WASHINGTON -- The future of an international ban on chemical weapons will face intense scrutiny at a two-week meeting set to begin on Monday in the Netherlands.
State participants at the third review conference for the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention are expected to examine progress achieved under the nonproliferation regime since 2008 and to plot a course for the coming five years, when its enforcement arm begins to shift focus from overseeing elimination of chemical warfare stockpiles to heading off proliferation of banned weapons.
“This is going to be the last review conference before the transition in fact takes place. We’re expecting in probably four to five years at the latest that most of the chemical weapons will be destroyed,” said Ahmet Üzümcü, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
“Prevention of re-emergence will be very much the focus of our future activities,” he told Global Security Newswire late last year. The OPCW chief said an existing regime of site inspections and material declarations would “clearly” remain central to enforcing the ban on producing, storing or using lethal agents with little or no peaceful value.
Officials and independent experts said The Hague-based watchdog’s changing mission will almost certainly mean cuts to its budget and employee roster in coming years. Some issue watchers, though, warned that nations might ultimately go too far in downsizing the OPCW Technical Secretariat, endangering the group’s ability to carry out its evolving duties.
Treaty member states in November rejected Üzümcü’s request to match funding to inflation as they had in recent years, instead adopting an $89.4 million spending plan representing a 5-percent cut to OPCW funding in real terms.
A veteran observer of chemical arms negotiations said he feared the April 8-19 conference would in broad language set the stage for “failure from success” as specific funding levels are set in coming years.
“Because the overall regime has been very successful at destroying chemical weapons [and] delegitimizing chemical weapons as an instrument of power, I suspect there are going to be very few people in governments who are going to be keen to be spending money on the OPCW that they don’t see an absolute need for,” said Richard Guthrie, coordinating editor for the CBW Events project.
The risk is the world could “end up with a weaker OPCW … and that provides the opportunity or the situation where re-emergence of chemical weapons can happen,” he said by telephone in March.
The Chemical Ban
State delegates to The Hague issued their first formal ban on “poisonous weapons" in 1899, but only after the Chemical Weapons Convention’s 1997 entry into force did countries undertake in earnest the massive task of destroying a class of weapon employed with deadly effect throughout the early 20th century and stockpiled in massive quantities during the Cold War.
Key holdouts remain, most blatantly Syria. The Assad regime is widely thought to hold hundreds of tons of blister and nerve agents. Recent claims suggest that some lethal material was put to use in the nation’s civil war.
Nonetheless, the OPCW website notes the confirmed destruction of 55,116 tons of chemical-weapon materials, including nerve agents fatal in quantities “no larger than the head of a pin.” Those destroyed weapons account for four-fifths of the world’s declared chemical arms, including significant portions of the massive stockpiles held by the United States and former Soviet Union.
Inspecting industrial chemical plants will become a greater part of OPCW operations as the organization turns its focus to ensuring governments and nonstate actors do not tap such sites to produce arms. While some of the facilities produce or handle controlled weapon-usable substances, a far greater number could be converted toward illicit work.
Those facilities -- described in treaty parlance as "other chemical production facilities" -- as of 2010 accounted for 4,275 of the 4,910 industry plants subject to potential OPCW scrutiny, the organization said in its most recent available annual report. A random selection process determines which of those plants undergo inspection.
Inspectors can collect samples for laboratory analysis, interview facility personnel and gather on-site photographs.
Member nations have authorized the agency to increase the total number of industry inspections from 209 in 2011, to 219 in 2012, to 229 in 2013, and topping out at 241 in 2014, OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan stated by e-mail. “Many but not all of the additional inspections” will cover "other chemical production facilities," he added.
That still falls short of the number needed for an effective verification regime, according to Global Green USA environmental security and sustainability director Paul Walker.
“At that rate it’s going to take us another 20 years to inspect them all. A lot of us think that’s a little too little, too late,” Walker told GSN.
Conducting between 250 and 300 industry checks each year “would be much better and would not require too many more resources,” he said. Member nations last year rebuffed a call by Üzümcü to allow nine more annual industry inspections, for a total of 250.
Speaking in October, the OPCW chief indicated he did not “expect the number of industrial inspections to increase significantly in the future.”
“Therefore we have to see more clearly, and states parties will have to give us a guidance, as to the future activities of the organization,” he added. In particular, the agency needs to know how it should “balance” its demilitarization and industry monitoring duties.
Individual inspectors typically divide their time between conducting industry inspections and overseeing chemical-weapon dismantlement, Luhan said. They have begun dedicating proportionally more “inspection days” to industry supervision over the past five years, and that trend is expected to continue.
“In  the total number of inspection days are split in 22.6 percent for industrial sites and 76.4 percent for chemical weapons-related sites,” he wrote in a March 31 e-mail.
The OPCW inspectorate includes 113 permanent staffers at present, down from a 173-member team maintained for several years prior to 2011, Luhan stated. The agency’s number of “deployable inspectors” peaked at 196 in 2009 with the addition of 23 short-term staff.
Üzümcü has said his organization would only require roughly 40 inspectors -- less than one-third its current number -- once its mission is limited to conducting industry audits.
Guthrie suggested scaling back the inspectorate could have consequences for the team’s “mix of skills.” It can be “quite useful” to dispatch an inspector with in-depth knowledge of technology known to be present at a particular site, he said.
Nations Set the Direction
A senior U.S. State Department official said this month’s conference is expected to yield two key documents: a lengthy examination of OPCW activities since the last review conference in 2008, and a shorter paper intended to chart broad objectives for the organization over the coming half-decade. The papers are intended to inform decisions over the next several years by the agency’s 41-nation OPCW Executive Council and annual gatherings of the all 188 CWC signatories.
Working groups of state delegates are expected during the conference to hammer out various parts of the “final report,” and the assembled paper would go up for approval near the end of the meeting. Sections not backed by consensus could go to a vote.
Preliminary conference discussions have not signaled a smooth road toward consensus. An “open-ended working group” of states parties had convened 31 meetings as mid-March, Luhan said. The group planned to hold two more meetings in advance of the conference, but it abandoned the possibility of releasing an advance copy of a draft conference report intended to help inform debate at the upcoming meeting.
Walker said the advance discussions have involved “dissension around every single issue,” and he expects the upcoming meeting to be “lively and pretty contentious.” Areas of dispute include future OPCW funding, as well as the right of news organizations and other nongovernmental groups to join conference proceedings now largely limited to state delegates, according to the expert.
Guthrie said Switzerland has tackled a controversial issue by pushing to formally distinguish "incapacitant" chemicals from less powerful riot control agents, which the treaty allows to be used in "law enforcement" situations. The United States advocated “a vague term of law enforcement” as the accord was drafted in order to retain wider latitude in use of those materials, he noted.
Incapacitants prevent victims from escaping additional exposure, whereas riot control agents leave people with an ability to flee.
In 2002, Russia highlighted the difference when it pumped an anesthetic gas into a Moscow theater where Chechen militants had taken more than 800 people hostage. The move ended the standoff but killed 129 captives exposed to the compound, according to a 2006 report by the NATO Research and Technology Organization.
No decisions at the conference are expected to directly impact ongoing projects to destroy the last chemical stockpiles held by signatory nations, but issue experts said meeting participants would pay close attention to the disarmament progress of the four remaining possessors of chemical arms under the treaty regime: Iraq, Libya, Russia and the United States.
The United States, Russia and Libya missed the April 2012 deadline for full elimination of their chemical arsenals. Conference participants will eye the credibility of plans by the states to keep to their new, self-imposed destruction schedules, observers said.
The Pentagon intends by 2023 to wrap up dismantlement of the U.S. chemical stockpile, which once contained nearly 30,000 tons of warfare agent. A recently completed disposal facility in Colorado is set to eliminate 780,000 munitions and 2,611 tons of mustard blister agent, and another plant is under construction in Kentucky will dispose of 523 tons and their accompanying delivery systems.
Russia as of November had destroyed more than two-thirds of its 44,000-ton declared arsenal, but more recent disarmament figures were not available. Moscow has pledged to finish demilitarization operations by 2015, but reports on Friday suggested work could continue into 2020.
Libya destroyed about half of its much smaller declared stockpile of mustard agent and precursors before the country’s 2011 revolution. In late 2011 and early 2012, the country’s new government reported previously undeclared chemical-weapon stockpiles left by the Qadhafi regime.
By acceding to the treaty in 2009, Iraq committed to eliminate a domestic supply of chemical warfare assets predating the 1991 Gulf War. The deteriorating arms cache has remained in a pair of sealed bunkers for more than two decades; finding a means to inventory and destroy the materials safely and cost-effectively has been a “real challenge,” Walker said.
Extending CWC controls to every corner of the world is another key priority for participants. The pact’s current membership accounts for 98 percent of the world’s landmass and as large a share of its chemical industries, but the eight holdout nations – Angola, Egypt, Israel, North Korea, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria -- include high-profile challengers to the treaty regime.
Syria will probably be conspicuously absent from formal conference proceedings, Walker said. Still, the war-torn country will be undoubtedly be a focus on the sidelines.
North Korea -- another nation believed to hold significant chemical warfare stocks -- has eschewed any contact with OPCW officials, according to the expert.
South Sudan became independent in 2011, and Üzümcü said joining the convention would be a “simple formality” for the African nation.
Israel and Myanmar have signed but not ratified the convention. Both countries have sent observers to treaty functions in recent years, and Angola dispatched one for the first time in 2012.
Israel’s widely presumed nuclear arsenal has complicated efforts to court Egypt, Üzümcü said. “Until we face down this linkage of the chemical weapons options of Egypt and Syria and [Israeli options], it may be very difficult to get everybody on board,” according to the official.
Walker suggested the conference might include announcements of Angola or Myanmar joining the treaty. Speaking earlier in March, he suggested ratification by both states could be “inevitable” within a year.
Guthrie, though, said any new states parties would choose a lower-profile occasion for announcing their accession.
Other conference issues could include:
-- Moving to reappoint Üzümcü, whose first term ends in July 2014. Walker suggested conference participants might provide positive appraisals of his performance that could pave the way for his reinstatement later this year. Speaking in October, Üzümcü said it was “a little early” to say whether he would seek to keep the job.
-- Japanese efforts to gather hundreds of thousands of chemical shells deposited throughout China during World War II. Japan as of last year had reportedly collected 48,000 munitions in Chinese territory. The OPCW Executive Council last year decided the project would never meet April destruction deadline and endorsed a one-decade extension endorsed by Beijing and Tokyo.
-- Promotion of implementing legislation for the treaty’s rules. Only 90 of the pact’s 188 member nations have passed laws to date “covering all key areas,” the OPCW Technical Secretariat stated on March 20.
Global Security Newswire Editor Chris Schneidmiller contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described a controversy concerning use of "incapacitating" chemicals for law enforcement purposes. Such agents produce unconsciousness or significantly limit functioning in humans, preventing victims from fleeing exposure that might reach fatal levels. The treaty permits use of "riot control agents," irritant substances that leave people with an ability to flee; however, states parties have established no formal definitions to date for "incapacitant" chemicals or legitimate "law enforcement" use of riot control agents.