Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 1 Spring 2014
Working together for a world free of chemical weapons, and beyond
Excerpted from the lecture presented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, delivered by its director-general Ahmet Üzümcü in Oslo, Norway on December 10, 2013.
For sixteen years now, the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] has been overseeing the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. Our task is to consign chemical weapons to history, forever—a task we have been carrying out with quiet determination, and no small measure of success.
Under the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the OPCW has so far verified the destruction of more than 80% of all declared chemical weapons. We have also implemented a wide range of measures to prevent such weapons from re-emerging. And with 190 states now members of this global ban, we are hastening the vision of a world free of chemical weapons to reality.
There can be no doubt about the value of this work. For chemical weapons have been used with brutal regularity over the twentieth century—and, tragically, in our own century as well. No weapon, of course, has a monopoly on cruelty or lethality. But chemical weapons have, by any measure, an especially nefarious legacy.
Almost one hundred years since their first large-scale use on the battlefields of Flanders, it is worth reminding ourselves of the reasons why these weapons invoke such horror, right up to our own time. Chemical weapons stir the deep-rooted and pathological fear all humans share of being poisoned. They do not discriminate between combatant and civilian, nor between battlefield and village. You cannot see them. You cannot smell them. And they offer no warning for the unsuspecting.
But their effects are devastating—burning, blinding or suffocating their victims. Death is rarely instant and never painless. And when they fail to kill, as they often do, these weapons inflict lasting damage on people and their environment, denying them the opportunity to repair and rebuild in the wake of conflict.
The first attempt to ban the use of chemical weapons under international law was the Hague Convention of 1899.
The fact that this treaty was not observed during the First World War prompted immediate efforts to negotiate a stronger norm. These efforts resulted in the 1925 Geneva Protocol. While it prohibited the use of chemical weapons, the Protocol did not ban their production or possession.
History, alas, did not bear out its robustness. Chemical weapons continued to be used across the globe, including against civilian populations. And, alarmingly, large and more sophisticated arsenals were developed during the Cold War. It was not until the 1980s that negotiations for a more comprehensive chemical weapons treaty got under way in earnest. Chemical attacks being perpetrated at that time by the former regime in Iraq added to the urgency of this process.
Fortunately, it was not only the brutal effects of chemical weapons that focused minds. What drove the negotiators was also the imperative to ensure the effectiveness of the future norm to ban these weapons.
States were adamant that chemical weapons had to be made a thing of the past—by deeds, not just words. What they strove for was a treaty that all but enforced compliance, coming closer than any predecessor to guaranteeing adherence to its provisions. And, after almost two decades of difficult negotiations, they succeeded.
Their efforts gave birth to the full global ban that came to be known as the Chemical Weapons Convention—and to an entirely independent organisation, the OPCW, to oversee its implementation.
It was out of these negotiations that the crucible of the unique success of the Chemical Weapons Convention was forged—a comprehensive international verification mechanism. A mechanism that had no prior model and had to be developed from scratch. A mechanism that obliges every one of the Convention’s 190 Member States, without discrimination, to destroy its chemical weapon stocks and production facilities—and to lay bare, through inspection, any industrial facilities that could be used for purposes prohibited by this treaty. A mechanism that brooks no exceptions, and can conduct inspections at short notice to investigate alleged use of chemical weapons, or suspicions over banned activities. In short, a mechanism that places the onus on states to ensure full transparency vis-à-vis their obligations—with the OPCW acting as arbiter and guardian of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
With the entry into force of the Convention in 1997, we have thus been able to cross, and link, the wide space in disarmament between passion and practicality, between sentiment and action, between noble ambition and concrete achievements. And, for the first time in the history of multilateral diplomacy, we were able to show that consensus-based decision-making can yield practical, effective and, above all, verifiable results in disarmament.
The Convention’s achievements make the recent chemical attacks in Syria, which shocked us all, even more tragic. For they highlight the manifest security advantages that states adhering to the Convention enjoy. In the sixteen years that the Convention has been in force, no Member State has experienced an attack with chemical weapons.
Thankfully, the international response to those attacks set in motion an extraordinary series of events. These resulted in Syria’s accession to the Convention and a front-line role for the OPCW, working together with the United Nations, to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons.
Never in its history has the OPCW overseen the destruction of such a major chemical weapons stockpile in the midst of a civil war, and in such compressed timeframes. But, as much as this mission is testing our capacities and resources, our progress so far has only strengthened our confidence that we can succeed.
International consensus on the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria has as its basis the same consensus that drove the Chemical Weapons Convention to conclusion. The challenge now is to persuade those six countries1 still outside the Convention to join it—without delay or conditions.
There has long been no reasonable defence for not doing so—all the more now in the wake of the robust international reaction to recent use of chemical weapons. No national interest can credibly outweigh either the security or economic benefits of adhering to the global chemical ban.
It is my fervent hope that this award will spur on efforts to make the Chemical Weapons Convention a truly universal norm. Universal adherence to the Convention would be the most enduring investment in its integrity—and the best guarantee of its reach.
When the Chemical Weapons Convention was concluded in 1992, it was rightly heralded as the most tangible disarmament outcome of the immediate post-Cold War period. But over the more than two decades since then, we have little else to show in the area of disarmament for the enormous peace dividend that the end of the Cold War brought us.
It is high time to move towards a different, more durable security in keeping with the extraordinary opportunities that globalisation has brought—a security that accommodates human development, economic cooperation and mutual prosperity.
Effective implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention has played a definitive role in empowering a broader community of stakeholders to this end.
The history of arms control has shown no lack of passion. Yet, when so much is at stake, passion must take care to ground itself in reality, if it is to achieve its ambitions.
This means being pragmatic, clear-minded—even dispassionate—about acquiring the best possible tools for achieving and consolidating disarmament goals. And it often means governments showing the political courage to take tough decisions for the benefit of the community of nations.
The Chemical Weapons Convention has shown that this sort of an approach yields results. For the Convention is more than mere words and promises on a piece of paper. It is a comprehensive regime geared towards ridding the world of chemical weapons, and making sure they never again threaten humankind.
In this regime, member states provide the will behind the Convention. And it is the OPCW that provides the force for making its goals a reality.
Our work, imbued with resolve and certitude, is the international community’s guarantee of the Convention’s implementation.
The Chemical Weapons Convention has given us a legacy that no future disarmament effort can afford to ignore.
© The Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, 2013