On April 29, 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention – which prohibited the development, production or stockpiling of chemical weapons – entered into force.
Since then, more than 70,000 metric tonnes of stockpiles and chemical agents have been destroyed under the agreement. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), 193 states, or 98% of the world’s population, now live under the protection of the convention.
Only four countries have neither signed nor ratified the convention. They include: Egypt, South Sudan, North Korea and Israel (signed but not ratified).
Types of chemical agents
the OPCW classified five different types of chemical agents used as weapons. They include:
1. Choking agents
These chemicals, dispersed in the gases, damage the nose, throat and lungs, causing victims to suffocate. When inhaled, they cause fluid to secrete into the air sacs of the lungs, which essentially drowns those affected.
Oily substances inhaled or absorbed on contact, affecting the eyes, respiratory tract and skin, causing large blisters resembling severe burns. Exposure to these agents – dispersed as vapor, liquid or dust – can cause blindness and permanent damage to the respiratory system.
3. Blood agents
These agents inhibit the cells’ ability to use and transfer oxygen, causing the body to suffocate. Blood agents usually enter the body by inhalation and damage vital organs, including the heart and lungs.
4. Neurotoxic agents
These toxic agents over-stimulate the body’s nervous system, which can lead to difficulty breathing, vomiting, headaches, and blurred vision. Stronger doses can cause seizures and muscle paralysis. Nerve agents are usually absorbed through the skin and lungs.
5. Riot control agents
Riot control agents such as tear gas are a collection of chemicals that cause irritation to the eyes, skin and respiratory system. Riot control agents are considered chemical weapons if used as a method of warfare, but may be authorized for law enforcement, including national riot control purposes.
Where have chemical weapons been used?
Chemical weapons were first used during World War I. Toxic agents including chlorine gas, phosgene and mustard gas were used by German and then British forces, making at least 1.1 million people. casualties during the Four Years’ War.
After the war, amid widespread outrage, several countries signed the Geneva Protocol in 1925, banning the use of chemical weapons. The protocol does not, however, prohibit the development, production or stockpiling of these weapons.
Despite the ban, chemical weapons were still used over the next several decades, notably during the Italy-Ethiopia War (1935-1936), the China-Japan War (1937-1945) and World War II, during which Nazi Germany used poison gas. in concentration camps to kill civilians.
In the Middle East, during the Yemeni War (1963-1967), Egyptian forces used mustard gas and nerve agents to support a coup against the Yemeni monarchy, killing 527 people.
A decade later, during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against Iran, killing more than 50,000. In 1988, chemical weapons – believed to be sarin and mustard gas – were used by Iraqi forces against the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq. The attack killed around 10,000 people.
During the 2008/2009 Gaza war, Israel used the controversial chemical agent white phosphorus, which can seriously burn people and burn down houses. Israel refused to sign both the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, covering the regulation of nuclear weapons, and to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires states to submit to international control and destroy agents chemicals in their possession. Israel has long maintained what it calls “ambiguity” over whether it possesses nuclear or chemical weapons.
Chemical weapon attacks in Syria
In 2011, a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by Syrian government forces escalated into a civil war. On July 23, 2012, a spokesperson for the Syrian Foreign Ministry confirmed for the first time that Syria possessed chemical weapons but that they would only be used against “external aggression”. Five months later, on December 23, seven people were reportedly killed by poison gas in Homs, which the United States blamed on the Syrian army.
In the early hours of August 21, 2013, hundreds of people were reportedly killed when government forces fired rockets with chemical warheads in the outskirts of Damascus in eastern Ghouta. UN investigators found “clear and convincing evidence” that sarin gas was used. Evidence suggests the Syrian government was to blame – which Damascus has denied.
Over the next four years, several hundred suspected chemical weapons attacks were reportedly carried out by both the Syrian government and the armed group ISIL (ISIS).
According to the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, GPPI, between December 2012 and May 2019, 349 chemical weapons attacks were recorded across Syria, leaving at least 1961 dead and 18,790 injured.
They found that at least 67 percent (233) of these attacks had a medium to high level of confidence in the chemical weapons used. Chlorine, a choking agent, was used in at least 65 percent of incidents, followed by sarin gas (5 percent) and sulfur mustard (2 percent).