News & Information
Non-U.S. Government Sources
Features news, articles, think-pieces and documents of relevance to the CWC or the BWC produced by non-government sources. Such sources include foreign government statements, news media, academic institutions, non-profit organizations and other institutions.
Syrian Rebels May Have Used Sarin, UN Investigator Says
Mark Memmott, National Public Radio, 06 May 2013; www.www.npr.org
The news that a top international prosecutor who is also a commissioner on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria says rebels there may have used sarin gas has prompted the commission to issue a statement that reads, in part:
"The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict. As a result, the Commission is not in a position to further comment on the allegations at this time."
Veteran prosecutor Carla del Ponte [a former Chief Prosecutor of two United Nations international criminal law tribunals] said over the weekend that there are "strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof" that it's the rebels, not President Bashar Assad's forces, who have used chemical weapons.
There's evidence that some of the rebels battling against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad may have used the nerve agent sarin, United Nations investigator Carla del Ponte has told the Swiss news media.
According to English translations posted by the [British Broadcasting Company (BBC)], del Ponte said over the weekend that:
- There are "strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof," pointing to the opposition.
- The evidence comes from interviews of "victims, doctors" and others at field hospitals in countries bordering Syria.
- There has been "no indication at all that the government ... [has] used chemical weapons."
- She is "a little bit stupefied" by the evidence.
A veteran international prosecutor and diplomat, del Ponte is a commissioner on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria.
Her comments come as the United States and other nations try to decide what to do about reports that chemical weapons have been used inside Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Russia, where "concerns about Syria's chemical weapons stockpile" will be high on the agenda, as [National Public Radio’s (NPR's)] Michele Kelemen reported on Morning Edition.
President Obama has said the Assad regime would be crossing "a red line" if it used such weapons against its own people. But he also said last week that though there is evidence that such weapons have been deployed, it still isn't known for sure "how they were used, when they were used [or] who used them."
Meanwhile, the world continues to watch nervously to see how the Assad regime will respond to what appear to have been Israeli air attacks on a military research center near Damascus over the weekend. There's more about that from Morning Edition.
Why Chemical Weapons Have Been a Red Line since World War I
Larry Abramson, National Public Radio, 01 May 2013; www.www.npr.org
President Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons could change the U.S. response to the Syrian civil war. But why this focus on chemical weapons when conventional weapons have killed tens of thousands in Syria? The answer can be traced back to the early uses of poison gas nearly a century ago.
In World War I, trench warfare led to stalemates – and to new weapons meant to break through the lines. Poisoned gas was described as "the most feared, the most obscene weapon of all."
Paul Baumer, the protagonist of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, recalls some of the horrors associated with gas in World War I: "We remember the awful sights in the hospital, the gas patients who, suffocating, cough up their burnt lungs in clots. Better to take your chances in the open rather than stay in the hollows and low places where the vapors settle."
Ban Followed WWI
Despite the horrific injuries, gas caused only a small percentage of the war deaths. But as Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association notes, it left a frightening legacy in the form of a million survivors.
"[That] meant painful lung diseases, a lot of people blind for the rest of their lives," he says. "That meant, for example, in America, there were tens of thousands of people who were scarred by exposure to mustard agent in World War I."
Reaction to those deaths and injuries was swift. By 1925, the League of Nations had approved the Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of chemical weapons. In World War II, their use was extremely limited. Adolf Hitler, himself a victim of gas in World War I, never used his stockpiles on the battlefield.
But during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union produced massive quantities of chemical and biological weapons. The end of the Soviet Union paved the way for a historic step: the 1993 treaty that banned the production, stockpiling and use of these weapons.
"We have now verified the destruction of about 80 percent of all the chemical weapons stockpiles that have been declared to us," says Michael Luhan, spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees enforcement of the treaty.
Possible War Crime
But that success has not removed chemical weapons from the list of global threats. A century after their first use, these weapons still have the power to terrify, in part because civilian populations are so vulnerable.
Thielmann, who worked in the State Department for decades, points out that militaries have learned how to shield their troops with protective gear "And what that meant is that the main victims of chemical weapons in modern war are those who were not so equipped, which means mostly civilians," he says.
Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association says the use of chemical weapons in Syria could constitute a war crime – especially if used deliberately against civilians. He says Syrian commanders on the ground should take note.
"Those that do not cooperate in any orders to use these weapons, they will be treated much more leniently, and their actions will be taken into account in the postwar situation," he says. Yet Kimball concedes that international prosecution of such a crime would be difficult.
Key Senator Examines Chemical Security Laws after Texas Explosion
Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire, May 1, 2013; www.nti.org/gsn
A key Senate Democrat is planning a hearing in order to examine potential shortcomings in chemical security rules highlighted by the Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people and leveled nearby homes last month.
“I cannot rest until we get to the bottom of what caused the disaster in West, Texas and the tragic loss of life,” Senator Barbara Boxer (California), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a Tuesday press release. “We will look at how the laws on the books are being enforced and whether there is a need to strengthen them."
A date for the hearing has not been set, but Boxer on Tuesday sent a letter to the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], asking why ammonium nitrate, the substance believed to have exploded on April 17 at the Texas facility, is not on the agency’s list of chemicals that companies must report under its risk management program.
The lawmaker also asked several other questions pertaining to how the agency is implementing its authority under the Clean Air Act, which labor and environmental groups have long argued could be used to craft tougher chemical security rules. The groups, along with some lawmakers, have asserted that the Homeland Security Department’s [DHS] chemical security rules are not strong enough, and that EPA powers could fill the perceived void.
Boxer’s letter does not directly address the DHS program, known as the Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards. Her committee does not have jurisdiction over the Homeland Security Department, which was not regulating the facility even though there had been enough hazardous materials on site to trigger oversight.
In a separate letter on Tuesday, Boxer requested that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board provide details of its investigation into the fertilizer plant explosion along with information about past recommendations it has made in order to reduce risks at such facilities. In a report issued last month on a massive 2012 fire at a Chevron oil refinery in California, the board suggested such disasters could be averted if the government was able to mandate that companies switch to inherently safer technologies at their high-risk facilities.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee member Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) has introduced a pair of bills that would require such changes, which are opposed by industry. One of the two bills is within the panel’s jurisdiction, though it has seen little action in recent years.
While Lautenberg has suggested his legislation is a potential solution to problems highlighted by the Texas incident, not all Democrats are convinced. Many key lawmakers are holding out for more information while the cause of the blast remains under investigation.
Four New States Join BWC in 2013
Arms Control Today, May 2013; www.armscontrol.org
Four new states have acceded to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) since January 2013, bringing the total number of states-parties to 170.
Cameroon joined the treaty in January, followed by Nauru and Guyana in March and Malawi on April 2. All became states-parties to the treaty after depositing instruments of accession or ratification with the United States, which serves as a depository government along with Russia and the United Kingdom.
Sixteen states, including Israel, have neither signed nor ratified the treaty; 10 states, including Egypt and Syria, have signed but not ratified the treaty. Many states have called for universal adherence to the treaty, notably during the 2011 BWC review conference. At that meeting, the parties called on all states to “promote universalization of the Convention through bilateral contacts with states not party” and “through regional and multilateral fora and activities.”
In an April 8 press release, the U.S. State Department said the four new accessions “advance the BWC – one of the pillars of the global architecture against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – and its universality.”
Testing Offers Some Confidence Syria Has Used Chemical Arms: Feinstein
Global Security Newswire, April 26, 2013; www.nti.org/gsn
Analysis of soil and blood samples has given U.S. intelligence agencies moderate to strong levels of confidence that the Bashar Assad regime has used chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, the New York Times quoted a key lawmaker as saying on Thursday.
The White House, according to Senate intelligence committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-California), did not indicate a corresponding level of confidence in a letter this week to several top lawmakers, which stated that "the U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria."
U.S. intelligence officials derived their conclusions from the results of soil analysis and testing of blood taken from survivors of two purported chemical attacks in March – one close to Damascus and the other not far from Aleppo. The Obama administration said the "chain of custody" of the warfare materials that were used is not known, which means their usage might not necessarily have been intentional.
The White House has said repeatedly that use or proliferation of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war – which has already killed more than 70,000 people – would cross a "red line" that would demand an unspecified U.S. intervention. On Friday, though, spokesman Jay Carney stressed the need to confirm allegations.
"The facts need to be what drives this investigation, not a deadline," Reuters quoted Carney as saying. "We are continuing to work to build on the assessments made by the intelligence community, that the degrees of confidence here are varying, that this is not an airtight case." He said possible responses "include but are not exclusive to [the military] option."
The United States is calling for a UN investigative team to enter Syria to gather information and more evidence from the scenes of the alleged chemical attacks. The Assad government requested the inquiry but has refused entry to the team until the scope of the probe is agreed upon.
Still, Washington demonstrated on Thursday that it feels enough proof has already been gathered to come to an initial conclusion. The administration is also concerned about a possible separate chemical assault in Homs, an anonymous official told the Times.
Two intelligence sources said there were some elements of the U.S. finding on chemical use that were not as strong as others. No other specifics were disclosed to the newspaper. Testing of blood samples withdrawn from multiple people affirmed the presence of the nerve agent sarin, a U.S. intelligence source told Wired on Thursday. "This is more than one organization representing that they have more than one sample from more than one attack. But we can't confirm anything because no [one] is really sure what's going on in country," the source said.
Sarin is a highly volatile and deadly warfare material that is not easily made or deployed. It attacks breathing and muscle control functions and can cause death in minutes. "It would be very, very difficult for the opposition to fake this. Not only would they need the wherewithal to steal it or brew it up themselves," the source said. "Then they'd need volunteers who would notionally agree to a possibly lethal exposure."
A high-ranking unidentified Pentagon official told journalists that use of the wording "varying degrees of confidence" typically means there is disagreement between U.S. intelligence branches about certain findings, Reuters reported.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told Reuters there was no merit to the accusations by France, Israel, the United Kingdom, and now the United States of chemical weapon usage. He also insisted that Damascus is not obstructing the UN inquiry.
Assad forces "did not and will not use chemical weapons even if it had them," the Associated Press quoted an unidentified Syrian government insider as saying on Friday. The source accused rebels of carrying out the alleged March 19 gas attack near Aleppo, and insisted the regime did not require such agents "because it is capable of reaching any area in Syria it wants."
A White House official said the Obama administration will talk with partner nations in determining how to respond to the situation. "All options are on the table in terms of our response."
An unidentified high-ranking Obama official said "we are continuing to do further work to establish a definitive judgment as to whether or not the red line has been crossed," Foreign Policy reported. "If we reach a definitive determination that this red line has been crossed ... what we will be doing is consulting with our friends and allies and the international community more broadly, as well as the Syrian opposition, to determine what the best course of action is."
The United States is collaborating with Syrian rebels to collect more proof of chemical attacks from inside the Arab country that would be used to build a more comprehensive finding, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing a White House official.
British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday said there was "limited" though "growing evidence" that chemical arms had been utilized, likely by Assad loyalists, the Times reported. The United States and the United Kingdom are wary of getting too far ahead of the evidence in Syria as they wish to avoid a repeat of the WMD intelligence fiasco in Iraq. The British government has no desire to get involved in another military conflict, Cameron said.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zev Elkin, who is close with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Friday said the Obama administration should seriously think about carrying out a U.S. military intervention in Syria, Reuters reported.
U.S. Army Checking Efficiency of Decontamination Testing
Jessica Limardo, Bioprepwatch, 26 April 2013; www.bioprepwatch.com
The Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction [CBARR ] Business Unit of the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center [ECBC] is testing biological microorganisms’ ability to survive on military equipment treated with petroleum, oils and lubricants [POLs].
The CBARR will design a pre-operational study to see if biological organisms can survive on military equipment contaminated with POLs, which are commonly spilled on hardened equipment. The pre-study will be conducted between June and September after researchers consider two major factors in testability, including if biological agents can survive on contaminated POL surfaces and if contamination can affect test methodology.
“Before we launch into testing, JPM-P [Joint Project Manager for Protection] wants to make sure that the biological agent actually survives on the surfaces contaminated with POLs because in order to measure the efficacy of decontaminants, a live agent is needed,” CBARR Biologist and Project Manager Debbie Menking said. “The idea here is to see if POL-treated surfaces will kill the bio agent, which would make the decontamination a moot point.”
Small rectangular cutlets made from stainless steel, aluminum non-skid chemical agent resistant coating, silicon rubber and polycarbonate will be used in the study to replicate hardened military surfaces. The surfaces will be coated with POLs to replicate actual military conditions because surfaces are commonly dirty from spills.
Menking said her team is up for the challenge. “This project allows us to utilize ECBC’s most valuable resources – its people,” Menking said.
NYPD to Study Movement of Airborne Agents
Global Security Newswire, April 25, 2013; www.nti.org/gsn
The New York Police Department [NYPD] is teaming with the U.S. Energy Department's Brookhaven National Laboratory for a July test that will use harmless gases to determine how airborne WMD agents might move through the city, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.
The project is part of a $3.4 million, two-year study funded by the Homeland Security Department. Perfluorocarbons are to be emitted on three days both above ground and within city subway stops and then tracked with roughly 200 sensors.
A key question for the study is the impact of the subway lines on the movement of air around New York. “The subways play a major role in how air moves through Manhattan and the five boroughs,” said Paul Kalb, environmental research and technology chief at Brookhaven. “If you’re in the subways and there’s something released on the surface, you could be vulnerable.”
A dangerous material could also escape from the subway tunnels into open air. “It can spread further and in a way that you might not anticipate,” according to Kalb.
“The NYPD works for the best but plans for the worst when it comes to potentially catastrophic attacks, such as ones employing radiological contaminants or weaponized anthrax," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in prepared comments. “This field study with Brookhaven’s outstanding expertise will help prepare and safeguard the city’s population in the event of an actual attack.”
back to top