Security and Defence


Chemical weapons treaty: Time for chemical industry to step up

19 Oct 2018 - 16:08

This op-ed was originally published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is at a crossroads.

As the monitoring agency of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), this organization needs to reinvent itself now that its original main task - verifying chemical disarmament by signatories to this treaty - is almost finished. Consequently, the OPCW is preparing to shift its focus from purely the disarmament of nation-states, to expand to include preventing terrorist groups and other “non-state actors” from acquiring chemical weapons - while also preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons among states.

At the same time, the OPCW is also working to improve instruments for the attribution and accountability of those who use chemical weapons. Both processes are not only difficult, but expensive as well.

All this costs money, and requires technical expertise.

We have a modest suggestion: Perhaps the global chemical industry could come to the rescue - and soon.

In the past few years, chemical weapons returned to the international stage, after an extended period in which they were deemed almost gone. Sarin and chlorine were used on a relatively large scale during the civil war in Syria, VX was used in in Malaysia, and novichok - a chemical weapon that had never been employed before - was used in the United Kingdom, most likely by Russian agents in an attempt to silence a former spy. These cases of actual chemical weapons usage created political tension and polarization among the states that are party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and eventually hurt the effective functioning of the OPCW itself: The findings of OPCW inquiries into various chemical weapon incidents were contested by some, and the OPCW’s formal relationship with the United Nations (through a legal apparatus technically called the Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM) had to be terminated after the renewal of its mandate was vetoed in the UN Security Council. These developments could considerably weaken the effectiveness of the OPCW in the longer term - and as a result, eroding the norm it should uphold.

Without any mechanism to hold chemical weapon users accountable, the OPCW risked becoming a somewhat hollow organization. These worries resulted in a Special Conference of States Parties, held in June 2018, in which the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW was requested to develop proposals to strengthen the verification regime of the Convention. These proposals are expected to be discussed during the Conference of States Parties, and the Review Conference in November 2018. One may expect that any new instruments or obligations for the OPCW will also incur financial implications for the organization. Meanwhile, OPCW budgets are already constrained, and informal discussions have not revealed much optimism that states are willing to increase their financial contributions - on the contrary, various states indicated that they see the end of the ‘disarmament era’ of the OPCW as a good moment to reduce their contributions.

Considering these new realities, the OPCW might look elsewhere for someone that could come to the financial rescue.

The chemical industry might be such a stakeholder.

The OPCW has traditionally been actively engaged in relationships with the chemical industry, aimed at enhancing transparency and preserving a basic level of trust. The mainstay of the OPCW’s involvement with the chemical industry is based on the organization’s authority to inspect industrial facilities.

Yet the chemical sector seems to be rather inactive in regards to the OPCW so far, and has no official role in the organization’s policy-shaping process (although the chemical industry may be engaged in modest and generally rather discreet lobbying activities). While formal decision-making remains the recognized and undisputed responsibility of the States Parties, there might be room for a more pronounced (albeit unofficial) role for the chemical industry, in light of the OPCW’s current challenges. Since so-called “Public-Private Partnerships” have been explored in various other sectors, the OPCW could also benefit from a closer and more institutionalized relationship with its key private partners.

(...) the chemical sector seems to be rather inactive in regards to the OPCW so far, and has no official role in the organization’s policy-shaping process (although the chemical industry may be engaged in modest and generally rather discreet lobbying activities).

The argument that it “would not be ethical for an industry to be actively involved in the same organization which oversees it” can be overcome by preventing industrial involvement in the actual verification processes. In fact, the sector could be more actively incorporated into the ever-changing design and set-up of these processes on a conceptual level.

Another argument against this approach has been that the OPCW’s diplomatic culture - based on a slow-moving process of seeking consensus and avoiding controversies - stands in stark contrast to the chemical industry’s commercial ethos and working methods. But this excuse does not stand up to critical examination; any cultural differences should not prevent closer cooperation.

One could argue that the increased involvement of the chemical industry in the OPCW does not pose a conflict of interests, but instead that there is a common interest. It is most likely that any large-scale usage of chemical weapons may have major implications for the chemical industry from a public relations perspective. If the ingredients used in a future chemical attack can be traced back to commercial suppliers, for example, then this would inexorably harm the sector’s public image, which may result in economic backlashes for the chemical industry. From this perspective, the chemical industry obviously has much to gain from preventing any chemical weapons use, so it has a powerful incentive to a strong proponent for an active and effective OPCW.

One viable way of strengthening the chemical industry’s commitment to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the OPCW would be to offer financial support. This could, for example, be done by contributing to a new trust fund, which should be managed by the OPCW. This would follow the good example of the OPCW Trust Fund set up to support the OPCW-UN Joint Mission in Syria, which was established in October 2013.

There is a difference, however. While contributions to the OPCW’s Trust Fund for Syria all came from states (including the EU), an OPCW Trust Fund dedicated to, for example, verification, might be co-funded by the chemical industry. As long as guarantees are built in that such financial support does not enable industry to influence the actual verification processes, then there are hardly any ethical dilemmas involved. A trust fund allows for financially supporting a common goal of both the OPCW and the chemical industry: preventing the misuse of chemicals by weaponization. Such a public-private trust fund could ameliorate the OPCW’s financial challenge in developing new verification technologies.

This approach would build upon the OPCW’s experience with trust funds to support the activities of its Science Advisory Board (SAB). Since 2006, the OPCW has encouraged its member states (aka “States Parties”) to support the work of the SAB by making voluntary contributions to a trust fund. Unfortunately, between the inception of the SAB Trust Fund and early 2018, only 16 States Parties have made contributions, and as of early 2018 the available balance of the SAB Trust Fund was less than 1,000 Euros (approximately $1,159 as of the time of this writing). This indicates that third parties have so far remained hesitant to fork out additional funds, even for useful initiatives.

And there is another potential drawback of the trust fund model as well: the increased administrative burden placed on an organization (partly due to different reporting rules).

Nevertheless, despite these admitted hitches, this approach bears further investigation, we feel. The chemical industry clearly benefits from the presence of the OPCW, so it should ante up.

And in addition to financial support, a more active exchange of expertise between chemical industry and OPCW should be explored as well. Considering the increasing difficulties in finding skilled chemical experts to join the OPCW for a limited period, arrangements might be explored in which experts from industry are seconded to the OPCW for a few years.

Because a significant (and possibly growing) number of states see the OPCW’s new phase as an opportunity to reduce their financial contributions, the OPCW risks entering a downward circle: Without appropriate funding, its technical expertise will suffer - and without expertise, it will become more difficult to receive funding. Given the enlightened self-interest of the chemical industry in maintaining the international norm against chemical weapons, for which a robust OPCW is required, new initiatives such as a Public-Private Trust Fund may be necessary. Moreover, such initiatives are not that difficult to arrange - as long as there is willingness on the part of the global chemical industry to take some responsibility for a world free of chemical weapons.