On October 11th, 2013, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was the recipient of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. In their award citation, the Norwegian Nobel Committee stated that “the work of the OPCW has defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law. Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons”. In giving the annual award to the OPCW, the Committee made clear that their decision was one which was intended to acknowledge the work which has already been accomplished and encourage the work which remains to be done. The award citation concluded by mentioning Alfred Nobel’s commitment to disarmament and the Committee’s attempt to “contribute to the elimination of chemical weapons”. While this is the first time an organization or individual has received the Nobel Peace Prize because of its work on chemical weapon disarmament, five times in the past (most recently in 2005 when the Peace Prize was awarded to Mohamed El-Bardaei and the IAEA), the Nobel Committee awarded the Prize to someone who has been involved in the campaign for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
Before receiving (and most likely after receiving) the Nobel Peace Prize, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was hardly a household name. Even as Syria and its chemical weapon stockpiles rose to prominence over the summer and came to a peak in September when an offhanded comment by Secretary of State John Kerry led to an agreement to destroy the chemical weapon stockpiles, the OPCW largely remained out of the news. The organization received only precursory mention in most news stories which talked about the chemical weapons disarmament in Syria, despite the crucial role that the OPCW would play in that very process. Nonetheless, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize will undoubtedly increase the attention being given to the OPCW and increase public awareness about the OPCW’s mission and current programs. In that same vein, here is a primer on the history and current status of the OPCW.
What is the OPCW?
The OPCW is a relatively young organization that was founded in 1997 as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The CWC is an international treaty dealing with the prohibition of chemical weapons that has been signed by 189 states which contain over 89% of the world’s population. With Syria’s recent accession to the treaty, only four counties (Angola, Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan) have failed to sign on to the treaty, and only two countries which have signed the treaty (Israel and Myanmar) have failed to ratify it. With broad international support backing it up, the OPCW’s primary responsiblity is to carry out inspections in signatory nations and verify the destruction of chemical weapon stockpiles. Since its inception, the OPCW has conducted over 5,000 inspections in 86 different countries. While inspections occur in any nation suspected of having the capabilities to produce chemical weapons, the majority of inspections occur in nations with declared stockpiles. Since these inspections began, over fifty-seven thousand metric tons of chemical weapons have been destroyed. Three countries, Albania, India, and South Korea have eliminated their stockpiles. The OPCW has verified that the U.S. and Russia, the two countries with the largest declared chemical weapon stockpiles, have eliminated 90 and 70 percent of their stockpiles, respectively.
The OPCW’s participation in Syria first began on October 1st when a group of 20 OCPW workers, joined by 19 United Nations personnel, arrived in Damascus only four days after the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution obligating Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program or face consequences. The Security Council vote followed a decision by the OPCW Executive Council to allow for Syria’s addition to the Chemical Weapons Convention which gave the OPCW the legal mandate to conduct inspections in Syria and assist in the destruction of chemical weapons and their precursors, according to OPCW spokesperson Michael Luhan. Both the United Nations and the OPCW have referred to the current operation within Syria as “unprecedented” due to the speed with which it must be completed and the danger surrounding the inspectors and other workers in Syria.
The OPCW’s mission in Syria has been divided into three distinct phases. The first is the arrival of ground operatives in the country. This phase has already been completed. The second phase, which is set to conclude by a November 1st deadline, will require the OPCW to eliminate Syria’s ability to produce additional chemical weapons by rendering chemical weapon production facilities inoperable. The third and final phase covers the destruction of all chemical weapon stockpiles and is scheduled to conclude by June 30th, 2014. With only a month separating the team’s arrival in Syria and the deadline by which they’re attempting to have disabled Syria’s ability to produce new chemical weapons, the team in Syria has employed a wide range of tools and techniques to destroy machinery and parts used to create chemical weapons. These tools range from cutting torches and angle grinders which are used to disable mixing and filling equipment, all the way to sledgehammers which are used to blunt machinery and electrical equipment.
Following the elimination of Syria’s ability to produce new chemical weapons, the OPCW will attempt to meet its June 30th deadline of having destroyed all existing chemical weapons and precursors. Starting in the late 1990s, the OPCW helped standardize chemical weapon destruction methods (at one point shortly after World War II, German chemical weapons were “disposed” of by being dumped in the Baltic Sea), and there are currently three primary methods by which chemical weapons are disposed of. These methods include detonation, hyrdolyzation and incineration. Since the majority of Syria’s chemical weapon exist as liquid precursors, it’s possible, but not certain, that hydrolization may be a preferred destruction method. This process involves the addition of caustic agents such as sodium hydroxide which have the effect of neutralizing the toxicity of chemical agents.
Challenges Facing the OPCW
While it’s too early to make any meaningful predictions of how successful the OPCW’s mission in Syria will be, it’s very clear what challenges the ground teams and the organization as a whole face. The first major challenging facing the OPCW team when it comes to dissolving Syria’s full arsenal is one which concern’s Syria’s cooperation in the disarmament process. As Charles Blair, a Senior Fellow on State and Non-State Threats at the Federation of American Scientists notes, “Past state behavior and simple logic would suggest that the Assad regime will try to keep some of its chemical warfare agents. Thus, the inspectors will likely encounter, whether they are aware of it or not, significant subterfuge”. This concern is one which was well known before the original UNSC resolution was adopted and for that reason the twenty-first and final article of the Security Council’s resolution states that “[The Security Council] decides, in the event of non-compliance with this resolution … to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Article VII of the UN Charter for those who are wondering, allows for the United Nations to enforce its decision via sanctions or military force in the event of non-compliance.
One positive sign that could be taken as an indication of the Syrian regime’s willingness to cooperate was a statement made by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov which indicated Russia’s support for punitive measures if Syria does not follow through with chemical weapons inspection and disarmament process. While there is no guarantee that Mr. Lavrov’s words will translate into action should Syria renege on its current agreement, the simple fact that Russia was willing to publically acknowledge that they wouldn’t outright block punitive measures against Syria marks a dramatic reversal from Russia’s previous stance. Charles Duelfer, a UN official who played a prominent role in overseeing the destruction of Iraq’s chemical weapons in 1991, goes as far as to speculate that “Lavrov made the case and said ‘listen guys, your only hope of surviving is to have your international prestige grow while the international prestige of the opposition is decaying’ and that can be a pretty important incentive for Bashar al-Assad”. The bottom line is this: Syrian co-operation in the weapons destruction process is essential to ensure the success of the program and the Russian government’s current position may be just enough to compel Syria to comply fully with the OPCW and its inspectors.
Another major challenge facing OPCW personnel as they attempt to meet a June 30th deadline is the current security situation within the country. The OPCW itself has been unreserved in characterizing the security threat facing its inspectors in Syria as unprecedented and has noted that even when the United Nations oversaw Iraqi disarmament in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, there was not as pressing a threat facing international overseers. Already the inspection teams have been working in areas only kilometers away from mortar attacks and skirmishes between rebel and government forces outside of Damascus.
One final complication for the OPCW is the legal mismatch between the UNSC resolution which sent inspectors to Syria and the Chemical Weapons Convention which was the basis for the United Nations resolution in the first place. While this may seem slightly paradoxical, The New Republic recently pointed out that the treaty and resolution are not perfectly aligned. In particular, there’s a theoretical (if not necessarily practical) disagreement between the two over where Syria’s weapons will be destroyed. This mismatch is largely a result of the previously mentioned security concerns. These concerns led the Security Council to encourage that chemical weapons be transported out of Syria, possibly to the United States, Russia, or some other international location, for the destruction process. While this is widely regarded as the most practical and safe method of destruction, it would directly contradict the CWC’s ban on “acquiring” chemical weapons. Since specific language in the CWC prohibits the “”transfer, directly or indirectly” or weapons to third party locations, this disconnect can be viewed as a dilemma over whether or not the Security Council can override a multilateral treaty and if so what sort of precedent that would set. There is still the possibility that OPCW inspectors could find a way around these prohibitions that would allow for the safe and timely destruction of Syria’s weapons without violating any of the fundamental provisions of the CWC. November 15th is set as the final date for approval of the destruction strategy.
There is still a long and rough road ahead for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, but for sixteen years it has served as an effective watchdog that has overseen tremendous strides in the struggle to rid the world of dangerous chemical weapons. The Nobel Peace Prize is likely to only increase the attention given to an organization that has spent much of it’s time operating behind the scenes working towards the goal which Alfred Nobel cared very much about: disarmament.
[Image Credit: https://encrypted-tbn2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRNIedtBDpHqMBHN2qLyKQk84HEglptV6FRO-SMdcz9kZ80T_iz]