Fighting Chemical Weapons


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The term chemical weapons refers to weapons of mass destruction that include toxic chemicals and their components, munitions and devices designed to release such chemicals, and equipment specifically designed for the use of such munitions and devices.

The use of chemicals as weapons of war began at Ypres on 22 April 1915, during the First World War, with the first large-scale attack using chlorine gas. In total, chemical weapons killed 90,000 people between 1914 and 1918.

More recently, Iraq used chemical weapons in its war against Iran in the 1980s, and against its Kurdish population in Halabja.

The sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 also demonstrated that non-state movements and groups were capable of using chemical weapons against civilians.

The repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria, particularly since 2013, has marked a turning point for the chemical non-proliferation regime and has been a focus of debate in dedicated international forums. The issue produced many reactions among the international community, which adopted new measures to counter such attacks and the impunity of those behind them, particularly within the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), where certain rights and privileges of Syria were suspended in April 2021 given its responsibility in chemical attacks in its territory and against its own people.

Chemical weapons were also used in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia in 2017 and in the attempted assassinations of Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom in 2018 and of Alexei Navalny in Russia in 2020.

The fact that chemical weapons are easy to make (compared to other weapons of mass destruction), the many types of potential delivery systems, and memories of their consequences partly explain why the international community sought to prevent them in 1993 with a specific convention of unparalleled force.

Masques à gaz anciens alignés
A priority for France: fighting chemical weapons proliferation and the re-emergence of their use observed in recent years in Syria, the United Kingdom (with the Skripal case), Malaysia (with the murder of Kim Jong-nam) and Russia (against Aleksei Navalny).

Long-term French commitment

France has long been engaged in the fight against chemical weapons and plans to continue over the long term.
It is the depositary of the 1925 Protocol on the Prohibition of the Use in War of Chemical and Bacteriological Weapons. In 1996, France removed the reserves it had appended to the Protocol at the time of ratifying on the possible use of such weapons in reprisal. It also revitalized negotiations of the Conference on Disarmament in 1989, which resulted in the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention in Paris on 15 January 1993.

The CWC: a unique and preferred instrument for complete prohibition

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), signed in Paris in 1993, is the only international convention that provides for the complete eradication of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction, coupled with a binding verification system. It entered into force in 1997 and is used to fight every aspect of the chemical weapons risk.

Even though four States are yet to ratify the Convention, France wishes for it to be implemented universally because too few States Parties have transposed all of the CWC provisions into their domestic legislation.

France ratified the Convention in 1995 and fully complies with its commitments:
• transposition of the CWC in French legislation;
• welcoming of a dozen OPCW inspections on French territory every year;
• implementation in 2016 of the SECOIA (FR) Programme (Site d’Élimination de Chargements d’Objets Identifiés Anciens) to destroy the approximately 20 tonnes of chemical munitions from the First World War that are discovered every year in France.

The verification regime provided for by the CWC

The OPCW, created by the CWC, ensures that the States Parties comply with the commitments made under the Convention. France’s commitment to combating chemical weapons is reflected in excellent cooperation with the OPCW, on both an institutional and operational level. French policy is implemented, in the framework of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), through simultaneous action on disarmament, i.e. the destruction of existing chemical weapons, and on combating their proliferation. Only a strengthening of the verification regime could ensure that chemical weapons do not re-emerge once the chemical weapon disarmament process is fully completed.

France also plays an active role in the Organisation in monitoring industrial matters, protection and assistance measure, and economic and technological development of peaceful uses of chemistry.

France is determined to invest in the future of the OPCW, as its expertise is essential in preventing the re-emergence of the use of chemical weapons, once the destruction of stockpiles declared is completed in 2023. It supports the future Centre for Chemistry and Technology (ChemTech Centre), the construction of which began in The Hague in autumn 2021, and which could become the universal repository for knowledge on this topic and a platform for training and international cooperation, benefitting collective security. A voluntary contribution of €1.4 million euros has been earmarked for the fund for this new Centre.

What are France’s daily actions?

France also actively participates in bolstering export control of civil and military dual-use goods in the European Union and internationally (The Australia Group).

In parallel, France ensures that it has the means to defend itself against the consequences of a chemical attack by studying protective measures against such weapons and their effects, so as to ensure the health and safety of the civilian population and its armed forces.

In January 2018, France launched the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons in Paris, and acts as Chair.

In 2021, France contributed almost €2 million voluntarily in support of the OPCW in various fields, such as its activities linked to Syria, cyber security and capacity building in Africa.

The International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons

The use of these weapons should not be downplayed, nor should their prohibition be questioned and it is important to protect the international peace and security architecture. That is why, in early 2018, France launched the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons. This Partnership, which brings together 40 States and the European Union, fights the impunity of those involved in the proliferation and use of chemical weapons.

The Partnership is a voluntary association of States whose aim is to denounce and facilitate prosecution of those involved in developing or using chemical weapons.

One of the Partnership’s means of action is blacklisting individuals and entities identified as being involved in the use of chemical weapons and toxic substances, or having contributed to the development of chemical programmes and having been subject to sanctions.

Its members come together in meetings and issue declarations, for example:

• In June 2019, ahead of the experts meeting held in November 2019, France organized, together with the United States, the “Storm Justice” exercise to highlight best practices to use in simulations of a terrorist attack involving chemical weapons. The exercise focused on investigation and prosecution means, as well as coordination between States.
• The third experts meeting was organized by France and held in Paris in November 2019. It focused on prosecution and administrative sanctioning relating to the new capacities implemented at the OPCW to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria (decision adopted in June 2018 at the Special Session of the Conference of the States Parties to the OPCW).
• The work done at this session resulted in the publication on the Partnership website of a guideline document (available in French, English and Spanish) which presents and summarizes these legal tools and helps willing States to implement them.
• In April 2020, the Partnership published a statement following the publication, on 8 April 2020, of the first report by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) addressing three chemical weapons attacks in Ltamenah, Syria in March 2017, which showed that the Syrian regime was responsible.
• In May 2021, the Partnership published a second statement following the publication, on 12 April 2021, of the second report by the IIT addressing a chemical weapons attack in Saraqib, Syria in February 2018, which once again showed that the Syrian regime was responsible.

For more information and news from the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, visit the “News” column on its website, available in French and English.

For more information about the fight against impunity of chemical weapons use, read our article: The fight against impunity: a prerequisite for peace in Syria

Chemical and biological disarmament and non-proliferation worldwide

Carte du désarmement et de la non-prolifération chimique et biologique dans le monde au 3 décembre 2019 {PDF}

Updated: March 2022

Find out more:

Official website of the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons
Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
The text of the Chemical Weapons Convention