OPCW in high demand


The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is traveling an awful lot these days. From Salisbury in the United Kingdom to Douma in Syria, the people of OPCW are racing from west to east in the search for possible chemical weapons that have, if all the reports are true, been used on civilian populations. In attempting to confirm the recent findings of the parties concerned, the organization has had to go to two continents at almost the same time. Since it was founded in 1997, this is unprecedented. In this modern age, when it was assumed that chemical weapons had been banned for good, this hunt for forbidden offensive substances that were never to have been used again is as frightening as it is unparalleled.

The OPCW is in high demand because the stakes are extremely high. In Salisbury, the OPCW confirmed the UK’s findings that Novichok was used to target the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. To punish Moscow, the UK and more than 20 other Western governments have expelled more than 140 Russian diplomats in a diplomatic row of rare intensity.

Meanwhile, the first four chemical weapons experts from the OPCW have arrived in Syria on a fact-finding mission into the April 7 Douma incident. Moscow’s warning that war could break out between it and the US if Washington launches air strikes in response to the suspected chemical attack in Syria is rattling nerves across the globe and amplifies tenfold the situation that the OPCW finds itself in. A potential clash of superpowers with nuclear bombs hangs on the OPCW’s determination.

Chemical weapons were never supposed to be used again. Pictures like those taken of victims of a chemical gas attack in Halabja, Iraq in1988, and of Vietnamese children severely burned by napalm in 1972 were never supposed to be taken again.

All weapons of war are destructive of human life but chemical and biological weapons are in a class of their own. Chemicals have the ability to burn a person’s windpipe and lungs, leading to death. They can cause muscle paralysis, including paralysis of the diaphragm and heart. People affected by chemical weapons can show delayed effects that last throughout life like cancer, causing severe damage to a fetus and detrimental alterations in human genes.

As a consequence, chemical weapons were regulated and banned during warfare by the Geneva Protocol in 1925 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992.

The danger of their use and proliferation applies as much to developing as it does to developed countries. However, any country can develop or acquire, in one way or another, a capability in this type of warfare, despite the fact that it may prove costly. The overriding danger applies as much to the country that initiates the use of these weapons as to the one that has been attacked.

There is another problem, which is that traces of chemical weapons tend to disappear with time. Investigations, therefore, may prove inconclusive because they start too late. Also, finding evidence of chemical weapons does not really reveal who has used them, although rounds of mutual accusations may be unleashed.

Whatever the OPCW missions unearth, especially in Syria, will sound alarm bells in the international community about the possible use of chemical weapons and the consequences of doing so.

The situation the OPCW now finds itself in is ironic. It was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons”. However, through no fault of its own - just doing its job – the OPCW’s findings could now start a world war.