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Preserving Global Security: The Role of the OPCW in Prohibiting Chemical Weapons and Addressing Potential Threats to Their Use

  • The widespread use of chemical weapons during the First World War led to the Geneva Protocol in 1925, which, with limitations, prohibited their use in warfare;
  • However, complete and verifiable prohibition was only achieved with the establishment of the OPCW in 1997 through the Chemical Weapons Prohibition Treaty;
  • Even after the eradication of all known harmful chemicals in 2023, speculation arose that these substances were used in Ukraine and Gaza, which highlighted the relevance of the OPCW even today.

The danger of chemical weapons is a major violation of human rights and global security. Therefore, an organization called OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) was created to monitor this.

The OPCW was established by the Treaty on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (TPAQ). Its mission is to ensure that people are not attacked with chemical weapons due to their cruelty, even in a war.

Even after they destroyed all known chemical weapons in 2023, there were rumors that these weapons were used in Ukraine and Gaza, which caused the OPCW to become important again.

Source: OPCW

What is the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and what are its objectives?

The OPCW, or Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, is a global team that formed to prevent the production, use, and storage of chemical weapons through the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997.

Participation in the OPCW is voluntary for countries. This means each country decides whether or not to become a member and adhere to the commitments established by the Convention and OPCW regulations.

The significance of the Convention lies in the fact that chemical weapons are considered extremely inhumane, causing terrible harm to people, both soldiers and civilians. Their use can result in burns, blindness, asphyxiation, and other severe sufferings that can affect victims for the rest of their lives. While conventional weapons are also destructive in conflicts, chemical weapons are especially cruel.

The main goals of the OPCW are:

  1. Ban on Chemical Weapons: The OPCW aims for the elimination of all chemical weapons and for no country to manufacture, develop, purchase, or store them.
  2. Verification and Control: They verify whether countries are following the rules of the agreement by inspecting facilities, collecting data, and investigating suspicions of chemical weapons use or development.
  3. Assistance and Protection: The OPCW aids in protection against chemical weapons by providing training, assistance in case of incidents, and security measures.
  4. International Cooperation: They encourage countries to work together, sharing information and technology to achieve their goals.
  5. Peaceful Use of Chemistry: The organization promotes the safe and beneficial use of chemistry, avoiding its harmful use.

Once a country becomes a member of the OPCW, it agrees to comply with the obligations established by the Convention and to cooperate with the organization to achieve the treaty’s objectives. This may include allowing inspections at their chemical facilities, providing information about their chemical program, and participating in verification and monitoring activities conducted by the OPCW.

However, it’s important to note that even though countries choose to join the OPCW voluntarily, when they do so, they need to follow the rules of the Convention. This means they are legally bound to comply with these rules and may be inspected by the OPCW to ensure they are doing so correctly.

Recently, the OPCW has played a significant role in events such as the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons in 2013 and investigating incidents of chemical weapons use in different parts of the world.

Some of the chemical attacks in recent years and the OPCW’s responses

Despite the agreement to ban chemical weapons in 1997, there have been recent reports of their use in places like Syria, Ukraine, and Gaza.

These concerning incidents raise questions about respect for international agreements and human rights. As mentioned above, the OPCW plays a crucial role in investigating these cases and seeking transparency.

In Syria, the Idlib region saw confirmation of chlorine use as a weapon in an incident in 2018 in the city of Saraqib. Human Rights Watch – an international organization advocating for human rights worldwide – emphasized that this action directly violates the Chemical Weapons Convention.

In Ukraine, specifically in the Kherson region, Russia is accused of using tear gas bombs in disputed areas. This irritating substance, chlorobenzalmalononitrile, raises concerns about compliance with international protocols.

Tear gas, usually used in crowd control situations, causes intense discomfort in the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract. Its effects include burning and tearing of the eyes, redness, and swelling. Inhalation can lead to coughing, shortness of breath, and general discomfort. The skin may become irritated and cause itching. Prolonged exposures can result in nausea and respiratory complications.

The gas, widely used to disperse protests around the world, is prohibited in armed conflicts due to its lethal potential when used in high concentrations, as stipulated by the Chemical Weapons Convention since 1997.

Although initially developed as a weapon during World War I to attack enemy troops, its use in protests is justified as a non-lethal police control agent, although criticized due to the health risks to protesters, potentially causing damage to lungs, skin, and eyes, as mentioned earlier.

The shift in perception of gas as a weapon to control disturbances occurred mainly during the Vietnam War, when the term “riot control agent” began to be used to distance itself from the connotations of chemical warfare. Although its use in protests has been questioned, it is still seen as an efficient, inexpensive, and non-lethal weapon to control civil disturbances.

The United States also recently accused Russia of using another chemical weapon as a war tactic in Ukraine. State Department officials said Russia used chloropicrin, as an asphyxiating agent, to gain military advantages over Ukraine.

The Russian government has denied the allegations, saying they are baseless, while the US says the use of these weapons are not isolated incidents. Chloropicrin is an oily compound that was widely used during the First World War and causes irritation to the lungs, eyes and skin, which can cause vomiting, nausea and diarrhea.

Additionally, reports indicate that Israel also allegedly used chemical weapons, including white phosphorus contradictorily supplied by the United States, in Gaza and Lebanon during military operations.

White phosphorus is an intensely incendiary chemical weapon, causing serious damage to the human body and risking life. Contact with the skin can result in deep burns, often to the bone, with severe pain and difficult healing.

Inhalation of its vapors causes lung damage, which can be irreversible, leading to respiratory failure. Additionally, it can cause blindness and failure of internal organs. Those who survive this weapon suffer permanent physical, psychological, and emotional sequelae.

What are the punishments for countries that use chemical weapons?

Countries that use chemical weapons may face various punishments, which can vary depending on the circumstances and actions taken by the international community. Some examples of punishments include:

  • Economic sanctions: Other countries may impose economic sanctions on the country responsible for the use of chemical weapons, which may include trade and financial restrictions.
  • Diplomatic isolation: The responsible country may be diplomatically isolated, meaning that other countries may refuse to negotiate or collaborate with it on political, commercial, or diplomatic issues.
  • Political pressure: The international community can exert political pressure on the responsible country through public condemnations, resolutions in international organizations, or joint statements of repudiation, known internationally as “name and shame“.
    • “Name and shame” is a political pressure strategy aimed at publicly exposing and shaming countries or entities for their actions deemed harmful, such as human rights violations or corruption. Although not always entirely effective, this strategy can in some cases shape the attitudes of the target country.
  • International accountability: In extreme cases, leaders or individuals responsible for the use of chemical weapons may be subject to international accountability processes, such as criminal investigations or trials by international courts.

These punishments aim to send a clear message that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and violates international norms and human rights standards.

Other historical and relevant examples of chemical weapons use around the world

Although not all of these countries are part of the Treaty, here are examples of some past cases:

  • Syria (2013 and 2017): Syria has been accused of using chemical weapons during the civil conflict. In 2013, the Syrian government agreed to destroy its chemical arsenal amid threats of military intervention. However, subsequent reports indicated continued use of these weapons, resulting in OPCW investigations and international condemnation.
  • Iraq (1980s): During the Iran-Iraq War, the Saddam Hussein regime used chemical weapons, including the infamous chemical attack in Halabja (1988), which resulted in thousands of deaths. The international community condemned these attacks, but responses were limited at the time.
  • Russia (2018): The poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK involved the nerve agent Novichok – a highly toxic and lethal substance. Although not a direct violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the incident led to diplomatic sanctions and the expulsion of Russian diplomats from various countries.
  • North Korea (2017): The assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, using the nerve agent VX at an airport in Malaysia, led to international accusations against North Korea, although the country is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
  • Yemen (2016 onwards): The conflict in Yemen has involved allegations of chemical weapons use, particularly by Houthi forces. Investigations continue, and the parties involved face international pressure.

In the most recent cases:

  • Russia (2022-2024): Recently, Russia lost its seat on the OPCW’s executive council, indicating an international response to its conduct regarding the War in Ukraine and the use of tear gas in the country.
  • Israel (2023-2024): Although Israel is not part of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the use of chemical weapons against Palestinians may lead to punitive measures from the international community.

A significant issue arises when a country does not sign the treaty, such as North Korea or Israel. This means that these countries will not allow the OPCW to inspect their chemical factories, nor disclose what they are doing with chemical products, and they will also not participate in the checks that the OPCW performs to ensure the non-production of these weapons.

Why is the OPCW geopolitically important and what are its challenges?

The OPCW remains important amid the rapid escalation of conflicts nowadays as it works to maintain global security and protect human rights, even in deplorable situations like wars.

In recognition of these efforts, in 2013, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the organization due to its significant efforts in eliminating chemical weapons worldwide, highlighting the importance of its work.

However, one of the major problems the OPCW faces is that there is no central world authority to ensure that the rules against the use of chemical weapons are followed. For this reason, punishments for countries that use chemical weapons often are not very stringent, which ultimately proves insufficient to deter such behavior.

Another challenge is that the OPCW has no control over countries that choose not to participate in the treaty, such as North Korea and Israel, so it cannot influence their activities related to chemical weapons. These issues make it difficult for the OPCW to effectively prohibit the use of chemical weapons worldwide.

In the case of radioactive weapons – which involve, for example, nuclear weapons and contaminated ammunition – these are covered by other treaties and international conventions, such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

The recent uses of chemical weapons in Ukraine and Gaza highlight the limits of the Organization in promoting prohibition, verifying treaty compliance, providing assistance, and protection.

However, despite being imperfect and having little deterrence power due to the institutional architecture of the world, the OPCW still manages to foster international cooperation in the pursuit of imposing limits on the atrocities caused by wars worldwide.

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