The Chemical Weapons Convention, a Treaty for the Future?

Between April 8-9 this year, the 188 signatory states of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)1 met in The Hague to carry out the third review of the treaty. As usual, an important part of the conference was a thorough assessment of the work carried out by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) since the last review conference. And the documents showed that OPCW has done an outstanding job; all production facilities for chemical weapons throughout the world have been deactivated or converted to peaceful purposes, and estimates predict that by 2017 about 99 percent of the declared stockpiles of weapons, including the nerve gases, will have been destroyed. The conference also reviewed plans for future work to eliminate the rest of the declared stockpiles, and this review was based on an up-to-date technical report, produced by an international group of specialists, on recent developments in science and technology relevant to the CWC.2

What is reviewed?

The review conferences are an integrated part of the CWC and convene every five years. Their purpose is to evaluate the operation of the CWC, assess the progress of its implementation, and decide whether the Convention needs modification to make it more effective. Adjustments may affect the way it is being implemented, so any revision will be responses to scientific and technological developments, as well as OPCW’s own experiences—not geopolitical changes.

To date few modifications of the CWC have been made, which definitely reflects the techno-political quality of the document. However, the States Parties3 have traditionally been concerned with chemical warfare on a massive scale, so the regulations and inspections carried out within the context of the convention mainly focus on certain types and larger quantities of chemicals owned by a State Party. The production of chemical weapons on a small scale by activists and terrorists are outside the scope of the CWC but nevertheless it is my impression that this significant challenge was discussed extensively during the conference. This challenge can soon become a real problem because chemical transformations are becoming more and more benign and reactors are becoming automated and safer; these developments make the production of small (but deadly) quantities of chemical weapons less risky. The solution to this problem is not straightforward, but most countries are not capable of handling incidents involving chemical weapons, whereas OPCW can play a role if given the mandate.

Science and technology concerns

Advances in science and technology relevant to the CWC have not caused a paradigm shift in large-scale production of known chemical weapons since the previous review in 2008. However, developments in three areas have to be watched carefully in the years to come.

The prime area to monitor is research on incapacitating chemical agents (ICAs), which are chemicals that act on the central nervous system. Such research is still allowed under the CWC despite the fact that such compounds, at realistic concentrations, are deadly to some people but not others; decisive factors are gender, age, and health conditions. The famous hostage incident in a Moscow theatre in 2002 illustrates the situation: 124 out of the more than 750 exposed to the ICA that was used (fentanyl) died. In order to produce a safe agent for riot control, a number of deadly compounds will inevitably have to be produced as well, and those compounds are real chemical weapons. I therefore agree with Malcolm Dando, who has argued for a prohibition of ICAs under the CWC.4

Another area to keep a closer eye on is development of flow microreactors, which provide significant safety advantages for production of toxic chemicals. The use of microreactors has become more widespread as the equipment has become more robust. This has made it a simple task to set up (and subsequently dismantle) a reliable facility for quick production of a chemical weapon on a small but deadly scale. Such pieces of equipment are therefore well suited in modern warfare, where attacks on civilians occur just as often as fighting between army units. A precautionary measure could be introduced: a register of customers buying microreactors with such capabilities.

A third area to keep under closer surveillance is the overlap of chemistry with medicine and biology. Because the sciences are increasingly converging, the chem-med-bio field is growing quickly and this creates new challenges. Toxic compounds synthesized through biological processes (e.g. toxins and bioregulatory molecules) are prohibited by both the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)5 and the CWC, but since the BWC does not open up for inspections, suspicious production in a non-chemical plant cannot be inspected in the way the CWC allows. A natural response would be to merge the two conventions and introduce the CWC inspection regime to the biological sciences as well, producing a higher level of safety and security.

Other concerns

Changes in the geopolitical situation constitute another issue of concern because they redefine the framework in which the CWC and OPCW will function. These changes will generate challenges in the future, not only for OPCW but also for the global community, even if no significant advances in science and technology occur for years to come. An illustration of these challenges is the uncertainty that arose when rumors spread that Syria, one of the six countries that have neither signed nor acceded to the CWC, owned and used chemical weapons. Proper plans to handle the situation were not in place, partly because the necessary international legal platform was and is missing, and no timely actions have really been taken. Consequently, the changing framework for the CWC has to be faced head on if the convention and its provisions are to remain the basis for preventing the reemergence of chemical weapons in any form and any amount, anywhere.

Another concern is the globalization of science. Many students get their education in several countries and become involved in multinational research projects. Researchers go to conferences to lecture, discuss, and build global networks that are extended through the Internet. Moreover, research groups participate in webinars and virtual education, and scientific literature can be accessed and searched anywhere, by everybody with computer capabily. This development gives scientists opportunities to apply science effectively in the service of humankind, but it also foster global contact between individuals trained in chemistry who willingly use chemicals for extreme political goals. This situation indeed calls for robust control measures.


The web provides access to recipes for all sorts of nasty chemicals and enables people to purchase the materials without much control, so any disturbed person with guts may be tempted to try to make a chemical weapon. Citizens in general should therefore have some basic knowledge about chemicals, toxicity, and techniques used to carry out chemical reactions so they can recognize and alert authorities to suspicious activities under development. Such awareness is generally lacking today, so education is necessary and should start with the basic formal training of children in chemistry and science, incorporating such information in the context of chemical safety, the responsible use of chemicals, and waste disposal.

Unfortunately, knowledge about chemicals in a CWC context is lacking even among many chemists with university degrees. In most countries topics related to chemical weapons are not even mentioned in the relevant regular university courses. It is quite commendable that OPCW and several non-governmental organizations, including the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC),6 are developing course material to cover these topics.

From an educational point of view awareness also has an ethical dimension that scientific disciplines, but not chemistry, address by requiring everyone to sign a code of conduct. There have been attempts to compose such an international code for chemists,7 but so far no document has emerged. Some attribute the failure to “dual use chemicals,” which cannot be concisely described, as required in such an important document. Others argue that signing a code means nothing to someone intending to violate the CWC. I think a code will lead chemists to reflect on ethical aspects of chemistry before violating any regulation, including the CWC, and increase their responsibility and awareness of the CWC. Therefore, I fully support the work OPCW is doing toward a Code of Conduct for chemists.

We chemists are fully aware of the blessings of our science, but almost every day the news media remind us of the problems chemicals may cause when used improperly or when accidents occur. Never are we more clearly exposed to the dark side of chemistry than when we face the effects of chemical weapons. Chemistry cannot be blamed for chemical warfare, but since chemical reactions also work for anyone ignorant of chemistry, we should take account of potential dangers and act to prevent the misuse of chemicals.

Leiv K. Sydnes is professor of chemistry at University of Bergen, Norway. E-mail:


1 See OPCW’s site: where the Chemical Weapons Convention can be found.

2 Published as a technical report in Pure and Applied Chemistry 2013, 85, 851-881.

3 Here a State Party means a country/state that is a member of OPCW.

4 Dando, Malcolm. Nature 2009, 460 (20. August), 950-951.

5 The Biological Weapons Convention can be downloaded from The Biological and Toxin Weapons Website:

6 For information about IUPAC and the union’s activities, see

7 For a discussion about a code of conduct for chemists, see the article “Why Codes of Conduct Matter” by Graham S. Pearson, Edwin D. Becker and Leiv K. Sydnes in Pure and Applied Chemistry 2011, 33 (6).

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2013

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