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.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.