Renewed chemical weapons vigilance

Science must remain at the heart of global efforts to ensure chemical weapons do not re-emerge, British academics have argued.

Writing in the journal Science, Michael Crowley, Lijun Shang and Malcolm Dando from the University of Bradford call on parties to the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to use its Fourth Review Conference on 21 November to focus on the realities of new technologies, an unstable security environment and the changing nature of armed conflict.

In particular, they want to establish an Open-Ended Working Group with scientific expertise to design guidelines to prevent research, development, production and employment activities that, while purportedly intended to support law enforcement, would undermine the prohibitions of the CWC.

It is essential, they say, that the global community regularly reviews “the nature and implications of developments in chemistry, and its convergence with the life and associated sciences” and establishes appropriate measures to prevent chemical weapons being misused.

They point to the overuse of riot control agents such as tear gas; the potential for new delivery systems to exacerbate that problem (noting that, at very least, artillery shells, aerial bombs, mortar shells and cluster munitions should be prohibited); and the threat of incapacitating chemical agents (ICAs) being developed for warfare under the guise of law enforcement.

Other issues needing attention include the potential for new technology to provide new production pathways to old chemical warfare agents and the need for more and closer inspection of production facilities that don’t currently produce such agents but easily could do.

Similar sentiments are expressed in the new book Preventing Chemical Weapons, which Crowley and Dando edited.

In their paper, the authors acknowledge the success of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body for the CWC, which was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for overseeing the verified destruction of, to date, 96% of declared stockpiles of chemical agents.

They conclude by noting that there is growing recognition within the OPCW of the importance of engaging with and ensuring the support of the worldwide scientific community.

“Chemical and life scientists could play their part by being better informed of the issues at stake,” they write, “and by ensuring that their colleagues and students are alerted to the dangers of the misuse of dual-use technologies and are implementing relevant ethical codes, codes of conduct, and the Hague Ethical Guidelines recently developed by the OPCW to promote a culture of responsible conduct in the chemical sciences and to guard against the misuse of chemistry for malign intent.”

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