Chemical Weapons-Ban, Nonproliferation and Disarmament

Chemical weapons were the first weapons of mass destruction. Despite the large number of victims, their deployment has never been decisive for the outcome of war. Numerous times, the aggressors themselves, such as US veterans from the Vietnam War, suffered from the long-term effects. Chemical weapons are considered mostly obsolete by the military. It is precisely this military-tactical failure that led to the (nearly) total disarmament of chemical weapons. Only a few countries, particularly from the group of developing countries, still want to hold on to their remaining stockpiles.


The increasing industrialization of the developing countries also increases their ability to produce their chemical weapons. A variety of countries, such as Angola, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, Serbia, Syria, Taiwan and Vietnam, are suspected of possessing chemical weapons stockpiles. These countries have not signed the chemical weapons convention.

Due to the current civil war and its alleged deployment of its chemical weapons, Syria is currently the focus of public interest. It is suspected that the government in Damascus is in possession of hundreds of tonnes of hydrocyanic acid, mustard gas, tabun and sarin, maybe even the nerve agent VX. The facilities that produce these agents can be found in Damascus, Dumayr, Khan Abou, Shamat and Furklus. Stockpiles are stored near Damascus and Homs. Potential means of delivery are artillery shells, aerial bombs and warheads for its Scud missiles. Several German companies had exported chemicals or parts that were used for the Syrian chemical weapons programme.

Chemical weapons - Old stockpiles in Germany

Already on 3 October 1954 did the former Federal Republic of Germany (BRD) solemnly declare that it would renounce the possession of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. This government declaration, however, was not legally binding. On 12 August 1994, the unified Germany then ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. Until then, there were repeated news reports that West Germany was working on a chemical weapons programme. In November 1968, it became known that the then Institute for Aerobiology (IfA) of the Fraunhofer Society in Grafschaft was experimenting with nerve gas. One of the directors of the institute, Dr Ehrenfried Petras, was a Stasi agent and had moved back to the GDR. The federal government refuted all allegations, confirming that the research was only conducted for ‘defensive’ reasons, to improve Germany's defence against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The Bundeswehr Research Institute for Protective Technologies and NBC Protection (WIS/D) is still in operation today.

The US armed forces positioned in West Germany also held chemical weapons stockpiles (at least 435 tonnes of nerve agents). The military sites of Clausen, Fischbach, Hanau, Mannheim, Maßweiler and Viernheim were publicly named as depots for these weapons. Clausen was indeed a depot for chemical weapons until 1990.

In addition to this, West Germany did have a problem with old chemical remnants of the Third Reich. Besides several research laboratories (Berlin-Spandau, Heidelberg, etc.), the Nazis ran 25 production sites. In total, there were about 75,000 tonnes of warfare agents already distributed over about 6,000 gas grenades and 70,000 bombs. One of the largest production sites of nerve gas could be found in the Silesian Dyhernfurth (today Poland, Brzeg Dolny). The Soviet armed forces disassembled it, transported it to the Soviet Union and rebuilt and reactivated it there. In the general chaos at the end of the war, warfare agents were at times buried there and then. Two examples of this are Traunreuth (Bavaria) and Lossa (Saxony-Anhalt). From 1945 to 1948, Western allies collected about 235,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, transported them to the coast and loaded them onto at least 39 old boats that were simply taken out and sunk with their highly toxic cargo in the North Sea, the Baltic Sea or the Biskaya. Even today, rusted grenades are washed onto the beach or are caught in the fishing nets of German, Danish or Swedish fishing boats. The fishermen then throw the ammunition back into the water. Repeatedly, seamen have been killed or injured by grenades containing chemicals. The state-owned GEKA (Society for the disposal of chemical war agents, obsolete weapons and abandoned military sites) in Munster has been tasked to rehabilitate the former production sites and to burn the obsolete ammunition. For this, the company is operating two incinerators. In Munster, about 40,000 tonnes of contaminated earth are currently still to be decontaminated.

Arms control

There were several efforts to control chemical weapons. As early as on 29 July 1899 did the Hague Regulations forbid “the deployment of poison or poisoned weapons”. While the Versailles Treaty of 10 January 1920 stipulated that the German Reichswehr was not allowed to possess chemical weapons, this stipulation was undermined by the fact that Germany had secretly cooperated with Russia since the mid-1920s in developing chemical weapons. The Geneva Protocol was negotiated on 17 June 1925 and came into force on 8 February 1928. While it banned the use of chemical weapons, the military found a loophole in the fact that the production and stockpiling of chemical weapons was still permitted, opening up avenues for abuse of the Protocol. The Biological Weapons Convention that came into force on 26 March 1975 banned the production, stockpiling and use of biotoxins. On 5 October 1978, the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD Convention) came into force. Since its Second Review Conference of September 1992, herbicides have been included in the list of banned substances for environmental warfare, if their deployment “would cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment” (Rule 76e). After the end of the Cold War, the issue of chemical weapons was renegotiated internationally. On 29 April 1997, finally, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force. Since then, not only the deployment but also the production and stockpiling of chemical weapons are generally forbidden. The use of riot control agents by police remains permitted. The knowledge about the production of chemical weapons cannot be eradicated; this is why the deployment of chemical agents by terrorist groups is still a threat.

As a few signatory states had vast stockpiles of chemical weapons, they were granted a transitory period until 2012 to destroy these. The United States and Russia, however, could not meet the deadline as the destruction of chemical weapons is much more challenging than their production. The agent will have to be incinerated without residue at around 1,000°C without permitting remnants of explosives in the bomb or shell to explode. The United States possessed 31,500 tonnes. Incinerators were built on the Johnston Atoll, in Toole and Pine Bluff. By 2012, the United States was able to destroy 90 per cent of its stockpiles; by 2023, the programme is planned to be fully completed. Russia ‘inherited’ a good 40,000 tonnes of chemical weapons stockpiles from the former Soviet Union. Since 2002, Russia has built several incinerators (Gorny, Kambarka, Mardikovsky, Schuchiye and Leonidovka). The facility in Kambarka was built with support from Germany. So far, Russia has been able to destroy 70 per cent of its stockpiles.

According to the motto “Trust is good but control is better”, mutual inspections were agreed. The government of the United States, however, had resisted this for a long time as it wanted to protect its chemical industry from foreign industrial espionage. The inspections are carried out by 500 members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague. So far, 188 countries have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. The global disarmament programme will most likely cost more than 50 billion US dollars. Chemical weapons are thus the weapons of mass destruction of the 20th century. They were developed at its beginning and have been ‘scrapped’ or decommissioned since the end of that century. But even after the scrapping of chemical weapons, the dangers of the civilian chemical industry remain. In Germany,every year, 25 larger incidents happen in the 2,000 chemical plants, and there are about 250 accidents with hazardous substances.

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