolutions have become mandated? Therefore, if the UNSC cannot be an impartial actor to enforce international binding treaties among states, what incentives do states have to abide by these treaties especially in the face of technological advancement?

Although most of the world has eliminated their current stockpiles of chemical weapons, the threat of chemical weapon proliferation remains at large due to the advancement of scientific technology that has made finding new chemical weapons easier, and the process of creation faster. Duel-use chemistry in multi-purpose plants is difficult to monitor since chemicals represented in the CWC do not include recent discoveries and therefore, monitoring must be requested through an investigation committee on suspected violators. Currently, there exists an expatiated procedure in the CWC for updating chemical lists but states have been reluctant to use this procedure in fear of making molecular precursors to weapons publicly available and accessible to dangerous insurgent groups and terrorists. Therefore, this is where the UNSC can fulfill it’s obligation as the global protector of peace and promote the implementation of investigations for suspicious state activity. Although, the UNSC may diverge on political agendas, they have historically, and continue to agree on the need for state pre-assessment and investigation in CWC compliance (as seen with the above resolutions) and they must continue to follow this trend through the advancement of chemical weapon technology.

Lastly, in recent years there has been an increasing convergence between biological and chemical production through synthetic biology, which could lead to a dangerous biochemical weapons risk in the future. Moving forward, global governance needs to pay increased attention to these new trends in science that allows weaponization so that member states do not get complacent in the face of biological and chemical warfare. Attacks such as the one in Syria on April 4th 2017 serve to remind us of the continued need for the prohibition of such weapons and the obligation of holding guilty parties accountable for their actions. Proper chemical weapon governance needs to be maintained.

About the Author

Bojana Radan is a second year Masters student at the Munk School of Global Affairs with a strong interest in global health, climate sustainability, gender equality and good governance. Bojana has worked within civil society in South East Asia advocating for youth rights within HIV development, and is the co-editor-in-chief of the Munk School student digital news publication, Global Conversations. She is a Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Recipient and a four-time Academic All-Canadian scholar. Bojana holds an Hon. Bachelor’s in Science in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology from the University of Toronto.


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