On Wednesday, 18 October 2023, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) organized a joint event on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly First Committee to discuss the remaining priorities and challenges for sustaining a world free of chemical weapons after the verified destruction of all declared chemical weapons stockpiles in July 2023.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Hong Li, Director, External Relations Division at the OPCW, introduced some of the contemporary security challenges relevant to chemical weapons, and reminded participants of the fact that the OPCW offers a range of assistance programs to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) State Parties.
Mr. Adedeji Ebo, Director and Deputy to the High Representative, UNODA, provided a keynote address, in which he underscored the continued relevance of the CWC as an essential pillar of the disarmament and nonproliferation regime and urged CWC States Parties to redouble their commitment to the CWC and their support for the OPCW Technical Secretariat in this ‘next chapter’ of the Organisation’s work.
The Deputy to the High Representative highlighted the recent use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, the United Kingdom, and Malaysia, as a threat to the CWC regime, adding that nonstockpiled chemical weapons and the threat of chemical terrorism would continue to remain priority issues as well. “The United Nations stands ready to provide whatever support and assistance it can and is committed to further strengthening our important partnership with the OPCW to ensure a world free of chemical weapons,” he concluded his remarks.
These remarks were followed by a panel discussion, chaired by Ms. Yvonne Apea Mensah, Head, Political Affairs and Protocol at the OPCW, on the pressing challenges regarding chemical weapons and their impact on the international security framework. The panel consisted of representatives of the UN Secretariat, civil society, as well as CWC State Parties.
H.E. Henk Cor van der Kwast, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Permanent Representative to the OPCW, opened the panel with his reflections as President of the Fifth Review Conference of the CWC, noting that while this year has been successful” for the OPCW, there are many continuing challenges relevant to the Organisation.
“As long as science and technology develop, there is a risk these will be used for new weapons,” the Ambassador emphasized, specifically mentioning the role Artificial Intelligence (AI) could potentially play in developing new toxic chemicals. As further developments that need to be considered by the OPCW, the Ambassador named additive manufacturing, “dark biotechnology,” and even new delivery systems such as drones. In addition to external challenges, he also emphasized that the OPCW will face internal, rganizational challenges to ensure that it remains fit for purpose. In this regard, “[d]iverse staff representing all regions, genders, and qualifications is essential,” the Ambassador explained.
In the following presentation, Dr. Stefano Costanzi, Professor, American University, explained that State Parties to the CWC “need flexibility to adapt to evolving threats,” reminding the audience that the Convention was drafted in the context of the 20th century.
According to Dr. Costanzi, however, adding amendments to the Convention might not be practical. Instead, he suggested, it would be quicker to broaden the focus of the OPCW beyond the those currently listed in the CWC schedules. In other words, while the CWC has achieved “monumental” progress, “we need to ensure it continues to reflect the current challenges.”
Ms. Beatrix Lahoupe, Head of Implementation Support, OPCW, provided an overview how the OPCW assists State Parties in the CWC implementation – which continues to be a priority for the Organisation. She highlighted how the OPCW assists State Parties in implementing legislation which helps them maintain control over chemicals on their territories, as well as in developing national mergency plans and facilitating financial support.
Additionally, believing that multistakeholder cooperation is key, the OPCW also engages with the chemical industry, as well as academia, and works on publicizing key messaging on evolving priorities of CWC States Parties and other stakeholders, e.g., the climate change – chemical weapons nexus.
Ms. Maria Eugenia Rettori, Head of Unit, Programme on Countering Terrorist Use of Weapons, United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), underlined that the threat of chemical terrorism is an increasing concern among CWC States Parties, and assured the audience that UNOCT is aligned with OPCW’s efforts in this area. She highlighted the synergies between UNOCT’s work on capacity building in Iraq and the reports from UNITAD regarding ISIL’s manufacture, deployment and use of chemicals weapons in Iraq.
Ms. Rettori then presented the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, in its 8th review adopted by UN General Assembly in June 2023, which includes a call for all UN Member States to prevent the acquisition by terrorists of chemical, biological, and nuclear materials.
Ms. Rettori concluded her remarks by presenting on additional UNOCT efforts to counter chemical terrorism through capacity building, risk analysis (notably with INTERPOL), and cooperation with other UN Offices/Departments and international agencies, including through the United Nations Global Counter-terrorism Coordination Compact.
The panel presentations were followed by a number of questions both from the moderator and the participants, inquiring about the way forward after the Fifth Review Conference in the absence of agreed-upon outcome document; engagement of other UN agencies and international partners with relevant areas of expertise, as well as NGOs and academia, in the discussions and other processes within
the CWC; and strategies for national implementation plans in potentially vulnerable States. In the responses, the panel broadly agreed on the importance of cooperation with various stakeholders, including the private sector, as well as raising awareness about the importance of CWC implementation within relevant sectors that may not have been previously engaged in such efforts.
Finally, Mr. Christopher King, Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) branch, UNODA, provided closing remarks for the event. In his remarks, Mr. King thanked the OCPW for the valuable partnership with UNODA and emphasized UNODA’s appreciation for the professionalism, transparency and impartiality demonstrated by the OPCW Technical Secretariat. He reiterated the importance of the
CWC and the continued need for support from CWC States Parties to address the remaining challenges to the Convention as the OPCW enters this ‘new chapter.’