Chemical weapons, an old threat to humanity

History has known the serious threat of chemical weapons since classical times when the Athenian army tainted the water supply of the besieged city of Kirrha
Chemical weapons, an old threat to humanity
Two Russian soldiers make a routine check of metal containers with toxic agents at a chemical weapons storage site in the town of Gorny, Russia - Photo: AP
07/04/2018
08:55
Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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History has known the serious threat of chemical weapons since classical times (600 BCE), when the Athenian army tainted the water supply of the besieged city of Kirrha with poisonous hellebore plants during the First Sacred War, while the Peloponnesian forces used sulfur fumes against the town of Plataea.

Later, the Greek fire was responsible for several Byzantine naval victories, most notably the salvation of Constantinople from two Arab sieges.

The formula of the incendiary weapon was a closely guarded secret in the Eastern Roman Empire and remains a matter of debate since experts suggest a series of elements such as pine resin, naphtha, quicklime, calcium phosphide, and even sulfur as possible ingredients.

In 1675, France and the Holy Roman Empire (present-day Germany) signed the Strasbourg Agreement, the first international pact to ban chemical weapons, in this case outlawing the use of poisoned bullets.

Nevertheless, it was until World War I that history records the first large-scale use of chemical weapons, from disabling compounds such as tear gas to lethal agents like phosgene, chlorine, and mustard gas.

The era of weapons of mass destruction was born, leaving nearly 90,000 fatalities from a total of 1.3 million casualties caused by gas attacks.

The use of poison gas performed by all major belligerents throughout the conflict constituted war crimes, as its deployment violated the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare.

The Geneva Protocol was adopted by the League of Nations in 1925, banning the use of chemical and biological agents in war, but without prohibiting the development, production, or stockpiling of such weapons.

During World War II, major powers refrained from its use in battlefields; however, poison gases such as Zyklon B, a pesticide invented in the 1920s, were used by Nazi Germany in the Holocaust.

Agent Orange

The United States resorted to Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant, in order to deprive guerrillas of food, concealment, and their rural support base in the Vietnam War.

The government of the South Asian country says as many as three million people have suffered illness because of the defoliant and the Red Cross estimates that up to one million are disabled or have health problems as a result of contamination.

For its part, Iraq used chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and launched an air attack with mustard gas against the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, killing nearly 5,000 people, most of them civilians.

In 2013, the threat of a Western intervention in the Syrian conflict was avoided after the Damascus regime signed an agreement leading to the elimination of its chemical stockpiles.

The 1993 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (CWC) is the most recent arms control agreement with the force of international law and it is administered by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is an independent agency based in The Hague.

Working closely with the United Nations, the OPCW administers the terms of the CWC to 192 signatories—Mexico included—which represents 98% of the global population.

In the Skripal case, Mexico categorically condemned the attack with “Novichok” against former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England.

“Mexico expresses its concern about the use of chemical weapons in violation of the CWC and the international law”, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last month.

If the intervention of a State in the territory of another is proven, it warned, the Mexican government reserves the right to adopt the diplomatic measures it deems appropriate, “including the declaration of its diplomats in Mexico as "personae non gratae” in terms of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

The nerve agent “Novichok” (Newcomer) was developed and produced in the 1970s in Shikhany, home of a military research centre that specialized in chemical and radiation weapons in the then Soviet Union, according to British experts. The information was contained in a report submitted several years ago by Moscow to the OPCW.

However, British scientists at the Porton Down defense research laboratory have not established that the nerve agent used to poison the Skripals was made in Russia, said The Guardian newspaper on Tuesday.

Edited by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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