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It’s time to reaffirm that chemical weapons must be a horror of the past

Countries will come together this week to reaffirm the global consensus against chemical weapons, writes British ambassador to the Maldives James Dauris.

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Almost 200 states are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (“the Convention”), the international disarmament treaty that outlaws the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors.  Put another way, that’s almost all the countries in the world. Only three UN member states have neither signed nor acceded to it.

Here’s what Article 1 of the Convention provides:

  1. Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never under any circumstances:

(a)    To develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone;

(b)    To use chemical weapons;

(c)    To engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons;

(d)    To assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.

However notwithstanding this almost universal commitment to rules intended to serve the best interests of people everywhere, since the start of 2017 alone chemical weapons have been used against civilians in Syria, Iraq, Malaysia and the UK.  These are worrying signs that we have forgotten why we worked so hard to come to this vital agreement.

The Convention entered into force in April 1997, and brought the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into existence.  The OPCW’s mission is, in its own words, “to implement the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention in order to achieve our vision for a world that is free of chemical weapons and of the threat of their use, and in which cooperation in chemistry for peaceful purposes for all is fostered”.  With the OPCW’s creation, the world had an independent, non-political and expert body to investigate chemical weapons use.

Behind the ambition and the negotiations that united the international community behind the Convention lay the twentieth century’s terrible record of use of chemical weapons.  The First World War saw tens of thousands of people die agonising deaths from chlorine, phosgene and other toxic chemical agents. Almost a million more people were blinded, disfigured and disabled.  Chemical weapons were used with devastating consequences in Morocco, Yemen, China and Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). The aftermath of their deployment in the 1980s Iran-Iraq War continues to be felt today, with 30,000 people in Iran still suffering and dying from the effects of the agents used in that conflict.

Twenty one years on from 1997, and five years after the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its extraordinary achievements, the Convention and the principles it safeguards are being challenged in their breach.  This matters to us all. While international conventions may seem far removed from the lives of everyday people, we use them to agree on what sort of world we want to live in. They set out the promises we make to each other, underpin the international system and keep us all safe.  When agreements like these are broken, the consequences are real for everyone.

For these reasons this week, on 26 and 27 June, representatives of countries from all around the world will meet in The Hague at a special Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention.  More than a hundred states have already committed to take part. The conference will allow countries’ representatives to come together to agree on ways to protect and strengthen a cornerstone of the international non-proliferation and disarmament architecture.  It will allow them to signal their commitment to reinforcing norms against the use of chemical weapons, and to reaffirm that the horror of chemical weapons has to be a thing of the past.

We expect that a decision will be adopted that will condemn unequivocally chemical weapons attacks wherever they take place.  We expect it to call for a strengthening of the Convention, and of the capacity of the OPCW to continue its vital work, including helping to identify those responsible for chemical attacks.  We expect it also to call for greater action to support states to address the chemical terrorism threat from non-state actors.

Large numbers of countries have already committed to support such a decision.  The more that do: the louder the chorus of international concern; the clearer our shared insistence that there is no place for any use of chemical weapons, ever; and the more empowered the OPCW, a body that’s there for all of us, will be.

The UK and countries across the international community would welcome having Maldives at the Conference adding its voice to the chorus of concern and using its vote in support.

Logo: Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

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