A brief history of the Chemical Weapons Convention

On 29 April 1997 the Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC) was implemented after 98 years of negotiations. It immediately became binding international law for all members and was institutionalized by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) [1]. This implementation was especially due to the negotiations of the USA and the Soviet Union, who together published a statement in 1990 condemning Chemical Weapons (CW). In the same statement the two super powers agreed to destroy their CWs and to work on a ban of CWs in other countries[2].

Hague Conference in 1899 as a “milestone”

The path until 1997 was marked by many conferences, the first one being held in Hague in 1899. The countries that participated in this conference were mainly European. It resulted in an agreement of a non-use of poisoned weapons – CW hadn’t developed at this time[3]. Although there were also conferences and agreements against poisoned weapons, the OPCW explicitly states on its homepage that the Hague Conference was a milestone for everything that was to follow in the 20th century[4].

CWs were slowly associated with poisoned weapons over time and thus the norm of not using poisoned weapons was also attached to CWs. According to Richard Price this is the very reason why the international community didn’t use CWs after the horribly experiences in the 1st World War anymore[5]. E.g. the USA was against the ban of poisoned weapons at the Hague Conference in 1899, but in the Geneva Conference in 1925 they played a key role in banning CWs[6].

The 2nd World War constitutes the most famous example of a non-use of CWs. In an article, Price and Tannenwald show that the countries didn’t use such weapons in the battlefield due to their bad reputation. Without this norm, the authors conclude, Chemical Weapons would have been used[7]. Further is the use of CWs seen as uncivilized, especially since the Hague Conference. The European countries were the ‘civilized world’ at this time and whoever wanted to be part of this world must have acted like those countries in a war. A label that is still current[8]. Last but not least: Chemical Weapons are widely recognized as “the poor man’s bomb” – thus a country that values itself higher doesn’t use them[9].

USA and Soviet Union as pioneers

Due to those norms the USA and the Soviet Union agreed on a statement on which the CWC and the institution of the OPCW were built. Although both were bitter enemies, they could easily agree on such a statement because of the bad reputation of CWs, the norm that is associated with them and the experience in the 1st World War. And, of course, none of those super powers wanted to be associated with a poor country or “the poor man’s bomb”. This label becomes evident when we take a brief look of a statement of the Iraqi Minister for foreign affairs in 1988. In it he explains to the West that for us it is easier to not using such weapons. Especially in Europe the people live in a peaceful and civilized continent. That, according to him, is not true for the Middle East though[10].

The only problem that the USA and the Soviet Union were facing was that – since they were bitter enemies – they couldn’t easily rely on and believe their counterpart one destroying its weapons. Thus they needed a strong regime that made cooperation credible – the CWC. In several statements both the Soviet Union[11] and the USA[12] made clear that they want to create a world without CWs.

Initially Arab states refuse their signature

Although the Chemical Weapons Convention between the USA and the Soviet Union was never implemented due to the latter’s collapse[13], it was recognized by other countries as a huge step. In the beginning though it was especially several Arab states that were against the CWC. Since many considered Israel – a state with a nuclear weapon arsenal – as their enemy, they tried to link the ban of Chemical Weapons to the ban of nuclear weapons[14]. Yet, in the end they agreed.

In 1992 the Convention was discussed in the General Assembly of the UN. One year later countries could sign it. It only took two days until 130 states signed the CWC. 180 days after the 65th state – in this case Hungary – ratified the CWC in 1996, the Convention became binding international law on 29 April 1997. The OPCW is the institution that should prove that the members are getting rid of the CW arsenal[15]. Last year Syria joined the Convention as the 190th state in the world[16]. Yet there are still doubts of the function of this Convention, especially in regard of the alleged use of chlorine gas of Assad’s army in Syria[17].

Today only North Korea, Egypt, Angola and South Sudan are not yet members in the CWC. Myanmar and Israel are the two states that signed it, but haven’t ratified it[18].

Despite all those doubts the OPCW is on a good way to create a world free of Chemical Weapons. As can be seen by the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, which went to the OPCW, the ban of CWs and the work of this institution are widely acknowledged[19].

[1] OPCW Homepage (Date unknown): Genesis and Historical Development

[2] Unknown (1990): Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – United States: Agreement on Destruction and non-Production of Chemical Weapons, Page 932

[3] Price, Richard (1995): A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo, Page 83

[4] OPCW Homepage (Date unknown): Genesis and Historical Development

[5] Price, Richard (1995): A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo, Pages 90-91

[6] Ibid., Pages 86-87

[7] Prince, Richard und Nina Tannenwald (Date unknown): Norms and Deterrence, Page 120

[8] Price, Richard (1995): A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo, Pages 95

[9] Ibid., Page 99

[10] Price, Richard (1995): A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo, Pages 98-99

[11] See for example: International Comittee of the Red Cross (Date unknown): Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

[12] See for example: Ibid., United States of America

[13] OPCW Homepage (Date unkown): Genesis and Historical Development

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Charbonneau, Louis und Michelle Nicols (12.09.2013): Syria says now full member of chemical arms pact.

[17] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29146039

[18] OPCW Homepage (Date unknown): Genesis and Historical Development

[19] http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2013/opcw-facts.html

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