Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)

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A multilateral arms control treaty known as the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) came into force on 29th April 1997. It was for the implementation of this convention that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was established.

The enforcement of the convention was a historical event. This was because it marked the end of a long period of extensive negotiations on disarmament and the beginning of an “international chemical weapons disarmament regime led by the OPCW”. The CWC prohibits the use of chemical weapons and aims for their destruction.

To further this aim, the organization promotes and verifies the commitment of the Member States to the convention. In 2007, OPCW certified a total of 25,000 metric tons of chemical weapons as destroyed. About 3,000 inspections were said to be carried out. Such positive results led to the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 to the OPCW for “its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons”.

Despite the efforts of the OPCW, extensive use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War was confirmed by the United Nations. In its 2016 reports, the military forces under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were found responsible for using chlorine bombs on civilians. It was found that the Syrian regime was behind the bombings in Talmenes in April 2014 and Sarmin in May 2015. Besides these, Bashar al-Assad, as well as ISIS, attacked using chemical bombs several times during a period that continued till 2017. In continuation of these findings, the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) of OPCW on 8th April 2020 confirmed the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The 82-page report also found the Syrian Government responsible for chemical attacks in March 2017. The bombing in Southern Ltamenah affected at least 76 people. The Syrian Arab Air Force helicopter is said to have dropped a cylinder of chlorine over a hospital in Ltamenah. This affected about 30 people.

The reports of IIT eliminated any scope of delegation of power. It alleged direct involvement of the top authorities in these attacks. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo gave a harsh response claiming that the atrocities done by Bashar al-Assad rise to the level of war crimes. The acts committed in Syria cannot be justified as any military necessity and seem to be unlawful and against humanity.

Information about OPCW

OPCW is an intergovernmental organization with its headquarters at The Hague, Netherlands. It came into force on 29th April 1977 and was set up as an organization for the elimination of the use of chemical weapons across the globe.

The mission of the OPCW has always been to implement the provisions of CWC and fulfill the dream of a world which is free from chemical weapons. As provided for in the convention, the OPCW comprises of three main bodies:

  1. Conference of the States Parties

It comprises representatives of all States that are party to the convention. It is the principal and plenary organ of the OPCW. It oversees the implementation of the CWC. It is also responsible for promoting the goals of the convention and reviews its compliance amongst the members. It manages the activities of the Executive Council and Technical Secretariat.

  • Executive Council

It is the governing body of the OPCW. It comprises of 41 Member States of OPCW. They are elected by the Conference of State Parties for 2 years. Its main function is to supervise the budget of OPCW. It ensures the effective implementation of the provisions of the convention. It oversees the functioning of the Technical Secretariat. The Executive Council has the power to conclude agreements and contracts on behalf of OPCW in matters relating to the implementation of the provisions of the convention.

  • Technical Secretariat

This is the third organ of OPCW. Its main purpose is to investigate and ensure that all the activities related to inspection and verification are done in the provided manner. Technical Secretariat assists the Conference of the States Parties and Executive Council. It provides administrative and technical support to the Executive Council. Technical assistance and technical evaluation are the main measures to be upheld by this organ.

The main objectives of the OPCW are as follows:

  • To destroy existing chemical weapons by investigation and verification at the international level,
  • To provide help to protect the Member States against the use of chemical weapons,
  • To keep a responsible check and monitor the re-emergence of the chemical weapons, and
  • To promote cooperation among the Member States.

All the 193 parties to the CWC automatically become members of the OPCW. Israel has signed the convention but has not ratified it. Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan are countries that have neither signed nor ratified the CWC. Palestine was the most recent State to become a member of OPCW.

Its duties and powers

In the contemporary world, no authority can be granted without the imposition of certain duties and powers. OPCW has certain powers that require it to fulfill its duties. The organization has four major duties:

  • To promote cooperation amongst the international community for peaceful purposes in the field of chemical activities,
  • To review scientific and technological developments that can potentially affect the convention,
  • To take necessary measures to ensure compliance with the convention, and
  • To bring improvements in the annual report of OPCW.

All in all, the organization has to regulate the use of chemical weapons in the world and to ensure that no atrocity is committed to any individual, community, organization, or any State by making the use of chemical weapons.

The different organs of the OPCW have their set of powers. Overall, it has three major powers:

  • To inspect any instance to ensure whether there was a use of any chemical weapon,
  • To declare whether any chemical weapon was used in the attack or not,
  • To assign blame for attacks.

The last power has been the latest addition and is supported by many nations in light of the repeated chemical attacks in Syria.

Why was it formed?

The use of chemical weapons has been in practice since time immemorial. However, the first-ever recorded international agreement to restrict the use of chemical weapons was in 1675. It was between France and Germany about the use of poison bullets. It was then in 1784 that the Brussels Convention on the Law and Customs of War was signed. It prohibited the use of poisoned weapons in general, along with “the use of arms, projectiles or material to cause unnecessary suffering”. The world saw few more of such international agreements in the nineteenth and twentieth century. A significant example would be of the two Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 respectively and the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The latter was being negotiated in the aftermath of the horrors of the use of chemical weapons in World War I.

World War I saw an unprecedented use of chemical weapons. Records showed 124,200 tons of chlorine, mustard, and other chemical agents were released. As a result of this, more than a million people were left blind or disfigured. About 90,000 soldiers died due to the excessive use of chemicals.

The Geneva Protocol only prohibited the use of such weapons and not their manufacturing. Due to this loophole, many nations spent a considerable fraction of their resources in developing chemical weapons. Despite the protocol, various nations used such chemical weapons in the 1930s and 1940s.

World War II started in 1939 and saw less use of chemical weapons. The destruction was brought upon by the use of nuclear weapons. After World War II ended, a Cold War erupted between the USA and USSR. Both the countries maintained huge storage of tens of thousands of tons of chemical weapons.

Having seen the use of chemical and nuclear weapons, the world was in desperate need of a strict disarmament agreement. However, even then the world could not give serious consideration to the use of chemical weapons.

A need, however, for strict international law to control the menace caused by chemical weapons was felt. The talks on prohibiting the use of biological and chemical weapons started in 1968 at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. But it could not reach the planned conclusion. These negotiations continued until 1997 and finally, the Chemicals Weapon Convention came into being. For its implementation, the convention provided for the establishment of the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Progress made by it

Over the years, OPCW has seen tremendous progress in preventing and combating the use of chemical weapons across the world. Since 1997, the organization has come a long way. A landmark goal was achieved by it in 2007. By its tenth anniversary, the OPCW had destroyed about 25,000 metric tons of chemical weapons and carried out 3,000 inspections. With such significant achievements, OPCW became the winner of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

By its 20th anniversary, OPCW eliminated some 96.3% of 72,000 metric tons of chemical warfare. Russia had already completed its demilitarization process. With the elimination of 90% reserves, the US was said to be on its way to reach the goal as well.

OPCW has created a Centre for Chemistry and Technology. This Centre established its roots in 1996 and has evolved since then. It is a flagship of the OPCW and serves as a platform to discuss, analyze, train, and research various topics of relevance. It also furthers cooperation and supervises activities to strengthen the CWC.

The OPCW’s destruction report that marks its major achievements is as follows:

  • Stockpile destruction

World’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles destroyed: 97.51%. Total declared stockpiles of chemical agents: 72,304 metric tons Total destroyed stockpiles of chemical agents: 70,545 metric tons.

  • Chemical Weapons Production Facilities (CWPF)

Declared: 97

Destroyed: 74

Converted for a peaceful purpose: 23

  • Chemical Weapons Destruction Facilities (CWDF)

Inspections since EIF: 1,923

States with inspectable facilities/sites: 1

Inspectable facilities/sites: 2

  • Chemical Weapons Storage Facilities (CWSF)

Inspections since EIF: 513

States with inspectable facilities/sites: 1

Inspectable facilities/sites: 2

  • Old Chemical Weapons (OCW)

Inspections since EIF: 156

States with inspectable facilities/sites: 6

Inspectable facilities/sites: 76

  • Abandoned Chemical Weapons (ACW)

Inspections since EIF: 148

States with inspectable facilities/sites: 1

Inspectable facilities/sites: 24

Critical analysis

Today, the world is at a stage where conflicts between different countries are prevalent. War-like situations and enmity between various countries are on a rise. Every country wants to overpower the other and show its dominance. This enmity has been prevalent since ancient times. It has taken ages to recover from the after-effects of the two massively destructive World Wars.

OPCW is an organization that was established at a very crucial time. After the end of the US-USSR Cold War, it was thought that both the nations would once again engage in a war. Such a war would be destructive owing to the major stockpiles of chemical weapons with both of them. However, in less than a decade after this event, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the OPCW were established and brought into force.

With the enforcement of CWC, many issues related to such barbaric practices have been resolved. But they are still prevalent in certain regions of the world. Countries like Libya and Syria have been using chemical weapons. Recently, the Syrian regime was accused by OPCW of using such weapons on civilians. It has been actively involved with both Libya and Syria ever since their last usage of chemical weapons in 2016 and 2013 respectively. The OPCW has been working in and with both the nations to effectuate a deal for the destruction of chemical weapons.

Its efforts have been fruitful so far as the OPCW has been approached by Libya to assist in destroying the leftover chemical weapons of Category 2. Syria, on the other hand, is proving to be a tough case with repeated violations.

OPCW has been a watchdog ever since its establishment in the year 1977. Apart from its achievements, it has invited some criticism as well. OPCW has been unable to establish world-wide cooperation. It does not cover all the countries. Syria has been a thorn in its side with regular violations. OPCW has only been able to assess the blame. It has faced utter failure when it comes to the elimination of production and usage of chemical weapons in Syria. It has not been able to timely detect the use of such weapons in Syria. It cannot prevent their production or misuse effectively. Moreover, OPCW has failed in providing complete transparency and accountability. Recently it was accused of violation of confidentiality.


OPCW is one of the most important international organizations. It has been delivering significant results when it comes to eradicating the use of chemical weapons. OPCW has been sincere in following its approaches and objectives. It has been working since its establishment to make sure that one day the world can become free of chemical weapons. It has strived to provide a credible and transparent regime for verification as per CWC. It eliminates and prevents their re-emergence in the world.

Protection and assistance against chemical weapons are two of the main principles of the organization. It has been the mission of OPCW to promote international cooperation which in turn facilitates international support and responsibility. Despite its efforts spreading worldwide, it has not been able to completely deal with the production and use of chemical weapons especially in Syria. The Syrian situation has been a bitter defeat in the face of OPCW. It is helpless as an organization. It depends on its Member States to take action against the violators. They have also seemingly failed when it comes to Syria. Thus, it can be said that the OPCW is the need of today’s world and it also needs to be strengthened.

Authors : Rishabh Munjal from University School of Law and Legal Studies, GGSIPU and Arushi Lamba from University Insitute of Legal Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

Editor: Shalu Bhati  from Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.

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