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The Ban on Chemical Weapons Hits a Diplomatic Snag
You could be forgiven for not knowing much about a recently concluded major international conference dedicated to the elimination of chemical weapons. As far as I can tell, precisely zero media outlets covered the Chemical Weapons Convention Review Conference in the Hague. A Google News search reveals a few think tank reports here and there, but nothing from any english language media outlet.
Still, the outcome of this conference is critically important to the prohibition of one of the worst weapons humans ever created! It was an opportunity for the parties to the convention to assess progress and plan ways to strengthen the treaty going forward.
The Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in 1997 and is one of the most widely adopted multilateral treaties. Only four countries have not yet ratified: North Korea, South Sudan, Egypt and Israel. And in just a few months, the Chemical Weapons Convention will hit a major milestone when the world’s last remaining declared stockpiles (in Colorado and Kentucky) are destroyed. The scheduled destruction is slated for the end of September.
But there has been some backsliding, too. In the context of the Syrian civil war, the Assad government used chemical weapons multiple times — the first breach of the global ban since 1997. And in the last five years, Russia has been accused of violating the Chemical Weapons Convention when a banned nerve agent was used in assassination attempts against regime opponents Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny.
So, this is all to say that this should have been an interesting and worthwhile conference for journalists to cover. But as far as I can tell, I’m the only one to do so.
On the podcast today you can hear my interview with a conference participant, Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch. We kick off discussing the history and some successes of the Chemical Weapons Convention. We then have a longer discussion about the complicated diplomatic dynamics of maintaining an an effective ban on chemical weapons use and development. This includes the fact that Russia and its ally Syria are both credibly accused of violating the treaty in recent years.
If you have 25 minutes and want to better understand the promise of the Chemical Weapons Convention and why this international conference hit a diplomatic snag, have a listen. (The link will let you listen on your preferred podcast listening app). The episode is freely available where ever you find podcasts.
Transcript edited for clarity
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:01:47] So let me just kind of kick off by asking, why are you attending the CWC, Rivkin? Why does Human Rights Watch have a presence there at this time?
Mary Wareham [00:04:00] I’m attending the review conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention because this is the first time that Human Rights Watch has been let in. We’ve applied through the accreditation process in the past and been rejected. So we put an application in a couple of months ago and it goes to a committee of governments who then decide.
[00:04:20] And the thing with this committee is that if two or more object to the NGO application, then you can be denied entry. And that’s what’s happened in the past. Countries such as Iran and Russia have objected to certain NGOs participating. And this time, somehow Human Rights Watch was allowed through. So once you’re allowed in, you’ve got to open that door and go in.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:44] But do you have any idea of how you snuck through?
Mary Wareham [00:04:48] I think they’re asleep at the wheel this time, objecting to several different non-governmental organizations. But we don’t really have the backstory on exactly what happened. You have to provide your record of work, including over the past year and the application process.
[00:05:04] And we did that describing the follow up that we’ve been doing to the use of chemical weapons in Syria in the 20 tens. I guess that record was accepted and we were allowed through.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:17] Russia seems to be distracted right now. All right. So before we discuss what’s happening at this review conference, can I just have you go back and explain what is the chemical Weapons convention and why was it created in the 1990s?
Mary Wareham [00:05:37] So the Chemical Weapons Convention is one of the first what would call humanitarian disarmament treaties. It combines disarmament measures with practical measures aimed at getting rid of chemical weapons, which had been used in the lead up to the negotiation of the convention, most notably by the government of Saddam Hussein in the Kurdish parts of Iraq and also during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, causing a huge number of casualties and deaths.
[00:06:07] And that was part of the major catalyst behind the creation of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993. It follows in the footsteps of the Biological Weapons Convention that was negotiated much earlier in the early 1970s, and the prohibition treaties prohibiting for the Chemical Weapons Convention, the use of toxic properties of common chemicals such as chlorine to kill and injure an armed conflict.
[00:06:33] But they don’t just prohibit the use the Chemical Weapons Convention. It’s a comprehensive prohibition. So no transfers, no use, no production, no stockpiling and no assistance in any way with any of those prohibited activities. So it’s a very strict regime that is remarkably universal. It’s probably the most universal disarmament treaty out there, with 193 countries that are on board. Only Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan are outside of this convention. Israel has signed it, but never ratified.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:09] So it’s one of the most widely adopted international treaties in general, but also one of the most widely adopted international humanitarian treaties in terms of prohibiting the use of weapons. But my understanding is that one of the unique features of the Chemical Weapons Convention is that it demands that its signatories and the countries that ratified it destroy their declared stockpiles.
[00:07:37] So they can’t just transfer. So they actually have to actively and proactively and verifiably destroy whatever stockpiles that might have existed when they ratify the treaty, correct?
Mary Wareham [00:07:47] Correct. Stockpile destruction as a key feature of the Chemical weapons convention. And it’s also one of its greatest success stories. All of the countries who have signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, some of them never had chemical weapon stocks in the first place. But they’ve gone through a formal process of declaring that through a transparency report.
[00:08:08] But several countries did. Russia is one of them that declared to have destroyed their stocks in the last decade, I think it was 2017. There’s only one country that is party to the convention that hasn’t completely destroyed the stocks yet, and that’s the United States, where there’s a process underway to complete the process by the end of September is the deadline for the US to complete the destruction of its stocks.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:34] And from what I’ve read, they seem to be on target for a variety of reasons. The United States possesses by far the largest stockpile of chemical weapons over the last several years. It’s taken a long time to destroy them all for a variety of technical and political reasons.
[00:08:52] But there are two facilities in the United States, one in Colorado, one in Kentucky that are on pace to destroy the last remaining American stockpiles of chemical weapons by the end of September, as you said. Looking forward, what are some of the key debates ongoing at this review conference?
[00:09:13] As you said, this is one of the more successful multilateral treaties in terms of the verification of the destruction of declared stockpiles. It’s one of the most universal treaties with only three countries not signing it. What are some of the key discussions and debates ongoing in The Hague right now as countries gather to discuss progress made towards the Chemical Weapons Convention and what needs to be done in the future?
Mary Wareham [00:09:44] I think that Syria has been a major issue for the Chemical Weapons Convention. There was the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta in August 2013, which Human Rights Watch and others documented, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Many children. Only a month after that, Syria ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention became a state party, committed to abide by the strict prohibitions, and then struggled to declare and to destroy its stockpiles of chemical weapons in the facilities that had produced them.
[00:10:21] There’s been a huge number of questions throughout that process. And then, of course, after signing up to the conventions that Syria continued to use chemical weapons, both chlorine delivered in barrel bombs and improvised devices as well as other types. So Syria that did kind of deal with it a couple of years ago in removing Syria’s voting rights under the convention.
[00:10:45] So it wasn’t at the forefront of this review conference that I guess what was was Russia. Russia likes to talk about how it has completed its destruction of chemical weapons, but then it has been implicated in the assassination attempts of the Russian opposition leader in 2020 and then the couple and Skripal in Salisbury in the United Kingdom. People have pointed to Russia’s use of Novichok agent in those assassination attempts.
[00:11:17] And this was something which kind of surprised me at the meeting how many countries were pointing that out and demanding that Russia respond to it and Russia was just shrugging them off. There was not really a process to deal with Russia here at the treaty meeting, unfortunately.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:36] You’re referring to the attempted assassination of Alexey Navalny and Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who was a bystander to who are all sickened by a nerve agent that is banned under the chemical weapons convention. Everyone knows Russia did this.
[00:11:54] How is that fact impacting debates and discussions? You’re saying countries are accusing Russia of violating the chemical weapons convention. Russia says we didn’t do it. Is there any recourse available within the CWC to hold Russia accountable?
Mary Wareham [00:12:16] Well, this is the problem. First, you’ve got to investigate and attribute responsibility and do that through the proper channels. That’s been a very challenging thing for the OPCW to do and for the United Nations as well. They haven’t really been mandated to do that. When it comes to accountability. I think that the states that are party to the convention would be able to deal with accountability through the framework that the treaty provides.
[00:12:41] But Russia says that this is not an issue for the convention, that it’s an issue for the Security Council and that it’s outside of their remit. And of course, it’s convenient for Russia to be dealing with those accountability concerns in the Security Council because they have a veto and a vote and can avoid accountability through that process as well. So very challenging to deal with it. And unfortunately, it wasn’t dealt with this week.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:08] And I have to imagine that a key reason here is that presumably, like other kind of U.N. treaty bodies, that agreement is only able to be achieved through consensus. So you need all countries, including presumably the major countries, to agree to something in order for it to move ahead. There isn’t votes on things. These are negotiations that happen mostly by consensus. So Russia would be blocking consensus on the naming and shaming of Russia and to violate the CWC.
Mary Wareham [00:13:44] Yes. And this was the disappointing thing that’s happened today on Thursday afternoon. Not all sessions are open and transparent. Much of this is put on the webcast and made public and non-governmental organizations. The Red Cross, the E.U., the observer delegations can participate. But this is a convention where they like to shut the doors and go behind closed doors so we don’t get to see the debate often.
[00:14:11] But today they came back. The chair, the most important committee that was working on the outcome documents, the final report, the political declaration, and read out a statement saying that due to limited time available in the context of current global affairs, consensus was not reached on those very important documents.
[00:14:29] That’s what you issued, had a review conference. And they couldn’t even agree on that. I think the wording there of the current context of current global affairs points to Russia being the reason for that. But there are, I think, probably other problematic countries. It’s inevitable, isn’t it, when you’ve got 193 countries on board this convention, about 140 of them here at the review conference this week.
[00:14:58] I guess the funny thing, though, is at the beginning of the week, they still organize their meetings around old Cold War groupings. You’ve got the nonaligned movement group, you’ve got the West Group and you’ve got the Eastern Europe group. And they could not decide between themselves on who would be the officeholders for the week, so they went to a vote to decide on that.
[00:15:20] It was down to North Macedonia, a Baltic nation and Russia. Russia lost that vote. But this was a procedural matter that they voted on. So it was fascinating because in my two decades of doing this work, I’d actually never seen governments vote like that in a disarmament treaty meeting. Often just the threat of a vote is enough to force agreement.
[00:15:43] But it’s strange how governments will use votes on procedural matters, but not on substantive ones. So they didn’t vote on those important documents that they were supposed to issue.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:56] Just to explain to listeners that in these kinds of U.N. negotiations, you typically have blocs of countries that group together to pursue like common interests. And you’re saying that in the Chemical Weapons Review Conference, these blocs were kind of old, almost Cold War era blocs. Typically you don’t have countries needing within a bloc voting amongst themselves as to who would represent that bloc.
[00:16:26] But because of the messed up geopolitical times that we’re living in, the Eastern European bloc, who would represent them in negotiations came down to a vote between North Macedonia and Russia. And to me, as a U.N. nerd, that’s just fascinating. But also, I think, a good distillation of the geopolitical moment that we’re in now.
Mary Wareham [00:16:49] And I’ve seen that happen elsewhere, in the context of talks on killer robots, where the Eastern group had to nominate their representative for a meeting and Russia announced that it was leaving the group and forming a group of one. Apparently, it wasn’t possible for it to do that at the Chemical Weapons Convention. So that was the outcome. They went to a vote.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:12] So typically at review conferences like this and their other review conferences in the world of international treaties like the Nonproliferation Treaty has a review conference every five years. The goal of these conferences is to assess progress thus far, but also give the body that oversees the treaty, in this case, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons marching orders for the next five years, set a strategic plan and some political objectives for the OPCW.
[00:17:51] But you’re saying that because of Russia blocking consensus that there is no meaningful outcome document that would set the OPCW as priorities in the coming years, Is that right?
Mary Wareham [00:18:07] Yeah. I mean, we don’t know that it was Russia to blame in this case because those meetings were closed and behind the scenes. The work of the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, will continue regardless of this outcome. They have their budget that safe. They have their own kind of program of work for their big secretariat here in The Hague.
[00:18:27] They just opened a chemical chem tech center, which will hopefully help them to deal with the chemical threats of the future, which are considerable. But it’s always good if the governments can give that political direction as well as assessments and put out a bold declaration of unity around the norm established against any use of chemical weapons.
[00:18:51] It is a real shame to see that outcome this week, but unfortunately it’s also indicative of the fragility of multilateralism at the moment. There’s another meeting in Geneva at the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons — another CCW, not CWC, if you want can acronyms.
[00:19:10] And they’re talking this week on killer robots, and they’re facing exactly the same issue because of pretty much the same country as well. It looks like they will not be able to agree to an outcome document because they use consensus and because Russia is really exploiting that to ensure that there is no substantive outcome.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:30] So by the end of September, the OPCW will have completed one of its key core missions, which is to verify the destruction of declared stockpiles. And that will happen when the last remaining U.S. stockpiles are destroyed. Going forward, what role do you see for the OPCW in terms of preventing the emergence of new chemical weapons threats? And where do you predict those threats to come from in the future?
Mary Wareham [00:20:07] Before coming, I took a look at the work that Human Rights Watch has been doing on the use of chemical weapons and chemical irritants, including tear gas. And it’s quite astonishing how many reports that we have issued about the abusive and often lethal use of tear gas and other chemical irritants by law enforcements and security forces, especially during protests.
[00:20:32] And this is not use of chemical weapons that kill — these chemical irritants that are supposed to do just that: irritate you and and encourage you to leave the protest. But this is one area of concern. So it’s not a chemical weapons issue, but I think it’s one that bleeds over into the chemical weapons convention as well.
[00:20:56] Another one isthe emerging technologies, the fact that you can affix tear gas to a drone now and deliver that and potentially deliver it on the battlefield. That’s a pretty dangerous initiative and one that — when you look at the other examples of emerging technologies — is something that the Chemical Weapons Convention really needs to stay on top of. And it will stay on top of it through the cleantech center and through the work of the OPCW.
[00:21:27] But really, there’s a strong need to look at delivery systems that are being used, and some of them are a dual use for use in warfare and also in law enforcement and policing. So that’s the oversight on the tech side, but also ensuring that interpretation of the treaties code provisions is clear to all of the states in the face of these emerging technologies. That’s the key issue, I think, for the Chemical Weapons Convention.
[00:21:57] And the last one I’d like to highlight is once you destroy your stockpiles, governments will want to say “We’re free of chemical weapons now.” But for many countries, they’re not free of chemical weapons victim. I’m talking about Iran, Iraq, and Syria; about victims of chemical weapons have got lifelong needs that will have to be met.
[00:22:22] A core mission for the treaty and for the OPCW is to ensure that their rights are met and that there are no future victims. I’ve spent much of my career working with victims of landmines, cluster munitions, and other explosive weapons. They’re amputees, people who have been blinded and lost their hearing, quite visible. I met victims of chemical weapons this week in the Hauge, their injuries are often much less visible: respiratory illnesses, needing lung transplants, feeling like they’ve got sand in their eyes, immune system disorders, cancers.
[00:23:02] There’s some very significant health concerns that they face. And then it’s this generational suffering as well, where the psychological burden of what grandparents and parents went through is also picked up by the children and the grandchildren. So that’s another part where I think it would be good to see more discussion: the needs of victims of chemical weapons within the major parts of the convention by the states rather than in the side events and off down the corridors. And it really wasn’t quite as central and present, but really quite striking for me as my first participation in such a meeting.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:43] Well, Mary, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time.
Mary Wareham [00:23:48] Thank you very much. Mark.