Chemical convention countdown

By Alexander Kelle | November 9, 2012

In August, as suspicions about the scope of Syria’s chemical weapons program came to light, a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman acknowledged his country’s willingness to use its horrific chemical weapons against any would-be foreign invaders. It is precisely the kind of disquieting remark that clearly demonstrates the urgent need for sustained attention to the long-term success of the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). But if the convention is going to be effective, member states of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will have to challenge themselves to move beyond the backward-looking, article-by-article review that their Open Ended Working Group has conducted so far over the last few months and move toward a more strategic, forward-looking approach — one that paves the way for a successful Third CWC Review Conference in April 2013 and, more important, for a successful CWC implementation thereafter. Crucial to this goal will be securing the buy-in of as many state parties as possible and then reaching agreements that balance a number of competing interests.

In the run-up to the Second CWC Review Conference in 2008, the working group held preparatory meetings over the course of 18 months, but the group was not perceived as being inclusive enough by the members of the Non-Aligned Movement. As a result, halfway through the first week of the review conference, the Non-Aligned Movement produced a competing and heavily annotated version of the working group chairs’ original text — a version that more accurately reflected the movement’s concerns. Unfortunately, in order to reconcile the numerous differences between the two texts, a rather slow negotiating process was adopted by the Committee of the Whole of the Conference. Additional facilitators were appointed by the conference president, and, in the final days of the conference, a small group of 15 to 20 states party to the CWC were still discussing consensus language for the final declaration in a parallel process to the committee’s work. The outcomes of these parallel negotiations were then presented — in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion — to the rest of the states on the Saturday morning after the official end of the review conference, at approximately 4 a.m. Unsurprisingly, this led to many frustrations among the those that were excluded from the parallel process.

This kind of political drama is exactly why achieving as wide a buy-in as possible from states is important throughout the process: in the on-going run-up to the 2013 conference, throughout the conference itself, and especially during its end game. Buy-in is important not only for procedure, but also for substance. To this end, there are three broad norms that the review conference should particularly embrace as officials endeavor to create comprehensive buy-in.

Non-acquisition of chemical weapons. This may sound like a no-brainer; after all, destruction and non-acquisition of chemical weapons is a primary goal of the CWC. However, continued buy-in into the non-acquisition norm will depend significantly on progress in two areas. First, there must be a commitment to the non-acquisition of toxic chemicals for weapons’ purposes — other than riot-control agents, which are to be used only in narrowly defined circumstances. In other words, so-called “incapacitating chemical agents” need to be addressed by the Third CWC Review Conference in a substantive way. Second, there must be assurances that the sites most likely to circumvent the non-acquisition norm are not misused for such a purpose. That is, the verification regime for so-called “other chemical production facilities” must be strengthened.

Internalization norm. Currently, 87 states have legislation in place that is considered to cover all key areas of the CWC. A slightly smaller number of CWC states parties — around 80 — have received industry inspections. While there may not be a complete overlap between these two categories, it’s reasonable to assume that a fairly large overlap exists. That being the case, about half of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons membership is implementing all key areas of CWC obligations and also has regular interactions with inspectors; the other half, meanwhile, risks being left behind. The 2013 conference presents an excellent opportunity to issue an urgent call for greater buy-in into the internalization norm, including internalization of chemical safety and security. This also needs to go beyond states parties and their chemical industries and must extend to practicing chemists, many of whom need to be educated about the CWC and about the dual-use potential of their work.

Adapting to scientific and technological developments. The CWC does not exist in a scientific and technological vacuum and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons does not operate in one. All review conferences are tasked to include any new science and technology of relevance to the CWC in the review of the operation of the convention. In addition, there is a subsidiary body — the Scientific Advisory Board — available to assist the director general of the CWC and to keep state parties abreast of scientific and technological developments. What is needed is a greater acceptance of the notion that a scientific and technological review may actually have implications for state practice in future CWC implementation — whether in relation to toxic chemicals on the CWC schedules or in the practical aspects of industry inspections. So, the review of science and technology needs to be complemented by adaptations to current implementation practices where required.

The review conference needs to adapt to other changes as well: A balance must be struck between reviewing the operation of the CWC thus far and looking ahead to guide the operation of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for the next five years and beyond. Given the changes in global science, technology, and security environments, the temptation to only spend time reviewing past performance must be resisted. Given that around 75 percent of declared chemical weapon stocks have been destroyed, the Third CWC Review Conference, more so than the previous two, needs to produce strategic guidance for CWC implementation in order to ensure the treaty’s continued relevance. Thus, officials at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons need to balance CWC goals of non-acquisition and international cooperation and assistance with the fact that 25 percent of chemical weapons still need to be destroyed. In addition to these, this summer’s revelations surrounding the Syrian chemical weapons program serve as a reminder that some of the states still outside of the CWC regime might enter it as possessor states. In light of this possibility, encouraging buy-in from all states parties — including the Non-Aligned Movement nations — and balancing competing aims has never been more vital.

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