Tear gas from the trenches into city streets

Book Review

Anna Feigenbaum, Tear Gas (Verso: London, 2017), 224p.

Anna Feigenbaum is an academic at the Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community, Bournemouth University. Her interest lies in data storytelling, an approach that benefits from increasing access to data to build a more complex narrative in support of social change. That narrative is furthermore interwoven with practitioners’ experience and empirical research. Her just published book Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WW1 to the Streets of Today uses this approach to explain how a chemical warfare agent first used over a century ago has become a common weapon in the arsenals of police forces worldwide.

This is the first time that I have been (consciously) exposed to this research and writing technique. The book makes for good and engaging reading: once picked up, it is difficult to put it aside. It is not a neutral piece of academic research (if such a thing exists): it is a campaign book that details the deception behind the so-called ‘non-lethal’ concept and decries the misuse of a poisonous agent in the name of law and order.

A weapon of war and domestic riot control

Ever since the end of World War 1 policy makers and shapers have expressed their incomprehension about why their military could not use a toxic agent on the battlefield that the police can deploy against riotous crowds. Much rarer is the reverse question why politicians would ever consider equipping national police forces with a weapon of war for use against their electorate. In fact, it is so rare that I cannot recall ever having come across it.

What cannot be denied is that riot control agents have been banned as an instrument of war since the 1925 Geneva Protocol. It is true that before the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) now 20 years ago this interpretation of the Geneva Protocol was contested by some, the United States in particular. But then the USA only signed up to the agreement in 1975 after it had come in for severe criticism for its widespread use of anti-plant agents (to deny communist forces jungle cover) and CS lachrymatory agent. This irritant saw widespread application in tunnel combat as well as a tool to separate civilians from North-Vietnamese irregulars who had infiltrated into towns and villages. Even today many Americans will argue with conviction that they did not wage chemical warfare in Indochina because the toxic substances were not lethal like sarin and mustard agent. Their position is not opportunistic: US military and politicians, and hence diplomats, already advanced this viewpoint after World War 1, during the Geneva Protocol negotiations and in the following years and decades. However, the debate if not introduced, then most certainly reinforced the idea that certain types of chemical weaponry can be classified as non-lethal.

The Chemical Weapons Convention

The CWC ended that debate. As part of the General Obligations, Article I, 5 states that:

Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare.

Article II, 7 defines a riot control agent as follows:

Any chemical not listed in a Schedule, which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure. [Emphasis added]

However, Paragraph 9 of the same Article excludes ‘Law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes’ [emphasis added] from the definition of a chemical weapon, which means that national police forces may deploy lachrymatory agents (other types of irritant agents also fall under this exclusion).

In the first few years of its operation, states parties were unsure how restricting the term ‘domestic’ in the exclusion was. The late 1990s were a period of considerable optimism that through the deployment of international peacekeeping and, if necessary, peace-enforcement forces intra-state conflicts could be prevented from escalating beyond any type of diplomatic negotiation or spreading to neighbouring countries. As I described in the CBW chapter in the 1998 edition of the SIPRI Yearbook, a mere four months after the CWC’s entry into force questions about the meaning of ‘domestic’ and the authority to release riot control agents already arose:

On 28 August 1997 heavily armed troops of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) had to evacuate more than 40 officers of the International Police Task Force from the Bosnian Serb town of Brcko after clashes erupted between peacekeeping forces and civilians. In what was described as one of NATO’s worst confrontations in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the 1995 Dayton Agreement, US helicopters dropped tear-gas and soldiers fired warning shots to disperse the crowd. Another US unit used tear-gas in a second incident on 1 September after being attacked by about 250 people armed with sticks and stones near Bijeljina, a village close to Brcko.

The reservation with regard to riot control agents attached to the US ratification of the CWC on 24 April 1997 further complicated the matter. In the wake of the Viêt-Nam war President Gerald Ford had signed Executive Order 11850, which outlined US policy regarding the use of riot control agents. The US Senate ratified the CWC on the understanding that the convention does not restrict the use of riot control agents, including use against combatants, in the following cases:

(a) the conduct of peacetime military operations within an area of continuing armed conflict when the United States is not a party to the conflict (e.g., Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia);

(b) consensual peacekeeping operations when the use of force is authorized by the receiving state, including operations pursuant to Chapter VI of the UN Charter; and

(c) peacekeeping operations in which force is authorized by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

The US Senate accepted the definition of a riot-control agent in Article II of the CWC but stated explicitly that the ‘President shall take no measure, and prescribe no rule or regulation, which would alter or eliminate Executive Order 11850’. (US Senate, Congressional Record, 24 April 1997, p. S3657).

Fortunately, the United States has never exercised this reservation and through practice—no further incidents since the one in the Former Yugoslavia seem to have occurred—it has subscribed to the international consensus concerning riot control agents in armed conflict. In subsequent months and years states participating in UN-authorised missions have even declined to export lachrymatory agent to partner countries in peacekeeping operations in view of the CWC. In other words, the global consensus on the prohibition on the use of riot control agents in armed conflict is of rather recent origin.

Domestic legitimacy of tear gas.

Anna Feigenbaum does not discuss such international evolution of the interdiction or the role of tear gas in armed conflicts and peacekeeping operations. Her book focusses on the domestic dimensions of the weapon’s use. She crafts a historical narrative that easily segues from institutional and economic interests to major incidents of lachrymatory use in crowd control operations. The rise of institutional and economic interests in the manufacture of tear gas is tightly interwoven with the development of the non-lethal narrative as a powerful sales argument. The author deconstructs this sales pitch with science-based arguments: lethality is a function of circumstances. Concentration of the agent plays a big role: tear gas released in a closed room may easily kill its occupants if they cannot quickly make their escape. Infants and the infirm in particular are vulnerable to lachrymators. Even in open spaces the density of the particle cloud—tear gas is not really a gas—and the duration to which a person is exposed to it determine whether he or she will suffer nothing more than short irritation to the exposed parts, longer-lasting harm, permanent damage, or even death.

Feigenbaum’s descriptions of riot control agent use illustrate graphically why exposure to the poison is not so harmless. Below is an extract from her book (pp. 80–81) describing the police intervention during the Democratic National Convention, which took place in Chicago between 26 and 29 August 1968. The United States was witnessing severe civil unrest fuelled by the protests against the war in Viêt-Nam and racial and social inequality. During the preceding months Martin Luther King, Jr and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The protesters were met with severe violence, in a number of cases leading to fatalities.

On Monday night, protesters in Lincoln Park were prepared to resist eviction come curfew time. They assembled a makeshift barricade out of garbage cans and park benches. Hundreds of officers were on hand and equipped to stop the demonstration with force if necessary, periodically giving loudspeaker announcements for the remaining protesters to leave. An estimated thousand protesters remained. Some prepared for tear gas by smearing Vaseline on their faces and covering their mouths with wet clothes. Others held rocks and small projectiles to throw back at police lines. Trash fires burned along the barricade and occasionally a rock was hurled against a police-car window.

The protesters’ chants were angry, mocking the police, floating in the summer air along with the sound of trashcan drums and Allen Ginsberg’s group chanting ‘om’. A police car entered the park from the back and protesters pelted it with stones. With tensions rising, at 12:30 the police issued their final warning to evacuate the park. Then tear gas flew across the barricade:

Tear-gas canisters were plummeting everywhere behind the barricade, through the trees. A huge cloud of gas rolled over the barricade, and cops with gas masks came over the barricade in an assault wave, with shotguns and rifles and using the butts as clubs on anyone in sight.

Protesters, passersby, and even residents out on their porches were beaten. The chasing, swinging, and clubbing was indiscriminate. Journalists, denied any special treatment, were battered and taunted, at times even targeted. The tear gas kept coming:

Gas! Gas! Gas! Was the cry, as if poisonous snakes had been loosed in the area … Thousands streamed across the park toward Clark Street, and panic started, headlong running, the sudden threat of being trampled by your own people … The tear gas was catching up with us, a sharp menthol sort of burning on the cheeks and burning in the eyes, but though some people ran from it, most of us kept on just walking … Now the tear gas began really burning, making the eyes twist tightly closed, and if you rubbed it the burning got worse, as if your eyeballs were being rolled in fire.

Tear gas seeped into homes, cars, and restaurants. It covered whole city blocks, taking over the air. The following night, tear gas was once again used to clear demonstrators from the park at curfew. Historian Frank Kusch writes that a sanitation truck joined the police lines. “The bed of the truck held a tear gas dispenser and a large nozzle for dispensing the gas— all requisitioned from the army. Two police officers manned the nozzle.” Additional gas was fired into the remaining crowd as officers in gas masks forced protesters onto neighboring streets. Some fought back, throwing rocks and bottles.

What emerges from this passage is that tear gas was not deployed to break up a protest but as an indiscriminate means to incapacitate crowds—irrespective of whether the individuals were rioters, accidental bystanders or professionals doing their work—so that the ability to resist other physical means of violence became as good as non-existent. Its use was indiscriminate, affecting even those who happened to live in the vicinity of the incidents.

This violates the basic principles of non-discrimination and proportionality applicable in armed conflict as well as law enforcement. Feigenbaum thus calls tear gas and ‘environmental weapon, a method of policing not only people but the atmosphere itself’. She adds that ‘this upgraded, offensive approach to tear-gas deployment has since become standard in riot-control policing’. (p. 84)

Riot control agents and the CWC

Of course, this particular incident in August 1968 took place long before the entry into force of the CWC. However, any person with the slightest interest in world affairs would over the past few years have seen footage and pictures of riot control agents being used against, for instance, regime opponents in Bahrain (2012), protestors in Turkey (2013), pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong (2014), migrants entering Europe, or during the evacuation of the so-called ‘jungle’ just outside the French town of Calais (2016). How does this square with the aforementioned CWC’s delimitation of a riot control agent as an unscheduled chemical that can produce rapid sensory irritation or disabling physical effects, which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure?

This is an area of contention, which in its first twenty years states parties to the convention have not yet really taken up. The CWC lays down certain limitations on what a state can legitimately use as a riot control agent. Letting myself be inspired by the second edition of The Chemical Weapons Convention: A Commentary (Edited by Walter Krutzsch, Eric Myjer and Ralf Trapp and published by Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 96–97), such restrictions would include:

♦ An agent cannot be listed in any one of the three schedules annexed to the CWC;

♦ The right to use riot control agents exists only under circumstances that allow people to leave the place of exposure early enough before those effects become irreversible and or more severe than sensorily irritating or physically disabling. As Krutzsch, et al. argue:

This cannot happen if persons are exposed who are unable to leave the place of exposure in the period of time before the ‘chemical action on life processes’ of the chemicals becomes irreversible or more severe than sensorily irritating or physically disabling. The reasons for this may be physical infirmity, age, or the situation at the incident location (e.g., obstacles, RCA use in confined spaces or inside buildings). If the time span of exposure was so long that the sensory irritation and disabling effects no longer disappear spontaneously (or other toxic effects manifest themselves), the chemicals used changed legally from ‘RCA consistent with paragraph 9(d)’ to ‘chemical weapons prohibited under Article I’. [Emphasis added]

♦ The application of riot control agents to ‘punish’ people for their behaviour or in situations when they are unable to escape the harmful properties of the riot control agent would be unlawful.

♦ Under CWC Article II, 1(b) delivery systems (munitions and other devices) that are specifically designed to cause death or other harm through the toxic properties of toxic chemicals fall under the definition of a chemical weapon. Thus Krutzsch, et al. posit that since the toxic effects of any chemical are dose dependent, the delineation of these properties (rapid onset, symptoms limited to sensory irritation or physical disablement, reversibility of the toxic effect) has ramifications for the delivery systems that can be justified. In order to be acceptable as dissemination devices for law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes (and on the condition that the riot control agent itself meets the requirements of Article II, 7), these devices must be designed specifically in such a way that the amounts of riot control agents disseminated by them and the area covered are consistent with (proportional to) the requirements of law enforcement including domestic riot control. Consequently, certain types of large area dissemination systems (such as, e.g. multiple rocket launchers or aerial cluster bombs for riot control agent delivery) would qualify as chemical weapons rather than as means of law enforcement. This reflects the principle that the force used to restore domestic law and order has to be proportional to the degree of disturbance, which limits the permission to use force with riot control agents to the adequate degree in each case; and

♦ A toxic agent intended for purposes not prohibited under the CWC is exempted from the definition of a chemical weapon as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes (Article II, 1(a)).

Finally, under Article III, 1(e) states parties must declare the riot control agent holdings. In particular it must notify the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) of the chemical name, structural formula and Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) registry number, if assigned, of each chemical it holds for riot control purposes. In addition it must update this declaration not later than 30 days after any change becomes effective.

In other words, international law exists that restricts the unbridled use of riot control agents even in domestic situations. Given that states parties must transpose the CWC obligations into domestic law, these restrictions should apply in any one of them. Or, as Anna Feigenbaum might phrase it, policing of the atmosphere is in breach of international and domestic law. Unfortunately, the issue is not high on the political agenda of the states parties even though the OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board drew up a list of riot control agents for inclusion in the OPCW Chemical Agent Database (OCAD) in 2001 and considered the issue from the angle of the declaration obligation under Article III in March 2017.

When a book says more than what is printed …

As already noted, the author did not aim to present a comprehensive tear gas biography. Having studied the history of chemical warfare for more than three decades now, one thing I appreciate very much is how she offers a wealth of additional background information and texture to the continuation of chemical warfare programmes after World War 1.

It is generally well-known that after the Armistice efforts to constrain chemical warfare were hampered by the attempts by some victorious parties to secure the production secrets of the German chemical industry, which before the outbreak of hostilities had a virtual global monopoly in (synthetic) organic chemistry, including the commercially rewarding dye stuffs. The specialised military units created during the war for the chemical warfare, smoke and flame operations aligned themselves with those interests out of self-preservation. While they failed in expanding their responsibilities by having chemical weapons occupy a more central role in military doctrine, they were sufficiently successful to survive in a hostile public environment and to benefit from any surge in defence budgets.

In her book, Feigenbaum details how those chemical warfare institutions—most notably the US Chemical Warfare Service—actively promoted the research and production of irritants in pursuit of those goals. The core tools in this strategy were the creation and nurturing of social networks, the organisation of technology transfers between the military and commercial industry and the development of communication strategies (e.g. the non-lethal argument) towards policy makers and the public. Veterans from those special units remained in contact with each other through fraternities and their employment in the chemical industry after demobilisation facilitated this military-industry exchange. One poignant sales pitch the military offered industrialists was the ‘humane’ breakup of industrial strikes. Tear gas offered an alternative to the police shooting strikers, so the argument went. The strategy was not a slam dunk, witness several congressional hearings. However, over the years evolving business models for risk and security increasingly influenced the public safety discourse.

This knowledge about the deliberate pursuit of joint military-industrial interests and the resulting public debates furthermore contributes to the understanding why in the 1920s and 1930s resolving the conundrum of riot control agents took up such a central space in the framing of international norms against chemical warfare. Diplomats had already come to appreciate the dual-use potential of many commercial toxic chemicals. Preserving the legality of riot control agents in domestic law enforcement, while banning their use on the battlefields added an extra layer of complexity. Is it therefore not ironic that tear gas became a key factor in the formulation of the so-called ‘general purpose criterion’? The British draft disarmament treaty of 1933 contained its first iteration and today it is the cornerstone of the CWC. Indeed, law enforcement and domestic riot control is a purpose not prohibited under the convention.

Another interesting angle developed in the book is how the UK adopted tear gas, first allowing it in the colonies, then in Northern Ireland, before authorising its use on the main island. It extends a longstanding historical pattern whereby use of poison weapons was prohibited against one’s own creed or other civilised peoples but entirely appropriate against indigenous people or in the colonies. Again Feigenbaum describes how interested parties, through their appointment in specialised review committees set the standards for security and safety, could influence the public discourse and create a demand for new agents and dissemination systems.

In conclusion

Last year I reviewed Michael Crowley’s book Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and their Means of Delivery. I described it as a researcher’s data paradise offering highly technical and detailed information on the nature of riot control and incapacitating agents and their delivery systems, the research and development behind them, where they are being manufactured and how they are traded. However, this book is not for the novice.

Anna Feigenbaum’s Tear Gas is the perfect introduction to the subject matter. It is well written and engaging. It does not lose the reader in technical details but builds a cogent narrative as to why riot control agents are problematic in current police operations. The book is not objective, nor is it comprehensive. It seeks to mobilise public consciousness about a matter that is almost daily fare on international news channels. She hereby draws on several years of preparatory research and her efforts to map the global use of tear gas. In 2014 I already drew attention to her work. The last chapter in Tear Gas introduces the reader to her project and updates its status.

She focusses mainly on the United States and the United Kingdom, an outcome she attributes to her language limitations. In a certain sense, such country selection is also logical as the number of societies that release policy and technical documents for public consumption are rather limited. The data storytelling methodology may therefore reinforce this already pre-existing bias. Similarly, a question lingers as to how the methodology ascertains the comprehensiveness of collected information or is able to identify relevant gaps. I realise that my questions spring forth from a desire for comprehensiveness rather than from an explicit pursuit of social change. Notwithstanding, Feigenbaum has used the methodology to great effectiveness and in many ways has satisfied my eternal yearning for new insights and facts.

Note: Anna Feigenbaum and I have occasionally corresponded with each other on the topic of riot control agents and chemical warfare in World War 1. She has quoted several contributors (including myself) to the book Innocence Slaughtered, which I edited. Otherwise I have no connection with her research project or publication.

 

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Building A WMD-Free Zone on Existing Treaties and Conventions Syrian CWC-Adherence and Reactions, Especially in Israel

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

Speaking notes for the side event to the 2017 Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), organised by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East (APOME), Vienna, 8 May 2017.

It builds on and updates an earlier posting of 13 March 2015.

Operation of the CWC in the Middle East

  • As of 1 May 2017, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) comprises 192 states parties. The CWC entered into force 20 years ago, on 29 April 1997. It has the largest number of parties of any weapon control treaty.
  • Four states, including two from the Middle East, are still outside the convention: Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan. (Israel did sign but not ratify the convention.)
  • Given the armed conflicts in different parts of the Middle East, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has intervened in Syria and Libya to secure declared chemical weapons (CW) and have them destroyed in other parties to the CWC so as to prevent their use by any one of the belligerents in either country. The Libyan operation took place in August 2016. It drew on the precedent set by and experience gained from the evacuation of chemicals from Syria.

Situation in Syria

  • Syria acceded to the CWC on 14 September 2013 and formally became a state party on 14 October. This was the outcome of a framework agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capacities between Russia and the United States reached in Geneva on 14 September.
  • Since Syria’s accession to the CWC the OPCW has:
    • verified the destruction of 24 of the 27 CW production and storage facilities. Lack of safe access has prevented inspectors from destroying one final aircraft hangar and confirming the condition of two stationary above-ground facilities.
    • overseen the evacuation and complete destruction of all declared chemical chemicals (precursors to nerve agents and mustard agent) for a total of about 1,300 metric tonnes. It also verified the destruction of declared delivery systems.
  • However, there remain several outstanding issues, including the OPCW’s inability to confirm the destruction of 200 metric tonnes of mustard agent in March 2013 (i.e. about 6 months before Syria’s accession to the CWC), the discovery of nerve agent traces in locations not declared by the Syrian government, and the later discovery of an undeclared ricin production facility.
  • Furthermore, since Syria’s accession there have been multiple incidents involving the use of toxic chemicals as weapons, mostly chlorine. On 4 April an attack with the nerve agent sarin took place against the city of Khan Sheikhoun, the first such use since the sarin strike against Ghouta in August 2013. At the time of writing it is unclear whether the sarin was prepared from undeclared volumes of precursor chemicals or whether Syrian scientists and engineers produced a batch from scratch.
  • The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been responsible for some isolated attacks with chlorine and mustard agent in Syria and Iraq. This has created new challenges for the OPCW in terms of investigating and responding to the alleged events. Indeed, these incidents mostly involved the use by a non-state actor against another non-state actor on the territory of a state party to the CWC that is not under the control of that state party.
  • The Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the OPCW has confirmed repeated CW use in Syria. The UN Security Council established the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) to attribute responsibility for the chemical attacks. JIM has thus far held the Syrian government responsible for three attacks and ISIL for one. Its investigation is ongoing.

Responses from within the Middle East

  • Iran is a strong backer of the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Having been a victim of chemical warfare during the 1980–88 Iran-Iran war, it strongly condemns chemical warfare. However, it denies the Syrian government’s responsibility for the CW attacks since August 2013 and instead blames insurgent factions. It follows the arguments laid out by Russia (and to a lesser extent by China) and plays an active role in the decision-making processes relating to the technical assessments prepared by the FFM in the Executive Council of the OPCW.
  • Some government officials, politicians or commentators both inside and outside the Middle East have made rather wild allegations (without any factual substantiation of these political statements) that other external parties to the civil war supply belligerents with the materials for chemical warfare. Iran has been named as a supplier of the Syrian government; uncontrolled stockpiles in Libya might be transferred to various belligerents in Syria.
  • Attribution of responsibility for the CW attacks has been accompanied by claims that neighbouring states are responsible for supplying or facilitating the transfer of chemicals and equipment to belligerent factions they support. Since with the exception of Israel all neighbouring states are parties to the CWC, the claims are tantamount to an accusation against such states of a material breach of the convention.
  • The current Israeli government has long maintained that Syria has never given up its entire CW capacity since joining the CWC. The difficulties for the OPCW to close the Syrian disarmament dossier tend to reinforce Israel’s deep-rooted pessimism about the ability of international weapon control treaties to guarantee its national security. Israeli attitudes towards Iran, which include conviction of Tehran’s non-compliance with the CWC, appear to be bolstered by Iran’s on-the-ground military support for Syria and Hezbollah in both Lebanon and Syria and its interventions in the OPCW Executive Council.

Concluding thoughts

  • Over the past two decades the CWC has contributed much to the removal of the spectre of chemical warfare, particularly in the Middle East. Addressing specific challenges in Syria and Libya, the states parties to the convention have demonstrated adaptability, flexibility and willingness to support financially or materially the extraordinary disarmament efforts in the field. As a result, the treaty regime has evolved considerably with respect to meeting challenges unforeseen by the CWC negotiators.
  • However, the unrelenting use of toxic chemicals as a weapon of warfare in Syria fundamentally challenges the CWC’s most basic premise to never under any circumstance use CW. Furthermore, backing of belligerents by outside parties (all of whom have joined the CWC) is increasingly tending towards a violation of the prohibition to never under any circumstances to induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any prohibited activity (Article I ‘General Obligations’).
  • Syria’s inability or unwillingness to resolve all outstanding issues with regard to its CW programmes also challenges the integrity of the CWC and the OPCW’s operational procedures. Factual findings are becoming more and more politicised (often driven by ulterior geopolitical motivations), making consensus-based decision-making increasingly difficult.
  • Since the 2nd World War all major occurrences of chemical warfare (with the exception of US use of herbicides and riot control agents in Indochina in the 1960s and early 1970s) have taken and are taking place in the Middle East. All these instances of CW use in the Middle East involved Arab regimes and have targeted fellow Arabs, Muslims or their own population. None were ever launched against Israel.
  • Compared with the question of regional nuclear disarmament, which directly involves Israel, Arab countries have despite the history of chemical warfare in the region remained remarkable indifferent to the many uses of chemical weapons. For instance, not a single member of the Arab League contributed financially or materially to the disarmament operations in Syria or Libya.

CWC 20th anniversary: Speeches and impressions

Commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Entry into Force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (The Hague, 26 April 2017)

Invitation to the Commemoration

The Programme

Collection of speeches

  • Welcome address by Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the OPCW
  • Video message by Mr António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
  • Address by Mr Bert Koenders, Minister of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands
  • Address by Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden
  • Address by Mrs Pauline Krikke, Mayor of The Hague
  • Address by Ambassador Dr Christoph Israng, Chairperson of the Conference of the States Parties

Some photographic impressions

The guests gather in the Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights)

OPCW Director-General Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü welcomes delegates and guests

Video message by UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Netherlands Foreign Minister Bert Koenders

Mrs Pauline Krikke, Mayor of The Hague

Unveiling of the Commemorative Plaque by King Willem-Alexander of The Netherlands and OPCW Director-General Üzümcü

Ambassador Christoph Israng, Chairperson of the Conference of the States Parties


Hate mail for standing up for CW disarmament – A first?

The news just broke that the Trump administration launched cruise missiles against al Shayrat airfield in Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib Province on 4 April.

I then got the following message:

As usual with such religion-infused hate messages, the basic facts are all wrong and ignorance reigns supreme.

It is really sad that with so much intolerance concerning social relations, ethnicity and personal identity, the efforts at disarmament – a core tool in creating international stability, preventing the outbreak of war, or should that fail, escalation of the conflict – now too become the object of highly individualised hatred.

But Kathryn, to reply to your question: Yes, I am proud to stand up for disarmament and peaceful conflict resolution, and will always do so in spite of your hateful intercessional prayers for a person unknown to you.

In the meantime, please reflect on the fact that your president has never allowed or gave those (beautiful) innocent children a chance to seek refuge in the United States from the war calamaties in Syria.

Otherwise, I hope you have a nice and peaceful day in California.


CW attack in Khan Sheikhoun: Documents from the UNSC debate on responsibility

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

{Update 4 – 12 April 2017}

This posting brings together the most important documents circulating at this stage.

First, the minutes with the statements by UN Security Council (UNSC) members and debate on 28 February, during which a resolution to sanction certain Syrian individuals deemed responsible for the earlier CW attacks was vetoed, can be downloaded here.

On 5 April, the UNSC held an emergency debate after the chemical weapon attack against Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib Province, Syria that killed scores of civilians – the death toll is now approaching 100 – and hundreds of other casualties.

In a statement also issued on 5 April, the WHO gave credence to the hypothesis that the agent or one of the agents used might have been sarin:

The likelihood of exposure to a chemical attack is amplified by an apparent lack of external injuries reported in cases showing a rapid onset of similar symptoms, including acute respiratory distress as the main cause of death. Some cases appear to show additional signs consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents.

The full document is available from the WHO website.

The UNSC emergency session began with a report by Mr Kim Won-soo, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) has published his statement.

A detailed summary of the session presentations and discussion is available here.

At present, Russia, on the one hand, and France, United Kingdom and the United States, on the other hand, have started circulating draft texts for resolutions.

And he made the early French, UK and US draft available via the web.

A debate and vote on these draft resolutions was expected in the evening of 6 April (EST), but has been cancelled.

Also on 6 April the European Union released a statement denouncing the chemical attack, but supporting ‘the efforts of the OPCW in Syria with regard to the investigation of the use of chemical weapons and [considering] that such efforts have to be continued in the future by the international community‘.

The UN Security Council is meeting on 7 April to discuss the US airstrike against Syria. A briefing ahead of the meeting updates the status of the negotiations on a resolution condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

{Update}revised French, UK and US draft resolution on his blog.

{Update} Meanwhile the 4-page White House report on the chemical weapon attack against Khan Sheikhoun is also available.

More to follow as they become available.


VX assassination and ALT+Reality

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

The assassination of Kim Jong-nam with—according to Malaysian authorities—the nerve agent VX unsurprisingly yielded many press articles, expert commentaries and other opinion pieces. Equally unsurprising is how uninformed several commentators are about the basics of all things chemical warfare. And I am not even referring to the ignorati who characterise VX (or mustard agent, for that matter—courtesy Dan’s unrelenting aspiration to educate the Twitterati) as a gas (it is a liquid with the viscosity of motor oil). It is about not checking basic facts or the accuracy of sources (which may quickly become outdated), as well as copy-and-paste work—particularly from peers or Wikipedia.

VX categorised as a weapon of mass destruction, according to the UN

In popular speech chemical weapons (CW) are easily called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD). However, if one thinks of CS tear gas (yes, it should be ‘lachrymatory agent’, because it is a solid) or pepper sprays, then one immediately realises how misleading the term is. The same goes for the use of a poisonous substance, be it VX, ricin, or something less glamorous like rat poison, to assassinate a single individual. Even if the victim has a high body mass, it still does not make the murder weapon a WMD. Anyway, this is an unresolvable, and therefore never-ending discussion about a term certain Western political elites politicised and popularised to justify their invasion of Iraq in 2003. (Yes, WMD later came to stand for ‘weapons of mass delusion’, a proto-reference to ALT+Reality.)

Even so, I became intrigued by the recurring phrase ‘listed / classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations’ in many of the press accounts after Malaysian authorities publicly identified VX as the murder weapon on 24 February. Some articles had an additional, but very specific reference: such characterisation was contained in UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). See for example:

It is true that the first resolution ever adopted by the UN General Assembly, namely ‘Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problem Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy(UNGA Resolution 1(I), 24 January 1946) contained the following provision in the terms of reference of the proposed commission (para. 5 (c)):

For the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.

On 12 August 1948, the UN Commission on Conventional Armaments adopted a resolution for consideration by the UN Security Council in which it proposed that its jurisdiction include ‘all armaments and armed forces’ with the exception of atomic weapons and weapons of mass destruction. It further proposed to define WMD

to include atomic explosive weapons, radio active material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above.

This, however, was a negative way of defining ‘conventional weapons’ as a residual weapon category so as to serve the commission’s interests. It is by no means a legal definition. No such definition exists, despite the many references to WMD in UN documents and working papers. Consequently, there is no UN classification of WMD, including for lethal chemical agents like VX.

It is worth noting that the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) does not use ‘lethality’ as a criterion for defining a chemical weapon. The United States adopted such a specification in the 1920s in an effort to exempt riot control agents from the prohibition on CW use in the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which other states did not accept at the time. It revived the concept in the 1960s and 1970s to avoid characterisation of its widespread use of lachrymatory and anti-plant agents during the Viêt-Nam war as chemical warfare and to retain such military options while Congress was debating ratification of the Geneva Protocol. A final hiccup occurred during the Senate’s ratification of the CWC in 1997. In short, the so-called ‘non-lethal’ lachrymatory and incapacitating agents are part and parcel of the legal definition of a chemical weapon. (Too bad for the WMD aficionados.)

This leaves us with the reference to UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). This document essentially comprises the cease-fire agreement after the eviction of Iraq from Kuwait and the Iraq’s disarmament requirements with regard to biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles. However, it contains no reference whatsoever to VX.

So, where does the quote come from? Given the as good as identical phrasing in different articles (with or without the specific reference to Resolution 687), I would say that writers copied from each other without checking the statement’s foundation in reality. However, somebody did research and then copied and pasted word for word the erroneous sentence from the entry ‘VX (Nerve Agent)’ in Wikipedia (1st paragraph):

As a chemical weapon, it is classified as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) by the United Nations Resolution 687.

Students get busted for such sloppy investigative work.

Saddam Hussein used VX in Halabja in 1988

Another theme recurring in several reports is:

VX, which Malaysian police said was detected on Kim Jong Nam’s eyes and face, was used by Saddam Hussein’s forces in a 1988 poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in northern Iraq that killed thousands.

This version is taken from: Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung, AP Explains: What chemical weapons N. Korea possesses (24 February). As an Associated Press feed, it got into several major news outlets and papers.

A variant of the assertion appeared in the US magazine Rolling Stone, which almost certainly did not draw on the AP report.

Now, anybody vaguely familiar with the history of chemical warfare knows that nerve agents were used for the first time during the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war (sarin and tabun), but also that VX has never been used in combat. In fact, the only time VX was deployed to kill people was when in the mid-1990s the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo attempted to eliminate several of its opponents. One person died; some victims of the attacks survived.

So, where did that come from? As it turns out, the same Wikipedia article (Section ‘Instances of VX use’). Only this time around, the writers misquote the entry, which reads [emphasis added]:

There was evidence of a combination of chemical agents having been used by Iraq against the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 under Saddam Hussein. Hussein later testified to UNSCOM that Iraq had researched VX, but had failed to weaponize the agent due to production failure.

The first sentence is referenced with a BBC press report dated 16 March 1988, which was when the first accounts about the chemical bombardment of the Kurdish town came out. The article stated (in a speculative way):

According to experts, the chemicals dropped by the planes may have included mustard gas, the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX and possibly cyanide.

As the BBC explains in a separate comment on the same web page that places the original press item in context: ‘Most of the details about the Halabja killings only emerged a few days later.’ In this instance, the error is not with Wikipedia: despite the entry’s title, it did not assert that the combination of chemicals used in Halabja (which is a correct statement) included VX and it immediately followed up with Iraq’s failure to weaponise VX.

The Rolling Stones writer (whose article includes several errors – check out my comment) tried to avoid the stigma about Wikipedia as a source among academics by directly quoting the BBC piece. Alas …

Again, students get busted for such sloppy investigative work.

North Korea has the world’s third largest CW stockpile

Kim Jong-nam’s murder also led some writers to speculate about the chemical warfare threat posed by North Korea. Based on a South Korean Defence White Paper published in 2014, the general assumption is that the country holds between 3 and 5,000 tonnes of warfare agent. These figures have been around for ages.

However, more surprising is the recurring assertion in national media and by international press agencies that the stockpile is the world’s third largest. In this case, there is somewhat more transparency, as several authors point to a fact sheet on North Korea’s CW capacities prepared by the National Threat Initiative (NTI). However, that fact sheet has not been updated since December 2015. It includes the following judgement in the opening summary:

While assessing CW stockpiles and capabilities are difficult, the DPRK is thought to be among the world’s largest possessors of chemical weapons, ranking third after the United States and Russia.

In support of this assertion it cited: North Korean Security Challenges: A Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), p. 161.

So here, the press takes over an easy, catchy quote but fails to understand that the original source is six years old. As if there is no CWC; as if the United States and Russia made no progress in eliminating their respective cold war arsenals.

I can assure you, a student in my course on ‘Armament and Disarmament Dynamics’ who submitted such sloppy investigative work would not have survived (and indeed, some did not).

Moral of the story

Alternative facts are not the privilege of an occupant of one presidential seat. It is a reality we need to address every day, and it is up to each one of use to test for the factual truth time and time again, even (or especially) if it goes against received wisdom or the trending opinion of the day .

(Gosh, did I really have to write that?)


VX murder in Kuala Lumpur?

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

According to an overnight statement by the Malaysian police, Kim Jong Nam—half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—was assassinated with the nerve agent VX at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

VX is one of the high-end chemical warfare agents developed and produced in large quantities by the USA, USSR and some secondary powers during the cold war. Former military chemical weapon arsenals are being eliminated under the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), of course, is together with Egypt, Israel and South Sudan one of the four hold-out states. It is widely believed to have a significant chemical warfare capacity, but how militarily effective it might be is anyone’s guess.

Commentators will happily inform you that it possesses the world’s largest stockpile, which is as good as meaningless given that all other arsenals have been almost entirely eliminated under international supervision. BBC World already broadcast a report in which an unidentified ‘expert’ said it had to be a nation-state because its synthesis is far too complex for your backroom.

Statement by the Malaysian Police on the identification of the VX nerve agent (24 February 2017)

However, the substance is not unknown in terrorism: Aum Shinrikyo synthesised somewhere between 100 and 200 grammes of the substance between 1993 and 1995. It tried to assassinate several opponents by spraying it in the face of the victim with a syringe. Only one person died; the others survived. It always appeared technological overkill: had the cult used more ‘traditional’ assassination weapons, such as knives or guns, their attacks would have been far more lethal.

Many questions; few answers so far

As the information stands right now, the Malaysian police’s claim is remarkable for what it does not say. The preliminary toxicology report reportedly states that traces of VX were detected on swabs of the dead man’s face and eyes. If this is the case, then the following questions require an answer:

  • Why were there no previous descriptions in press reports of symptoms typically associated with nerve agent exposure (spasms, foaming, discolouration, etc.)?
  • Why did it take 9 days since the assassination on 13 February before the poison was confirmed?
  • Why did the preliminary toxicology report (or at least the police officer) not mention physiological consequences of nerve agent exposure, such as increased acetylcholine levels (which is responsible for the spasms)?
  • What is meant by ‘traces’? Residue? Or small amounts? VX is a pretty persistent agent that can last for days. Rubbing the agent in the face suggests an area with a rather high concentration of the agent, even if the amount was limited.
  • Why did the assassin not display any of those symptoms? Was she wearing gloves or was the agent contained in a capsule? (And if she was wearing gloves, were they then not found? Or frangments of a capsule?) Did she receive a nerve agent pretreatment antidote? There were some reports of vomiting, but was this reaction related to nerve agent exposure? Any splash of a tiny droplet anywhere on her body would have resulted in some symptoms of varying degree. She was jailed, but nothing to such effect was reported.
  • There was apparently no decontamination effort at the airport. So, were first responders or medical staff at the airport clinic, police officers and other persons who came to the victim’s assistance or were in his vicinity affected through secondary contamination? No reports, thus far.
  • Have samples been sent to one of the top-level OPCW certified laboratories, such as the Verification Laboratory, Defence Medical and Environmental Research Institute, DSO National Laboratories in neighbouring Singapore (with or without involvement of the OPCW)?
  • Why did the Malaysian authorities say earlier today that they would sweep the airport and other locations for radioactive material? And apparently not for VX traces?

These, and I am sure, many more questions require clear answers before we can arrive at reasonable conclusions. More to come over the next days and weeks …