The independent resource on global security

8. Chemical and biological security threats


Overview, Caitríona McLeish and Filippa Lentzos [PDF]

I. Allegations of use of chemical weapons in Syria, Caitríona McLeish [PDF]

II. The Skripal case: Assassination attempt in the United Kingdom using a toxic chemical, Caitríona McLeish [PDF]

III. Chemical weapons: Arms control and disarmament, Caitríona McLeish [PDF]

IV. Biological weapon disarmament and non-proliferation, Filippa Lentzos [PDF]

Allegations of chemical weapon use in Syria and the UK

Allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria continued to dominate the work of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2018. Among the allegations of use was an attack in Douma on 7 April that prompted the United States, the United Kingdom and France to launch retaliatory strikes against three sites one week later. Outside Syria, in March, a toxic chemical from the Novichok nerve agent family was used in Salisbury, UK, hospitalizing three people. Two further people were exposed to the same agent in June and one of them subsequently died in July.


Attribution of responsibility for chemical weapon use

The issues surrounding CW use, and attribution of responsibility where use is found, resulted in a major division between states parties to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 2018. The expiry of the mandate of the OPCW–United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism created a gap in the international community’s ability to respond to use once proved. In an attempt to fill this gap, France launched the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons in January 2018, and 38 countries plus the European Union had joined by the end of the year. 


In May, 11 permanent representatives to the OPCW called for a Special Session of the Conference of the States Parties with a single substantive agenda item: upholding the global ban on CWs. Held over two days in June, the Special Session voted to empower the OPCW to attribute responsibility. Those states that support this decision consider the numerous claims of CW use in Syria to be credible and believe that an attribution mechanism is essential; those that oppose the decision argue that the allegations have led to the OPCW becoming politicized. This division has effectively destroyed—at least in the short term—the culture of consensus decision-making at the OPCW and created serious tensions between states parties. These tensions were played out at both the 23rd Conference of the States Parties and the 4th Review Conference. 


Biological arms control

Key biological disarmament and non-proliferation activities in 2018 were carried out in connection with the first set of intersessional Meetings of Experts and the Meeting of States Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). The latter meeting in December endorsed a set of substantive measures designed to ensure the BWC’s future financial sustainability, although further discussions on the financial situation will take place in 2019. 


In an unanticipated development, the Meeting of States Parties was unable to reach a consensus on the deliberations of the Meetings of Experts, including on any possible outcomes. The impasse resulted from what was labelled the ‘obstinacy’ of a single delegation and underscored the meeting’s outdated working methods. However, an unusually large number of BWC-related workshops took place during the year. 

Dr Filippa Lentzos