Module 5:

CW Nonproliferation


1. What international instruments contribute to chemical weapons nonproliferation?

In the 1980s, when Iraq used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War, it became clear that existing international legal prohibitions on chemical weapons use were inadequate. The international community also needed to address research, development, and possession of CW.
In 1985, major chemical suppliers formed the Australia Group (AG) to better control the ability of countries like Iraq to procure materials useful for a CW program. The AG worked to harmonize trade controls on CW-related materials, creating voluntary guidelines and a control list.
By the end of the 1980s, the international community began negotiating a treaty aimed at prohibiting the possession of chemical weapons programs, working through the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) opened for signature in 1993.
In 1997, the CWC entered into force. It bans the use and possession of chemical weapons, and requires member states to submit to verification to ensure that chemicals are used for their declared peaceful purposes. 192 countries are members, and only 4 countries remain outside the Convention. [1]

2. What are the challenges of balancing peaceful uses of chemicals with international security and nonproliferation?

Peaceful uses of chemistry are fundamental to modern life in industrial processes, agriculture, and medical treatments, for example. Many essential chemicals are dual-use in nature, meaning they have both peaceful uses and potential applications in warfare. The CW nonproliferation regime is structured to address this dual-use challenge, through both its central treaty and less formal export control regimes, principally including the Australia Group.

The Chemical Weapons Convention

  • To reduce the risks of diversion to a CW program, the CWC mandates states parties declare the amount and status of all their scheduled chemicals.
  • Relevant facilities are subject to inspection to verify the information provided in state declarations. The vast majority of inspections occur at industrial facilities; therefore the private sector plays a major part in effective CWC verification.
  • The CWC Schedule of Chemicals identifies chemicals based on their potential applications in warfare, and assigns different verification procedures for facilities based on the level of dual-use risk involved, denoted by three different schedules of chemicals:
    • Schedule 1 includes the most sensitive chemicals and precursors that have been used in CW in the past, and which are infrequently used in civil applications.
    • Schedule 2 chemicals are less sensitive than Schedule 1 chemicals, but can be used for the creation of Schedule 1 compounds, and do not have a significant presence in the industrial sector.
    • Schedule 3 chemicals could potentially be used for weapons purposes, but are typically used by industry.
  • States that have ratified the CWC are allowed to trade scheduled chemicals and those that have not ratified the treaty are cut-off from participating in their trade. In this way, the CWC aims to support the peaceful use of chemicals while deterring their diversion to CW programs.

The Australia Group

  • Industry has unwittingly aided CW programs in the past, including in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The Australia Group (AG) was formed to help manage these dual-use risks.
  • The AG creates lists of controlled items—both chemicals and related equipment—that supplier states can use to manage the export of sensitive materials related to CW proliferation.
  • Unlike the CWC, the AG is voluntary with no enforcement mechanisms. However, the AG is more comprehensive. The AG controls more than 20 additional sensitive chemicals and precursors, and a list of equipment that can be used for both CW and chemical industry development. Equipment is not controlled at all under the CWC.

3. What is the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons?

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The OPCW is headquartered in The Hague, The Netherlands.

  • The OPCW is charged with verifying members’ compliance with the CWC and providing a forum for cooperation among states parties. [2] Its main activities include:
    • Overseeing the elimination of CW stockpiles and production capabilities
    • Stopping CW proliferation
    • Providing assistance and protection in the event CW are used
    • Promoting the peaceful use of chemical technology
    • Promoting universal adherence to the CWC
    • Supporting implementation of the CWC’s provisions in all member states
  • The OPCW is an independent international organization with a working relationship with the United Nations. Typically the OPCW undertakes its activities autonomously, but its recent activities in hot spots like Syria have been in direct cooperation with the United Nations. [3]
  • In 2013, the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work eliminating global CW stocks.

Main office building of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons & The Netherlands Map, WikiMedia Commons

triangle graph

4. What challenges does the Chemical Weapons Convention face?

The CWC faces several challenges related to controversial and complicated provisions within the treaty. Other challenges have come to light as the OPCW dismantles programs in conflict zones such as Syria and Libya.

Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention

challenge One provision within the CWC, which has never been exercised, is the “challenge inspection.” Under Article IX of the CWC, States Parties can bring concerns about non-compliance to the attention of the Executive Council, which can choose to undertake an on-site inspection. Exercising the challenge inspection provision would likely be heavily politicized. With countries like Syria now members of the CWC, the likelihood that a challenge inspection may occur has increased.
syria With Syria joining the CWC in 2013 and declaring its stockpiles, the Convention moved closer to universality. But destroying Syria’s stockpile and verifying the end of the Syrian program will remain a challenge for some time, especially as the civil war rages on. Analysts continue to question the Syrian government’s commitment to removing all of its CW capabilities.
universality Four countries remain outside of the treaty: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan. Questions remain about possible CW capabilities in some of these countries. Egypt used CW during the North Yemen Civil War (1962-1970). Israel and North Korea are both suspected of possessing CW capabilities. Convincing these states to ratify the CWC and declare their facilities remains a significant challenge to eliminating chemical weapons.
excepted Under the CWC, riot control agents (RCA) can be used for domestic law enforcement, but not in war. This distinction has been controversial. Since the CWC entered into force RCAs have been used in numerous counterterrorism operations, appearing to cross the line between police and military use of these agents. For example, Russia’s use of a chemical incapacitant to end the siege at the Dubrovka Theatre Center in Moscow in 2002 resulted in the deaths of 125 hostages, as well as of all the hostage takers. And in 2007, multi-national forces used tear gas during a prison riot near Mosul in Iraq. [4]
burden Industrial facilities that produce or use certain chemicals on the CWC Schedule of Chemicals are subject to periodic inspections by OPCW inspectors, which can be a burden on the normal operations of a facility.
future As the OPCW moves closer to the complete destruction of CW stockpiles, there is growing discussion about the future of the Convention and the role of the OPCW.

5. How are chemical weapons destruction and disposal efforts progressing globally?

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infographic - progress destroying chemical weapons

Note: Japan, China, Germany, and Belgium have the most active ongoing efforts to destroy OCW and ACW. The following countries have also declared and subsequently destroyed ACW or OCW to the OPCW: Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Italy, Russia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, United Kingdom, and the United States. [5]

Most declared chemical weapons stockpiles have been destroyed. However, the two largest possessor states, the United States and the Russian Federation, have struggled to meet destruction deadlines.

A number of countries are also still locating and destroying old and abandoned chemical weapons (according to the ACW). In addition to large-scale efforts between Japan and China to locate and destroy Japanese ACW in China, OCW and ACW most regularly surface in countries such as Germany and Belgium in farmer’s fields and on other land once used as WWI battlefields. [6]

  • Old chemical weapons (OCWs) are those produced prior to 1925 or “between 1925 and 1946 that have deteriorated to such extent that they can no longer be used as chemical weapons.”
  • Abandoned Chemical Weapons are those, including OCWs “abandoned by a State after 1 January 1925 on the territory of another State without the consent of the latter.” [7]

Countries have also inactivated all chemical weapons production facilities (CWPFs) declared under the CWC, including in Bosnia and Herzegovina, China, France, India, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Libya, Russia, Serbia, the Syria, the United Kingdom, the US, and South Korea.

How Chemical Weapons are Destroyed

1. How Chemical Weapons are Destroyed

There are two main methods of destroying chemical weapons stockpiles, high temperature destruction and low temperature destruction.

Source: Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Destruction Technologies,”
Photo: The MV Cape Ray was outfitted with mobile hydrolysis systems to destroy Syria’s CW. | Photo Credit:

High Temperature Destruction

2. High Temperature Destruction

High-temperature destruction technologies, such as incineration, use immense heat to break the chemical bonds of toxic agents and produce less toxic chemicals.

Photo: JACADS chemical weapons destruction facility in the United States. | Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force, via WikiMedia Commons

3. Low Temperature Destruction

Low-temperature destruction technologies produce less toxic chemicals that are then further treated. Hydrolysis is the most notable technology in this category, a process that uses water and other neutralizing substances to break the chemical bonds of toxic agents.

Video: Official Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) Animation.

6. What happens when there are allegations of chemical weapons possession or use in CWC or non-CWC countries?

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infographic - what happens when a country is accused of using chemical weapons

7. How are new technologies challenging CW nonproliferation?

Advances in chemistry, biology, information technology, and engineering are decreasing the barriers to both state and non-state actors producing toxic chemical agents.

  • Many new and emerging technologies becoming available to would-be proliferators are not adequately captured by existing export control regimes or the CWC’s verification regime, which is the product of an early 1990s-level understanding of CW proliferation.
  • Convergence of the biological and chemical disciplines is blurring the traditional lines between the technologies covered by the CWC and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). Many new processes to produce chemicals are not covered under the verification provisions of the CWC, while the BTWC lacks verification provisions altogether. [8] Emerging technologies of particular CW concern include:
    • Combinational chemistry, which could facilitate the development of new types of chemical warfare agents [9]
    • Protein engineering, which could allow for the development of novel toxin agents [10]
    • Chemical micro process devices, which could enable the large-scale production of CW agents in small, concealable plants [11]


[1] See “OPCW Member States,” Organization of the Prohibition Chemical Weapons website,, last visited November 17, 2015.

[2] Chemical Weapons Convention, Article VIII, available at

[3] “OPCW-UN Joint Mission Draws to a Close,” OPCW website, October 1, 2014,

[4] Kyle Ballard, “Convention in Peril? Riot Control Agents and the Chemical Weapons Ban,” Arms Control Today, July 2009,

[5] Source for Infographic Data: Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “The Chemical Weapons Ban: Facts and Figures,” Last updated October 31, 2015,

[6] See for example, John Hart, “Looking Back: The Continuing Legacy of Old and Abandoned Chemical Weapons,” Arms Control Today, March 2008,

[7] OCW definition from Art. 2.5 and ACW definition from Art. 2.6 of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

[8] Jonathan B. Tucker, Innovation, Dual Use, and Security: Managing the Risks of Emerging Biological and Chemical Technologies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2012.

[9] Jonathan B. Tucker, “Combinatorial Chemistry and High-Throughput Screening,” Innovation, Dual Use, and Security: Managing the Risks of Emerging Biological and Chemical Technologies, pp. 89-100.

[10] Catherine Jefferson, “Protein Engineering,” Innovation, Dual Use, and Security: Managing the Risks of Emerging Biological and Chemical Technologies, pp. 133-146.

[11] Amy Smithson, “Chemical Micro Process Devices,” Innovation, Dual Use, and Security: Managing the Risks of Emerging Biological and Chemical Technologies, pp. 235-248.

Photo Credit
Heading Image: Defoliant spray run during the Vietnam War. Source: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force via WikiMedia Commons.