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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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.