Chemical weapons (CW) have been considered a threat to humanity for the atrocious pains that they inflict since the establishment of the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Today the vast majority of states have renounced the use of CW, dismantled existing stockpiles and ratified the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and joined its verification body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
By joining the OPCW each state declares its facilities and stockpiles, both existing and already destroyed, and allows for OPCW inspectors into their territory to verify these claims. Other chemical facilities for the production of industrial chemicals are also declared in order to ensure that they are not being used for the clandestine production of CW.
There remain several isolated pockets that resist these measures and prevent the CWC from achieving universality. Obviously, most of these states possess or have been suspected of possessing CW. The remaining holdouts that have not ratified the CWC include:
- North Korea
- South Sudan
*These states have signed the CWC but have not ratified it
Until a little over a year ago, Syria was on this list as well. However, Assad’s regime has involuntarily demonstrated the caveats of the CWC, which I have summarized here. Such gaps have clear consequences about the future use of CW, primarily for the states that have not yet ratified the CWC.
First, states that have not ratified the CWC are not legally bound by its provisions, and therefore can legally use said weapons. While Syria did ratify the Geneva Protocol against the use of CW, the Protocol does not distinguish between their external use against another state vs. internal use against domestic insurgencies, nor prohibit their development, stockpiling or acquisition thereof.
Second, while the international community would likely provide assistance against an aggressor using CW, intervention in internal affairs is a much more sensitive topic as it may conflict with state sovereignty. Although the U.S. was preparing to use military force against Syria following the sarin gas attacks in Damascus, CW attacks had reportedly taken place 14 times before. Similarly, the CWC allows for states to request assistance in the face of an aggressor, but this cannot be made by domestic actors, only the official government of the state itself.
Third, the OPCW has little way of verifying undeclared stockpiles and facilities of CW. Normally states reveal the entire extent of their operations to build confidence in their relations with others, while receiving the OPCW inspectors for verification. Some states however, have not filed complete declarations about their stockpiles, as Libya did and Syria has been suspected of.
Finally, the CWC is an organization in which states are the primary focus. They do not prevent individuals from producing or acquiring CW. The result is that a plethora of non-state actors, including terrorists, insurgencies, cults and others can utilize CW with little fear of international repercussions. While this has changed substantially since 9/11 with passage of Resolution 1540 by the UNSC condemning CW use by non-state actors, it remains an area of concern.
What, then, are the implications for the future of the CWC and the few remaining states that have failed to ratify it? Like Syria, many of these states possessed CW prior to the establishment of the CWC, essentially acquiring them during the Cold War era for strategic value, in order to deter potential aggressors in the region. Indeed, the remaining holdouts may consider CW essential to their security doctrine.
However, it has been recently discussed that internal security against insurgencies and assassinations, particularly for authoritative regimes, can be just as important as deterring external threats from other states. What does this mean? CW can be used equally as much to coerce internal enemies as external ones. The problem arises, as mentioned above, is that the international community cannot always respond effectively to such scenarios.
Until the aforementioned states resolve their individual security dilemmas, CW will continue to exist as a threat to human kind by being used against the domestic targets of malicious governments or risk falling into the hands of terrorist organizations.
Dylan Gagnon is an MA Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, concentrating in intelligence and national security. He completed his Bachelor of Arts at Bishop’s University in Political Studies and Public Administration.
Featured Photo by Steve Rhodes.