If allegations that the Syrian government attacked people with chemical weapons this week bear out, wouldn’t the Assad regime have broken the world’s chemical weapons treaty, triggering automatic sanctions?
Not in Syria. Syria is one of only five nations that haven’t signed the key international agreement on chemical weapons, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. The others are North Korea, Angola, Egypt, and South Sudan. Burma and Israel have signed the treaty but have yet to ratify it in their legislatures.
As much as 35 percent of the world’s known chemical weapons have been destroyed under the treaty.
In those states, the agency that enforces the weapons treaty, the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), has no jurisdiction. Put another way, the only agency charged with overseeing the chemical weapons treaty doesn’t have any power in the one place they need it most.
The Chemical Weapons Convention is nevertheless widely lauded as one of the most successful international anti-proliferation efforts ever undertaken. As much as 35 percent of the world’s known chemical weapons have been destroyed under the treaty, according to the OPCW. It broadly bans the use of various chemical agents for war-making. The related agency also oversees the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles that preceded the treaty, administers anti-proliferation protocols, and investigates suspicious use of so-called “precursor” chemicals, which are chemicals that have peaceful industrial uses but may be re-purposed to create weapons. Elements used in fire retardants and various kinds of paint often fall under that heading, for example.
The world’s first chemical weapons treaty was the 1675 Strasbourg Agreement, which banned poison bullets. It worked only so-so, and another ban on poison weapons arose in 1874, part of the Brussels Convention on the Rules of War. Poison gasses were banned almost a half century later, by the Hague Convention of 1909. Less than a decade later, chemical weapons killed an estimated 90,000 people in World War I anyway.