Janet Douglas HC official photo

Support for the Chemical Weapons Convention: an Op-Ed from the British High Commissioner

Support for the Chemical Weapons Convention: an Op-Ed from the British High Commissioner

Janet Douglas HC official photo

Politicians shake hands and smile. Cameras click. Papers are signed and stamped. The world’s press reports the signing of another international agreement.

International summits, conventions and treaties may seem far removed from the lives of everyday people; photo opportunities rather than milestones.

Janet Douglas is the British High Commissioner to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

But these are how we all 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.

During the First World War, more than 90,000 soldiers suffered painful deaths following the use of chlorine, mustard and other chemical agents. Almost a million more were blinded, disfigured or received debilitating injuries.

Chemical weapons were also 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.

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 all the countries in the Eastern Caribbean, have now ratified the Convention and are States Parties to the Chemical Weapons 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.

The UK and other states have launched a call for all the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention to come together at the end of June. We are calling on states to find ways collectively to strengthen and protect this cornerstone of the international non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

We hope that the countries of the Eastern Caribbean will join us.

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. Rather this is a choice between the rule of law and international rules based system vs anarchy and the sickening prospect that we and our children might see chemical weapons become a norm.

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.

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