Sunday, August 19, 2012

We Can Eliminate Chemical Weapons


This post originally appeared on The Truman Doctrine on 17 August, 2012.

The Syrian conflict has caused great international concern with daily reports of fighting. The humanitarian situation is worsening with Syrians in major cities left without medicine, food, or water. To add to the difficulty, an Assad spokesman recently discussed the possibility that Syria’s sizable chemical weapons stockpile could be used on any outside invasion force, though asserting they would not be used on Syrians. The questions lingering about Syria’s chemical weapons show why international weapons control regimes are important. The world needs to pay more attention to chemical weapons.

Among weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons have long been the most prominent in international concern. Along with the U.S., there are eight states armed with nuclear weapons, Israel likely an undeclared ninth. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), regulated by the IAEA, is the central international agreement governing nuclear weapons. Parties agree not to acquire nuclear weapons, to eventually pursue nuclear disarmament, and to use nuclear technology peacefully. The NPT became effective in 1970, some forty years ago, and it was predicted then that there would be as many as 30 nuclear states by now.

It has been estimated that as many as forty states have the knowledge to develop nuclear capability. Yet only four new states have joined the nuclear club. None are members of the NPT. The U.S. still possesses the most active nuclear weapons, but the bilateral New START with Russia promises to make progress toward the zero goal of the NPT. Despite problems with North Korea and ongoing multiparty talks with Iran on its nuclear program, the NPT and bilateral agreements on nuclear weapons reduction have gone a long way in slowing nuclear proliferation.

The outlook is not as positive with chemical weapons. It is thought that as many as seventeen states currently possess offensive chemical weapons capability. Despite chemical weapon use as early as WWI, the Convention on Chemical Weapons (CWC), regulated by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), was only implemented in 1997. Nuclear weapons have not been used offensively since 1945, but chemical weapons have been used offensively in the Middle East as recently as the 1980’s.

Chemical weapons are also much easier to develop than nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons require more advanced technical knowledge and enrichment of nuclear material and the components required to build a bomb create a larger identifiable footprint. An advanced chemistry degree and common chemical plants are all that is necessary. Deadly nerve agents are made from phosphates that are readily available throughout the world and are widely used in agricultural production.

Concerns about chemical weapons aren’t limited to Syria. North Korea and Myanmar, non-CWC states, are suspected of possessing them. Evidence suggests non-member Israel may have them as well. Iran and China are accused of having clandestine programs, despite being parties to the CWC. There have also been successes. Albania, South Korea, and India have completely eliminated their stores. The U.S. has destroyed 90% of its stockpile. Russia, Serbia, and Libya are more than halfway complete. America, Britain, and other nations have contributed millions to overseas programs to assist other nations in eliminating their stockpiles.

The world needs to do more to eradicate chemical weapons. If similar focus is placed on them as on nuclear weapons, we can eliminate known stockpiles in member states by the end of the decade. This is something we can only dream of with nuclear weapons. International weapons control regimes work. The successes of the NPT and bilateral nuclear agreements show that the Chemical Weapons Convention can rid the world of these terrible and dangerous weapons of mass destruction.