The Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria, its Consequences, and some Lessons for the Future


Ralf Trapp
International disarmament consultant, Geneva

The Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria, its Consequences, and some Lessons for the Future

After the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force in 1997, many observers assumed that chemical warfare had become a matter of the past. But a few countries have not yet joined the convention, some of which may have chemical weapons.
The dangers that emanate from chemical weapons became apparent again when reports emerged about their alleged in Syria. The UN Secretary-General initiated a mission led by the Swedish scientist Åke Sellström and supported by the OPCW and the WHO to investigate the facts. Whilst the mission was in Damascus, a major gas attack was launched against civilian quarters outside of Damascus. What followed had no precedence in the history of chemical weapons disarmament:
The UN investigation unequivocally confirmed the use of a chemical weapon

  • Syria acceded to the CWC, and Russia and the US agreed a framework to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons
  • The OPCW established modalities for this undertaking , subsequently endorsed by the UN Security Council
  • A Joint UN-OPCW Mission was formed to supervise the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, including their destruction at sea.

The importance of this multilateral effort cannot be overstated. It became apparent that there was a need for:

  • Strengthening the authority and capacity of the UN investigation mechanism
  • Multilateral action notwithstanding disagreement on key policy issues.
  • Effective interagency cooperation to implement complex disarmament undertakings
  • Disarmament even in extreme situations (notwithstanding its limitations).

Many issues still remain to be addressed, including accountability (where the Human Rights Council or the International Criminal Court may come into play) and the use of chlorine as an improvised chemical weapon. The presentation will give an overview on these developments and comment on the lessons learnt as well as issues that remain to be addressed.