Fact Sheet: Chemical Weapons and Their Destruction

Updated by James Lewis on February 4th, 2014

Chemical weapons are a weapon of mass destruction because of their ability to indiscriminately kill thousands. This has been the position of the international community for more than 100 years since the Geneva Protocol of 1925. The preamble of the Chemical Weapon Convention reaffirmed this by stating:

“Determined for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons, through the implementation of the provisions of this Convention, thereby complementing the obligations assumed under the Geneva Protocol of 1925”

The most common form of chemical weapons used in international conflicts are nerve agents, such as sarin and VX, and blistering agents, such as mustard gas. Nerve agents affect the nervous system and produce death through depressing or preventing respiration. Blistering agents cause intense and painful blisters and can lead to death by blistering the respiratory system. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons recognizes nine types of chemical agents including psychotomimetic and riot control agents.

The first documented use of modern chemical weapons was in Ypres, Belgium during World War I. It is estimated that chemical weapons led to the death of 1.3 million during World War I and more than a million deaths since World War I.

The magnitude of death and destruction of World War I lead the international community to establish the Geneva Protocol of 1925 which prohibits the use in war of “poisonous, asphyxiating or other gases.”

Since 1925, subsequent legal interpretations have concluded that “a general consensus in the international community on the principle that the use of chemical weapons is also prohibited in internal armed conflict.”

Since the passage of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, chemical weapons have been used in the lead-up to World War II by Italy against Ethiopia (1935) and Japan against China (late 1930s). Chemical weapons were not used in combat during World War II. Iraq used chemical weapons in the 1980s against Iran and its domestic Kurdish population. In 1995, Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult, used sarin gas in a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system killing 12 people and sickening 5,500.

In the early 1990s, the Conference on Disarmament negotiated the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Convention was created in 1993 and President George H.W. Bush’s administration signed the treaty that year. It entered into force in 1997. To date, 191 States have signed the treaty and 189 States have ratified it. Israel and Burma (Myanmar) have signed but not ratified the Convention. Five States have not signed the Convention: Syria, Egypt, North Korea, Angola and South Sudan.

The Convention prohibits members from developing, producing, storing, acquiring or transferring of toxic chemicals, munitions and devices to separate toxic chemicals and any equipment supporting the employment of munitions and devices. The Convention specifically states that a toxic chemical is “any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals.” The Convention also prohibits precursor chemicals, which are used to produce toxic chemicals.

Members of the Convention have declared 71,196 tons of chemical agents and more than 81 percent of the global stockpile has been destroyed. The United States and Russia possess the largest remaining chemical stockpiles among Convention members and both states have missed their destruction deadlines. Both countries asked to extend their original 10 year deadline for total destruction because of complications in the process and environmental concerns. The U.S. has destroyed nearly 90 percent of its declared 31,000 ton stockpile and Russia has destroyed 57 percent of its declared 41,000 metric ton stockpile.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is the Convention’s verification body. It has conducted more than 2,600 inspections on chemical weapons sites and 1,800 inspections of industrial sites in 86 countries to ensure compliance with the Convention.

Once a State joins the Chemical Weapons Convention, it has ten years to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons sets out the following timeline for Schedule 1 chemicals:1

  • Day 30 – Declaration of all stockpiles and facilities
  • Year 2 – The first destruction facility is tested
  • Year 3 – No less than one percent of Schedule 1 chemicals are destroyed
  • Year 5 – No less than 20 percent of Schedule 1 chemicals are destroyed
  • Year 7 – No less than 45 percent of Schedule 1 chemicals are destroyed
  • Year 10 – All Schedule 1 chemicals are destroyed

Schedule 22 and Schedule 33 weapons are to be destroyed within five years of joining the Convention in equal annual increments.

The Convention allows States to develop and use their own technologies to destroy chemical weapons. The two most popular technologies are incineration, used by the United States, and low-temperature neutralization, used by Russia and the United States. The application of low-temperature and more environmental friendly neutralization technology and practices as well as organizational turmoil has been cited as a cause of the U.S. failure to meet both the original and revised destruction deadline. The United States, Germany, Japan and others have also developed mobile destruction technologies, similar to mobile chemical waste treatment systems.

During the destruction process, countries must maintain the security of their stockpiles while ensuring destruction methodology has a limited environmental impact.

Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, seven countries4 have declared chemical weapons stockpiles and three countries5 have completely destroyed their chemical weapons. As of July 2013, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had conducted 5,167 inspections in 86 States.

The Organization has inventoried and verified all declared chemical weapons stockpiles and verified that all declared chemical weapons production facilities are inactive in the states that have ratified the convention. Of the 70 declared chemical weapons facilities, 43 have been destroyed, 14 are mothballed and 21 have been converted to peaceful uses.

In December 2003, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi announced that Libya would eliminate its weapons of mass destruction programs. From 2003 until the civil war of 2011, Libya was dismantling its chemical weapons stockpile. After nine years, Foreign Policy reported that Libya had only destroyed “barely half of its total mustard gas stockpile and just 40 percent of its stores of chemical weapons precursor elements.”

Following the ouster of Gadhafi and the installation of a new government, Libya reported an undeclared stockpile of mustard gas and munitions. On February 4th, 2014, the OPCW announced that Libya had completed the destruction of its “remaining mustard gas filled in artillery projectiles and aerial bombs.”

The U.S. signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 under the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The U.S. Senate approved the treaty in April of 1997 by a vote of 74-26, including 28 Republicans Senators, under President Clinton.

To date, the U.S. has destroyed 90 percent of its declared stockpile at an estimated cost of $28 billion dollars. Two facilities remain with chemical weapons at Pueblo, CO and Blue Grass, KY. The Pueblo facility uses biotreatment to destroy the weapons while the Blue Grass facility uses supercritical water oxidation6 to destroy the stockpile of 523 tons of agents and munitions including VX, GB and mustard gas at its location. The estimated cost is $10.6 billion dollars to complete the destruction.

The U.S. has revised its total chemical weapons disarmament deadline from 2010 and missed the new 2012 deadline as well, citing technological implementation and environmental concerns, including leak containment and community health. The U.S. is <a “=”” href=”http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/11/us-syria-chemical-weapons-destruction”>slated to complete stockpile destruction in 2023, after Russia is slated to complete its chemical disarmament.

The Russian Federation signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 and fully joined the treaty in December of 1997. Upon joining the Convention, Russia declared a 41,000 ton arsenal, the world’s largest arsenal. The U.S. State Department has publicly questioned the totality of the Russian declaration.

Since Russia joined the Convention, foreign aid has assisted the country in the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile. In 2002, Russia applied for and was granted an extension to the Convention’s destruction deadline, of 2007. However, like the United States, Russia has missed the revised destruction deadline slated for 2012. At present, Russia is slated for total stockpile destruction in 2018.

In 2012, Syria confirmed that it had a stockpile of chemical weapons for use in case of foreign aggression. It did not publicly reveal the size or composition of its arsenal.

Intelligence estimates are that Syria possesses approximately 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, mostly sarin and VX nerve agent as unmixed components. It also maintains stockpiles of mustard gas and other blistering agents. As of 2011, the Nuclear Threat Initiative believes Syria operated four research and production facilities near Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Latakia and the Israel-based International Institute for Counter-Terrorism estimated that Syria uses 50 different sites to store chemical weapons. A 2012 Department of Defense estimate suggests that securing Syria’s chemical weapons in a non-permissive environment would take more than 75,000 American troops.

On August 21, 2013, Syria used chemical weapons as part of its ongoing civil war. This triggered involved from the U.S., Russia, OPCW and United Nations. A full accounting can be found in the section entitled: “United Nations Security Council and Syria.” Eventually, a framework agreement was announced on September 14th, 2013 to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014.

The U.S.-Russia framework was highly ambitious given India and South Korea had destroyed similarly sized arsenals in 3-4 years following the lengthy creation of destruction facilities.

While no historic precedent exists for the internationalization and destruction of a country’s chemical weapons stockpiles, some parallels can be drawn to the United Nationals Special Commission tasked with disarming Iraq’s chemical weapons following the Gulf War.

In April 1991, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 687 establishing the United National Special Commission to oversee the destruction of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons as well as cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency to dismantle Iraq’s nuclear program. The Special Commission <a “”=”” http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/11/world/meast/syria-chemical-weapons-secure/””=”http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/11/world/meast/syria-chemical-weapons-secure/” href”http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/11/world/meast/syria-chemical-weapons-secure/”=”href”>supervised the destruction of 40,000 chemical munitions, 500,000 liters of chemical weapons and 1.8 million liters of precursor chemicals.

Following the international condemnation of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Special Commission was given total access to Iraq and the ability to inspect any and all facilities without advance warning. This type of access will be nearly impossible to achieve because of the Syrian civil war.

The first, very difficult part of the Special Commission’s task was getting accurate information from Saddam’s government. To obtain this information, it took multiple threats of the use of force and one actual use of force, Operation Desert Fox, for Saddam to cooperate.

Hiding a chemical weapons program or stockpile is more difficult than hiding a nuclear or biological program. Despite the inspections, Saddam still managed to conceal some part of the program, but his overall capacity was significantly degraded, as the United States discovered in the wake of invading Iraq in 2003.

On September 14th, 2013, the U.S. and Russia announced they had reached an agreement in which Syria would accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention and surrender its chemical weapons.

On September 14th, 2013, Syria submitted the necessary instruments of treaty accession to the Secretary-General of the United Nations joined the Convention on October 14, 2013. Under the plan, instead of the one month reporting period, Syria must declare its chemical weapons and associated military hardware and infrastructure within one week. The plan also seeks to destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons by early 2014, outside of Syria, if possible. The program is to be completed under the supervision of Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ inspectors with the assistance of the United Nations.

The U.S.-Russian framework was approved by the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the U.S. and Russia sponsored a UN Security Council resolution that reinforces the decision and ensures Syrian compliance.

Following months of searching, no State was found to be willing to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal. The U.S. announced a plan that would export Syria’s chemical arsenal, via Norwegian and Dutch vessels, to the Italian port of Gioia Turano, where they would be loaded aboard the Cape Ray for destruction.

As of January 31st, 2014 only two shipments have been removed from Syria prompting Ahmet Uzumcu, OPCW’s Executive Director, to tell the OPCW’s Executive Council: “While the two shipments (of chemicals) this month represent a start, the need for the process to pick up pace is obvious.”

For up-to-date information on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons see our Questions on U.S.-Russian Framework to Remove Syria’s Chemical Weapon Fact Sheet or visit our blog.

  • 1-Schedule 1 chemical weapons are the most dangerous weapons and include mustard gas, sarin, ricin and VX.
  • 2-Chemical weapons that are considered less serious than Schedule 1 chemical but includes the incapacitating agent, BZ, and nerve agent, VG.
  • 3-Schedule 3 includes unfilled munitions and other military equipment designed to deliver chemical weapons as well as toxic chemicals considered less serious than Schedule 1 or 2 compounds.
  • 4-Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia, United States and another State party, most likely South Korea
  • 5-Albania, India and another State party.
  • 6-Supercritical water oxidation uses water and varies temperature and pressure combinations to break apart molecular structures.
  • 7-Some has suggested the other countries in the region, such as Jordan, could accept the weapons for holding for a short period of time.