This year, my colleagues at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – which implements the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms control agreement that began in 1997 – and I reached a milestone: we ratified -an that the last remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world have been destroyed. Now, the OPCW is intensifying its focus on ensuring that these weapons never appear again. This includes strengthening political commitments and collective imperatives to maintain a policy against the use of chemical weapons, as well as preventing the proliferation of materials, equipment and expertise.
As a science-policy advisor to the OPCW, I monitor the impact of scientific and technological advances on the implementation of the convention and the work of the organization. I now see that we face an ongoing challenge – one that collaboration from governments and the scientific community can help us overcome.
In 2019, the 193 member states of the OPCW decided unanimously, for the first time in history, to add the compounds to the schedules, the lists of chemicals regulated under the convention. The four entries contain toxic nerve agents with no known civilian use: three cover phosphorus-based agents (of the ‘novichok family’), and the fourth is a family of carbamates, another type of nerve agents. The convention already prohibits the use of it (or any chemical) to intentionally kill or harm people by poisoning. Today, their production, transfer and storage are subject to strict verification by the OPCW, through declarations and on-site inspections.
Top chemical weapons detectives just opened a new lab
Yet some states refuse to share data about these chemicals with the OPCW. The lack of information about the new scheduled chemicals is in stark contrast to what we have for other weapons listed in the convention and its predecessors. To ensure the health and safety of personnel during inspections, the OPCW needs a better understanding of the properties of these chemicals, the types of personal protective equipment and medical procedures effective against them. and the analytical methods of its identification. These data also help us to provide the best information and training to all member states, ensuring that they are ready in case any chemicals are used as a weapon.
Information sharing also improves national security. It builds trust by increasing confidence that other countries adhere to mutual and voluntary binding agreements. If member states can detect, deal with and respond to the consequences of the use of chemical weapons, that itself will act as a deterrent and reduce the risk of their use.
The annual Conference of States Parties, which will take place in The Hague, Netherlands, from 27 November to 1 December, is an excellent opportunity for everyone to agree that the production of scientific data is important – a fundamental apolitical aspects of the convention and the work of the OPCW.
Novichok nerve agents are banned by the chemical-weapons treaty
Reluctance to share information has been overcome before. For example, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) continuously monitors the Earth for signs of nuclear explosions, in support of its 1996 treaty name, which bans all nuclear tests. It records large amounts of data through an extensive network of seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound and radionuclide facilities. These data were initially not shared openly.
The change occurred after the devastating earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, in December 2004. An estimated 230,000 people died in the tsunami. The signatory states began to ask: did the rapid data sharing of the CTBTO help save lives during this disaster? Seeing the enormous potential of these data for various scientific endeavors, the parties to the test-ban treaty overcame their initial reluctance to share sensitive data and found a way to do so without compromising the national security. Today, the broader scientific community can access CTBTO data for many research and civil applications, from tracking meteors and pinpointing missing submarines to tracking marine-mammal migration. Expanding the comfort zones of member states has proven to be a win-win.
In the case of the newly added compounds to the Chemical Weapons Convention, information sharing can be approached in a step-by-step manner to build trust. Initially, to ensure the integrity of our ongoing operations, member states could provide relevant technical information on these chemicals only to the OPCW Technical Secretariat. After a period of time, when member states are comfortable with how to use the information, the OPCW can facilitate the sharing of relevant information among all member states, strengthening their ability to prepare for and respond to any misuse of these chemicals.
The Chemical Weapons Convention is widely considered to be the world’s most successful international disarmament treaty, as it eliminated an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. The OPCW has been equally successful – recognized for its efforts in 2013 with the Nobel Peace Prize. At this crucial moment, when all globally declared stockpiles of chemical weapons have finally been destroyed, we will have the tools we need to ensure continued success and a safer world.
The author declares no competing interests.