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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Consensus or Calamity? The Chemical Weapons Review Conference

Article by: Pranav Kaginele

This article was published as part of a cooperation with the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), one of Europe’s leading peace & security think tanks, and draws from this paper by Almuntaser Albalawi and Kristoffer Burck.

Eradicating Chemicals Weapons from Earth

Unspeakable quantities of Zyklon B gas used in the chambers of Nazi extermination camps, Agent Orange showering from US warplanes over Vietnam, and Sarin Gas terrorist attacks in the bustling center of Tokyo – the use of chemical weapons as a form of mass destruction has been experienced with traumatic effects across the globe.

On April 29th, 1997, countries from around the world came together and agreed to end the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was borne. It entered into force with the mission of completely eradicating the horror of chemical weapons from Earth. As of today, 193 states are party to the CWC. Despite this truly global scope and an immense success in reducing the number of chemical weapons, it has not been entirely smooth sailing. In the past two and a half decades, chemical weapons have still been found or used in Iraq, Russia, and Syria. Every five years, the member states of the Convention meet in The Hague to hold review conferences. In them, the states analyze the functioning of the Convention, which is primarily implemented and overseen by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). In May 2023, the states convened for their Fifth Review.

A Successful Body in a Changing World

The world’s last chemical stockpile declared to the OPCW was ultimately destroyed on July 7th 2023. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, vast staffing problems were experienced and consequent delays in conducting inspections. With this in mind, the state parties would need to use the Review Conference to set new priorities and goals for the upcoming period after the conference. The evolving international security landscape of recent further increased the geopolitical stakes that were palpable during the Review Conference. Previously, Russia presented difficulties in negotiations during the NPT (Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) and BWC (Biological Weapons Convention) review conferences in 2022. It was expected that Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine would also hinder the unanimous decision-making required to reach a concluding statemen at the CWC Review Conference, further facilitated by Russia’s position as a founding signatory of the CWC and part of the OPCW’s Executive Council.

The Russia-Syria Alliance

By the end of the conference on May 19th, state parties indeed concluded without an agreement on an outcome document. The Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) points to Russia’s key role in blocking such a consensus document. Together with Syria, Russia blocked the draft outcome document from being adopted. The motivation behind Syria’s blocking of the document was far from opaque: The draft contained reports of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons use since 2018, which took place in the localities of Ltamenah, Saraqib, and Douma. Syria has continually questioned and criticized the OPCW reports, and accordingly refused to agree to them being included on the outcome document. Since Syria, under Bashar al-Assad, is allied with Russia, the latter is unsurprisingly keen to shield an allied state while it is itself in the midst of conducting a war against Ukraine.

Almuntaser Albalawi and Kristoffer Burck from PRIF conclude that Russia’s foreign policy throughout the war in Syria has remained consistent and in the Review Conference Russia went so far as to attempt discredit the legitimacy of the OPCW itself, questioning its impartiality. Russia argued that its actions to identify and clarify Syrian chemical weapons use overstepped its roles. In fact, it is precisely the mandate of the OPCW to investigate the suspected use of chemical weapons on the territory of state parties or by state parties. Russia has used the same arguments to prevent investigations into its own use of chemical weapons used in overseas political assassination attempts, such as in the UK. In a different vein, the U.S. State Department released a statement the day after the conference’s conclusion, likewise attributing blame to Russia for the lack of consensus. The statement argues that Russian delegates were purposefully obstructing progress and did not negotiate in good faith.

Added Pressure

Some, including delegate Henk Cor van der Kwast of the Netherlands, as well as the South African conference chair, pointed to time constraints as to why consensus was not reached. There may be some substance to this, as the Fifth Review Conference was the shortest ever, at only five days; the last two conferences having been eight and ten days, respectively. The previous Review Conference, held in November 2018, also did not achieve consensus on an outcome document.

NGO Participation

PRIF’s report likewise points out that there was also discussion, and ultimately again no agreement, over the inclusion of NGO participation in Review Conferences. Most Western states argued that for the CWC to be successful, civil society would need to be included, therefore reasoning that NGOs should be permitted to attend. Russia, Turkey and Iran argued that states should decide which NGOs are selectively accredited, and that states have the right to deny their ability to participate.

A Positive Note and the Future of Arms Control

For all the disarray that occurred at this conference, some positives should not be disregarded or devalued. As mentioned above, it was announced in July 2023 that all U.S. chemical weapons had been verifiably destroyed. This was earlier than originally thought and those stockpiles accounted for the very last chemical weapons on Earth officially declared to the OPCW. Their destruction was perceived as a milestone and seen as strengthening the Convention as a successful disarmament treaty.

There was also significant progress in dealing with Japanese chemical weapons that had been abandoned in China. The latter argued that Japan needed to dedicate more effort to retrieving and destroying remnants of these weapons. By the end of the conference, the delegations from Japan and China were able to bilaterally undertake steps to constructively move in that direction. It will likely only be such constructive dialogue that will allow states to progressively resolve their disagreements on the issues remaining to be addressed for the CWC’s continued success.

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