On Chemical Weapons


Frederico Gama Carvalho

(Portuguese – Sobre as Armas Químicas)

January 2013 marked the twentieth anniversary of the opening for signature of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction. Known as the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is the outcome of an intergovernmental agreement that was negotiated in the context of the so-called “Conference on Disarmament”, a body that was established in 1984 outside the United Nations system but is recognized by it. The text of the Convention was submitted to and adopted by the UN General Assembly in 19921. The Convention came into force in April 1997, after it had been signed and subsequently ratified by 65 states. Many states had already signed the Convention before that date, but it was only then that the minimum required number of ratifications was achieved. States that had not signed the Convention before its entry into force could, from that moment onwards, use the so-called “accession” instrument to become parties thereto. This instrument has the same effect as ratification without requiring the prior signature of the Convention.

Israel signed the Convention in January 1993 but it hasn’t so far ratified it and is therefore not considered a State Party to the Convention. The Syrian Arab Republic acceded to the Convention on 14 September 2013 and committed itself to fully comply with its provisions immediately, thus waiving the 30-day period after the date of accession provided therein for its entry into force.

In a significant number of cases, the deposit of the instruments of signature, ratification or accession was accompanied by statements aimed at safeguarding the acceding state’s strategic interests or specific positions.

Thus, the USA acceded to the Convention on the condition that, with regard to the Annex on Implementation and Verification, “no sample collected in the United States pursuant to the Convention will be transferred for analysis to any laboratory outside the territory of the United States”.

The Member States of the European Union have indicated that their compliance with the obligations laid down in the Convention will be dependent upon their compatibility with the provisions in the EU Treaties “if and insofar as such provisions are applicable”.

Syria, the most recent state to accede to the Convention has committed itself to fully comply with its provisions, to observe them faithfully and sincerely and to apply them even before the Convention actually comes into force in its territory, as was mentioned above. In its statement, Syria emphasized that its accession “shall in no way signify recognition of Israel or entail entry into any dealings with Israel in the context of the provisions of the Convention”.

Guantánamo, in the case of Cuba; Gibraltar, in the case of Spain; the Malvinas in the case of Argentina, are some of the special circumstances that were the object of statements at the time of the accession of the relevant State Parties to the Convention, with a view to safeguarding their claims to the sovereignty over those territories.

At present, 190 states are parties to the Convention 2 . Non-Member States include Angola, Myanmar, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan and, as mentioned above, Israel.

The deliberate use of toxic chemicals to destroy human lives or cause the death of other living organisms has a long history and has taken many forms. Such chemicals were used in theatres of war against military forces and civilian populations; as a means to carry out genocides or to eliminate specific groups of human beings; to fight armed dissident or terrorist groups. More recently, and especially since the second half of the 20th century with the advancement of science and chemical technologies, significant developments occurred in the agents used for the aforementioned ends. It is particularly worrying that such developments continue to take place using increasingly sophisticated technical and scientific means. An area of particular concern is that of so-called “non-lethal” chemical agents which are described as “incapacitating” and supposedly designed to “maintain law and order”.

In 2007, the British Medical Association published a study entitle “The Use of Drugs as Weapons” 3 where it stated that we are “knowingly moving towards the top of a ‘slippery slope’ at the bottom of which is the specter of ‘militarization’ of biology” including the “intentional manipulation of people’s emotions, memories, immune responses or even fertility”.

Chemical weapons are particularly perverse weapons as their effects are long-lasting and stretch over territories in ways that are difficult to control. Fatalities due to direct exposure are but a small fraction of those who, while surviving, will carry for the rest of their lives the physical and mental effects of the use of such weapons.

Nvens de cloro










Clouds of chlorine gas on a battlefield in the First World War

It is estimated that during the First World War, some 1,250,000 people fell victims to toxic gases used by the warring powers, including 90,000 fatalities. Of these, more than half occurred on the Russian front 4 .These figures do not include the deaths due to exposure to the toxic gases that occurred over the years after the war had ended, nor the cases of serious disabilities among demobilized soldiers who survived the war but could never work again 5.The toxic gases used during the war of 1914-18 were, first of all, chlorine, but also phosgene and mustard gas. As time went by, new compounds were developed that were considered to have a possible military use.

 “Gassed” by John Singer Sargent (1918)

Between the two world wars, Nazi Germany played a leading role in the development and manufacturing of toxic chemical agents and the means for their dissemination. The chemist Gerhard Schrader, working for the German industrial concern IG Farben, discovered the neurotoxic agent sarin that would revolutionize chemical warfare. In Nazi Germany, IG Farben became the largest manufacturer of toxic gases in the years that proceeded and during the Second World War. However, it is generally believed that chemical weapons were not used during the 1939-45 war. Nazi leaders decided not to use them in the battlefield as they suspected that their adversaries also possessed them and most likely feared possible reprisals. Zyklon B, a gas that was also discovered and produced on an industrial scale by the Germans, was employed, as is well known, for extermination purposes in Nazi concentration camps that thus became infamous death factories.

Throughout the 20th century, some 70 toxic chemical compounds were produced and stored, often in large amounts. Some were also used by numerous states or powers of varying sizes. Particularly noteworthy are Nazi Germany, which used them on the Western and Russian fronts, the United Kingdom, the Japanese Imperial Army in China, and Fascist Italy in Ethiopia. Between the two world wars, the British reportedly used toxic agents in Mesopotamia; the French and Spanish forces in North Africa, in the so-called Rif War; the Red Army during the Russian civil war to suppress the Tambov peasants’ rebellion. During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Iraqi forces used various toxic chemical agents including mustard gas, sarin gas and VX against Iranian troops and to put down the regional uprisings that occurred in Iraq in 1991. It is generally believed that chemical weapons have been used in the internal conflict currently under way in Syria. There is however no reliable data on the nature and amounts of the chemical agents used and a controversy is raging as to who is responsible for their use. As regards Israel, several sources concur that it has a significant arsenal of chemical weapons 6. However, the Jewish state has adopted a policy of dissimulation in this respect, as it has in other domains such as that of nuclear weapons: on the diplomatic front, it does not deny nor confirm that it possesses weapons of mass destruction.


Chemical weapons are deemed weapons of mass destruction7. Chemical weapons are currently classified in two types: binary and unitary chemical weapons. The former use two chemical compounds that only give rise to a lethal product once they have been mixed and have reacted with one another. The admixture and the chemical reaction are induced immediately before their use as a weapon. So-called unitary munitions that contain a “ready-to-use” lethal gas tend to predominate in chemical arsenals.


The effects and lethalness of the chemical compounds used for military purposes and aggression are quite varied, ranging from tear gas used mainly against demonstrators and popular uprisings to highly toxic agents such as sarin gas and VX, both of which have neurological effects that will rapidly cause the death of their victims.
















Iranian Victims

© OPCW Photo Gallery


It would make sense to include in the 1993 Convention certain agents that are not deemed chemical weapons in this instrument, considering their effects and uses. In particular white phosphorus, depleted uranium and the infamous “agent orange” that was abundantly used by US forces in Vietnam as a defoliant. White phosphorus was most likely used by Israel in Lebanon and undoubtedly so in the Gaza strip, as well as by Argentina in the Malvinas, by the US in Iraq and by NATO in Afghanistan. Some 24,000 square kilometers of South Vietnam were subject to attacks using agent orange, a powerful herbicide that was used to destroy tree cover and crops. It was clearly a case of “ecocide” carried out in the country that was most intensely bombed in history8. “Agent orange” includes as an impurity produced during its manufacturing process a highly toxic dioxin with mutagenic and carcinogenic effects. It is estimated that more than half a million children were born with defects due to the absorption of this dioxin.

Depleted uranium was used by the US armed forces, namely in Iraq, and by NATO in Europe, in the Balkans.

According to data collected by the body that monitors the implementation of the Convention — the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)9  based in The Hague— the stockpiles of weapons declared by states that are parties to the Convention amount to about 70,000 tons of toxic chemical agents or precursors 10 and nearly 7 million chemical munitions and containers covered by the Convention.


Stored 155 mm artillery shells containing mustard gas

By 30 September 2013, about 82% of the chemical agents and about 52% of those munitions and containers had been disposed of, deactivated or dismantled as appropriate under OPCW’s supervision11 . The Russian Federation, which had declared some 40,000 tons (¾ of which already destroyed) and the USA, with about 32,000 tons, were the parties that originally possessed the most powerful arsenals of chemical weapons. In the case of the USA, about 90% of the most dangerous toxic substances have already been destroyed. According to OPCW inspectors in Syria, the country had an estimated arsenal of some 1,300 tons of chemical weapons which supposedly have already been destroyed.

In the wake of its defeat in the Second World War, Japan left nearly 50,000 chemical weapons on Chinese territory. About ¾ of these were destroyed under OPCW supervision. The Japanese tested chemical weapons using live prisoners.

The JACADS facility for the disposal of chemical ammunition built by the USA on the Johnston atoll and decommissioned in 2000 once its job was done. Some 400,000 individual chemical ammunitions were destroyed in this facility.

The destruction of toxic chemical compounds, operational ammunition and manufacturing plants raises major safety issues and requires significant time and funding. That is why OPCW has agreed with the State Parties to an extended time schedule for such disposal. Notwithstanding, the schedule has not always been adhered to and it is likely that the destruction and dismantling operations will have to be extended for a few more years12  .

The aforementioned Convention is subject to a review every five years. The most recent review was undertaken in April 2013. While considerable progress has been achieved, some have voiced their criticisms and pointed out the Convention’s obvious limitations which are essentially related to scientific developments that have taken place since, not only in chemistry but also in the biological sciences. At this juncture, it is worth mentioning the Convention on biological and toxin weapons that was signed in 1972 by the USA, UK and the Soviet Union and came into force in March 1975, as well as the Geneva Protocol of 1925. The latter instrument covered chemical and biological weapons but had an inherent flaw in that it was a “non-first-use agreement”, that is, it did not prohibit retaliation using such weapons. The Geneva Protocol eventually led to the Chemical Weapons Convention 70 years later, which is limited to those weapons and does not prohibit the use of so-called incapacitating chemical agents that are mainly used in public disturbances and demonstrations by the civilian population, whether organized or of a spontaneous nature, and which may, in some cases, be lethal or cause serious permanent injuries. Moreover, it is possible nowadays to produce with limited resources certain types of toxins that are banned both by the Chemical Weapons Convention and by the 1972 Convention because of their dangerous nature. It should be added that the latter Convention, a tri-partite instrument, does not allow for on-site monitoring actions or checks, which obviously makes it a weaker instrument. Finally, it should be pointed that that prohibited toxic agents may nowadays be produced in small chemical reactors, the so-called “micro reactors”, which are quite robust and may easily and safely be moved around. Against this background, it would make sense to adopt preventive measures. Thus, Professor Sydnes13has proposed that the two aforementioned conventions – the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Convention Against Biological Weapons – be revised and combined in a single instrument. Moreover, it is of the utmost importance that these issues be debated within the scientific community, and in particular between chemists and biologists, whose social responsibility is particularly at stake in this matter. It would also be desirable for these issues to be included in university curricula, in a sensible way and with the necessary adaptations, in those fields of study where discussions would be most relevant, including of course the humanities and social sciences.

(English translation: Luís Pinto)


1 See Resolution A/RES/47/39, adopted on 30 November 1992 at the 47th session of the UN General Assembly, in New York.

2 These 190 states represent 98% of the current world population.

3  See Malcolm Dando, “Biologists napping while work militarized”, Nature, 460, p.20, 20 August 2009

4 During the British intervention in the Russian Civil War in 1919, the Royal Air Force dropped toxic gas bombs containing arsenic on the Bolshevik forces.

5 Brief History of Chemical Weapons Use”, OPCW (http://www.opcw.org/about-chemical-weapons/history-of-cw-use/ ); “Poison Gas and World War One”, History Learning Site (http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/poison_gas_and_world_war_one.htm ). The Portuguese expeditionary corps that fought in Flanders in the First World War suffered 7,000 casualties during the battle of La Lys where toxic gases were used.

6 According to the “Foreign Policy” magazine, there is a CIA report dated from 1983 that suggests that Israel does indeed have chemical weapons. The report makes reference to toxic gas production plants in the Negev desert and to the manufacturing of neurotoxic gases, mustard gas and chemical agents for the purposes of crowd control. It also states that the Israelis have the necessary devices for their dissemination, namely grenades. According to the same source, the CIA has compiled information on the presence of sarin gas in Israel.(http://www.dw.de/israel-keeps-mum-on-its-chemical-weapons/a-17104647 )

7 Nuclear weapons, biological weapons and chemical weapons are the three types of weapons considered to be “weapons of mass destruction”

8Between 1964 and 1975, more than 7.5 megatons of bombs and other explosives were dropped on Vietnam. By way of comparison, the total amount of explosives used in the Second World War did not exceed 2.1 million tons. (in “The Vietnam War” http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe50s/life_08.html )

9 OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013

10  Precursors” are chemical compounds that may be used to prepare toxic agents for military use

11   http://www.opcw.org/news-publications/publications/facts-and-figures/#

12 Leiv K. Sydnes, “Update the Chemical Weapons Convention”, Nature, 496, p.25, Abril, 4, 2013

13 Idem, ibidem. Sydnes considers also that it would be useful to create courses on chemical weapons in universities.