The independent resource on global security

8. Chemical and biological security threats


Overview, John Hart [PDF]

I. Allegations of use of chemical weapons in Syria, John Hart [PDF]

II. Allegations of use of chemical weapons in Iraq and by North Korea, John Hart [PDF]

III. Chemical arms control and disarmament, John Hart [PDF]

IV. Biological arms control, John Hart [PDF]

Allegations of chemical weapon use in Iraq and Syria

The United Nations, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and governments continued to evaluate allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Iraq and Syria in 2017. Both the UN Security Council and the OPCW Executive Council remained deadlocked on the question of Syrian Government responsibility for CW use, including with regard to the use of sarin at Khan Shaykhoun on 4 April. This attack prompted the United States to launch retaliatory Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against a Syrian airbase. 


The mandate of the OPCW–UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) in Syria expired in November because the Security Council was unable to agree terms for an extension. While it operated, the JIM issued seven reports and concluded that the Syrian Government was responsible for four cases of CW use and that non-state actors were responsible for two cases. The work of the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team on the completeness and correctness of Syria’s declarations to the Technical Secretariat and of the OPCW Fact-finding Mission (FFM) to evaluate allegations of CW use in Syria will continue in 2018. The FFM provided the information baseline on allegations of CW use to the JIM.


As the Islamic State lost territory in both Iraq and Syria, various governments undertook further efforts to ascertain the group’s CW-related intentions and capabilities. The work of international criminal investigations and prosecutions, such as the ‘International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011’ established by the UN General Assembly at the end of 2016, could eventually facilitate the achievement of a common international understanding on responsibility for all the documented instances of confirmed CW use.


Chemical arms control

Russia—formerly the largest possessor of chemical weapons—completed the destruction of its stockpile in 2017, as required by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The 22nd Conference of the States Parties (CSP) to the CWC convened in November 2017. It reviewed the status of planning for the Fourth CWC Review Conference, which will be held in 2018, and elected Ambassador Fernando Arias of Spain as the next Director-General. 


Biological arms control

In December, the annual Meeting of States Parties (MSP) to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) agreed a further inter-sessional process of annual meetings for the period 2018–20. The states parties will continue to discuss and promote common understanding and effective action on selected topics. Although some states parties wish to move the interactions among the membership towards more specific discussions about compliance, the outcome of the 2017 MSP represents a continuation of the status quo, whereby information, views and best practices on the convention’s various provisions are exchanged in annual Meetings of Experts and MSPs with the support of the Geneva-based Implementation Support Unit (ISU). 

Dr John Hart