Obliterating Chemical Weapons Eliminates both a Silent Killer and a Threat to the Concept of Exclusive State Sovereignty

Driven by horrific pictures and statistics and the visceral fear of invisible death, the world's attention focuses on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Russian and American deal, now sanctioned by the UN Security Council, requires Syria to join the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Many see this arrangement as a tool to shape the lethality and outcome of the Syrian Civil War. This perspective is overly narrow and misses a critical opportunity to finish the job when it comes to eradicating chemical weapons. Obliterating 100% of the world's chemical weapons is not an idealistic day-dream. Universal membership to and comprehensive compliance with the CWC represents a practical and achievable outcome that would eliminate both an appalling killer and a major justification for those who seek to transform the concept of international sovereignty.

Chemical weapons lend themselves to a classic international relations dilemma. On one hand, there has been a taboo on their use since the mustard and chlorine gas horrors of the First World War. This standard, which the Vice-President Joe Biden called an "essential international norm," explicitly condemns the use of chemical arms and is codified by the 1925 Geneva Protocol (which Syria signed). On the other hand, there is the fundamental norm of state sovereignty, as established in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalia (which ended the devastating 30 Years War). This international norm states have a complete monopoly control over their territory and represents the most elemental building-block of our global political structure.

In Syria, these two norms collide. To finesse this type of dilemma the United Nations unanimously passed in 2005 the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Initiative. This initiative states that "the international community has a role that cannot be blocked by the invocation of sovereignty" and that "[s]overeignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference." R2P clearly alters the established notion of sovereignty.

National sovereignty represents the basis of the global system. Many reject this R2P-driven, fluid notion of sovereignty, promoting instead a more strict interpretation. Rejection however fails to address the problem - what do we do when two respected international norms conflict? The trick for those who are R2P opponents and chemical weapons taboo proponents is to figure out how to support the anti-WMD norm while maintaining customary norms of sovereignty.

International Realists who oppose R2P are generally not supporters of arms control, viewing it as pie-in-the-sky idealism. When it comes to chemical weapons, however, they should definitely reconsider. In contrast to the spineless Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that enforces the CWC is a strong and independent organization. Unlike global agencies that seek to place themselves above states, the OPCW works with states for effective chemical demilitarization. Member-states agree not to use, stockpile, manufacture, or distribute chemical weapons and to open themselves to inspections.

The result? The OPCW directs history's most successful WMD demilitarization program. The OPCW has verified the destruction of 80% of the world's known stockpiles of chemical weapons. States have shown an unusual willingness to give up their chemical weapons, while the OPCW has demonstrated an unusual effectiveness in verifying their destruction. While it makes mistakes (weapons were found in Libya after it was believe they all were destroyed), member-states, including Iran and India (both involved in disputes with nuclear powers), have allowed the verified destruction of their chemical weapons.

CWC membership represents a necessary first step for verified chemical demilitarization. 189 states have signed and ratified the CWC; 5 states have not signed: Egypt, North Korea, Angola, South Sudan, and as of now Syria, and 2 countries, Israel and Myanmar, signed but have not yet ratified. The US and Russia should continue their dialogue on chemical weapons in Syria by agreeing to use their considerable influence to push for universal CWC membership and comprehensive chemical weapons disarmament. Eradicating chemical weapons is good policy on two fronts - it eliminates both a horrible weapon of mass destruction and a major issue that can exert pressure on the exclusive notion of sovereignty. Thus, while normally suspicious of arms control and international institutions, supporters of fundamental state sovereignty should strongly support the OPCW.

Of course, as the machete-driven massacre in Rwanda showed, WMDs are not necessary for genocide and for creating conflicting-norm dilemmas. Chemical weapons do, however, facilitate mass killing and make it virtually impossible to differentiate between military and civilian targets, all of which reinforces the rational for the taboo. By creating tensions between anti-WMD and sovereignty norms, chemical weapons are especially pernicious at opening the door to R2P arguments that weaken the fundamental notion of sovereignty. Opponents of both R2P and WMD arms control fail to recognize that unlike the NPT, the OPCW has verified the destruction of the majority of the globe's chemical weapons stockpile. Those who support strict interpretations of state-sovereignty should embrace the OPCW and encourage membership for the remaining states and comprehensive chemical demilitarization.