By: Alexandra Grigorescu/ GICJ



On 29th April 1997, the world’s first multilateral disarmament agreement for the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction within a fixed time frame, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), entered into force.

The many years of assiduous negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament and Preparatory Commission culminated with the birth of the international chemical weapons disarmament regime led by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). 

The OPCW aims to fulfil the Convention’s mandate to make the world safe from the threat of chemical warfare. It strives to do so by ensuring the elimination of existing stocks of chemical weapons and the end of production, development or transfer of such weapons. Its objective is to create a credible, transparent regime for verifying the destruction of chemical weapons by states parties to the CWC, to provide protection and assistance against chemical weapons and encourage international cooperation in the peaceful uses of chemistry and bring about universal participation in the OPCW.


Chemical Disarmament Efforts in History

For thousands of years toxic chemicals had been used as tools of war. The use of noxious fumes, arsenic smoke or poisoned arrows was long considered cruel and beneath the standards of “civilised” battle.

The first international agreement limiting the use of chemical weapons was signed in Strasbourg in 1675 by France and Germany who agreed the prohibition of poison bullets. 200 years later, in 1874, another agreement come to an end, the Brussels Convention on the Law and Customs of War, which prohibited the employment of poisoned weapons and the use of any arms that cause unnecessary suffering, but never entered into force.

Later on, the contracting parties of the 1899 Hague Peace Convention agreed to “abstain from the use of projectiles diffusing asphyxiating gases” and in 1907 reiterated the prohibition of poisoned weapons. In defiance of these measures, during the World War I (WWI), toxic chemicals were used in warfare leaving more than a million people blind or disfigured and more than 90.000 soldiers died painfully[1].

After the horrors of chemical weapons used in the WWI, negotiations for the prohibition of chemical and bacteriological weapons in war culminated in the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare (1925 Geneva Protocol)[2]. However, this Protocol doesn´t ban the development, production or possession of chemical weapons, so many countries that signed it were permitted to use chemical weapons against countries that had not joined the Protocol or to respond in kind if attacked with chemical weapons.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union came to maintain enormous stockpiles of tens of thousands of tonnes of chemical weapons.

After the World War II (WWII) the consternation of the countries was concentrated on the nuclear war. This is why most of the countries wanted chemical disarmament to be linked to progress in nuclear disarmament.

The Conference on Disarmament in 1992 adopted a Convention which the UN Secretary- General opened for signature on 13th January 1993 in Paris. 130 countries signed this Convention within the first two days.


The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)

The OPCW comprises three main bodies: the Conference of the States Parties, the Executive Council and the Technical Secretariat. The Conference of the States Parties, composed of representatives of all States Parties to the Convention, held its first session beginning on 6 May 1997. The first OPCW´s Director- General was José Mauricio Bustani of Brazil.

Soon inspections started to take place primarily at chemical weapons-related facilities, which needed to meet in specific deadlines the conditions of the Convention. Destruction of chemical weapons required on-site inspections as well. The number of inspections conducted by the OPCW soon begun to win a reputation for professionalism and impartiality for the efficiency shown. The data from inspections was disseminated to States Parties in accordance with the Convention’s confidentiality provisions in order to improve transparency and build confidence in the effectiveness of the regime.

The OPCW has emerged as a new type of global, treaty-based international organisation with responsibilities for disarmament and non-proliferation and with impartial mechanisms necessary to verify compliance and to redress situations of non-compliance, should they occur.

In 2013, in recognition of its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons, the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[3].



More than a decade before the winning of the Nobel Peace Prize by the international agency that monitors chemical weapons (OPCW), Mr. Bolton, the under secretary of state at that moment and later the American ambassador to the UN, told Mr. Bustani that the Bush administration was complaining about his management style.

Mr. Bustani declared that the Bush administration´s fear that chemical weapons inspections in Iraq would conflict with Washington´s rationale for invading it[4]. He said he was pushed out of office and the campaign against him began in late 2001 when Iraq and Libya had suggested they wanted to join the Chemical Weapons Convention which would have been an obstacle to the Washington´s plans to invade Iraq (Washington was claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical weapons and an inspection would have confirmed that there weren´t any).

On July 16, 2003, The Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organization (ILO)[5] found that José Bustani was unlawfully dismissed form the post of director-general of the OPCW in April 2002. In the conclusion, the Tribunal reiterated the importance of the independence of international organizations and their secretariats, and condemned political interference by member states in their workings[6].


What is a Chemical Weapon?

A chemical used to cause intentional death or harm through its toxic properties is called a chemical weapon. Munitions, devices and other equipment designed to adapt for use as a weapon of war toxic chemicals also fall under this definition. Under the CWC, the definition of a chemical weapon includes all toxic chemicals and their precursors, except when used for purposes permitted by the Convention – in quantities consistent with such a purpose[7].

Principle of Consistency

According to the Principle of Consistency, a toxic chemical held by a State Party must be produced, stockpiled or used for a legitimate purpose, and be of a type and quantity appropriate for its “peaceful” purpose.


Eliminating Chemical Weapons

States Parties are required according to the Convention to submit declarations on their existing chemical weapons, chemicals, materials, equipment, and facilities that could be used to produce such weapons. The declarations, which include the form of the weapons, the aggregate quantity of each chemical, the locations and the inventories of all chemical weapons storage facilities, serve to provide baseline data to the OPCW for planning inspections and for verifying destruction.

Any discovery of chemical weapons after the submission of initial declaration shall be reported per Article IV[8].

The Convention also requires States Parties to assign the highest priority to ensuring the safety of people and to protecting the environment during the destruction of the chemical weapons.


Preventing the Re- Emergence of Chemical Weapons

The Chemical Weapons Convention’s aim is “to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons”. Chemical weapons may re-emerge through state-sponsored programmes, through the actions of terrorist or other criminal groups, or through lone individuals and the OPCW works for preventing it through verification, control of the international transfers of chemicals, inspections, etc.

The Threat of Terrorism

The threat of terrorists using chemicals as weapons is a significant global challenge. For it, The Convention facilitates the exchange among States Parties of information which can help to protect populations against the effects of a chemical weapons attack. To fight against terrorism, States Parties have to provide to each other the necessary legal assistance to ensure legal accountability, and for it, they must ensure that those who plan or carry out such attacks are brought to justice.