Another Step Toward a World Without Chemical Weapons

By Christine Parthemore

On June 22nd, the Department of Defense announced an important milestone: the final remnants of U.S. chemical weapons stored at the U.S. Army Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado had been destroyed.

When the United States helped to negotiate the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) through the 1980s and early ‘90s, and ratified it in 1997, it possessed more than 30,000 tons of chemical agents, much of it stored in weapons that were developed between World War I and the early decades of the Cold War. This staggering total reflected the speed with which the nation and its allies worked to counter Germany’s extensive use of chemical weapons in both world wars, and the international community’s inability to fully ban weapons of mass destruction even after the founding of the United Nations and other cooperative security steps taken in the earliest years of the Cold War. 

Upon ratification of the CWC, the nation began the work of dismantling its chemical weapons program and disposing of the weapons. In addition to coordination with the treaty’s implementing arm, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, destruction plans had to pass safety and environmental standards at sites around the country and meet local acceptance. Much of this work was completed relatively quickly, but completing it has been complicated by several factors, including that the age and poor condition of many chemical-filled munitions required different handling and destruction approaches. The task at the Pueblo, Colorado, site alone required the destruction of 780,000 mustard agent-filled munitions.     

Conducting this work safely and in compliance with the CWC has taken years—and it is now one step away from being fully completed. The United States has just one remaining site, the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky, where destruction of the country’s final chemical weapons is underway. 

It is a critical time for the United States to continue its leadership in cooperatively addressing weapons of mass destruction threats alongside other nations. Of the many ways this objective is pursued, actively demonstrating compliance with treaties and agreements that limit or ban them is one of the most important. The completion of chemical weapons destruction in Colorado is a strong signal of upholding the norm against possessing and using these brutal weapons. It also stands in stark contrast to the illegal use of chemical weapons in recent years by countries such as Syria and Russia, and concerns that Russia may use them in its war against Ukraine. 

U.S. leaders should speak out publicly to mark the conclusion of the destruction of the legacy chemical weapons program when the work is completed. When he was a Senator, Joe Biden helped to drive the bipartisan Congressional action behind U.S. ratification of the CWC. As President, a fitting book end would be to use the forthcoming conclusion of destruction operations to reiterate that our security is best secured through cooperation among nations, commitment to international laws and agreements, and continuing efforts to create a world free of weapons of mass destruction.    


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