Today chemical weapons pose a more challenging and dangerous threat than even nuclear ones. Recent events in the UK’s Salisbury and Syrian city of Duma make one reassess the problem of chemical weapons.
Chemical weapons emerged much earlier than other weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, biological and radiological. Great powers conducted experiments with chemical agents in the XIXth century, with the international law having forbidden the use of chemical weapons in warfare for the first time in 1899 (under the Hague Convention). Yet the ban failed to prevent countries from widely using chemical agents during the World War I and numerous other conflicts of the XXth century, including Japan’s military campaign in China (1937 – 1945), America’s Vietnam War (1965 – 1973), and the Iraqi-Iranian conflict (1980 – 1988).
Nevertheless, there is a popular opinion today that chemical agents are less dangerous and under greater control than nuclear weapons. This view results from the obvious fact that the world reached a breakthrough in chemical disarmament for last 25 years. Almost 200 countries joined the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which is about 98 percent of the planet. The Organization for the Prohibition of the Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was based on this convention and has already become a watchdog for the liquidation of more than 92 percent of chemical agents and inspected almost five thousands chemical facilities globally. It seemed that the world should make one more decisive step forward to finish the full and overall chemical disarmament. In 2013, the OPCW was fairly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, recent events in the UK’s Salisbury (the poisoning of the ex-Russia spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter as well as the following accusations of the Kremlin of committing the crime) and Syrian city of Duma (another use of chemical weapons against Syrian citizens) make one reassess the problem of chemical weapons. The full and overall disarmament is postponed to an uncertain term. On the contrary, the problem of chemical weapons seems to be aggravating. There is a reason to believe that chemical weapons pose a more obvious and potentially more dangerous threat to the humanity than even nuclear weapons. There are at lest four reasons for these concerns.
First, poor groups use chemical weapons. Those who possess nuclear arsenal are belonged to the privileged club in the global politics. All of them are technologically advanced countries. Every member of the nuclear club had to invest a great deal of energy, resources and time to create nuclear weapons. The nuclear powers are highly reluctant to accept new members in their club, and the entire global community supports this reluctance. In contrast, chemical weapons can be created within the shortest terms, in the countries with very limited financial, economic and technological opportunities. Most importantly, unlike a nuclear weapon, a chemical one could be more available to non-state actors (terrorists), provided enough desire and minimal material resources. That’s why chemical agents could be seen as an ideal weapon for terrorist acts (such as the one, conducted by the cult movement Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway in March 1995) or separate campaigns during a civil war (such as the Syrian war).
Second, the fact of the possession of chemical weapons (as well as it annihilation) is much more to verify than in the case of nuclear weapons. One could remember the beginning of the American invasion in Iraq in March 2003, which eventually destabilized the entire Middle Eastern region for years. Before the invasion, then-U.S. State Secretary Collin Powell accused the regime of the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of producing chemical weapons secretly and refusing from chemical disarmament. These accusations turn out to have been false. Ten years later, in September 2013, Russia, the U.S. and Syria signed an agreement on the liquidation of chemical weapons, and its stores were moved from Syria and subsequently liquidated under the OPCW control.
Third, nuclear weapons were initially created and deployed to intimidate, not to use during a battlefield. Seventy years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing, none of nuclear powers were insane to start a nuclear war. Even during the most critical moments of history (such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis), the opponents were patient and reasonable enough not to cross the line, which separated the humanity from a nuclear apocalypse. Yet chemical weapons have never been viewed as a weapon of the Judgment Day, which was capable to destroy the life on our planet. Nobody knows exactly how many times chemical agents have been used in a battlefield or against the civilian population throughout the last century, yet everybody knows that it was used hundreds or even thousands of times. One can safely say that there have been much more victims from chemical attacks historically than it was in the case of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
Fourth, hypothetically, it would require several minutes to establish exactly who launched a nuclear missile if a nuclear weapon were used. In the case of using a chemical agent it is totally different. As indicated by the latest events in Syria and the UK’s Salisbury, it is highly difficult to establish those who are responsible for a chemical attack. The OPCW probes might last for years and won’t necessarily lead to certainty. And if the culprit remains anonymous, is it possible to talk about a just punishment?
Stakes are very high
Finally, one can come up with paradoxical conclusions. Of course, nuclear weapons remain much more destroying than chemical agents. Of course, it is nuclear arsenals that fuel fears among people and bring together antiwar movements throughout the world. Yet practically, the threat that is emanating from chemical weapons is not lesser. This means that the international community should radically reassess its current attitude toward this problem, while being mindful of the serious challenge facing the world.
Chemical attacks should not become a subject of political speculations or a reason to start irresponsible propagandistic campaigns, because the stakes are very high for us. Peacemaking public organizations and the international civil community should be mobilized to fight for the full and overall chemical disarmament.
Intelligence of different countries should push their cooperation to a new level to detect the places of the production of chemical weapons, the ways of how it is transported and the plans of its usage. The OPCW should be upgraded; its funding and personnel should be increased, while its international status should be boosted as well.
And, of course, it is highly important to make inevitable the punishment for those people, organizations, political groups and governments, which use chemical weapons or fosters its usage directly or indirectly.
Andrei Kortunov is General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)