We see language addressing chemical agents in an international declaration for the first time in the 1899 Hague Declaration. This declaration prohibited using projectiles with "asphyxiating and deleterious gases." The 1907 Hague Convention also prohibited the use in war of poisonous substances. Despite this modern chemical warfare began during World War I. The Germans were the first to use these weapons by releasing tons of chlorine gas upwind from Allied soldiers. Later in the war the French attached phosgene gas containers to artillery munitions. This became the standard way of constructing chemical weapons for years; simply place containers of a dangerous chemical agent in traditional munitions. The war raised public concern across Europe about the costs of chemical weapons after World War I and language restricting their manufacture in Germany was included in the Treaty of Versailles.
The fear of chemical warfare gave momentum to the Geneva Protocol which was signed in June 17, 1925 and came into force February 8, 1928. This treaty prevented the use of “asphyxiating gas, or any other kind of gas, liquids, substances or similar materials.” The treaty languished in Congress in the United States until ratification in 1975.
World War II saw further development on chemical weapons. German Scientists discovered nerve agents, the famous being sarin, but did not use them for fear of a chemical weapons retaliation by the Allies. The most famous case of chemical weapons use during the war occurred in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany.
Chemical weapons continued to be viewed with caution during the Cold War. Despite deterrence stopping the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. from using chemical weapons against each other, Iraq openly used chemical weapons against Iran. Approximately 100,000 Iranian soldiers were attacked with chemical weapons, mostly with mustard gas. Estimates of civilian casualties and effects are unknown. International apathy to the regime in Tehran meant that Iraq suffered few international consequences for its use of chemical weapons in the conflict.
Despite few major uses of chemical agents a stronger international treaty regarding chemical weapons was formulated right after the Cold War. However the Soviet Union and the United States signed a bilateral treaty in 1990 to destroy their stockpiles of chemical weapons which had grown but had not been used during the Cold War. In 1993 the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was signed and came into effect in 1997.
Chemical Weapons Convention and the Current Issues
The key element in the CWC was a plan for the destruction of the world’s known chemical weapon stockpiles. The treaty was non-discriminatory and treated all signatories equally. States who sign must declare their chemical stockpiles and thereafter destroy them. The plan was composed of four phases leading ultimately to the destruction of all known chemical weapons.
Complete destruction of empty munitions, precursor chemicals, filling equipment and weapons systems
No extensions permitted past April 2012
The implementation of the CWC has been slow and the U.S. and Russia do not intend on finishing elimination of their stockpiles well past 2012. However 100% of the declared chemical weapons production facilities have been inactivated and roughly 19% of the world's declared stockpile of approximately 70,000 metric tons of chemical agent have been verifiably destroyed. In addition 178 nations, representing about 95% of the global population, have signed the CWC and joined the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international institution that oversees implementation of the CWC and is based in the Hague.
The most recent comprehensive look at the state of chemical weapons is "Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical." This is the report Hans Blix presented to the UN on June 1, 2006 and can be found online at www.wmdcommission.org. The report contains many recommendations from the commission numbers 37 through 42 of which deal with chemical weapons. The thrust of the recommendations is the need to allocate adequate resources at the state and international levels (through the OPCW) to insure implementation of the CWC.
Today the main fear is not the use by a state where the deterrent fear of a retaliatory attack provides incentives for non-use but that chemical weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists or other non-state actors. The fear of "chemical terrorists" became a reality when in 1994 the Aum Shinrikyo Japanese sect used sarin in the 1994 Matsumoto attack and subsequent attacks in Tokyo subways in 1995. This group had substantial financial backing as well as technical expertise and still had problems with purity and producing large quantities of chemical agents. Much more likely is an attack on a chemical plant or transport vehicle. The severity of this threat is apparent from past chemical plant accidents. In Bhopal, India over 3,000 people died when an accidental release of gas from a pesticide plant occured in 1984.
Chemical Weapon Basics: Definitions and Classifications
A chemical used in warfare is called a Chemical Weapon Agent (CWA). They can be categorized several different ways. They can be divided according to their schedule, class, or persistency. A general division is the one between lethal and incapacitating chemicals.
Chemical weapon agents are divided into lethal and incapacitating categories. A substance is classified as incapacitating if less than 1/100 of the lethal dose causes incapacitation, e.g., through nausea or visual problems. The line between lethal and incapacitating substances is less clear but is based off the LD50. The LD50 or median lethal dose of a poison or radiation is the dose required to kill half the members of a tested population. LD50 figures are frequently used as a general indicator of a substance's toxicity. The test was created by J.W. Trevan in 1927.
The CWC also created the scheduling scheme now used to classify how dangerous chemical agents are.
Schedule 1: These chemicals have few, if any, legitimate uses. They may be produced or used only for research, medical, pharmaceutical or protective purposes. Almost all nerve agents fall under this schedule.
Schedule 2: Again, like schedule 1 substances, these chemicals have no large-scale industrial application but do have legitimate small-scale use. Dimethyl methylphosphonate, a precursor to sarin, can also be used as a flame retardant is a good example of a schedule 2 chemical.
Schedule 3: Unlike the first two schedules, these chemicals do have large-scale industrial use. Any plant producing more than 30 tons a year of schedule 3 chemicals must notify and can be inspected by the OPCW.
Persistency is the measure of length of time chemical weapons remain after dispersion. Chemical agents can be persistent or non-persistent. Non-persistent chemicals typically last from a few minutes to a couple of hours and generally are only an inhalation hazard. Non-persistent agents on the other hand usually do not deteriorate for weeks and usually are much harder to clean up and handle.