What is a chemical weapon? Which chemicals are most commonly used?
Chemical weapons are specialised munitions that deliver chemicals that inflict death or injury on humans through chemical actions. Because they are relatively cheap and easy to produce, chemical weapons are referred to as the “poor man’s bomb”. Even though modern munitions, through precision of application and specialised use, can cause catastrophic damage, chemical weapons trigger unmatched horror and leave deep psychological scars.
Among the most commonly used chemical weapons are mustard gas, phosgene, chlorine, and the nerve agents Sarin and VX.
Sarin: Doctors and first-responders at Tuesday’s attack site said symptoms shown by victims suggested use of Sarin. This odourless, colourless agent is extremely potent — even trace amounts can kill humans — but its threat after being released in the atmosphere is short-lived. The UN had confirmed the use of Sarin in the deaths of hundreds in a rebel-held Damascus suburb in 2013.
Mustard gas: Possibly the world’s most commonly used chemical weapon, it was widely used in World War I, and gets its name from its distinctive odour of rotten mustard. It is slow acting, and only about 5% to 10% of people exposed to it usually die.
VX: This is the nerve agent that was reportedly used in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this February. In its original form, it is odourless, and appears as a brownish oily substance. It is very persistent — once in the atmosphere, it is slow to evaporate, and thus tends to cause prolonged exposure.
What are the international conventions against the use of chemical weapons?
The horrors of chemical weapons during World War I prompted countries to sign the Geneva Protocol in 1925 to stop the use of “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices” and “bacteriological methods of warfare”. The core elements of the Geneva Convention, which went on to have 35 signatories and 140 parties, are now generally considered part of customary international law. The Convention was, however, silent on the production, storage and transfer of these chemicals.
Later treaties, most importantly the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1993, plugged these holes. The CWC outlawed the production as well as stockpiling of chemical weapons. 192 countries have so far agreed to be bound by the CWC — 4 UN states are not party: Israel, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan. The CWC’s main objective is to get signatories to destroy their stockpiles of chemical weapons, and as of December 2016, an estimated 93% of the world’s declared stockpiles had been destroyed. The CWC is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its efforts to curb use of chemical weapons internationally.
India was one of the original signatories of the CWC in 1993, stating that it did not possess chemical weapons or the technology to manufacture it. However, in June 1997, it declared a stockpile of 1,044 tonnes of sulphur mustard, and promised to start the process of destroying it as per CWC guidelines. In March 2009, India declared that it had completely destroyed its stockpile of chemical weapons, becoming the third country in the world (after South Korea and Albania) to do so. OPCW and UN inspectors confirmed this in May 2009.
How have chemical weapons been used in the Syrian war?
Early on August 21, 2013, rockets containing Sarin hit the Ghouta suburb of Damascus, causing around 300 deaths. Western powers, led by the US, accused Syrian government forces of the attack. Faced with the threat of international intervention, President Bashar al-Assad admitted to having chemical weapons. The stockpiles were destroyed by August 2014, paving the way for Syria’s entry into the CWC. American estimates from the time put the size of the stockpile at 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, Sarin and VX. Tuesday’s incident in Idlib, however, suggests there were more chemical agents in the country than had been officially declared and destroyed.
‘The worst chemical attack IN HISTORY’
ON MARCH 16, 1988, in the final months of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s army had lost the city of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran. Some 48 hours after the loss, Saddam Hussein’s cousin and Iraq’s defence minister Ali Hassan al-Majid (above) ordered warplanes to strike Halabja’s primarily Kurdish population with mustard gas and Sarin.
THE ATTACK is thought to have killed up to 5,000 civilians, even though there is disagreement over how many of those deaths were caused specifically by chemical weapons.
ALI HASSAN AL-MAJID was given the nickname “Chemical Ali” by Iraqis after the incident. After Saddam’s fall in 2003, he was convicted and executed in 2010.
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