Guest Post: The OPCW Grows Up

Guest Post: The OPCW Grows Up

[Faiza Patel is the Co-Director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law]

In the decade that I worked at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, few people outside the arms control community knew about my employer. Now, of course, everyone is talking about the OPCW as its inspectors undertake the difficult and dangerous task of monitoring the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to this previously low-profile outfit has only piqued interest further.

So what is the OPCW and what does it do?

The OPCW is an inter-governmental organization charged with making sure that countries comply with their obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. For the past 16 years it has been doing so without much fanfare. As the Nobel committee made clear, the OPCW’s contribution to world peace is based on this long record, not just for stepping up in Syria.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997, is one of the most important achievements of the post-Cold War period. It is unique amongst arms control treaties because it bans not just the use, but also the stockpiling, of an entire category of weapons (In contrast, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty allows the five permanent members of the Security Council to maintain nuclear arsenals, although they are meant to be working towards eliminating them.) Countries that join the treaty are required to declare any chemical weapons they hold, as well as related facilities, and to get rid of them under international supervision. They must also undertake to never develop a chemical weapons capacity.

Under the treaty, countries were required to destroy their chemical weapons by 2012. Substantial progress has been made towards this goal, with approximately 80 percent of chemical agent stockpiles destroyed. Unfortunately, the two major possessor states, the United States and the Russian Federation, have not yet finished. They are, however, slated to finish up over the next few years and most experts are confident that both countries will eventually fulfill this commitment.

In addition to monitoring the elimination of chemical weapons, the OPCW has important non-proliferation mandate that will continue even after all weapons stockpiles are gone. Facilities producing dual use chemicals – such as Thiodiglycol, which is used to make ink but can also be used to produce mustard gas – are periodically inspected to ensure that toxic substances are not diverted to weapons uses. Since 1997, the organization has undertaken some 1900 of these types of inspections. Of course this represents only a fraction of the industrial facilities that deal in chemicals that could be turned into weapons, but the fact that countries allow inspections increases confidence that they are committed to the goals of the treaty.

Despite this impressive record, the OPCW faces a number of challenges as it embarks on the Syrian mission. Many are attributable to the context in which it is operating. Security is obviously one of these, as well as the extremely tight timelines set out for completing destruction. But there are also structural issues.

To begin with, the Chemical Weapons Convention is set up to limit intrusions into sensitive military and industrial facilities to the minimum necessary to verify treaty compliance. It is built around declarations by each country about its weapons and relevant industrial facilities. Inspectors visit the facilities under pre-agreed rules and verify that the declarations are accurate through records checks and observation. They don’t go searching for undeclared facilities and they don’t go snooping around declared facilities to see what else is going on. The treaty does provide a way for a country to trigger inspections of undeclared facilities, but the mechanism has never been used.

A big question in Syria is, of course, whether the Assad regime has fully declared its chemical weapons stocks. OPCW inspectors will have to act more like detectives than auditors. This will require a change in attitude, but one that the OPCW’s well-trained inspector corps can likely handle. They will also be helped by United Nations personnel, some of whom faced similar challenges when the UN monitored the destruction of Iraq’s arsenal.

When it comes to eliminating chemical weapons, the OPCW will not be following its normal routine of spending months (and sometimes years) working out a destruction plan with the state concerned. It has already started monitoring the destruction of filling and production equipment and munitions, mostly through physical mutilation. Getting rid of the toxic chemicals will be much harder. Although initial plans envisioned moving the Syrian stockpile out of the country, as I’ve argued here doing so would be illegal under the Chemical Weapons Convention. The United States has floated the possibility of bringing over newly-developed mobile destruction units. But it is far from clear that this equipment will work in the field or whether it will be able to handle the full extent of Syria’s stockpile. Even purpose-built destruction facilities in stable countries have run into technical problems that required them to suspend operations. At this time, there doesn’t seem to be a fully thought out plan for how Syria’s toxic chemicals will be eliminated. This key issue must be resolved by November 15, 2013, when the OPCW is supposed to adopt a detailed destruction plan for Syria.

Being at the center of world events has downsides too. The OPCW will be under enormous pressure to deliver under fairly unrealistic timelines. It must, however, resist any temptation to take shortcuts with the stringent procedures it has developed in more stable environments. In addition, some countries may expect the organization to disclose any evidence it comes across on whether the Assad regime is responsible for the August chemical weapons attacks in the Damascus suburbs. These types of political headwinds will be hard to negotiate. At the same time, the OPCW’s position as a technical and relatively apolitical organization may help it withstand them and fulfill its mission in Syria.

Featured, Foreign Relations Law, General, Organizations
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