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Global action must be strengthened to combat chemical weapons danger


Revolutionary advances in science and technology are threatening the ability of the Chemical Weapons Convention to prevent the development, possession and potential use of chemical weapons.

That is the warning in a new book published on Monday by the Royal Society of Chemistry and edited by experts in the field from the University of Bradford, with contributions from leading chemical, life and social scientists from across the world.

The book highlights the increasingly diverse threats of the hostile use of toxic chemicals, by an ever broader range of State and non-State actors, some employing existing capabilities, others potentially being facilitated by rapid advances in the life and chemical sciences. Consequently the authors urge the international community to use the opportunity of the 4th Review Conference in November to strengthen implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to meet these challenges.

Publication of the book comes in the wake of a Special Session of the Conference of States Parties to the CWC which met in late June to attempt to address the unprecedented challenges to the integrity of the Convention posed by the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Iraq, Malaysia and the UK.

Preventing Chemical Weapons: Arms Control and Disarmament as the Sciences Converge makes the case that the chemical and life sciences, and associated disciplines, such as neuroscience and nanotechnology, are in the midst of a period of rapid and revolutionary development and convergence. And while this will bring societal benefits, it will also have potentially malign applications.

The book analyses these transformational advances and the significant challenges the international governmental and scientific communities face to ensure they are safeguarded from hostile use, and are not harnessed in the development of chemical weapons.

The authors examine the current capabilities, limitations and failings of the existing international arms control and disarmament architecture – notably the CWC and its implementing body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – in preventing the development and use of chemical weapons. And they see a major opportunity for concerted global action in November this year when all 193 OPCW Member States gather at the CWC Review Conference in The Hague. However achieving progress here will be highly challenging given the open and deep disagreements between Member States on fundamental issues most notably how to respond to the continuing chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Recognising the current discord within the OPCW, and employing an innovative Holistic Arms Control approach, the book urges the global governmental and non-governmental communities to explore the full range of international law, international agreements and regulatory mechanisms potentially applicable to weapons employing toxic chemical agents, in order to develop recommendations for more effective routes to combat their proliferation and misuse.

And the authors argue that chemical and life scientists, health professionals and wider informed activist civil society need to play their part in protecting the prohibition of poison and chemical weapons. They must work with States to build effective and responsive measures to ensure that the rapid scientific and technological advances are safeguarded from hostile use and are instead employed for the benefit of all.

Dr Michael Crowley of the University of Bradford, one of the book’s co-editors, said: “The unstable international security environment and the changing nature of armed conflict could fuel a desire by certain States to retain and use existing chemical weapons, as well as increase State interest in creating new weapons. At the same time, State forces, armed opposition groups, terrorist and criminal organisations, may seek to employ diverse toxic chemicals as improvised weapons. Stark indications of the multi-faceted dangers we face can be seen in the chemical weapons attacks against civilians and combatants in Iraq and Syria, and also in more targeted chemical assassination operations in Malaysia and the UK. The threats posed by chemical weapons have not gone away – they are a continuing menace to human rights, peace and international security today.”

Professor Malcolm Dando, also from the University of Bradford and co-editor of the book, said: “One area of growing concern has been State interest in the aerosolised application of a range of toxic chemical agents potentially including pharmaceutical chemicals, bioregulators, and toxins that attack the central nervous system of those targeted. Ostensibly promoted for use in extreme law enforcement scenarios, such as large scale hostage situations, to incapacitate an individual or a group rapidly and completely without causing permanent disability or fatality, their use in practice poses grave dangers to health and well-being of all those affected. Furthermore, research and development in this area potentially opens up the door to new forms of chemical weapon and warfare.”

Dr Ralf Trapp, a former senior OPCW official and now a leading international arms control consultant, who contributed several chapters to the book, said: “The upcoming Review Conference is an opportunity for the OPCW to agree on strategies and practical measures to respond to these challenges and strengthen the global norm against chemical weapons, and the institutions that have been created to enforce it. To do so, the OPCW must regain the political cohesion and unity of purpose that it showed when it had to resolve critical problems in the past, such as the failure by key countries to meet the final deadline of the Convention for the destruction of all chemical weapons in 2012, or the agreement to eliminate the Syrian chemical weapons programme in 2013. The Review Conference is a chance to overcome the divisions that have emerged in recent years in the OPCW – a chance that must not be missed.”

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OPCW Director General, Ambassador Fernando Arias González, accepts a copy of Preventing Chemical Weapons, presented to him by contributing authors Professor Alastair Hay (University of Leeds) and Dr Jo Husbands (US National Academies of Science). The presentation took place on 28 August 2018 at the OPCW Headquarters, the Hague, in the margins of a meeting of the OPCW Advisory Board on Education and Outreach. Photograph ©Alex Ghionis/Jean Pascal Zanders.

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