Environment, Opinion

100 days since Salisbury: Supporting the OPCW and the upcoming Conference of State Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention


WINDHOEK, 19 JUNE – Tuesday, 12 June marked 100 days since the attack on Salisbury: 100 days later and Yulia and Sergei Skripal are slowly recovering. The international diplomatic attention is now focused on how to stop the further erosion of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

International conventions may seem far removed from the lives of everyday people; But these are how we agree the type of world we want to live in. They are the promises we keep to each other. Our commitments and their implementation underpin the international system and keep us safe. When agreements are broken, or allowed to fall into irrelevance, the consequences become very real for everyone.

The Chemical Weapons Convention is one of these, but there are worrying signs we have forgotten why we worked so hard to achieve this vital agreement.

Chemical weapons asphyxiate, choke, blister and poison. Where not lethal, their effects can last a lifetime. During the twentieth century they were used on and off the battlefield with horrific consequence.
Chemical weapons were used with devastating consequences in Morocco, Yemen, China and Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). The aftermath of their deployment in the 1980s Iran-Iraq War continues to be felt today, with 30,000 Iranians still suffering and dying from the effects of the agents used in the conflict. And Namibia too has felt their horrendous effects.

“Project Coast” was the codename given to a military chemical and biological warfare programme of South Africa’s apartheid government. Under the auspices of Project Coast scientists, amongst other things, investigated ways to kill people leaving no trace post-mortem, including by hiding poisons in popular consumables such as beer, clothing and chocolates. About 200 SWAPO members were killed by drugging them with muscle relaxants and throwing their paralysed bodies into the sea from an aircraft.

The Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997, and brought the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into existence. For the first time, the world had an independent, non-political body to investigate chemical weapons use.

192 countries, including Namibia, have signed and ratified the Convention and are States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Through this convention the international community has agreed that the development, production, stockpiling and deployment of these instruments of death should be confined to the past. There can be no impunity for anyone who uses chemical weapons.

Just over 20 years on from this watershed moment, and five years after the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its extraordinary achievements, this agreement and these norms are under threat. Since the start of 2017 alone, chemical weapons have been used against civilians in Syria, Iraq, Malaysia and the UK.

The repeated use of chemical weapons represents a grave threat to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the rules-based international order that keeps us all safe. It must now be protected and strengthened.

Answering the call of the UK and 63 other states, the OPCW announced in end of May, that the signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention will come together at the end of June. We hope that Namibia will join the many African countries who recognise the importance of strengthening and protecting this cornerstone of the international non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

Some have tried to cast this meeting as an arena for some kind of global confrontation where states will be forced to take sides, or a position on this or that attack. This is not the case. Rather this is a choice between defending the international rules based system vs the sickening prospect that we and our children might see chemical weapons become normalised.

Twenty years ago, the creation of the Chemical Weapons Convention marked a turning point in global politics. The world drew a line in the sand, and agreed that any use of chemical weapons is unjustified and abhorrent. We must now act to defend it.


Kate Airey, British High Commissioner