Nobel Peace Prize Shines International Spotlight on Chemical Weapons

On October 11, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to an organization lacking the star power of fellow nominee Malala Yousafzai: the relatively unknown Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The UN-backed OPCW was created in 1997 to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits use of chemical weapons. The organization has been working in relative anonymity to eliminate chemical weapons for over a decade. However, after recent chemical weapons use in Syria prompted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to issue a statement calling these acts war crimes and the most serious use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988, the OPCW suddenly finds itself in the international spotlight.

While academic research on the Chemical Weapons Convention and the OPCW tasked with its implementation has been somewhat limited, Dr. Alexander Kelle, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Bath, outlines the objectives and progress of this organization in a paper published January 2013 in International Affairs, just months before chemical weapons in Syria made global headlines.

In his paper, “The Third Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention and beyond: key themes and the prospects of incremental change,” Dr. Kelle identifies two fundamental goals of the organization: 1) complete and verified destruction of existing chemical weapons stockpiles and 2) preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons.

There is evidence of progress toward achieving the first goal. Reportedly 75 percent of declared chemical weapons have been destroyed as of June 30, 2012. According to Dr. Kelle, these include chemical weapons declared by Russia, the US, India, South Korea, Albania, and Libya of “about 70,000 tonnes of chemical warfare agents and about 8.6 million munitions and containers.” One observation is that this only takes into account declared stockpiles. Dr. Kelle makes a point to highlight the fact that Syria did not even acknowledge possession of chemical weapons until August 2012.

This points to a key concern, namely that the Chemical Weapons Convention is not yet universal. As of January 2013 there were still eight states, including Syria, that were not party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. This lack of universality is a complicating factor when attempting to reach the second fundamental goal of preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons.

Additional challenges to preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons arise simply because some of the chemistry used for chemical weapons activities also has peaceful purposes. As a result, an important task of the OPCW is to inspect these other chemical facilities to verify their legitimacy. However, the organization is currently conducting only 157 inspections per year and Dr. Kelle points out that at this rate it will take another 20 years to visit each of the remaining chemical facilities in this category just once.

Eradicating and preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons clearly remains a concern of the international community. Consider that the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, with recent UN estimates of two million refugees fleeing the country and over 100,000 dead. Despite these numbers and the growing humanitarian crisis, the tipping point for the international community came with confirmation that chemical weapons were used outside of Damascus in August 2013.

In light of these events and the news that Syria officially joined the Chemical Weapons Convention on October 14, the objectives of the OPCW, as highlighted by Dr. Kelle, are arguably more relevant than ever. The universal application of the convention and efforts of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize recipient are perhaps long overdue for this moment in the spotlight.

Feature Photo: cc/(Samuel King Jr)'
Natalya Wallin
Natalya Wallin is an Executive Editor for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in foreign policy, inclusive growth, human rights, and women's issues.

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