But the CWC is more than just a disarmament treaty. It is a comprehensive, international commitment undertaken by the states of the world to never again use or threaten to use chemical weapons against one another or their own citizens. The protection that the CWC offers is supported by one of the most far-reaching verification regimes ever devised for a disarmament treaty. At any given moment, a team of OPCW inspectors is somewhere in the world walking through a chemical facility, including commercial sites, checking that prohibited activities are not taking place. Furthermore, the CWC itself promotes the peaceful use of science and builds trust between nations through the facilitation of scientific cooperation.
Science is central to the CWC and, without the input of chemistry, implementation would not be possible. To destroy chemical weapons stockpiles in a safe and environmentally-responsible manner required chemists and chemical engineers to devise suitable hydrolysis methods and incineration for safely disposal. To monitor and inspect industrial activities, inspectors require deep knowledge of chemical production technologies and chemical synthesis. And the analysis of chemical samples requires impartial and scientifically robust methods to ensure the results are of the highest reliability.
OPCW has built a network of designated laboratories that serve as the linchpin of the Organisation’s capacity to investigate suspected chemical weapons use. This network consists of 26 laboratories located in the territories of 19 nations. These laboratories share information on method development and participate in proficiency testing exercises facilitated by the OPCW Laboratory. The network is a model of science diplomacy, where international scientific collaboration upholds norms against the use of chemical weapons and builds trust between nations both within the network and within the CWC as the scientific capabilities are used to benefit all Member States.
As we reflect on our successes, we must also recognize that the international arena has changed over the past two decades, especially the security situation. The OPCW has had to face significant challenges. Amongst these, the Organisation’s operations in the Syrian Arab Republic have and continue to be its biggest to date. In 2013, a chemical strike in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta killed over 1,400 people. At the time of the attack, a UN-led mission that included OPCW inspectors was already on the ground in Syria and was able to confirm the use of sarin.
The international community was outraged and action was demanded. Eventually, through diplomatic pressure, the Syrian Arab Republic acquiesced to joining the CWC and dismantling its chemical weapons programme within one year. To verify this process, the OPCW in cooperation with the UN was tasked to monitor the destruction of Syria’s declared programme. Thanks to financial and technical assistance from thirty OPCW Member States and the European Union, the OPCW met this ambitious timeframe. While this should have been the end of the Organisation’s Syria mission, it was unfortunately just the beginning.
In April 2014, a Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) was established to determine the credibility of persistent allegations of the use of chemicals as weapons. Over the past four years the FFM, has conducted investigations into over 80 suspected attacks and has reported on 14 likely or confirmed uses of chemical weapons in Syria. The FFM’s most recent deployment was to the city of Douma in April and its finding have yet to be issued at the time of writing this article.