Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 28, 2024

There is an urgent need to take measures to prevent the misuse of chemical substances in warfare and limit access to non-state actors.

Including narcotics in the Chemical Weapons Convention

Source Image: DEA

Within the spectrum of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), chemical weapons pose a more potential threat as they are more easily accessible than radiological and nuclear weapons due to the easier accessibility of raw materials, and open knowledge of dual-use is often dubbed the “poor man’s nuclear weapon”. This accessibility makes chemical weapons a threat to governments that are trying to reduce non-state actors’ access to weapons. The emergence of modern chemical weapons and chemical warfare indeed has historical roots, and it is intertwined with the use of poisons in military conflicts. While World War I is often associated with the widespread use of chemical weapons, the historical use of toxins in warfare goes back much further.

Global governance of chemical weapons

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), a treaty with 193 nation-states undersigned, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have achieved notable successes in their mission to create a world without chemical weapons, with a claim of 100 percent stockpiles by possessor states destroyed. However, the persistent threat posed by non-state actors and covert state sponsorship utilising toxic or incapacitating chemicals as weapons remains a significant worry for the OPCW, multilateral institutions, and the international community.

The consequences of non-state actors' access to chemical weapons are severe and extensive. Deliberate use can lead to mass casualties, causing death, injury, and enduring health effects on a large scale. This will further result in a breakdown of international security regimes and agreements. Thus, the CWC, while foundational, is not sufficient. 

In 2004, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reviewed Resolution 1540, which unanimously supports the anti-proliferation of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Weapons regarding trade and delivery of related materials. In 2016, the UNSC introduced Resolution 2325 to prevent non-state actors from accessing WMD. In 2022, the UNSC reaffirmed Resolution 1540 and its future editions in Resolution 2663 for the next decade till 2032. 

The CWC had a limited focus on the threat of chemical weapons and terrorism until October 2017. The 86th Session of the Executive Council (EC) of the OPCW marked a turning point with a decision to address the urgent threat posed by terrorist groups or non-state actors. It is now crucial to move beyond aiding and protecting affected state parties and develop effective strategies for preventing chemical terrorism, including robust response mechanisms, accountability, and the prosecution of perpetrators.

Persistent and future threats

Despite these moves, chemical weapons remain a threat. Various instances of terrorism related to chemical weapons have occurred since these reforms. In February 2017, an unknown North Korean agent used a toxic Schedule 1 nerve Agent-VX, to attack at Kim Jong-nam (half-brother of North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-un’s) at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport. The attack resulted in his death, and due to the inability to attribute the attack accurately on individual or community, the international community is restrained in taking action

In 2018, weaponised chlorine gas was used against residents of Douma in Syria with reasonable evidence pointing to the Syrian government. Another incident occurred in the UK when Russia used chemical weapons to target a former double agent for Russia and Britain, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter were targeted with a chemical nerve agent, “Novichok

In times of warfare, there is an uprise in substance abuse cases as well. Examples of these can be seen as recently as in Ukraine 2024. Many civilians are getting addicted to methamphetamine, fentanyl, and other chemical drugs as a substitute for food and medicine shortages to address trauma and lost housing. Even in the United States (US), synthetic opioid overdose deaths are on the rise, leading certain policy stakeholders to advocate for the US to categorise fentanyl as a WMD. Although this may not be necessary for further executive actions against it as an illegal substance or chemical weapon, there is an indication that Congress could consider drafting legislation to tackle perceived shortcomings in the US government's strategy for handling fentanyl. 

However, the implications of such a categorisation can also help address the use of drugs, often trafficked with weapons, that impact civilians in war zones. Many stakeholders have drawn parallels between the abuse of fentanyl and WMDs, with the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking, mandated by Congress, highlighting in February 2022 that illicit synthetic opioids have a profound impact as destructive in terms of loss of life and economic damage, akin to a slow-moving WMDs. The same mandate also highlighted India and China as countries of origin for counterfeit drugs and opioid trafficking. Other than India and China, another significant producer of Fentanyl is Mexico.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is highly addictive and can result in withdrawal symptoms as early as a few hours after use. The use of fentanyl has also contributed significantly to drug overuse deaths in the US. The prevalence of fentanyl in the US has also raised concerns about the potential weaponisation of fentanyl by adversaries or non-state actors due to its increasing availability.

Governments have also committed to limiting the use of central nervous system-acting chemicals, including fentanyl, in law enforcement and security operations. Despite this, the Russian military reportedly deployed an aerosolised form of fentanyl in 2002 during a hostage situation in Moscow, resulting in fatalities among the hostages.

Significant portions of illicit fentanyl consumed in the US are foreign, including Mexico and China. While international controls under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 and the Convention Against Illicit Traffic of Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988, drugs like Fentanyl are excluded from the CWC. Considering the large presence of illicit fentanyl and its impact, proposals have been made regarding countering it as a WMD.

India, with its signing of the CWC and Destruction in Paris on January 14th, 1993, established the Chemical Weapons Convention Act of 2000, under which the National Authority Chemical Weapons Convention (NACWC) was formed. Like all other CWC signatories, India’s regulation concerning chemical weapons also does not consider synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl. The scheduled toxins and chemicals under consideration by the NACWC are also aligned with those presented by the OPCW. 

Throughout history, various natural agents with medicinal properties have been employed as poisons in warfare. This connection between poison and medicine has persisted, and it has implications for understanding the historical development and potential future of both chemical warfare and medicine. The use of drugs as chemical weapons highlights the dual nature of certain substances. 

Furthering CWC to include synthetic drugs

While the origin countries for drugs like fentanyl were linked to Mexico, a significant amount (60 percent) of illicit drugs and arms and other dual-use weapons are seen shipped from EU, NATO, or OECD states since it is easier to hide stockpiles of illegal materials among legitimate materials. Including fentanyl to the list of scheduled toxins under the CWC can help reduce, not only illicit drug trafficking but the trafficking of other weapons and other, less concerning, drugs as well. While the US has a vested interest in announcing fentanyl as a WMD to reduce local harm, it is also important for other countries to include such drugs that are illicitly traded and can create local drug epidemics that may go unnoticed by authorities as attacks. This would consist of the NACWC in India taking stock of what synthetic drugs are affecting the population and the scope of weaponising them. Such a move would be imperative, not only to counter local impact but also to counter India’s recent scrutiny of being a global fentanyl supplier. 

State parties, international organisations, and civil society have undertaken various initiatives and best practices to prevent the acquisition of chemical weapons by non-state actors. However, with drugs like fentanyl easily accessible by civilians and, further, easily weaponised with low traceability, strengthening national legislation and regulatory frameworks is imperative. These can be done by including synthetic drugs in the schedule lists, as previously mentioned. Additionally, by enhancing export controls and border security measures, promoting information sharing and intelligence cooperation, engaging in capacity-building and technical assistance, and strengthening international cooperation and coordination. Collectively, these efforts aim to address the threats posed by non-state actors and enhance global security.

Addressing the growing list of weaponisable chemicals can contribute to developing effective strategies for preventing the misuse of chemical substances in warfare and limiting access to non-state actors for terrorist or even criminal intentions. 

Shravishtha Ajaykumar is an Associate Fellow with the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation.

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Shravishtha Ajaykumar

Shravishtha Ajaykumar

Shravishtha Ajaykumar is Associate Fellow at the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology. Her fields of research include geospatial technology, data privacy, cybersecurity, and strategic ...

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