Editorial Note: I questioned yesterday whether President Trump’s insistence that the Bashar al-Assad regime’s chemical weapon attack “had crossed a lot of lines for me” would prove that Trump’s lines are colored in stronger shades than Obama-red. Turns out they are, indeed. Joe Carter’s informative post below was written prior to the targeted attacks in Syria carried out by the United States yesterday evening against Assad. Informing the American people of the retributive hits, Trump grounded the American action in both moral repugnance and national interest. Of the gas attack against the innocent he lamented, “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” Of the national interest he asserted, “It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” As details become clearer, more will follow regarding this important sequence of events. Be on the lookout for pieces by contributing editor Alan Dowd and reflections on sovereignty as responsibility and the place of retributive justice when that responsibility is grossly abandoned. Meanwhile, with the American president, “We ask for God’s wisdom as we face…our very troubled world. – Marc LiVecche
On Tuesday the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that either the Syrian government or Russian forces used chemical weapons (specifically a nerve agent) in an attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. If verified, says the BBC, it would be one of the deadliest chemical attacks in Syria’s civil war.
Here is what you should know about chemical weapons:
1. The general and traditional definition of a chemical weaponis a toxic chemical contained in a delivery system, such as a bomb or shell. The Chemical Weapons Convention (an international treaty that bans chemical weapons) applies the term to any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation, or sensory irritation through its chemical action.
2. The toxic chemicals that have been used as chemical weapons, or have been developed for use as chemical weapons, can be categorized as choking, blister, blood, or nerve agents. The most well known agents are choking agents (e.g., chlorine, phosgene); blister agents (e.g., mustard gas, lewisite); blood agents (e.g., hydrogen cyanide); and nerve agents (e.g., sarin, tabun, VX).
3. On January 2, 1915, German forces in World War I made the first chlorine gas attack, ushering in the modern age of chemical warfare. (France, Germany, Russia, and Britain had all used tear gas prior to this date.) Great Britain became the first of the Allied nations to use chemical weapons. In World War II, Japan was the only country to use chemical weapons on the battlefield. Adolf Hitler refrained from the use of chemical weapons in war, though not from the use of poison gases in concentration camps, likely because of fear of reprisals in kind.
4. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both maintained enormous stockpiles of chemical weapons, amounting to tens of thousands of tons. The amount of chemical weapons held by these two countries was enough to destroy much of the human and animal life on Earth.
5. The international community officially banned chemical weapons after World War I in the 1925 Geneva Protocol (often referred to as the “Geneva Protocol”), which took effect in 1928. Thirty-eight states originally signed the Protocol (the U.S. didn’t sign until 1975), and it was eventually ratified by 140 nations. However, the effectiveness of the agreement was hampered because it did not prohibit use of such weapons for the purposes of retaliation against chemical attacks, use against non-ratifying nations, use within a state’s own borders, or the development and stockpiling of chemical weapons.
6. In an attempt to supplement the Geneva Protocol, the international community adopted in 1972 the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). This convention was the first multilateral disarmament treaty to ban the development, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons. The treaty bans all “microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.” In addition it prohibits, “Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.”
The BWC entered into force in 1975 with 22 states originally signing the treaty. It was eventually ratified by 173 states (nine others have signed but not ratified), and currently 14 states have neither signed nor ratified the BWC. The treaty also required each country to enact national legislation to enforce its prohibitions.
7. In 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) supplemented both the Geneva Protocol and the BWC. The CWC requires states who adopt the treaty to undertake “to destroy chemical weapons it owns or possesses, or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction or control, in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.” The CWC is the first multilateral arms control and nonproliferation treaty to widely affect the private sector. The convention is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.”
8. To make sure that the CWC is implemented effectively, state parties are obliged to designate or establish a National Authority (to date, 188 National Authorities have been established). This body escorts OPCW inspections of “relevant industrial or military sites; submits initial and annual declarations; assists and protects those States.” According to the OPCW, as of October 2016, 90 percent of the world’s declared stockpileof 72,304 metric tons of chemical agent has been verifiably destroyed. Additionally, 57.32 percent of the 8.67 million chemical munitions and containers covered by the Chemical Weapons Convention have been verifiably destroyed.
9. Four governments (Iraq, the Russian Federation, the Syrian Arab Republic, and the United States) have declared they still retain chemical weapons. (Albania, India, Libya, and a fourth, unnamed country have completed destruction of their chemical weapon stockpiles.) According to the OPCW, these countries must destroy 8.67 million items, including munitions and containers, and 72,304 metric tons of extremely toxic chemical agents. As the OPCW notes, “By comparison, a tiny drop of a nerve agent, no larger than the head of a pin, can kill an adult human being within minutes after exposure. The OPCW verifies that the destruction process is irreversible.”
10. Over 98 percent of the world’s population lives within territories where the Chemical Weapons Convention has become the law of the land. Israel signed the treaty but has not yet ratified it. The three states that have neither signed nor acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention are Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan.
Joe Carter is an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College, an editor for several organizations, and the author of the NIV Lifehacks Bible.
Photo Credit: Airmen with the 106th Rescue Wing conduct chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense training at Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, New York, on Jan. 9th, 2015. By Staff Sergeant Christopher S Muncy for New York Air National Guard, via Flickr.