Chemical weapons and trade: preventing the next Syria

‘Obscene as cancer’: chemical warfare. Rui Vieira/PA Wire

The recent use of chemical weapons in Syria and the agreement of the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapon stockpiles and production facilities have focused attention on how Syria acquired chemical weapons in the first place.

While there are allegations of past assistance from Russia and of an on-going relationship with Iran, recent media reports have also implicated Western firms and Western governments. For example, the UK issued five export licenses for chemical sales to Syria from July 2004 to May 2010, according to the Daily Mail. As reported by the Independent and others, it also granted licences for the sale of potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride to Syria in January 2012.

Of course, the chemicals were not licensed for use in chemical weapons; the pre-2012 licenses were issued for use in cosmetics and healthcare products, while the 2012 licences were issued for use in finishing aluminium showerheads and window frames. No shipments took place under the 2012 licenses, because they were revoked in line with new EU sanctions.

While these sales did not violate the UK’s commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), they do illustrate the challenges involved in export control systems, including the licensing process and the difficulties in assessing bona fide end uses.

Questions for UK to answer

The UK is a state party to the CWC, which prohibits the development, acquisition and use of any kind of chemical weapon. It also imposes strict limits on the production and transfer of certain chemicals, manufacturing technologies, and ingredients or “precursors”. For the purposes of verification and control, it identifies a total of 15 chemicals and 28 precursors. These are subdivided into three schedules according to the type of threat that they pose to the Convention, assessed by a combination of their previous use in chemical weapons programmes and the extent of their peaceful applications. None of these schedules includes potassium fluoride or sodium fluoride.

Halabja: when chemical weapons are used. Sayeed Janbozorgi

But in addition to the CWC, the UK is also a member of the Australia Group (AG), a group of countries that works together to harmonise export controls and share relevant information in an effort to prevent the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. While the AG does not impose any legal obligations upon its members, the group has agreed upon a set of guidelines regarding the export of substances found on its control lists.

The AG guidelines state that transfers should be denied if the Government judges that “controlled items are intended to be used in a chemical weapons or biological weapons program, or for CBW terrorism, or that a significant risk of diversion exists”.

Potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride are both found on the AG’s Common Control List for Chemical Weapon Precursors, which are incorporated into the UK’s export controls through the EU dual-use regulation.

UK licence applications are judged on the basis of a series of criteria –- the Consolidated Criteria. An export licence application would be refused under these criteria if it breached the UK’s international commitments (including to the CWC and Australia Group), and could be refused if there was a risk of diversion to unintended uses.

Valid questions can thus be asked about the UK’s decision to grant export licences, especially in 2012 when Syria was in turmoil and concerns were already being raised about the security and future of Assad’s chemical arsenal.

But we can also examine the general difficulties involved in preventing chemical weapons proliferation and what improvements might be made to export licensing controls.

Preventing proliferation

There are many difficulties in preventing chemical weapons proliferation. The dual use of many chemicals means that a blanket ban on their export is not a practical option; indeed, there may be serious ethical ramifications from refusing a licence when many chemicals have applications in manufacturing, healthcare products or even pharmaceuticals. It can also be hard to get good intelligence on the existence and status of chemical weapons programmes (think about the intelligence on WMD before the 2003 War on Iraq), or to verify the bonafides of chemicals’ legitimate end uses.

Also, in practical terms, preventing proliferation is difficult. Proliferators are dynamic; false declarations, front companies, and complex supply chains can be used to create a façade of legitimate use. Leaked US government cables and other sources reveal concerns that Syrian procurement agents may have targeted firms in countries as diverse as China, Greece, India, Italy, South Korea and Switzerland.

The scope of the chemical industry further complicates the problem. According to the European Chemical Industry Council,world chemical sales amounted to €2,744 billion (£2.3 billion) in 2011. While much of this trade is not proliferation sensitive, it is clear that intensive government scrutiny of every chemical sale is not possible. The nature of chemical production processes also means that a large proportion of this industry is located in countries with weak export controls.

Despite these difficulties, there are a number of possible ways to improve on the current situation. The first is “top-down” in nature, involving better use of multilateral initiatives such as the AG. That group should consider modification of its guidelines, so as to explicitly require more intense scrutiny of the sale of controlled chemicals to firms located in countries involved in ongoing conflict. These changes could perhaps be based on Articles 6 and 7 of the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty.

That significant supplier countries such as China and India reside outside of the AG is also problematic. This can be addressed through constructive engagement; there must be clear requirements for membership, based on the implementation of national export controls, and working with candidate countries to help them meet the requirements.

A second option worth pursuing is to improve the effectiveness of export controls by working from the bottom up. This means improving the chemical industry’s capacity to implement the controls and to identify illicit trade. There is precedent for this approach: in their efforts to improve the private sector’s ability to counter the illicit trade that maintains prohibited nuclear and missile programs, researchers at King’s College London have found relevant dual-use exporters eager to become more effective partners in export control.

Similar outreach has been conducted on a limited scale in the chemical industry. However, this has been difficult due to the diffuse nature of the manufacturing base. Perhaps endorsement by the AG and promotion of industry “Good Practice Guidelines”, based on those recently endorsed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, would be a good place to start.

While the Syrian chemical threat appears to be diminishing, we must act on the lessons it offers before the next chemical threat appears on the horizon.