Destruction and Beyond

A Trilogy of Articles Exploring the Historic Elimination of the World’s Declared Stockpiles of Chemical Weapons

Introductory Note

Hon. Andy Weber

On July 7, 2023, the U.S. Department of Defense destroyed the last chemical weapon in a stockpile that it rushed to develop during the World Wars in response to the Germans using them and expanded during the Cold War. For the years when I served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical & Biological Defense Programs, I helped to oversee the long process of safely eliminating these weapons and assuring the international community that the nation was meeting its treaty obligations to do so. I’m so proud of the dedicated teams of experts who drove this accomplishment to completion.

This achievement forms a reminder that our security is best enhanced when nations commit not to develop horrific tools of warfare such as chemical and biological weapons, cooperate in eliminating the threats of such weapons, and reinforce norms and laws that enshrine the notion that their brutality is unacceptable in the modern world.

This short report includes a trilogy of writings on the 2023 milestone of all the world’s declared chemical weapons being destroyed:

  • Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü provides his perspective as the former Director General of the Nobel-Prize-winning Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and brings to life some of the processes that the OPCW and governments took to ensure success.
  • John Moulton and Christine Parthemore write about the need for the United States and the world to retain its technical and knowledge foundations for addressing chemical weapons risks.
  • Shannon Green, John Moulton, and Christine Parthemore reinforce the need for continued commitments to working against chemical weapons, given ongoing challenges of compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention and general issues affecting the world’s nonproliferation and disarmament architecture.

This is not the time to rest on our laurels, impressive as they are. The United States, its Allies, and partners must redouble efforts to rid the world entirely of chemical weapons.

Destroying the U.S. Chemical Weapons Stockpile

A View from the Former Director General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü

In July 2010, when I took over the Director General position at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), two main issues were under consideration by the states parties.

The first was an April 2012 deadline for the elimination of the declared chemical weapons stockpiles of the United States. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997, foresaw a deadline of ten years that could be extended by another five for the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpiles. In 2010, while the five other possessor states (meaning states with declared chemical weapons stockpiles) had completed their destruction activities, it became clear that the deadline could not be met by the two possessor states with the largest stockpiles: the United States of America and the Russian Federation. The latter, which inherited forty thousand metric tons of chemical weapons from the Soviet Union, despite considerable financial support it received from the United States and some other Western countries, was not able to complete destruction within the agreed timeline, due mainly to technical problems.

The United States, which declared thirty thousand metric tons of chemical weapons, made significant progress during the initial stage of destruction. However, it soon encountered technical problems in the destruction of certain categories of ammunition. Destruction was also delayed due to opposition by local civil society groups to the incineration method applied in other destruction plants. This was especially the case at the U.S. Army Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado and the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. New methods had to be developed and this delayed the process. This is significant, however, as each CWC state party agreed to destroy chemical weapons in accordance with its national standards for safety and emissions,1 which the U.S. fulfilled.

The second issue under consideration by States Parties was not unrelated. It involved the future of the organization. Some members argued that the OPCW should downsize once the destruction of declared chemical weapons was complete.

In 2011, consultations among member countries on the deadline issue ended successfully. The Conference of States Parties (CSP) adopted a decision enabling the United States and the Russian Federation to continue their respective destruction activities under enhanced transparency measures, such as regular visits by Executive Council members to the sites, as well as reports by the OPCW Technical Secretariat and concerned countries.

At that stage, I wrote a letter to the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and Disarmament, Rose Goetemoller. In my letter, while acknowledging the significant progress achieved to date by the United States and appreciating the technical challenges encountered in the process, I asked whether there could be an accelerated timeline if additional resources were allocated. I finished my letter by stating that “the completion of the destruction at an early stage could even be crowned by the Nobel Peace Prize.’’ I received a response from the then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical, Nuclear, and Biological Defense Programs, Andrew Weber. In his letter, he explained at length the efforts made by the relevant authorities as well as the private companies and the technical staff who were involved. He assured me that the United States was willing to fulfill its obligations at the earliest possible time and there was bipartisan support in the Congress for the allocation of necessary funds.

I had no doubt about the commitment of the United States and its willingness to complete the process of destruction as early as possible. I had already visited the chemical destruction plants at Anniston Army Depot, Alabama and Deseret Chemical Depot, Utah and was able to observe tremendous efforts by the staff while taking all necessary precautions for safe destruction of the weapons. My main concern was that if the Russian Federation completed the elimination of its stockpile earlier, criticism could be directed at the United States by some members. Lengthy, futile debates could take place at the OPCW which we had so far been able to avoid.

To my relief, this did not happen.

On September 27, 2013, the Executive Council of the OPCW took a decision about the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons program. The decision was endorsed the same day by the UN Security Council.2 On October 10, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee announced in Oslo that the OPCW was awarded the prize in acknowledgment of “its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.”3 The Committee, while conducting its own research prior to its decision, was apparently assured that the States Parties were fully committed to fulfill their obligations deriving from the CWC. The award was a timely development since it provided a morale boost to the OPCW staff who were being deployed to Syria in the midst of a civil war, taking on considerable safety risks.

The prize ceremony took place in Oslo in December 2013. I invited the ambassadors of the United States and the Russian Federation as representatives of the two major possessor states along with other colleagues. I also invited Andrew Weber, who a year previously had given me his assurances on behalf of the U.S. Government.

The Russian Federation completed destruction of its declared stockpiles of chemical weapons in October 2017. This accomplishment was,however, overshadowed by the use of Novichok in the United Kingdom. The Russian position of shielding Syria during the non-compliance proceedings at the OPCW was not well-received either. Furthermore, the false allegations against Ukraine during the early stages of the ongoing war about its possible use of biological or chemical weapons raised serious concerns on Russia’s real intentions of use on the battlefield and blaming the other side afterwards.

Some member countries were still critical of the length of time it was taking the United States to destroy its stockpile and took the opportunity to express it in the Executive Council (EC) or the Conference of States Parties (CSP) meetings. These were politically-motivated critiques, however. It was widely-known that the weapons in question were no longer in a usable condition and, for many of them, a means of delivery no longer existed.

I accompanied the EC delegations to the Pueblo and Blue Grass destruction plants. These visits began in Washington, D.C. Meetings with senior officials from the State Department and Department of Defense took place during which the reasons for delay were explained in detail and necessary assurances for early completion were given. We also had some discussions with members of Congress. Representatives from CWC States Parties were assured by both the U.S. executive and legislative branches on the U.S. commitment to honor its obligations. Then at the sites, we had the opportunity to observe the complexity of the operation. It was time consuming and technically challenging. At the same time, we were impressed by the professionalism of the technical staff. They were fully aware of the risks which were involved while being confident about the measures they took to counter them. During the briefings, delegation members were surprised to hear that the destruction costs were hundreds of times more than the manufacturing ones. Still, it was a worthwhile, fully justified endeavor. We also had useful meetings with civil society representatives wherein we listened to their concerns, which would later be addressed by the stockpile destruction teams.

Each time I visited a plant and a storage site, I was relieved that these weapons were never used. The consequences would have otherwise been devastating for the whole world.

On July 7, 2023, I wholeheartedly welcomed the news of the destruction of the last declared chemical weapon by the United States. During the five years after I left my position of Director General of the OPCW, I followed the progress of the stockpile destruction from a distance, but intently. And when it concluded, the overwhelming feeling was that of a major achievement, in which everyone who was involved should be proud, and take credit. It was a collective success by decision makers at the top, bureaucrats at the State Department and the Department of Defense, as well as the engineers, workers, and guards who worked on the sites.

The OPCW was very effective in helping ensure the credibility and integrity of the process through its permanent presence at the plants and regular inspections of depots. Indeed, the OPCW—once described as a tiny, obscure organization just after the announcement of the Nobel Committee—demonstrated through this process that it is a mature international institution. Its integrity and credibility have been tested on several occasions, and it has passed each test.

Last but certainly not least, we should also recognize the role played by civil society during these operations. They helped in raising awareness among the people living close to the plants, ensuring that all was safe, and facilitating local support.

The destruction of these declared stockpiles is a success story that the whole world should cherish. The Herculean task of destroying more than seventy thousand metric tons of declared chemical weapons under the verification of the OPCW was accomplished without any major incident, paying full attention to human and environmental safety. This was a historic destruction of very destructive weapons, and humanity should be proud of it.

Ending an Era of Chemical Weapons

How the U.S. can maintain the mechanisms that enabled a world-securing success.

John Moulton and Christine Parthemore

On July 7, 2023, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that it had completed the long, painstaking work of destroying the nation’s stockpile of aging chemical weapons, fulfilling a treaty commitment made in 1997.4

But this was much more than a 26-year effort. It reflects over a century of diplomatic and technical advances aimed at ending the horror of chemical weapons. It is an incredible milestone for the nation and the world, and an important time to commit to retaining the national capacity for addressing chemical weapons threats that may arise in the future.

After the horrors of World War I, many nations agreed not to use chemical or biological weapons in warfare, but the legal protocols governing this did not prohibit their development and possession. The United States stockpiled more than 30,000 tons of chemical weapons materials, much of it loaded into munitions that sat in storage for decades, and many of them degraded or warped over time.

When the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) went into force in 1997,5 the United States and seven other nations with declared chemical weapon stockpiles and their precursor components, had to pivot their focus to destroying what they had created. To make this happen, the U.S. partnered with and provided funds to most of these countries, including over $1 billion to Russia prior to its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

In the United States, destruction at several sites was finished in the originally-planned 10 years, yet the overall timeline slipped. While some of the delays came from the technical challenge of destroying old chemicals, others were due to the need to complete environmental studies, receive local permits, and maintain effective emergency response capabilities. This was consistent with the CWC requirement that countries “destroy chemical weapons in accordance with its national standards for safety and emissions.”6

To be sure, other nations have consistently pressed the United States regarding the destruction timeline, with some leveling false accusations that delays were a cover for continuing the illegal possession of these weapons. While completing the process sooner would have been optimal, the Department of Defense worked transparently with both international oversight bodies and local communities to complete the task.

To destroy these weapons, plans had to be approved by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW, the Convention’s implementation arm) and must comply with national and community-level safety and environmental requirements. While the OPCW allows a range of treaty-compliant technologies and methods, U.S. communities rejected some approaches such as incineration, and others sought to adopt new technologies for special handling and disposal of munitions in extremely poor condition. This, then, required getting authorities on board with revised plans in addition to the OPCW’s approval and oversight. This process was on display straight through the finish line, when new equipment was added to one of the final destruction sites to accelerate the work and further reduce safety risks.

While the world’s declared stockpiles are now destroyed, unfortunately the work of preventing chemical weapons threats is not done. Within the last several years, chemical warfare agents have been used in several assassination attempts and again in the Syrian civil war. Occasionally, the remnants of past chemical weapons still turn up around the world and need to be safely destroyed. Further, a rogue nation could produce them at any time. Indeed, a few likely have. The U.S. government’s public assessments indicate Russia, Syria, and Iran are not complying with the CWC, and that North Korea used a chemical weapon for assassination purposes. It is conceivable that future events will require international coalitions to secure and eliminate such chemical weapons infrastructure and arsenals, similar to the many nations that united to conduct this type of effort after Syria agreed to eliminate its declared chemical weapons system ten years ago.

The Department of Defense, the nation, and the international community therefore need to maintain an intellectual and technical foundation for addressing possible future chemical weapons contingencies. This may involve working with the OPCW or other countries to destroy chemical arsenals in manners similar to the work that just concluded at U.S. sites, assisting if chemical weapons from previous conflicts are found, and providing crisis response capabilities should chemical weapons be used again by a country or terrorist organization.

Besides responding, the nation will also need to maintain its countering-chemical warfare agent knowledge base to assist in treaty compliance and verification. The OPCW relies upon such expertise to ensure that a global network of specifically designated laboratories is ready to identify samples following alleged use of chemical weapons. It also needs personnel to routinely inspect former chemical weapons sites and areas of alleged chemical weapons use.

By taking the time, resources and effort to accurately declare its stockpile and transparently eliminate it, the United States has demonstrated its long-standing commitment to working with other nations in a rules-based international order to collectively address longstanding challenges. The nation has shown a dedication to upholding its commitments and avoiding behaviors that would undermine them—contrary to worrying trends elsewhere.

Indeed, at a time when other nations are increasingly turning to coercive threats of using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), unavowed circumvention of treaty commitments aimed at reducing those threats, and using mis- and disinformation to undermine international efforts to address them, it is imperative that the U.S. continues to show leadership by retaining its scientific and technical countering-WMD expertise, including on chemical weapons. Without such a technical capability to work with other nations on this issue, a minority of the world’s nations will have an advantage over those who seek a reduction of the role of WMDs, and hopefully one day, their elimination.

Fulfilling the Humane Promise of the Chemical Weapons Convention

Celebrating a critical milestone and being clear eyed about the challenges ahead.

Shannon Green, John Moulton, and Christine Parthemore

This article was first published in Lawfare on Friday, August 18, 2023. Republished with permission.

In July, the United States satisfied its obligation under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to eliminate its entire stockpile of chemical weapons.7 In being the last remaining party to the treaty to possess declared chemical weapons yet to complete destruction, this U.S. act has eliminated 100 percent of the world’s declared stockpiles of chemical weapons.8 This achievement is a welcome reinforcement of the importance of international law and continued commitments to fulfill the promises of the CWC to ensure a world free of chemical weapons while protecting the peaceful use of chemistry.

Chemical weapons, along with biological, nuclear, and radiological weapons, are categorized as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). By their very nature, these types of weapons are viewed by the majority of nations as inherently presenting a level of suffering that is contrary to the law of war. The principle of humanity underpins the legal framework that makes up that law. That is, in armed conflict, only that level of force necessary to achieve a legitimate political purpose may be used. Weapons of war are not to be used to inflict unnecessary suffering. Accordingly, as the international community began to recognize, these weapons should be eliminated or, in the case of nuclear weapons, at least closely monitored and controlled until a time when they can be eliminated.

The notion of limiting the destructive effects of armed conflict has a long history, and laws aimed at protecting people and avoiding unnecessary suffering are reflected in the body of law known as International Humanitarian Law (IHL).9 The use of any WMD is contrary to IHL, and under customary international law,10 the use of chemical weapons is prohibited under all circumstances and is binding on all parties to an armed conflict. The CWC bans the development, possession, and use of chemical weapons and is binding on all States Parties. However, the work to limit and ban the use of, and ultimately eliminate, chemical weapons has been a painstaking process spanning hundreds of years.

History of the CWC

The law in this area began to form as early as 1675, when France and Germany signed an agreement to prohibit the use of poisonous bullets in conflict.11 Nearly 200 years later, the 1874 Brussels Convention sought to create an international framework to prohibit unnecessary suffering during armed conflict.12 Though the treaty was never ratified, it represented an important step that led to the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions, further restricting the use of poisonous weapons deemed to cause unnecessary suffering.

Lethal chemical weapons were used in unprecedented ways during World War I, beginning when German forces released chlorine gas in Ypres, Belgium, in 1915.13 The Allied powers banded together in a massive surge to develop masks and other protective equipment for frontline forces. Gas warfare added an extra level of complexity to armed conflict, as troops sought to obtain protective equipment and manage accompanying tactical challenges in their efforts to prevail. However, besides having the temporary effect of clearing a localized portion of a front line, the use of these gruesome weapons never resulted in significant tactical or operational gains. But the horrific impact of these weapons did not go unnoticed: More than 100,000 people met their deaths through nightmarish pain and suffering, and more than a million people survived the war with lasting physical ailments.14

The widespread revulsion against the use of poisonous gas drove a diplomatic surge that influenced the World War I peace treaty with Germany; the 1919 Treaty of Versailles prohibited the use of poisonous gas and also took the unprecedented step of creating the League of Nations to resolve disputes between nations as well as provide security guarantees, with the noble goal of averting future wars.15 The prohibition on the use of poisonous gas was reinforced in the 1925 Geneva Protocol,16 which extended the prohibition to the use of “bacteriological methods of warfare.” In the treaty’s earliest years, 38 nations ratified it, and its influence spread. However, it banned only the use of chemical and biological weapons in war—not their creation or stockpiling. Multiple nations, including signatories like the United States, tested and produced chemical weapons. Also, despite being a signatory, Italy used chemical weapons during its invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), which was also a party to the treaty.17

Throughout World War II, the major powers retained extensive chemical warfare programs, though use on the battlefield was mostly absent. The Geneva Protocol, fear of retaliation, and unfavorable battle conditions all may have contributed to restraint in the use of these banned agents. Nonetheless, chemical weapons derived from Germany’s wartime weapons program were one of the means employed to conduct a systematic mass murder of more than six million Jews, as well as Roma, political dissidents, persons with disabilities, gay people, and others.18

Throughout much of the Cold War, the rules-based international order developed in earnest. Nations placed greater diplomatic attention on preventing widespread proliferation, reversing the nuclear arms race, and outlawing biological weapons. Chemical weapons use in the Iran-Iraq War and Iraq’s horrific chemical attacks on Kurdish populations in the 1980s drove greater urgency to ban chemical weapons as well.19 These efforts paid off. One hundred and thirty nations signed the CWC when it opened for signature in 1993, and since its 1997 entry into force, all but four countries that are part of the United Nations have ratified the treaty.20

Going further than previous attempts to end the use of chemical weapons, the CWC sought the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction by banning the use, development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, and transfer of chemical weapons. To implement this ambitious agenda, in setting up the CWC, nations also established the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Upon ratifying or acceding to the treaty, every state party is required to declare whether and to what extent it possesses chemical weapons.21 If the initial declaration includes such weapons, the declaring state party must allow OPCW inspectors to access all chemical weapons and related facilities for systematic verification of the declaration through on-site inspections. States are further obliged to destroy the weapons in a safe manner consistent with the detailed requirements of the OPCW. Importantly, each state party must cooperate fully on matters pertaining to implementation of the CWC.

In addition to initial and routine inspections, the verification framework provides for challenge inspections, which are designed to shed light on and resolve noncompliance concerns—including allegations of the use of chemical weapons—through short-notice inspections.22 Any state party can request a challenge inspection against another state party, and the OPCW maintains a sophisticated investigations apparatus to conduct these inquiries.

To facilitate verification and inspection oversight, the OPCW divides chemical weapons into three schedules.23 Schedule 1 includes chemical weapons with no cognizable commercial application (primarily those agents known to have been used or stockpiled in the past). Schedule 2 includes toxic chemicals and precursors that possess commercial application in small quantities. And Schedule 3 includes toxic chemicals and precursors that contain commercial applications in large quantities. The level of invasiveness of an inspection varies based on a variety of factors, including where the agent falls within these schedules.

Inspections at military facilities and certain commercial chemical plants help further the aims of the OPCW to achieve complete disarmament, prevent renewed development of chemical weapons, and guard against the wrongful use of dual-use chemicals. Continued verification of commercial plants is essential going forward, especially as advances in technology blur the lines between dangerous chemical and biological agents.

By the turn of the millennium, the stage was set for the United States to safely destroy its declared stockpiles of chemical weapons—more than 30,000 tons’ worth, much of it stored for decades in loaded munitions. As of July 7, 2023, the United States completed that goal.

Outside the United States, seven other countries declared stockpiles of chemical weapons: Albania, India, Russia, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and a country that asked the OPCW that its identity remain anonymous.24 The OPCW announced that Albania had completed destruction of its declared stockpile in July 2007.25 That announcement was followed by the aforementioned anonymous country announcing complete destruction of its declared stockpiles in 2008, followed by India in 2009,26 Russia in 2017,27 Libya in January 2018,28 and Iraq in March 2018.29 Syria joined the CWC in 2013, and by 2014 all of Syria’s declared chemical weapons had been eliminated,30 much thanks to the OPCW-United Nations mission.31 Based on a separate process under the treaty, other countries destroyed chemical weapons remnants from the world wars in East Asia and Europe. This included some known stockpiles of old, degrading materials, and some that were buried during the wars and occasionally turned up in places like farm fields, near waterways, and on Pacific islands.

Ongoing Challenges With Compliance

Although 100 percent of the world’s declared stockpiles of chemical weapons have been verifiably destroyed, challenges remain. According to the State Department’s 2023 annual report on compliance with the CWC, of the 192 states parties, the U.S. certified four states as being in noncompliance: Burma, Iran, Russia, and Syria.32 The U.S. assesses that Burma had a chemical weapons program (including a storage facility) in the 1980s, yet when Burma made its initial declaration after ratifying the treaty in 2015, it claimed to have no chemical weapons to declare. The U.S. engaged in extensive diplomatic efforts between the OPCW and Burmese officials to resolve these discrepancies, to no avail. These engagements were paused after the February 2021 coup, and the U.S. continues to assess Burma as noncompliant with the treaty. The assessment of Iran’s noncompliance is based on a range of evidence, including the regime’s own advertisements of its capabilities.

While Russia and Syria completed destruction of their declared stockpiles, each remains bound by the treaty to never under any circumstances develop or use chemical weapons. Despite these ongoing obligations, both appear to have used chemical weapons offensively, raising additional questions about the completeness of previous declarations. The OPCW found that Syria used chemical weapons in 2018 against its own citizens in Douma. After extensive joint investigative efforts with the UN, the OPCW in April 2021 suspended certain rights and privileges of Syria under the convention.

Russia’s noncompliance stems from the targeted use of chemical weapons: first, in 2018 against a former Russian intelligence officer in Salisbury, U.K.; and second, against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in August 2020. Both incidents involved the use of a Novichok nerve agent. At the time of the 2018 incident, Novichok was not on the list of banned chemical weapons under the CWC. In June 2020, the OPCW added four Novichok strains to the list of banned chemicals under Schedule 1.33 Two months later, when Russia poisoned Navalny, the nerve agent used was also in the Novochok family, though it was not one of the recently added variants. Given that Russia invented Novochok agents, and no other country is known to have researched or developed them, there is little doubt of Russia’s culpability. True to form, Russia has denied responsibility for these incidents and claims it is in full compliance with the CWC.34

The noncompliance of these four states parties demonstrates some of the ongoing challenges to fulfilling the promises of the CWC. Potential dual-use facilities also present challenges to the verification process of making sure new chemical weapons are not developed. The U.S. has particular reservations about the compliance of China, Iran, and Russia due to each country’s interest in pharmaceutical-based agents (PBAs) and toxins, and the potential that these substances are being developed for dual use. Continued transparency by states parties and verification and monitoring by the OPCW of industrial chemical facilities will be crucial going forward.

Nonproliferation Challenges More Broadly

We are at an inflection point across all of the treaties that have driven progress in reducing WMD risks, curtailing proliferation, and eliminating these classes of weapons. For chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, these treaty systems are fragile.

The CWC has shown relative strength. It is nearly universal, and with the U.S. completing the destruction of its stockpile last month, compliance with the convention has, for the most part, held. Its implementation and oversight body, the OPCW, is well respected and has unique assets such as a skilled, independent technical secretariat and an international network of labs accredited to investigate suspected chemical weapons materials. It has adjusted with the changes in WMD use, such as reaching agreement to classify four Novichok nerve agents as chemical weapons after the previously mentioned Russian use of Novichok in Salisbury, U.K.35 Yet the CWC is still challenged by several factors, including the direct use of chemical weapons over the past decade by Syria and Russia, as detailed earlier, and in a well-publicized assassination by North Korea in 2017,36 as well as the changing nature of chemical production and its convergence with biology.

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) was formed without an implementation body or strong verification regime37—issues still plaguing its progress. The good news is that the world united to keep the BWC going last year;38 its intersessional activities have to be agreed by member states every five years, and through 2022 it appeared possible that states would not agree on how to carry the treaty forward. A vital year of diplomatic work leading to that point was distracted by false Russian allegations of biological weapons possession by Ukraine and the United States—part of its WMD-centered information operations campaign.39 Luckily, efforts to distract from treaty implementation failed, though the BWC still faces a long, tough road for countries to agree on concrete steps for strengthening it.

States parties agreed to extend the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) indefinitely in 1995, during a wave of successful arms control agreements and unilateral measures of restraint that kept up momentum.40 Yet many challenges remain. In 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted with the audacious aim of banning nuclear weapons and working toward fully dismantling them.41 Given the absence from the treaty of all states with nuclear weapons, most NATO countries, and many allies of these countries, the treaty’s effectiveness remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the bilateral arms control agreements that drove U.S.-Russian (and, prior, Soviet) progress are nearly all dead. Countries not party to the NPT, such as North Korea,42 Pakistan, and India, are publicly expanding their nuclear stockpiles. Some of the treaty’s recognized nuclear weapons states are expanding their nuclear capabilities or stockpile sizes as well, risking a broader arms race. In 2022, Russia was the sole country that prevented the NPT Review Conference from agreeing to a consensus outcome document.43 In June 2023, when President Vladimir Putin announced he had moved tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus,44 Russia became the first country since the signing of the NPT to station nuclear weapons in another country.

In addition to strains across the nonproliferation and disarmament treaties, international norms and the rules-based order are being further challenged. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has tested the international order in ways unseen since World War II. The invasion itself violated the UN Charter, which prohibits member states from using force “against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” and the Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia, the U.S., and the U.K. agreed “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine” in exchange for Ukraine signing the NPT and eliminating nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union on its territory.45 The OPCW is monitoring chemical industrial facilities in Ukraine as well as Russia’s provocations or threats of chemical weapons use in the country.

All of these issues are coinciding, which means the international legal landscape that has largely served the world well for decades is at a critical stage. The United States’s destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile therefore carries outsized importance compared to what might have been the case in years past. In such a fragile moment, the U.S. must continue to vocalize the principles that led to the CWC and related treaties, and showcase how it is working with others to pursue compliance—which will be critical for upholding the international legal order.


1 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Eliminating Chemical Weapons: Committed to Complete and Verifiable Destruction,” accessed November 6, 2023.

2 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—UN Joint Mission, “Background,” accessed November 6, 2023.

3 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Nobel Peace Prize,” accessed November 6, 2023.

4 Dave Phillips and John Ismay, “U.S. Is Destroying the Last of Its Once-Vast Chemical Weapons Arsenal,” The New York Times, July 6, 2023.

5 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Chemical Weapons Convention.”

6Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction,” opened for signature January 13, 1993, entered into force April 29, 1997, United Nations Treaty Collection.

7 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “OPCW Confirms: All Declared Chemical Weapons Stockpiles Verified as Irreversibly Destroyed,” July 7, 2023.

8 Ibid.

9 International Committee of the Red Cross, “War & Law,” accessed November 6, 2023.

10 International Committee of the Red Cross, “Customary International Humanitarian Law Database: List of Rules,” Volume II, Chapter 20, Section A, Rule 70, accessed November 6, 2023.

11 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Looking Back Helps Us Look Forward,” accessed November 6, 2023.

12Project of an International Declaration concerning the Laws and Customs of War,” Brussels Conference of 1874, adopted August 27, 1874, International Humanitarian Law Databases.

13 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Looking Back Helps Us Look Forward,” accessed November 6, 2023.

14 United Nations, “Day of Remembrance for All Victims of Chemical Warfare,” accessed November 6, 2023.

15 U.S. Office of the Historian, “The Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles,” accessed November 6, 2023.

16Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases,

and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare,” Geneva, adopted June 17, 1925, International Humanitarian Law Databases.

17 Bernard Bridel, “Ethiopia 1935-36: Mustard Gas and Attacks on the Red Cross,” International Committee of the Red Cross, originally published in Le Temps, August 13, 2003.

18 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “How Many People Did the Nazis Murder?” accessed November 6, 2023; “Political Prisoners,” accessed November 6, 2023; “Gay Men Under the Nazi Regime,” accessed November 6, 2023; and “Gassing Operations,”accessed November 6, 2023.

19 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Impact and Implications of Chemical Weapons Use in the Iran-Iraq War, approved for public release August 10, 2010; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Iraq: A Population Silenced,” U.S. State Department, December 2002.

20 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Looking Back Helps Us Look Forward,” accessed November 6, 2023.

21 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Article III: Declarations,” accessed November 6, 2023.

22 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Part X: Challenge Inspections Pursuant to Article IX,” accessed November 6, 2023.

23 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Annex on Chemicals,” accessed November 6, 2023.

24 Arms Control Association, “Chemical Weapons: Frequently Asked Questions,” last reviewed January 2022.

25 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Albania the First Country to Destroy All Its Chemical Weapons,” July 12, 2007.

26 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Update on Chemical Demilitarisation,” April 21, 2009.

27 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “OPCW Marks Completion of Destruction of Russian Chemical Weapons Stockpile,” October 11, 2017.

28 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Libya and the OPCW,” accessed November 6, 2023.

29 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “OPCW Director-General Congratulates Iraq on Complete Destruction of Chemical Weapons Remnants,” March 13, 2018.

30 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Syria and the OPCW,” accessed November 6, 2023.

32 Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, 2023 Condition (10)(C) Annual Report on Compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), U.S. State Department, April 18, 2023.

33 Julia Masterson, “Novichok Used in Russia, OPCW Finds,” Arms Control Association, November 2020.

34 Ibid.

36 Matthew Pennington, “State Department Determines North Korea Used Chemical Weapons,” PBS News Hour, March 2, 2018.

38 Una Jakob, “The 9th Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention,” PRIF Blog, February 7, 2023.

40 United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT),” accessed November 6, 2023.

41 Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW),” accessed November 6, 2023.

42 Kim Tong-Hyung, “North Korean Leader Vows ‘Offensive’ Nuclear Expansion,” Associated Press, April 10, 2023.