Countering the new chemical weapons norm?

Countering the new chemical weapons norm?

The blatant, increased use of chemical weapons, most notably by Syria,  Russia, and North Korea, is slowly shifting global norms with regard to chemical weapons. Fortunately, not all states are standing idly by – or worse yet, contributing to this precarious shift. Instead, strategic international engagement, led primarily by the British and French governments with support from the U.S. and likeminded allies, is slowly mounting an effort to halt this shift and reset global norms.

Already, these allies have successfully facilitated the establishment of a trifecta of response mechanisms, to include sanctions, an attribution mechanism, and an information sharing structure, and effectively engaged many world leaders to join them. The outstanding questions now are: if and how these new tools will be deployed, and whether they will be effective.

What are the new tools to counter chemical weapons? 

Last Monday the European Council announced its newest tool to counter chemical weapons use: a chemical weapons sanctions regime. The sanctions authority includes a travel ban to the European Union and an asset freeze for individuals or entities. This is the second thematic sanctions regime rolled out by the council, and the lack of a geographic boundary affords the European Union the ability to impose sanctions on targets located “anywhere, regardless of their nationality or location.”


By creating a sanctions framework that is not linked to a particular country, the European Union should be better poised to address the global spread of chemical weapons use rather than being riled in internal European Union politics associated with politically sensitive sanctions programs such as Russia. While no individual designations accompanied the announcement, it is likely that the British government will advocate for targets linked to the Skripal chemical weapons attack. The French may propose targets linked to the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, some of which are already subject to French and U.S. domestic sanctions.

The second – and potentially most effective – tool is the attribution mechanism adopted by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in June. The OPCW is the international body responsible for investigating incidents involving banned chemical weapons use. The OPCW member states voted to give the organization a mandate to attribute responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks it investigates in Syria. This expanded mandate will allow the OPCW to fulfill responsibilities previously outsourced to the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism until Russia blocked that last year. The June OPCW decision also noted “a view to facilitating universal attribution of all chemical weapons attacks.”

It is unclear when and how the OPCW will implement its new attribution mechanism. The 193 member state body is next slated to meet in mid-November. Given the political pushback against the attribution mechanism by states accused of carrying out chemical weapons attacks, it is evident that the attribution mechanism has already raised alarms among some in the international community.

The third new tool to counter chemical weapons is the French-led International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, an association of 38 countries and international organizations intended to “supplement international mechanisms to combat the proliferation of chemical weapons.” To achieve this objective, the partnership focuses on evidence and information gathering, using sanctions to assign blame, and capacity building to improve states’ information collection and national legislation to prosecute the perpetrators of chemical attacks.

Since its launch meeting in January, the body has already convened both an expert and ministerial meeting in May, with an additional expert meeting slated for later this fall. The Partnership has expanded its membership and built out its database of individuals and entities already subject to sanctions for chemical weapons use. While the Partnership on its own is unlikely to be an effective deterrent against those who would perpetrate chemical attacks, the focus on public attribution and prosecution may influence the calculus of some state actors.

Challenges and opportunities with the new tools

None of the tools on their own are likely to prove an effective deterrent against state and non-state actors inclined to perpetrate chemical attacks, particularly without a proven track record. For example, the European Union’s new chemical weapons sanctions authority is unlikely to curb chemical weapons use until it has been deployed strategically to target known perpetrators of chemical attacks.

To maximize the effectiveness of the new sanctions regime, the European Union should assess the likely impact both on any designated individuals or entities and on other potential actors when considering prospective targets. To magnify sanctions listings, the European Union should also identify likeminded allies with similar sanctions authorities, such as the United States, with whom joint sanctions actions could be coordinated. Unilateral sanctions may not be an effective deterrent on their own, but in coordination with allies, and in combination with other tools in the toolkit to counter chemical weapons may prove a constraining action.

Similarly, the OPCW attribution mechanism has great potential, but recent cyber attacks targeting the OPCW threaten to undermine the institution and may leave OPCW decision makers uncomfortable with wielding the new tool.

If it is used, the question of how quickly the OPCW uses it and in which context will likely be contentious. The most politically palatable use could be in the context of the Syria conflict, particularly given the OPCW’s previous investigations. Such a decision would certainly be subject to push back from Russia and other members, but is more likely to get more traction than using the attribution mechanism in the context of the Skripal affair.

The key to making the attribution mechanism an effective deterrent is deploying it in a timely and meaningful context. Significant delays in wielding this new weapon threaten to render it meaningful in name only.

In contrast, the partnership can provide near-term tangible support to informing the strategic use of these other tools. Its focus on evidence gathering, information sharing, and capacity-building are where it can be the most impactful since those deliverables feed into both informing sanctions actions and criminal prosecution. But members must ensure that they maintain a global focus. If the partnership limits itself to the Syria conflict, for example, and does not also consider uses of chemical weapons globally, this narrow lens will undermine its credibility.

While these three new measures to counter chemical weapons certainly strengthen the toolkit to fight the indiscriminate spread of their use, a well-armed toolkit alone is unlikely to reset global norms. Instead the new tools must be used effectively, strategically, and quickly or they may amount to nothing more than ineffective deterrence.

As the international moral compass on chemical weapons use is growing increasingly misguided, these new tools have the potential to help redirect the global standard.

Samantha Sultoon is a visiting senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Global Business & Economics Program and the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security; she is a former sanctions policy expert for the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).