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Chemical Weapons

New nerve agents added to Chemical Weapons Convention

Novichok and carbamate compounds are the first added to the treaty since it came into force

by Laura Howes
December 2, 2019


Chemical structure of the novichok agent known as A-230.
The Novichok nerve agent known as A-230 is one of the compounds that will be more strictly controlled under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

For the first time since the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) came into force in 1997, new compounds will be added to the convention’s list of toxic chemicals. At the Hague on Nov. 27, delegates to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) accepted two proposals to add chemicals to the convention by consensus. The moment was greeted by a spontaneous round of applause.

Canada, the Netherlands, and the US submitted the first proposal in January 2019. It includes two large families of novichok organophosphorus nerve agents. The Russian Federation moved to expand the list to add an additional novichok agent and a family of carbamates that are chemically unrelated but have a similar biochemical basis for their toxicity.

The OPCW Secretariat will now prepare a merged text of the proposals and send it to all members of the CWC, says the organization’s director-general, Fernando Arias. The changes will enter into force 180 days after the date of that notification.

The decisions don’t mean that the CWC suddenly bans Novichoks. These compounds already meet the definition of a chemical weapon if they are used to cause intentional death or harm, as they were in Salisbury in 2018. However, adding the chemicals to the convention means they are now subject to the most stringent controls described by the treaty.

The Conference of the States Parties, where the decision was made, happens annually to oversee implementation of the convention. Earlier at the conference, the OPCW rewarded the efforts of two leading chemical arms control experts and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) with the OPCW–The Hague Award. Robert Mikulak and Cheng Tang were both involved in negotiating the CWC in the 1990s, while IUPAC was recognized for having provided objective scientific evidence. Mikulak, Tang, and IUPAC will share the €90,000 ($99,109) prize.

The conference also passed the OPCW’s 2020 budget by a large majority vote. The budget includes continued funding for the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) charged with identifying who used chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic. The IIT is currently investigating seven attacks, including the chlorine assault at Douma near Damascus that killed 43 people in April 2018. The team will complete its first reports in a few months, Arias says.

“It is essential for all of us to continue to work together, to push for accountability for chemical weapons use,” said Thomas DiNanno, US deputy assistant secretary of state for defense policy, emerging threats, and outreach, in a statement read to the conference. “The United States is proud of what States Parties and the OPCW together have accomplished. I think we all agree there is more to do to move forward to a world free of chemical weapons and to drive chemical weapons use to zero.”


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