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India Finishes Destruction of its CW Arsenal

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 21, 2009

    Usage of Chemical Weapons (CW) has a long history. Historical evidence suggest that acts like poisoning the water supply of the enemy have been carried out since 590 B.C. CW were used in both the World Wars and also in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s. Recent reports indicate that the Taliban is experimenting with these weapons and have used them in a few attacks during May 2009 in an area north of Kabul, Afghanistan. The specific details about the type of weapon etc are not known but it has been reported that they were used while attacking several girls’ schools.

    CWs are essentially considered a relic of the cold war era. Currently, it is perceived that only a non-state actor or a so called ‘rogue’ state could use such types of weapons. In today’s world this weapon is not judged sufficiently potent for a conflict at least amongst two state actors. This is mainly because almost every state in the world has agreed to a United Nations (UN) backed agenda for a non-CW arsenal. Also, a few states which were already in possession of such weapons are in the process of destroying their existing stockpiles. Recently, India, one of the declared possessors of these weapons has announced that it has successfully destroyed its entire CW stockpile.

    This destruction of CWs under the watchful eyes of international inspectors by strictly following a declared roadmap could be said to be a feather in the cap for India’s overall disarmament and arms control efforts. Normally, it has been argued by many that one of the reasons for the United States and the member states of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to offer India a nuclear energy deal in spite of India not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty (NPT) is India’s generally good record on disarmament. Interestingly CW is one area where India had a deplorable past. But, now by successfully destroying its CW arsenal India has proved its commitment to the global disarmament agenda.

    India informed the United Nations that it has destroyed its CW in compliance with the globally accepted Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) Treaty. This process of destruction took more than twelve years. During 1997 India had taken the world by surprise when it had officially accepted the presence of CW on its soil. The news was more shocking because India as an original signatory to the CWC (signed on 14 January 1993) was also amongst the first 65 countries to ratify this Treaty in September 1996. India had entered this treaty initially as a non-Chemical Weapon state. Subsequently, India’s record in the field of CW disarmament has been brilliant barring the initial reluctance to accept the presence of CW on its soil.

    The Director General of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW-a UN body which addresses various issues related to CWC) has complimented India for its compliance to the CWC. According to him India has completely destroyed its declared CW stockpile and on March 26, 2009 notified this to the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat. With this destruction India has become the third country do so after South Korea and Albania. India had declared a stockpile of 1,044 tonnes of sulphur mustard. India’s CW arsenal could be said to be of rudimentary nature. At the time of declaration of these weapons less than two percent of the chemical material was actually filled into artillery shells. Most of the material available was stored in bulk containers and was not actually available in a ‘weaponised’ form for immediate usage.

    The process of destruction was very extensive in nature. The entire destruction took place as per the guidelines of the OPCW. The convention’s initial requirement was met by India in 1999 with the destruction of more than 1 per cent of its declared stockpiles. During the initial period India was ahead of schedule in regard to OPCW requirements and by November 2003 (six months ahead of schedule) had already destroyed 45 per cent of its stockpile. By 2005, India was the only country to meet the CWC deadline for destruction. India was successful in destroying 53 per cent of its stockpile, including the filled munitions by March 2006. Later this process slightly delayed, because of some technical reasons and India requested more time to complete the destruction. On December 8, 2006 in a meeting held at The Hague, India was given more time to finish the destruction process (till 28 April 2009). According to rules India could have asked for a five year extension but was sure about its destruction programme. Now, India has successfully achieved what it had promised to the OPCW.

    Three states still in possession of CW are United States, Russia and Libya. The largest amount of CW stock are with Russia (40,000 tonnes) and the United States (27,000 tonnes). Till date around 25 to 30 per cent of the globally declared weapons have been destroyed. Russia is particularly slow with its process of destruction and may take another 15 years to destroy its entire stockpile.

    For the last few years CW had gone out of the radar of global disarmament debate. There could be two reasons for this. First, more than a decade had passed since the CWC came into being and it could be safely said that this is a very successful treaty and has significantly helped the disarmament agenda. Hence, with proper structures in place very little is left for discussion. Second, in general experts do not envisage the usage of such weapons by non-state actors in the near future. This is mainly because of the inherent bulkiness of the equipment to disperse the poisonous gas. It is felt that it could be very difficult to hide the intention of usage of such weapons and delivering such weapons on the target could become a logistic nightmare for terror groups. Non-state actors like the LTTE were thought to be in possession of such weapons and there were few unconfirmed reports about their use. With the elimination of the LTTE this threat no longer exists. But, this does not mean that the threat of non-state actors using CW has ended totally. Organizations like Al Qaeda are known to have an interest in weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The progress made by chemical industry also indirectly offers new ideas and solutions to the non-state actors. There are also fears that states like North Korea, Iran and Syria could be in covert possession of these weapons.

    CWC bans the usage of toxic chemicals for the purposes of war fighting. However, with rapid developments in chemical industry it is possible that the progress made in this field could be misused. There is a possibility that so called non-lethal chemical agents could be used by states to fight against terrorism. Usage of Fentanyl gas by Russia authorities to flush out Chechen terrorists during Moscow Theater seige (Oct 2002) is a case in point.

    Verification protocol is said to be the strength of the CWC. However, till date no state has used tools like ‘challenge inspections’. Hence, securing industry from any intentional or unintentional chemical leakage becomes difficult and commercial interests tend to dominate.

    The changing nature of terrorism, rampant growth of the chemical industry and desperation found in the behaviour of few so called ‘rogue nations” demand a fresh look and wider attention by the global community towards issues related with the likely use of CW. The successful and complete destruction of its CW arsenal by India provides an opportunity to at least start a fresh debate on this subject.