Reinforcing the Global Norm Against Chemical Weapons

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Man in gas mask
A soldier of the U.S. Army 23rd chemical battalion wearing a gas mask at Camp Stanley in Uijeongbu, South Korea.

Reinforcing the Global Norm Against Chemical Weapons

Last month, the U.S. Department of State hosted a forum commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Chemical Weapons Convention’s (CWC) entry into force.  The CWC is the only multilateral treaty that verifiably bans an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.  The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the CWC’s implementing body, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its distinguished record in working towards a world free of chemical weapons (CW). 

Since its entry into force 20 years ago, the CWC -- with 192 States Parties -- has led to the destruction of approximately 95 percent of all declared chemical weapons stockpiles, and thereby made a significant contribution to making our world a safer place.  The OPCW has verified the destruction of chemical weapons in Albania, China, Iraq, Libya, Russia, Syria, and the United States -- among others.

The forum, entitled “The Chemical Weapons Convention 1997-2017: Progress, Challenges, and Reinforcing the Global Norm against Chemical Weapons,” brought together current and former government officials, NGO representatives, academia, and industry leaders to examine the progress made during the CWC’s 20-year history, and to discuss strategies to meet ongoing challenges.

In keynote remarks, U.S. National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster hailed the significant progress made toward upholding the norm against CW use, but expressed concern about increased use by non-State actors and rogue regimes.  He called on the international community to hold the Syrian regime -- and its supporters in Moscow and Tehran -- accountable, and urged the international community to unite and make clear that further CW use will not be tolerated.

A firefighter cleans houses exposed to a chemical attack in Taza.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü took stock of the CWC’s achievements and lessons learned, and highlighted continuing challenges.  Referring to ongoing investigation of the April 4 CW attack in Khan Shaykhun, Ambassador Üzümcü concluded: “This is work of historic importance in our collective quest to uphold fundamental norms and values as an enlightened and human civilization.”

United Nations (UN) Under Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu lauded the CWC as a model treaty, noting its comprehensive, legally-binding, verifiable, and near-universal nature. She echoed concerns that recent perpetrators are undermining the norm against CW use, but expressed optimism that the OPCW’s Fact Finding Mission and the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism will fulfill their mandates in a professional and impartial manner.

Common themes emerged throughout the event. High-level support, unity of purpose, and engagement by the United States, partners, and international bodies remain critical to the continuing success of the Convention. The CWC must be flexible and agile to adapt to new challenges, such as CW use by non-State actors. It is also important to move beyond the perception that the OPCW is merely a technical organization focused on disarmament. To do this, the OPCW will need to develop new tools to strengthen attribution and deterrence capabilities, and provide support to mitigate the impact of future chemical attacks.

As we commemorate this anniversary, I am proud of the work we have accomplished.  However, the continued use of CW in Iraq and Syria provides a sobering reminder of the challenges that remain. The United States has been a key supporter of the OPCW’s activities and remains committed to the international norm against the use or possession of CW established by the CWC. We urge the international community to stand with us and speak with one voice against CW use anywhere, by anyone. 

About the Author: Anita E. Friedt serves as the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance.

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