The OPCW: ridding the world of chemical weapons

The OPCW is based in The Hague. (AFP pic)

LONDON: International chemical weapons experts were due to arrive in the UK on Monday to collect samples of a nerve agent allegedly used to poison a former Russian spy.

The UK has called on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to lend its expertise and know-how to the investigation amid a political crisis between London and Moscow.

Samples collected in the town of Salisbury following the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia will “be dispatched to highly reputable international laboratories selected by the OPCW for testing,” the Foreign Office said, with the results not expected for at least two weeks.

Founded in 1997, the OPCW, based in The Hague, oversees the application of The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) aimed at ridding the world of toxic arms.

Chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, were first used on the battlefields of World War One, and also in 1988 by late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein against civilians in Halabja, Iraq. Other incidents include the 1995 subway sarin gas attack in Tokyo by a Japanese cult.

After almost 20 years of negotiations, the convention took effect on April 29, 1997. The OPCW now has 192 member nations, covering some 98% of the world’s population.

In the past two decades, the OPCW has overseen the destruction of some 96% of the world’s declared chemical weapons stocks of 72,304 metric tons.

The United States is on target to destroy its chemical arms – the last remaining major declared stockpiles – within the next seven years.

Only three nations have not yet signed up to the convention: Egypt, Israel, and North Korea. South Sudan said last year it was moving to join.

In 2013, the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons,” according to the Nobel committee.

A country that has signed the convention must declare and destroy all chemical weapons it possesses; destroy all such arms abandoned in another country; and destroy any facilities involved in manufacturing such weapons.

The OPCW upholds the convention by monitoring the destruction of all declared stockpiles and inspecting all former sites where chemical weapons were produced, and suspect sites.

It also seeks to verify credible allegations of chemical weapons use, mostly by sending experts, many of them from ex-military or scientific backgrounds, to the site.

Samples are taken and then sent to OPCW-selected labs or to its own laboratory in the Rijswijk suburb of The Hague for further analysis.

The OPCW has carried out some 6,729 inspections at 3,166 chemical weapon-related and 3,563 industrial sites since April 1997.

Russia signed the CWC in January 1993 and ratified it in December 1997.

In 2013, Moscow was instrumental with Washington in sealing a deal forcing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to join the OPCW after Damascus had denied for years possessing any chemical weapons.

In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow had destroyed its last chemical weapons in a process begun in 2005 and overseen by the OPCW.

Outgoing OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu said the destruction of Russia’s declared stockpile of 39,967 tons was a “major milestone” for the CWC.

But the UK’s ambassador to the OPCW, Peter Wilson, last week accused Moscow of failing to fully declare “for years” its stockpile.

The OPCW is more of a watchdog than a police force and depends on member states being truthful in their declarations about the size and composition of its toxic arms stockpiles.

It is also not mandated to attribute blame or to determine who unleashed such weapons.

Complicating the situation, some chemicals, like chlorine which has been used against civilians in gas form in Syria’s civil war, are exempt from any such declarations as they have wide industrial or agricultural uses.

The UK has accused Russia of breaking the convention, saying it manufactured the nerve agent Novichok allegedly used to poison the Russian spy Skripal.

But the CWC contains no specific punitive measures for countries that use chemical weapons. To date, despite condemnation of the use of toxic arms in Syria, no state member has been publicly found to have violated the convention.