While the tragic history of chemical warfare dates back thousands of years, its modern variant is nearing its ignominious hundredth anniversary. The first large scale attack involving a chemical weapon (chlorine gas) occurred almost a century ago in April, 1915 at Leper (Ypres) in Belgium. By the end of the First World War, an estimated 90,000 people would be killed by chemical weapons and a further one million injured.
In the wake of the horrors of chemical weapons use in that war, international powers came together to sign the Geneva Protocol in 1925 banning the use of chemical and biological weapons, which became addendums to the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. These treaties were followed by two more extensive conventions, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which the OPCW works to fulfil to this day.
Despite the long history of international attempts to regulate the use and production of chemical weapons, too many nation states and other non-state actors have been reluctant to abandon them. The incidents of chemical weapons deployment in Syria’s conflict echoes their tragic use by Saddam Hussein’s regime in both the Iran-Iraq War and against Iraqi civilians in the Kurdish town of Halabja on March 16, 1988 when between 3,200 -5,000 people died and a further 7,000 -10,000 were injured. What is different today is the international outcry. Three decades ago, much of Western Europe and the US was supporting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War and turned a blind eye to the Iraqis’ chemical weapons use in one of the more shameful moments of recent history.
We can only hope that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the OPCW this year will solidify the opposition to chemical weapons and ensure it is not just the result of changing strategic priorities. While the use of chemical weapons and massive stockpiles in Syria has pre-occupied the global agenda in recent weeks, nation-states and their weapons stockpiles are not the only subject of concern. In 1995, thirteen people were killed and nearly a thousand injured in a sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by an apocalyptic religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo. The Japan attacks, and the anthrax terror attacks in Washington in 2001, show that the ability to produce and deploy chemical weapons is not limited to belligerent states.
The OPCW faces a herculean challenge. The UN’s ambitious timeframe for eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles targets June, 2014 as the completion date. Other weapons analysts say it could take years. Beyond Syria, six nation states have either not signed or not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, South Sudan and North Korea), and others such as Russia and the United States are delayed in fulfilling their commitments.
No single institution, no matter how effective, can succeed in addressing both the current and potential threats of chemical weapons in our world. Neither will there be any satisfaction if OPCW succeeds in its goal of eradicating Syria’s chemical weapons supplies if it merely leaves Syrians to slaughter one another by more conventional means.
Like the Nobel awards in the fields of medicine, physics and chemistry, the Peace Prize is about building blocks of a much broader human endeavour. The efforts of past awardees make up a mosaic of influence that illustrates the breadth of human action necessary to secure and sustain peace. The OPCW will need not only these past laureates, but courageous individuals and institutions in Syria and beyond if it is to fulfil its mission and help the Peace Prize live up to its name.
This article was written by Derek Brown and Shirley Moulder.