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Chemical Weapons

During the 20th century about 70 different chemicals had been used or stockpiled as chemical weapons (CW) agents. These chemicals are in liquid, gas or solid form and blister, choke and affect the nerves or blood. Chemical warfare agents are generally classified according to their effect on the organism and can be roughly grouped as: nerve agents, mustard agents, hydrogen cyanide, tear gases, arsines, psychotomimetic agents, toxins and potential CW agents.

The experience of large-scale chemical warfare, conducted in the first world war, was so horrifying that it led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which forbids the use of chemical and bacteriological agents in war. Images of victims gasping, frothing and choking to death had a profound impact. The text of the protocol reflects the global sense of abhorrence. It affirmed that these weapons had been "justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world."

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) reinforces aspects of the Geneva Conventions that also dealt with these agents and was negotiated over a period of 24 years. As of the beginning of 2005 more than 185 countries have signed the CWC and 167 have ratified it. Countries that ratify must destroy all chemical weapons over a ten year period with the treaty providing a "leveling out principle" that ensures possessors destroy their stockpiles at roughly the same time.

Under the treaty countries must to stop any development, production, acquisition, stockpiling and retention of chemical weapons. The CWC requires States Parties to report the location of chemical weapons storage sites, the location and characteristics of chemical weapons production and research facilities and prohibits trade in certain chemicals with countries not party to the treaty. Five years after entry into force, destruction of 20% of the State Party’s stockpile is to be completed. After seven years, 45% of the destruction should be complete.

The verification provisions of the CWC not only affect the military sector but also the civilian chemical industry, world-wide, through certain restrictions and obligations regarding the production, processing and consumption of chemicals that are considered relevant to the objectives of the Convention. The Convention also contains provisions on assistance in case a State Party is attacked or threatened with attack by chemical weapons and on promoting the trade in chemicals and related equipment among State Parties. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) verifies the destruction of chemical weapons and of chemical weapons production facilities.

As of the beginning of 2005, 71,372 metric tons of chemical weapon agents have been declared to OPCW. The United States stockpile consists of 27,768 metric tons of CW agents. Russia still possesses a stockpile of 40,132 metric tons of CW agents. Despite the sometimes slow rate of chemical agent destruction, the issue of chemical weapons is considered a model non-proliferation and disarmament regime, compared to other classes of weapons of mass destruction.

For more information:

Chemical Weapons Resources Page