Sunday 01 December 2013

Many people are focused on the traditional challenge of proliferation – the growth of national nuclear capabilities, particularly Iran. However, a number of similar, and equally deadly challenges remain greatly under-appreciated. Everyone should be aware of the WMD proliferation threats that emanate from non-nuclear weapons –most particularly chemical and biological agents.

The current Syrian case provides an illustrative example. While most nations were focused on the development of Iranian nuclear weapons capability, it was the use of a Syrian nerve agent, Sarin, in August 2013 that shook the world awake. Such attacks are not new; the first modern, regional chemical attack took place in Yemen in 1963; and in 1967, the biggest gas attack of the Yemen Civil War occurred in the village of Kitaf. Later that same year the villages of Gahar and Gadafa were also gas-bombed. Casualty estimates vary, but indicate that chemicals caused approximately 1,500 fatalities during that conflict.

During the Iran-Iraq War some 120,000 soldiers were victims of chemical and nerve agent attacks; that number does not include civilians contaminated nearby. Some of the 80,000 survivors of those attacks are still hospitalized with severe conditions. Shortly before that war ended in 1988, Iraqi forces attacked the village of Halabja, exposing the entire town to chemical agents, resulting in the deaths of some 5,000 residents; Halabja remains the largest chemical attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.

The first terrorist use of a chemical agent was in 1994, when Aum Shinrikyo released Sarin gas in Japan. The following year, it released Sarin into a Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring over 5,000. In early 2007, multiple terrorist chlorine gas bombings affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Iraq were reported; those attacks wounded more than 350 people.

UN Security Council Resolution 1540 requires member states to enforce measures against the proliferation of these weapons; it also intends to prevent the spread of WMD to non-state actors. Yet, the risk today remains severe. Businesses sell technically non-WMD items to the Chinese who resell them to the North Koreans who then resell them to other nations, some in our region. Many of those business deals are conducted without attracting attention, meaning countries like Singapore and the UAE could end up serving as potential transfer sites.

The proliferation of chemical and biological WMD should be controlled. Unfortunately, as Carol and Jamsheed Choksy have written, “Six conventions, two treaties, one protocol, one regime, one arrangement, one code, one initiative and ten regional or zone treaties have been instituted since 1925 to control these instruments of mass murder. Yet most of the accords require only passive agreement and are trumped by influence-peddling, profit-seeking and ideology-spreading considerations. As a result, the danger of chemical and biological agents passing to non-state actors is on the rise.”

To better prevent the increased availability of these weapons, states should: work to close gaps and enable information sharing; safely end programs already in being; and manage the consequences of WMD use – with a heavy emphasis on Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan. Nations should also focus on the WMD- terrorism nexus; terrorist acquisition of chemical or biological capabilities should remain a high priority for the foreseeable future. Such efforts require international cooperation, good intelligence, popular support and focused strategies, but they are in the best interest of every nation.