When the time came to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first major use of chemical weapons, it seemed there was at last a real chance of ridding the world of all chemical weapons in the very near future.
Longtime pariah Myanmar had just signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which commits countries to the supervised destruction of all stockpiles of chemical weapons. Almost all countries had already joined it; since then, authoritarian Angola has signed – and five-year-old South Sudan will apparently follow soon. That leaves only two states as yet unwilling to sign: North Korea and Egypt.
But there’s another exception: Israel, which has signed the convention but is refusing to ratify it.
In a recent open letter to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Chemical Society criticises the illogicality of Israel’s position and urges Netanyahu to ratify the Convention.
At the root of today’s rather absurd situation is a strange impasse. Israel says it will only ratify when Egypt does; Egypt, on the other hand, has promised to join the CWC only if Israel approves the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which would end Israel’s well-known policy of ambiguity about its nuclear capability.
The logic here does not bear scrutiny. Egypt’s comparison with nuclear weapons is facile – chemical weapons are not used as a deterrent and, whatever Israel’s chemical weapons capabilities may be, they simply do not have the same function as its nuclear ones. After all, North Korea aside, the world’s other nuclear powers have all ratified the convention.
Equally, any chemical weapons Israel has are potentially a risk to its own existence. An aggressive first use of chemical weapons against anyone would effectively give carte blanche for weapons of mass destruction to be used in turn against Israel, many of whose neighbours – among them countries such as Syria – would surely appreciate such an open surrender of what little moral authority can be claimed here.
Israel’s consistent refusal to ratify the convention has allowed Egypt to drag it into an embarrassing bind. It effectively endorses Egypt’s baseless premise that nuclear weapons and chemical warfare are in the same category.
Besides the lives devastated by the use of chemical weapons and the appalling suffering caused by those who die and by survivors, countries which have chemical weapons necessarily need chemists to work on them. That is a direct contradiction of the Hague Ethical Guidelines, which are designed to promote responsible scientific conduct:
Teachers, chemical practitioners and policymakers should … promote the peaceful applications of chemicals and work to prevent any misuse of chemicals, scientific knowledge, tools and technologies, and any harmful or unethical developments in research and innovation.
As one of us has written before, it is incumbent on all chemists worldwide to denounce chemical weapons and refuse to do any work on them besides control and deactivation.
This is already underway. Together with the large community of chemists around the world, Israeli chemists and chemical engineers want to work together to remove the curse of chemical weapons from the face of the Earth. But without the Israeli state’s assent, this effort can only do so much. It would be in Israel’s best interests to independently ratify the CWC, and soon. All indications are that Egypt would quickly join the CWC as well – after all, it’s hard to see why it would want to remain on the wrong side of the fence with only North Korea for company.
Some readers may think that Syria still has chemical weapons. However, all Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons were officially destroyed after their use in 2012. What is happening there now is that barrels of chlorine, which are essential for water purification, are being thrown from helicopters. Those in charge of these stocks must ensure that they are kept under secure conditions and only used for water purification.
Chemical weapons have no place in a civilised society. They have little to no use as a tactical deterrent, and their effects are indiscriminate and appalling. We have a unique opportunity to rid the world of this scourge, and we’re so close to doing so. It’s high time Israel joined the rest of the world.