Chemical weapons are prohibited, however recent chemical weapons attacks in Malaysia, Syria, Iraq and the UK have raised concerns about their use. In the UK in 2018, four people were taken seriously ill and one person died following exposure to a Novichok, a type of nerve agent. The UK Government recently announced £11m to strengthen the UK’s chemical defences and highlighted chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats as an area of focus in the recent Modernising Defence Programme. This briefing provides an overview of chemical weapons including types of chemical weapons and modes of delivery, chemical weapons control and disarmament, investigations of alleged attacks and chemical weapons defence in the UK.
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‘Chemical weapons’ refers to the use of toxic chemicals to inflict deliberate harm to humans or animals. They are prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997 and has been committed to by 193 states. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is the international body responsible for implementing the CWC. This includes: verifying the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles, monitoring certain chemicals and carrying out investigations into alleged chemical weapons attacks.
There have been several reports of chemical weapons attacks in recent years. A Human Rights Watch analysis identified 85 attacks in Syria between August 2013 and February 2018. Joint OPCW-UN investigations in Syria attributed four chemical weapons attacks to the Syrian Government, and two to Daesh. Other incidents include the reported use of chemical weapons in Iraq by Daesh, and the alleged assassination of Kim Jong-nam using the nerve agent VX. In the UK in 2018, four people were taken seriously ill and one person died following exposure to a Novichok, a type of nerve agent.
The international response to events in Syria has included airstrikes on chemical weapons facilities in Syria, official OPCW investigations and a new mechanism to give the OPCW powers to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons use. In the UK, the Government announced a £48m investment in the Chemical Weapons Defence Centre at Porton Down in March 2018, which will include new chemical analysis laboratories. It also announced £11m to strengthen the UK’s response to chemical weapons attacks in March 2019, which will include investment in new technical capabilities for substance analysis and development of plans to deploy robots and drones to contaminated areas. The UK Government’s Modernising Defence Programme, published in December 2018, said that UK defence will focus on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats.
- A chemical weapons system is made up of several components – a chemical warfare agent, a delivery device and any associated equipment (for example, dispersal equipment). Under the CWC, all these components are considered a chemical weapon if they are intended to cause harm to humans or animals.
- Many toxic chemicals and precursors are ‘dual-use’, meaning they have legitimate uses but could also be used as weapons. For example, chlorine is used in water purification but could also be used as a choking agent.
- Chemical weapons attacks can take different forms depending on the capability and the aims of those carrying them out.
- Policymakers and experts, including the OPCW, have expressed concern over terrorists’ interest in the use of chemical weapons.
- The OPCW oversees the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles, carries out inspections and investigates alleged chemical weapons attacks.
- The UK has led a joint initiative to grant the OPCW powers to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks. Some states are opposed to this move, with concerns it may compromise the politically neutral role of the OPCW.
- Chemical defence in the UK involves measures to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from a chemical weapons attack.
- The UK response to a chemical incident involves many agencies working to treat victims, detect and identify hazardous materials, minimise impacts and support investigations.
POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:
- Arms Control Association
- Chemical Business Association*
- Chemical Weapons Convention UK National Authority, BEIS*
- Chris Noakes, Fire and Rescue National Resilience
- Cranfield University*
- David Nasmyth-Miller, Metropolitan Police*
- Dr Huw Loaring, FLIR Systems
- Dr James Revill, University of Sussex*
- Dr John Hart, World Health Organisation*
- Dr Lijun Shang, University of Bradford*
- Dr Michael Crowley, University of Bradford*
- Dr Ornella Corazza, University of Hertfordshire
- Dr Susan Martin, King’s College London*
- Foreign and Commonwealth Office*
- Gwyn Winfield, CBRN(e) World*
- Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, Avon Protection*
- Home Office*
- Jerry Smith*
- Kerry Foxall, Public Health England*
- Laura Cochrane, Emergent BioSolutions*
- Louisa Brooke-Holland, House of Commons Library*
- Mark Hiznay, Human Rights Watch
- Ministry of Defence*
- Natalie Manning, Metropolitan Police
- National CBRN Centre*
- NHS England Emergency Preparedness Resilience and Response*
- Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons*
- PelGar International
- Prof Alastair Hay, University of Leeds*
- Prof Brian Balmer, University College London
- Prof Diane Purchase, Middlesex University
- Prof Malcolm Dando, University of Bradford*
- Prof Peter G. Blain, Newcastle University*
*Denotes those who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.
Image Copyright: Avon Protection
Download the full report
- Chemical Weapons (PDF, 493 KB)