Workshop addresses lingering chemical weapons threat in Indo-Pacific

Workshop addresses lingering chemical weapons threat in Indo-Pacific

Tom Abke

The resurgence of deadly attacks on civilians by violent extremists using conventional weapons and explosives in several countries in the Indo-Pacific, including Indonesia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, has the region’s government officials concerned that future attacks may use chemical weapons.

To address this threat, government officials, mostly from Indo-Pacific countries, participated April 7-11, 2019, in a workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, conducted by the Netherlands-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Most nations universally banned chemical weapons in warfare after witnessing the horrors of their use in past wars and in more recent chemical attacks by rogue regimes and terror groups. Over 96% of all declared chemical weapons stockpiles worldwide have been destroyed, according to OPCW.

Despite the progress in destroying stockpiles and halting production, current conditions make the threat of a chemical weapons attack in the region by nonstate actors a possibility that demands urgent attention, Ambassador Dato Ilankovan Kolandavelu, chairman of Malaysia’s National Authority for Chemical Weapons Convention, said in his opening speech at the workshop.

“The thriving chemical industry in Asia,” he said, “along with the influx of chemical imports entering and moving within the region, requires vigilance against potential misuse of these goods, especially by various terrorist groups.”

This concern was driven home by the 24th anniversary on March 20, 2019, of the 1995 attack on a Tokyo subway that left 13 people dead and 6,000 wounded. That attack, carried out by doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, employed deadly sarin gas, also used in an earlier attack by the same group in Matsumoto, Japan, that killed five others, according to OPCW.

Raising public awareness of the threat and motivating governments to effectively implement the articles of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) are two key measures that Ilankovan said need to be taken “by all relevant stakeholders at the national level.” (Pictured: Japanese policemen in protective gear detect mock chemical agents at the port of Yokosuka on July 26, 2018, during Pacific Shield 18, a multinational drill aimed at preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.)

More than 190 countries have signed the CWC, which became effective in 1997, OPCW reported. It prohibits chemical weapons from being used, developed, produced, acquired, stockpiled, retained or transferred by ratifying countries. It also requires national governments to police their own jurisdictions to ensure that their citizens are not violating the treaty.

To successfully achieve such policing requires “interagency coordination and cooperation at the regional and national levels in securing toxic chemicals from possible misuse by nonstate actors,” Malaysian Deputy Foreign Minister Dato Haji Marzuki Yahya told workshop participants.

Agreeing with Marzuki, participants asked the OPCW for help in laboratory analysis, reviewing existing legislation, developing chemical security guidelines, customs procedures, and emergency preparedness and response plans.

OPCW concluded that national governments must enact as law to effectively address the threat of chemical terrorism and keep banned substances from dangerous nonstate actors.

The OPCW technical secretariat emphasized Article VI of CWC, which specifies the monitoring and verification measures that ratifying countries must take concerning specific chemicals named by the convention. The article allows for exceptions within a limited range of research, medical, pharmaceutical or protective purposes.

Representatives from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Burma, Indonesia, Iraq, Malaysia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste participated in the workshop.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.