Let them eat gas: The negative consequences of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

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The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) came into force on 29th April 1997, the result of years of hard work by those who have recoiled at the terror and indiscriminate damage that chemical and biological weapons have been capable of since World War 1. Attempts to limit the scope and use of such weapons have existed since the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which explicitly prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons in war. [1]

However, the Geneva Protocol had been poorly enforced, and was riddled with significant shortcomings; it did not prevent the development, production, or stockpiling of chemical weapons, nor did it protect states that had not signed up to the protocol. Indeed, many states simply ignored the protocol, with the best example being the American use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Indeed, the US was able to circumvent the Protocol by defining Agent Orange as a herbicide, rather than a poison, thus excluding it from the remit of the Protocol. This argument was upheld in a 2005 US court ruling. [2]

However, broadly speaking, the same problems have not fallen at the door of the CWC. The success of the organisation tasked with overseeing the enforcement of the Convention, the imaginatively named Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), led to it being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2013. [3]

Despite the absence of a number of countries from the organisation, including North Korea, Egypt, Israel, and Myanmar/Burma, (the latter two having signed, but not ratified, the Convention) experts have been generally positive in their assessment of its progress. According to Ahmet Üzümcü, the Director-General of the OPCW, 98% of the world’s population lives under governments signed up the Convention. 81.71% of the world’s declared stockpile of chemical agent have been “verifiably destroyed”, as well as 57.32% of chemical munitions and containers. [4]

By most accounts, the CWC has been a success. However, it has also stifled the development of what could possibly be one of the most revolutionary advancements in modern warfare; the anaesthetic bomb. The theory behind an anaesthetic bomb is simple – instead of dropping a dangerous chemical such as Agent Orange or nerve gas over an enemy population, army, or non-state combatant, one would drop an anaesthetic gas over the area that would cause the enemy to fall asleep. From this, a small task-force would be able to advance peacefully towards an enemy, disarm and constrain them, and end the conflict without a single fatality. Indeed, due to the non-lethal effects of anaesthetic, it could also be used on terrorist cells or rebels who insist in using civilian populations to protect them from fire.

This would revolutionise the concept of warfare since it would relegate violence from an inherent feature to an unfortunate outcome; an anaesthetic bomb would bring with it the potential for a deathless war. Beyond this clear positive, there would be numerous wide-ranging benefits and spill-over effects; economically, conflict-ridden states would not face the demographic burden of a significant loss of the young male population. Socially, the lack of loss of life would reduce the discontent between loser and victor due to the lack of destruction of one by the other, making long term group rivalries or retaliatory attacks less attractive. Additionally, it would allow a second chances to those caught in enemy forces (through rehabilitation programmes or skills training that would enable them to get a job, rather than relying on membership of an armed group as a basis for economic security). Furthermore, sleeping foes would have their weapons seized and confiscated, which would reduce the amount of arms held by non-state actors, reducing their future threat.

Of course, there are issues with the policy. There is always the danger that the user of anaesthetic weapons would abuse their power when faced with a snoozing enemy; however, war crimes happen with conventional weapons, and so to ban anaesthetic weapons on these grounds is unjustifiable. Furthermore, this problem could be mitigated by entrusting only UN Security Council backed forces with the use of anaesthetic weapons.

There are also issues of human rights; civilians should not be placed under threat of being gassed to sleep when going about their day-to-day life – indeed, it could be dangerous to do so. However, this is far outweighed by the alternatives; the two most common alternatives would be street-to-street heavy combat or indiscriminate drone attacks, both of which pose more significant risks to civilians; in 2009, drone strikes in Pakistan have killed roughly ten civilians for every one militant. [5]

Thus, there is the potential for the use of anaesthetic weapons to fundamentally change how conflict is played out. Although this potential is merely theoretical at the moment, it is ironically hamstrung by the very success of the CWC; by prohibiting chemical weapon development to prevent loss of life, it is prohibiting chemical weapon development that could prevent loss of life.

Of course, one could argue that an anaesthetic chemical weapon would not constitute ‘weapon’, since a chemical weapon is usually defined as “a device that uses chemicals formulated to inflict death or harm on human beings”. [6] However, this would run contrary to the CWC’s definition of a ‘toxic weapon’, which is “any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals.” (emphasis added). [7]

Instead of sneaky and underhand semantic debates, the way forward for proponents of the anaesthetic bomb is to encourage an open, honest dialogue about the potential of anaesthetic weapons to act as the as the foundation of a new type of conflict; the peaceful war.

Written by David Jeffery. Edited by Simon Renwick

[1] 1925 Geneva Protocol, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, http://www.un.org/disarmament/WMD/Bio/1925GenevaProtocol.shtml

[2] Memorandum, Order, and Judgement MDL No. 381, United States District Court Eastern District of New York, http://www.ffrd.org/AO/10_03_05_agentorange.pdf

[3] OPCW eyes total chemical arms ban, Khaleej Times, http://www.khaleejtimes.com/kt-article-display-1.asp?xfile=data/international/2013/December/international_December306.xml&section=international

[4] The Chemical Weapons Ban: Facts and Figures, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, http://www.opcw.org/news-publications/publications/facts-and-figures/

[5] Do Targeted Killings Work?, Brookings Institute, http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2009/07/14-targeted-killings-byman – for later figures, see http://natsec.newamerica.net/drones/pakistan/analysis

[6] Chemical Weapon, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_weapon

[7] Article II. Definitions and Criteria, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, http://www.opcw.org/chemical-weapons-convention/articles/article-ii-definitions-and-criteria/

  • Simon

    Although I agree with your point that an anaesthetic bomb could lead to more peaceful insurgencies and military operations, don’t you think it could, in the wrng hands, be used just as devastatingly as normal weaponry? It gives the potential to simply knock out a group of soldiers, and then capture them for interrogation

    • Davey J

      I agree, but in the wrong hands any weapon could be used devastatingly – in fact, simple tools from B&Q can be used devastatingly but we’re not in the business of banning them. I’m not sure that hypothetical (although not unrealistic) concern could consistently be applied to anaesthetic weapons but not to other weapons.

      And whilst it does give the potential for baddies to simply knock out a group of soldiers, at least it would reduce the street-to-street warfare with trafficked AK-47 or whatever Soviet-era capabilities insurgents currently have which often has terrible consequences for civilians.

  • George

    Firstly, good article and it is a nice idea, but there is a reason why in a surgery you have an anaestheist. Different people need varying amounts of gas and it often a concoction of different gases. It is unlikely you could work for all. For some, the gas might not be strong enough, for others so strong it could kill them. Imagine an army ‘peacefully’ walking up to said gassed opponents and realising that quite a few are still awake and others are dead. Chaos could ensue. Just found this chapter about anaesthetic bombs. Really interesting actually. Has a good example of the bomb going wrong (Chechyan hostage crisis, 2002. Around 117 hostages died as a result of an unknown anesthetic bomb used by the Russian military) – http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=YIfEO4nvvLUC&pg=PA33&lpg=PA33&dq=anesthetic+bomb&source=bl&ots=m8QsfQUuY3&sig=4gM1V4VsdvqcnMKAyQdfQuMR9mw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ZCywUuS9IsjD7AailgE&ved=0CDcQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=anesthetic%20bomb&f=false

    • Davey J

      That looks interesting, I’ll give it a read over Christmas. Whilst I do not doubt there would be difficulties in ‘weaponising’ anaesthetics, the CWC prevents even the R&D that could enable this ‘weapon’ to become viable.

    • Gregory Pichorowycz

      While it is true that creating an anaesthetic bomb that works universally would be difficult (or perhaps even impossible), surely that is better than bombing with something that is designed and guaranteed to kill. Basically, if you bomb your enemy and one fifth of them fall asleep, two fifths of them die and there are two fifths of them remaining – that seems more ethical than using conventional weaponry that might leave four fifths of them dead.

      • George

        Sure, I don’t disagree with you. I’m not saying don’t bother or even don’t allow them to try, but simply pointing out some of the difficulties that aren’t quite mentioned in the article. It’s a potentially brilliant idea and positively revolutionary development in warfare. However, let’s not underestimate said problems. In saying that, I think David raises some important issues and I would agree with him in respects to the problems that the CWC creates in hampering the development of these potentially usesful weapons.