April 20, 2019

Working together for a world free of chemical weapons

By H.E. Mr Fernando Arias, Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons


At the end of July, I took office as the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). As the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the OPCW not only oversees the global endeavour to permanently and verifiably eliminate chemical weapons but also works to prevent the proliferation of dangerous chemicals and to improve the safety and security of the management of such chemicals.

We must take into account the fact that we live surrounded by chemicals (used in e.g. agriculture, medicine, pharmaceuticals, industry, etc) and the OPCW has the responsibility to contribute to the peaceful uses of such chemicals while protecting the public and the environment.

Since entering into force in 1997, the CWC remains the foundation of global efforts to eliminate and prevent the spread and use of chemical weapons. Indeed, it is arguably the most successful treaty of its kind, banning a wholecategory of weapons of mass destruction under a strict and effective global verification regime.

One remarkable achievement of the Convention is that it has yielded concreteand measurable disarmament progress. Today, over 96 percent of all declared chemical weapon stockpiles have been irreversiblydestroyed under the watchful eye of OPCW inspectors. One hundred percent of declared stockpiles will be eliminated once the United States completes its chemical demilitarisation process, planned to happen by 2023.

When this occurs, the OPCW will have overseen the destruction of some 72,000 metric tonnes ofthe most lethal substances ever created by humankind.Our ability to monitor these destruction activities and industrial production has been central tobuilding confidence in the Convention and reinforcing trust between the States Parties. Chemical industry has been an essential partner in ensuring that verification is conductedsmoothly and thoroughly. So far, more than 3,500 inspections of industrial facilities have beenconducted in 82 countries since the CWC came into force.

Universality is also well within our grasp. At present, 193 countries have joined theConvention – the highest level of adherence of any disarmament treaty. Only four countries have yet to become members of the CWC: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan. We are making every effort to convince them to join the overwhelming majority of the world in ourendeavour to permanently eradicate chemical weapons.

Undeniably, we are all safer today because of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Much ofthe OPCW’s activities have occurred out of the spotlight and off thefront page of the news. But the international community did recognise the importance of ourwork when, in 2013, the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its extensive efforts toeliminate global stocks of chemical weapons.At the same time that the OPCW has made progress in its disarmament mission, it has had tocontend with the on-going use of chemical weapons. Syria has been the biggest challenge in this regard.

After the Syrian Arab Republic joined the CWC in 2013, the OPCW worked swiftly incooperation with the United Nations and more than 30 partner states to dismantle its declared chemical weapons programme. However, chemical attacks have persisted in that country. In response to ongoing and crediblereports of chemical weapons use, a Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) was established in April 2014 to examine the allegations on the ground. The FFM’s work has been indispensable in determining that chemicals were used asweapons.

Regrettably, other incidents have arisen around the world. In the past few years we have also witnessed sophisticated nerve agents employed to assassinate individuals in Malaysia and the United Kingdom, resulting in the tragic loss of life.

H.E. Mr. Fernando Arias, OPCW Director General.

The use of chemical weapons should and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Statements of condemnation by themselves are not nearly enough to stem the audacious and continuing use of these inhumane weapons.

Action speaks louder than words. And the States Parties to the CWC have acted. In June this year, the Conference of the States Parties adopted an important decision requesting the Secretariat to put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic.

This is a crucial new power for the Organisation. Previously, we had only been able to say ifchemical weapons had been used. Now we should be able to identify the perpetrators. Nonetheless, we are not judge and jury; that role is for other institutions to assume. Our contribution will be to attribute responsibility in an impartial, independent, andeffective manner. Implementing the new missionwill require additional resources (human and financial) and appropriate structures.

Attributing responsibility for violations of the Convention’s basic prohibitionextends to non-state actors as well. This reflects the concern over the real threat of chemical terrorism.In recent years, the threat has grown. For instance, in 2015 and 2016, the so-called Islamic Stateof Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) used mustard gas In Iraq and Syria.

In response, in 2017, the OPCW’s Executive Council adopted a landmark decision that addresses the threat posed by non-State actors and reiterates the key role of States Parties in implementing the Convention through their legislation, especially by imposing penal sanctions for violations of its prohibitions.

Finding synergies with other international organisations is also important. As such, we haveestablished a partnership with the United Nations Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force. The OPCW has taken a proactive role within this initiative that includes 37 otherinternational entities. At the same time, the OPCW has developed the capabilities to aid States Parties that are dealingwith chemical incidents, including acts of terrorism.

Coping with the rapid pace of discoveries in science and technology will pose a unique challengeto the Organisation in addition to offering vast opportunities. The evolution of science requires us to adapt and improve our capabilities.Therefore, we aretransforming our current OPCW Laboratory into a Centre for Science and Technology that will allow theOPCW to remain fit for purpose.

Over the next couple of months, this very subject of the future will be at the forefront of theOPCW’s collective mind, as we engage in a once every five year review of the Convention.States Parties will address current challenges and determine the priorities and plansto guide the Organisation for the next five years, and provide the Secretariat with the appropriate means and resources to address these priorities.

Twenty-one years after its entry-into-force, the CWC has reached another critical turning point.Respect for the norm against chemical weapons is under strain, and we risk normalising the use of such weapons.This should serve as a warning. Continual progress requires vigilance else we also risk real reversals.My hope is that nations are prepared to work together to protect and enhance the gains achieved by the CWC.

No doubt, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the OPCW are facing serious challenges. I will do my best to steward the Organisation and to ensure the integrity of the Convention. In the meantime, I am pleased to remain a member of The Hague community as we all make our contributions to the City of Peace and Justice.

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