How can civilians be protected from Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Recently, the State Parties to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) decided to suspend some of the privileges and rights Syria has under the Chemical Weapons Convention. This decision followed the overwhelming evidence pointing towards the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in the ongoing Syrian civil war and failure to declare and destroy the rest of its chemical weapons stockpiles. Civilians made up 97.6% of the casualties in Syrian chemical weapon attacks between 2011 and 2017. At least a quarter of the direct deaths in later attacks were children.

This example of international action against Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) can be placed in a line of efforts to protect civilians from the extremely disproportionate, indiscriminate, and environmentally devastating consequences of WMD.

What are Weapons of Mass Destruction?

According to the UN, WMD can be described as “[…] atomic explosive weapons, radioactive material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which might have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above.”

In practice, WMD can seriously injure and kill millions, as well as fundamentally destroy natural environments in the moment and for future generations. Without respecting country borders or the global climate, it is clear that it is necessary to banish WMD forever.

What legal instruments have states come up with to banish WMD?

Biological, chemical and nuclear weapons have been legally characterised as WMD as early as the Geneva Protocol was signed in 1925. This treaty prohibits the use of chemical- and biological arms in international warfare. The stockpiling, production capability and verification of possession or use of chemical weapons was only outlined after the collapse of the Soviet Union with the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993). This treaty established the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Towards the complete elimination of chemical weapons, the OPCW requires State Parties to declare chemical weapons (including their parts and production facilities), create a destruction timeline and allow for inspections on the ground to verify the above.

Earlier this year, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) presented the crown on top of decades of anti-nuclear weapons treaties. Several aspects of nuclear weapons, like testing (Partial Test Ban Treaty, 1963; Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, 1996) and their spread (Non-Proliferation Treaty, 1968) had already been established, as well as several regional abolition treaties.

For the first time, the TPNW bans the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, testing, placement, and (threat of- and assistance with) using nuclear weapons. With this treaty, a fundamental step was taken towards protecting civilians, the main victims, from the excessive harms of another type of weapons of mass destruction.

Though the OPCW’s recent decision was comparatively mild in relation to the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, it demonstrates that with a sound legal framework, the international community can come together to condemn the use of weapons of mass destruction. It is a reminder that although it takes time, the international legal basis for action against users of weapons of mass destruction exists, and there is.