Chemical Weapons-Ban, Nonproliferation and Disarmament

Chemical weapons were the first weapons of mass destruction. Despite countless victims, their use was never decisive for the outcome of a war. We have repeatedly seen cases in which the attacking side itself suffers the long-term consequences, such as US veterans of the Vietnam War. In military circles, chemical weapons are now considered largely obsolete. It is precisely the failures in terms of military tactics that have enabled disarmament efforts to achieve the almost complete removal of chemical weapons. Only a few countries, largely from the group of developing countries, still want to hold on to their remaining capabilities.


As countries in the developing world increasingly industrialize it becomes easier for them to produce their own chemical weapons. There are a number of states under suspicion of taking this path and stockpiling chemical weapons. They include, in particular, Egypt, Angola, Ethiopia, China, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, Serbia, Syria, Taiwan and Vietnam, all of whom have so far failed to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention.

In view of the civil war still raging in Syria, public interest has focused on the possible use of chemical weapons. Some analysts claim that the regime in Damascus is in possession of several hundreds tonnes of hydrocyanic acid, mustard gas, tabun and sarin, maybe even the nerve agent VX. The facilities that produce these agents are thought to be in Damascus, Dumayr, Khan Abou, Shamat and Furklus, while at the time of writing storage facilities are near Damascus and Homs. The means of delivery might be artillery shells, aerial bombs and warheads for Scud missiles. It is also known that several German companies have delivered the chemicals key components for its chemical weapons programme.

The chemical weapons legacy in Germany

On 3 October 1954, the former Federal Republic of Germany (BRD) solemnly declared that it would renounce the possession of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. This government declaration, however, was not legally binding. . Not until 12 August 1994 did the—now reunited—Germany sign up to the universal ban on chemical weapons. Until then, there were repeated news reports that West Germany was in fact working on a chemical weapons programme. For instance, reports in November 1968 indicated that the then Institut für Aerobiologie (IfA) of the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft was experimenting with nerve gases at its laboratories in the town of Grafschaft. One of the institute's directors, Dr Ehrenfried Petras, turned out to be a Stasi agent and defected to the German Democratic Republic. The government in Bonn refuted all allegations, claiming that the research served only ‘defensive’ purposes, arising from the need to improve Germany's defence against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The Bundeswehr still runs research projects into chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) protection technologies at its Wehrwissenschaftliches Institut für Schutztechnologien based in Munster.

Moreover, US armed forces stationed in West Germany were clearly equipped with chemical weapons (at least 435 tonnes of nerve agents) on German territory. Public scrutiny identified Clausen, Fischbach, Hanau, Mannheim, Maßweiler and Viernheim as potential storage sites. Clausen at least was indeed a depot for chemical weapons until 1990.

Germany also has a problem with the legacy of old stockpiles and contaminated sites from the Nazi weapon programmes of the “Third Reich”. Besides several research laboratories (Berlin-Spandau, Heidelberg, etc.) the Nazis ran 25 production sites. In total, some 75,000 tonnes of chemical warfare agents had already been produced and filled about 6,000 gas shells and 70,000 bombs. One of the largest production sites for nerve gas was located in the Dyhernfurth, Silesia (today Brzeg Dolny in Poland). It was dismantled by Soviet armed forces, transported to the Soviet Union, was reassembled and brought back into operation.

In the general chaos of the final months of the war, warfare agents were simply buried there and then as it happened for instance in Traunreuth (Bavaria) and Lossa (Saxony-Anhalt). From 1945 to 1948, the Western allies collected about 235,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, transported them to various coastal ports and loaded them onto at least 39 old ships, which were then simply taken out and sunk along with their highly toxic cargo, in the North Sea, the Baltic Sea or the Bay of Biscay. Even today, rusty shells are washed up on beaches or are caught up in the nets of German, Danish or Swedish fishing boats. The fishermen just throw this old ammunition back into the sea. There have been repeated incidents of seafarers being killed or injured by chemical shells.

The German government has its own disposal company specialized in cleaning up former production sites and burning old ammunition. The Munster-based Gesellschaft zur Entsorgung chemikalischer Kampfstoffe und Rüstungs-Altlasten mbH (GEKA), which has been operating since 1997, runs two special incinerators. In Munster, it is thought that about 40,000 tonnes of poisoned earth are currently still awaiting contamination.

Arms control

There have been a number of attempts efforts to establish an arms control regime for chemical weapons.

As long ago as 1899, the Hague Convention (II) with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land (29 July 1899) stated in Article 23 that states must undertake not “to employ poison or poisoned arms”. The Treaty of Versailles of 10 January 1920 included provisions banning the German army from holding chemical weapons, but this condition was undermined from the mid-1920s by Germany’s secret deal with Russia on chemical arms cooperation. The Geneva Protocol was signed on 17 June 1925 and entered into force on 8 February 1928. Although it banned the use of chemical weapons, military leaders were able to keep a loophole open. The production and stockpiling of chemical weapons was still formally permitted, thus inviting infringements. With the entry into force of the Biological Weapons Convention on 26 March 1975 there was finally a ban on the production, stockpiling and use of biotoxins. International law was further strengthened when the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD-Convention) entered into force on 5 October 1978. With the Second Review Conference, held in September 1992, herbicides were also included in the banned substances for environmental warfare, if their use “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 had to be renegotiated by the international community On 29 April 1997, finally, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force, outlawing outright not only the use but also the production and stockpiling of chemical weapons. The use of riot control agents (tear gas) by the police, for instance, is still allowed. It is also important to note that it is impossible to erase the know-how for producing a chemical weapon, so the threat of warfare agents being used by terrorist groups remains.

As a few signatory states possessed very large stockpiles, they were granted a transitory period under CWC rules for destroying old arsenals until 2012. The United States and Russia, however, did not meet the deadline as the destruction of chemical weapons proved to be far more difficult than their production. Some chemical agents have to be incinerated at around 1,000 degrees Celsius to prevent harmful residues while ensuring that residual explosives in bombs or shells do not explode.

The United States had 31,500 tonnes. Incineration plants were built on the Johnston Atoll, in Toole and Pine Bluff. By 2012, the United States had managed to destroy 90 per cent of its stockpiles; it is due for final completion by 2023. Russia ‘inherited’ a good 40,000 tonnes of chemical weapons from the former Soviet Union. Since 2002, Russia has built a number of disposal facilities (Gorny, Kambarka, Mardikovsky, Schuchiye and Leonidovka). The plant in Kambarka was built with German assistance. At the time of writing, Russia has been able to destroy 70 per cent of its stocks.

“Trust is good, but control is better”. This oft-cited adage underlies the agreement on reciprocal inspection. The government of the United States, however, had resisted outside inspection for a long time as it wanted to protect its national chemical industry from industrial espionage. The control regime now in place is run by 500 staff of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague. By the time of writing, 188 countries have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. The global disarmament programme is estimated to cost more than 50 billion US dollars.

We can, therefore, regard chemical arms as the 20th century’s weapons of mass destruction. They were developed at the beginning of the century and have been ‘scrapped’ or decommissioned since the end of the century.

Even after these warfare agents have finally been disposed of, the civil chemical industry will continue to present dangers. In Germany, for example, an average of twenty-five major industrial accidents occur annually among the country’s 2,000 chemical plants, along with 250 transport accidents involving hazardous chemicals.

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