Syria: Who else hasn't signed up to the chemical weapons treaty?

Egypt, North Korea, Angola, South Sudan, Israel and Myanmar haven't ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, and Russia and the US haven't met their obligations under the convention. So what power does the CWC have?

Syria’s foreign minister said on Tuesday night that the country intends to sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and would halt its production of chemical arms, allow weapons inspectors in and disclose details of its chemical weapon stockpile.

The Chemical Weapons Convention was adopted by member states in 1992 and came into force in 1997. Signatories pledge not to use chemical weapons, to halt any trade or production of chemical weapons and to destroy their stockpile within ten years of signing. Syria is not the only state that has refused to sign the convention. Four other states, Angola, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan have not signed up, and Israel and Myanmar signed the convention but never ratified it.

As South Sudan only achieved independence in 2011, perhaps it can be let off the hook – the world’s newest state, it could be argued, has had bigger problems to deal with. It’s hardly surprising that North Korea hasn’t signed, although this doesn’t make it less worrying. Egypt has said its refusal to sign the CWC is linked to Israel’s non-participation in the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. It used chemical weapons in Yemen in the 1960s. Angola has no officially confirmed stockpile of chemical weapons, although there are several reported incidents of chemical weapons having been used in the country. 

Similarly, Israel’s delay in ratifying the CWC has raised questions about its possession of chemical weapons – with this recent Foreign Policy investigation suggesting, on the basis of CIA files, that it has built up a significant stockpile. Questions still loom about Myanmar’s chemical weapon stockpile too, and its alleged use of chemical weapons during the country’s civil war.

Even more revealing is the list of those who have signed up but who will not meet the Convention’s deadlines for destroying their chemical weapons stockpile. This includes the United States and Russia, a recent enthusiast for the treaty when it comes to Syria.

So how much power will the CWC actually have? Both Russia and the US must know that unless it is backed by force, the answer is none at all. Equally they will be aware that sometimes the easiest way to deal with awkward international treaties is to sign them to much fanfare and then quietly ignore them.

UN arms experts inspect the site where rockets had fallen in Damascus' eastern Ghouta suburb on August 28, 2013, during an investigation into a suspected chemical weapons strike. Photo: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.