THE HAGUE (AFP) — The nightmare scenario of a mass-scale chemical attack by extremists and the panic which would ensue has created a new role for the body set up to rid the world of chemical weapons.
Diplomats at the 10-day Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) review conference in The Hague this weekend adopted a new target deadline of 2012 for 183 member states to destroy their stockpiles.
But while 12 countries have yet to sign up to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention treaty or the mission's amended goals, including North Korea and Middle East heavyweights Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and Syria they also gave the OPCW an expanded mandate.
The new mission statement highlights the "increased danger of the use of chemical weapons by terrorists or other non-state actors" facing the international community.
Limiting the potential for rogue users -- such as a Japanese sect behind the 1995 sarin gas attacks on commuters on the Tokyo subway, which killed 12 and left thousands with toxic injuries -- is now a major concern.
Diplomats admit that the 2012 target date is unlikely to be met with 100 percent destruction of stocks -- despite their signed agreement, countries with large arsenals such as India, Libya, Russia and the United States are expected to seek and be given extensions.
However, with 37 percent of global chemical agents with military functions already consigned to history alongside a third of all primed chemical munitions, progress towards state disarmament at least is being made.
The problem is the relative ease with which deadly toxic agents, routinely used in large-scale industrial production, can be obtained -- and subsequently transformed into weapons designed to kill, permanently maim or, just as importantly, spread psychological terror.
"The majority of national delegations are convinced that the OPCW can play a part in the fight against terror, for all the threat of toxic substances being used for terrorist goals remains a potential one," the conference head and Algeria's ambassador in The Hague, Benchaa Dani, told AFP.
"We know terrorists are looking into this area," added a member of the French delegation who preferred not to be named. "A year ago, there were chlorine attacks in Iraq and we found Taliban manuals in Afghanistan."
Ralf Trapp, an independent expert on chemical and biological weapons, highlighted chlorine, ammonia and cyanide as agents used in chemical manufacturing the world over which are easy to pick up in small quantities.
"They kill," he stated bluntly, adding that they have "a major psychological impact on populations".
The blowing up of trucks in Iraq carrying chemical elements multiplied during March and April 2007, killing numerous people and requiring treatment for hundreds more.
"Up until now, terrorists have been very opportunistic, using materials readily to hand," Trapp added. "But Al-Qaeda has shown it is capable of planning projects on a vast scale...".
The analyst reckoned that the theft of, or attacks on, existing stockpiles was minimal, given the heavy security surrounding such warehouses -- another main function of the OPCW.
But states also acknowledged the importance of national implementation of chemical weapons treaty obligations.
The history of chemical weapons goes back to ancient Greek times, but the first large-scale attack came in 1915 when clouds of German chlorine gas killed thousands of allied troops near Ypres, in Belgium.
Media portrayal of Vietnam and Iraq's wars with Iran and the Kurds in the 1980s saw international action gradually become concerted, leading to the historic 1997 convention.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »