The threat of nuclear war looms in the minds of state leaders as concerns grow and tensions rise over who will strike the first match. While the political focus remains on nuclear weapons as of now, chemical weapons (CWs) and non-proliferation efforts of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are also facing threats against its effectiveness in maintaining international security. For example, Russia has used tear gas against Ukraine despite being a CW recognized under international law, and the OPCW Director General has argued that peace and security cannot be presumed given current tensions. Hence, in order to address the current gaps in the effectiveness of the non-proliferation regime, Canada must increase its OPCW involvement by supporting its functions and addressing increasing CW use. 

History of the OPCW and CWC

The OPCW was founded on April 29, 1998, in conjunction with the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The CWC is recognized as the “world’s first multilateral disarmament agreement” that proclaimed the elimination of a whole group of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) within a specific time frame. The OPCW’s primary function is fulfilling the Convention’s mandate to “end the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons” by destroying current stocks, preventing their re-emergence, and protecting the world from threats of chemical warfare. Despite its foundational work, the OCPW and CW norms more broadly appear to be losing effectiveness in governing state behaviour. 

The Declining “Taboo” Status of Chemical Weapon Norms and the OPCW

In the US Intelligence Community 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, WMDs and proliferation were listed third under global threats, specifically the erosion of international norms regarding CWs. This erosion of norms is visible through instances of violations of the CWC such as indiscriminate chemical attacks against civilians and the poisoning of political officials, which question the “taboo” status of the international norm concerning CWs. Taboos greatly influence state behaviour and are “deeply internalized” due to their “unthinkingness” nature where it is unfathomable or almost impossible for them to be violated. When examining CWs, “taboo” refers to their use and the prohibition norm, which have “gained almost universal acceptance.”  However, recent events have challenged influential limits of taboos as governments are willing to challenge them for military advantages. For instance, the “chemical weapons taboo” has been violated numerous times during the Syrian Civil War because the OPCW has sidelined the unregulated issue of ‘non-lethal agents’ used to curate new forms of CWs. 

In addition to the limitations of its mechanisms, the OPCW and the CWs norms falter when powerful states protect states that violate these ‘taboo’ norms in the international system. Although Syria’s continuous use of CWs is a blatant violation of the CWC, the veto power of Russia and other state parties to the CWC has prevented Syria from being condemned and investigated by the OPCW. Looking at the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s actions warrant a tougher response from countries in international forums such as the OPCW. However, Russia’s actions have the effect expected by the international community because various states continue to be dependent on Russia and are more focused on their broader interests versus the narrow ones of the OPCW. It must be recognized that if Russia, a key state party to the CWC, is willingly violating its treaty obligations and vetoing OPCW inquests to hold other states accountable for their use of CWs, it is difficult to state that the OPCW is truly a “universal instrument”.  This “breakdown of consensus” prevents the OPCW from conducting its functions and showcases the overall contested security environment of the international system where Russia, Iran, and China are “aggressively challenging the norms and rules of a U.S.-led international order.” If this challenge to the system persists, it would affirm that a norms-based approach based on the prohibition of CWs is no longer sufficient in protecting against the resurgence of CWs as a global threat.

Canada’s Current and Necessary Engagement

To uphold international norms of CWs, Canada created the Canadian National Authority, which works with the OPCW by undertaking domestic and international outreach missions and gathering chemical declaration data from Canadian entities. Indeed, Canada’s Weapons Threat Reduction Program is a global leader in delivering chemical threat reduction programming and has been vital in countering chemical weapons disinformation campaigns in Syria. With more information, Canada’s defence efforts can look into new forms of CWs beyond traditional agents and target strategies to counter emerging agents by deploying countermeasures developed through technological advancements. Production of dual-use chemicals is rapidly rising, thus chemical manufacturers can produce chemical threats faster than the OPCW can regulate them.  Financially, Canada has contributed over $240 million to building nerve agent destruction facilities and funding CWs threat reduction efforts worldwide. Furthermore, Canada has provided an additional $2.6 million to improve OPCW programmes such as the Trust Fund for Security and Business Continuity, which work to “enhance the security resilience” of the OPCW, and the CHEMEX Africa programme, which trains African institutions to monitor chemicals used to make CWs. 

Although Canada’s efforts point to an interest in promoting global non-proliferation and threat reduction norms, new gaps are emerging. To effectively address these alarming regulation gaps, Canada should, under the auspices of the AG (Australia Group), propose the introduction of families of dual-use chemicals to the AG’s precursor list and the CWC’s schedules. By adopting this “family-based approach,” the OPCW can align its schedule with the AG’s chemical declaration requirements and expand its control to recognize potential chemicals that could pose a future threat. Canada plays a leading role in supporting the Global Partnership effort to destroy Russia’s declared CWs stockpile and upholding the Partnership and its objectives to address new forms of CWs threats by co-chairing the Chemical Security Sub-Working Group. However, traditional methods of CWs risk assessment by the OPCW are falling behind due to emerging technology providing easier access to chemicals and scientific information, which have consequently lowered the historically high cost associated with the development of CWs. To tackle this, Canada must increase its financial contribution to OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board, ensuring they have the necessary resources to report on technological developments.
Amidst challenges from Russia, China, and other norm-breaking states, Canada must direct its efforts to non-proliferation policies that do not depend on states such as China and Russia for effective implementation of the CWC. The OPCW has new probing mechanisms, such as the Fact-Finding Mission and Declaration Assessment Team, which can operate sufficiently even if China, Russia, and its allies obstruct the OPCW’s primary functions. In supporting these initiatives that recognize rising threats and obstructions to the OPCW, the CWC, and CWs norms, Canada can proclaim itself as a leader in advancing the non-proliferation regime of CWs.

Eranga Wikramanayake is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs where he specializes in International Organizations and Global Public Policy. He completed his BA in International Studies from York University – Glendon College and has strong research interests in human rights, law, the Indo-Pacific region, and diplomacy. Eranga has worked as a research assistant at York University and he is now serving as the Vice-President Academics on the NPSIA Students’ Association.

Photo Credit via OPCW – Flickr

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