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The Birth of the Chemical Weapons Convention (and the OPCW)

Recent events in Syria have once again spotlighted the dangers of chemical weapons and international efforts to catalog and destroy them. The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (otherwise known as the Chemical Weapons Convention or CWC) was opened for signature with a ceremony in Paris in January 1993 — 130 States signed the Convention within the first two days. Four years later, in April 1997, the Convention entered into force with 87 States Parties. Currently, the CWC comprises 184 States Parties, as well as an implementing body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), located in Brussels. The OPCW as awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its work.

The Convention had been the subject of nearly 20 years of negotiations within the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. The States involved in these negotiations were seeking to finalize an international treaty banning chemical weapons, and designed to ensure their worldwide elimination. The Convention is the first multilateral treaty to ban an entire category of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and to provide for the international verification of the destruction of these weapons. Altogether, the international community succeeded in producing a treaty that would verify the destruction of chemical weapons worldwide as well as ensure the non-proliferation of these weapons and the toxic chemicals used in their manufacture.

In these excerpts, Ambassador Henry Allen Holmes, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs and served as the lead negotiator for the United States, discusses the tough negotiations that led to the CWC and the surprising cooperation of his Soviet colleagues. He discusses the French proposal to hold the international conference on chemical weapons, made after the massacre at Halabja against Iraqi Kurds, the efforts to get China and other countries on board, and Israel’s deep concern with Syria’s stockpile of binary chemical weapons, and the occasional difficulties the U.S. had with Israel itself. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in March 1999.

“Cold War Warriors”

HOLMES:  We were all a bunch of Cold War warriors. We had a certain mentality about the Soviets. We didn’t trust them. We didn’t like them. We thought they were trying to steal our eggs, you know. The series of arms control negotiations that we had with the Soviets in those days [in 1987] were hard fought. These were tough. Frequently we’d have one step forward and two steps back. And the Soviets were tough, too. They were fighting hard in these negotiations. And you know, I took myself to task for not being a very good listener. And it’s very important in diplomacy to learn how to be a good listener, to listen carefully, because you might just pick up something that, if you don’t listen carefully, you miss.

I would typically square off with a Soviet counterpart on chemical warfare, and we weren’t making much progress, and we would argue and come up with formulations because we knew that the following day we would have to go and report to Shultz and [Soviet Foreign Minister] Eduard Shevardnadze on how we had done, so we were working very hard. And at a certain point — it was probably our second meeting, maybe the third meeting — my Soviet counterpart said that he was quite prepared for us to have a surprise inspection formulation in our chemical warfare treaty or convention…and I didn’t believe the guy. I thought he was putting me on, because he said “a surprise inspection provision,” where we would just notify them and we could come, within six hours, and inspect. […]

So when we went to report to Shultz and Shevardnadze, Shevardnadze was sort of to Shultz with, “What’s going on here? What’s wrong with your negotiator? My man is trying to move this thing forward, and you’re being very obstructionist. What’s the problem here?” Shultz was equally skeptical, and he said, “Do you mean, Eduard,” he said, “Do you mean to tell me that if we challenged you and thought that here in the Kremlin, right inside your government offices, that we had detected a chemical weapons laboratory and we demanded to inspect it, that you would allow that?” He said, “Absolutely.” And Shultz kind of looked at me, you know, in disbelief, and I looked at him in disbelief. And that was sort of the end of it. And we didn’t make much progress on the chemical front at that meeting.

The “Barbarism” of Soviet Leaders

Now when I returned to Washington, I made my notes and I debriefed and so forth. […] That summer, the Soviet Foreign Ministry had a three-day conference, which was Soviet only. It was diplomats and military and their own think tank people and some of their own newsmen, and it was about arms control. And they had a lot of discussion; a lot of papers were presented; and they wrote it all up in a nice little booklet, translated it, and sent it all over the place. And I got my copy. And I took it home that weekend and read it. The part I read very carefully was the part on chemical warfare. To my utter astonishment, Shevardnadze, at this meeting, was blasting other Soviets and the lingering “barbarism” – he used the word barbarism – of certain Soviet leaders and thinkers and strategists to continue to develop chemical weapons – and what a blight this had produced and what damage this was doing to the reputation of the peace-loving Soviet people, that we in the Soviet Union would develop these horrible nerve gas weapons.

Well, I read that. I finished reading it, and I said, Holmes, you missed something. This guy really believes this. He was sincere. He is fighting his own bureaucracy, his own Cold War warriors in the Kremlin, and he wants to move this process forward. And so the next session, which was a few months after that […] was a very different session and we  moved the ball forward. And I told my Soviet counterpart, I said, “Frankly, I didn’t believe you when you said it the last time we were in Moscow.” So this was a very significant turning point, and I began to realize – this goes back to your first question to me – we are dealing here with a new mentality, a new generation of Soviet leaders….

The INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty signature may have been in December of 1987. It was in Washington, in the White House, and then that was the treaty ceremony where Reagan and Gorbachev sort of joshed each other a bit with Reagan quoting the Russian phrase which means, basically, “verify and then trust.” And Gorbachev laughing and saying, “You always say that to me.” And then the following spring, in June of ’88, there was a return visit by President Reagan to Moscow, and some other activities in the arms control arena were undertaken. There were some things that were signed there that were of less significance. The INF Treaty was a major moment in our series of arms control reductions, and of course the START came later, as did the Chemical Warfare Treaty, which happened in the Bush Administration.

The French Proposal to Hold a Global Conference

After the election of George Bush in November of 1988 (the Reagan Administration, of course, was still in office), Shultz readily agreed to a French proposal to hold a conference in the first 10 days of …January in Paris, to which about 150 countries in the world were invited. This was a global conference, and it was basically an attempt to stuff the chemical warfare genie back in the bottle. We had a convention signed in 1925 as a result of the use of gas in World War I, to basically ban chemical weapons forever; and other than the Italian use of gas against the Ethiopians in what must have been about 1937 or ’38 in that campaign, the 1925 convention banning the use of chemical weapons was observed throughout World War II, and it wasn’t until the Iranians were fighting the Iraqis in the early ’80s and pushing Iraqi troops back into Iraq, out of the Shatt al-Arab, that the Iraqis got so desperate that they got to the point where they actually uncorked the bottle and used nerve gas against the Iranians and against their own people, against Iraqi Kurds, who, of course, weren’t exactly sympathetic to the Iraqi cause.

And the famous Halabja incident occurred [in March 1988], where there was a massive attack on this one town, and it killed a lot of Iraqi Kurds, a lot of the population, and there were horrible photographs. And I remember there were hearings about that afterwards, and I testified. The Congress was basically trying to place responsibility as to how this could possibly have happened, and what were the consequences, and what were we going to do about chemical warfare, and so forth.

So the French had this concept of pulling together the world community and trying at least to freeze the use of chemical weapons, if not to patch up the 1925 convention, pending a more permanent treaty, the negotiation of which was underway and took a very long time. And we agreed to do that, and Shultz agreed to go to the conference.…We had some tough negotiations. We came out with a very good communiqué, which basically pledged the participants to contain the use of chemical weapons. We had, I remember, an all-nighter with a group of about 20 countries that were the so-called Friends of the Chairman, and I was the lead negotiator in that. We went all night, and it was exceedingly difficult because the Iranians, the Iraqis, the Libyans, and a few other countries who were very suspicious….

This collection of the Middle Eastern countries who were implacable enemies of Israel wanted to hold us up basically on the question of chemical weapons to bring in a pledge on the part of the Israelis, who were also at the conference, to forswear the use of nuclear weapons before they would sign up to language in this communiqué. So we went on all night, and basically with the assistance of Mike Matheson, who was the senior legal advisor from the State Department, he and I just adopted a tactic of hard line. We just placed ourselves way over at the right and adopted the Soviet posture of nyet. The Soviet delegation was completely in our court, but told us very frankly they wouldn’t lift a finger to help us, but that they would go along with us. So they just sat on their hands during this long night’s struggle.

And eventually the French, as the hosts, came along with us, and we got closer and closer, and finally about four o’clock in the morning, we got the language that we needed for the communiqué.…Naturally the conference turned out quite well and was a…pretty firm pledge on the part of the world community to do something serious about containing the use of chemical weapons. [It was a] good platform for the four-year struggle that was about to begin under the Bush Administration to conclude a workable, verifiable chemical arms treaty.

The Poor Man’s Weapon of Mass Destruction

China went along with this as well, and of course they maintained a fiction, which was that they had never had chemical weapons, that they had been the victim of the use of chemical weapons in experimentation by the Japanese. At least that’s what the Chinese told me when we had our first ever political-military discussions with the Chinese in November of 1988, which was a very interesting trip that one of my deputies in the Political Military Bureau, Vladimir Lehovich, and I went to, went to Beijing and had two days of talks, not knowing beforehand what the agenda would be because the Chinese wouldn’t tell us. But we were willing to go on that basis, and we had a rather thorough, although I would call it Pol-Mil 101… But it was a beginning. These were official talks on political-military subjects, and we did talk about weapons of mass destruction and chemical warfare, and actually not too long after that, Tiananmen Square happened, and of course that put a freeze on our relationship for some years after that. But that was sort of an interesting early beginning, and I do recall from those discussions the Chinese being at pains to say that they had been the victims of Japanese use of chemical weapons and also experimentation.

Q: There’s a notorious unit of the Japanese Army that was supposed to have been working in Manchuria with chemical weapons, and it’s still very foggy. 

HOLMES:  They mentioned Manchuria to us. They didn’t talk about this particular unit, but they said that there had been incidents in Manchuria by the Japanese against their people. Now they also denied that they had chemical weapons production facility and capacity, which was not true. I mean, they had a small one, but it was very much alive.

Q: When you say “chemical,” this includes what we in the old days used to call gas? 

HOLMES:  Yes, gas – mustard gas, but more importantly, the very lethal series of nerve gases like Tabun and Sarin, VX, and those kinds of horrible weapons from which a good dose would produce death within minutes because your entire muscular and nervous system would be paralyzed.…

Our biggest problem was, of course, with Iran and Iraq, because they had basically broken the pledge.…The Iraqis were the biggest offenders, but the Iranians had also. They had actually exchanged barrages of chemical weapons. As I say, the Iraqis much more than the Iranians, but the two of them together, against each other, had done this. The Libyans had not, but they had developed an enormous chemical weapons complex, which we knew all about, and that was before they actually went underground at Tarhuna, which happened later. But the Libyans had a big complex, and of course the Soviets had the biggest stockpile — bigger than ours, which was considerable — of chemical weapons in the world. And the various other countries had them.

There were probably 20-25 countries [besides] the Arab countries — we always used to refer to it as the poor man’s weapon of mass destruction. Obviously, to produce usable nuclear weapons required an enormous infrastructure and an investment that most of these countries — with exceptions we found out later of Iraq — couldn’t afford. By that time the Israelis had, for psychological reasons, allowed it to be known without ever admitting it, that they had a stockpile of nuclear weapons, and so the Arabs were trying to work a pledge from them on the non-use of nuclear weapons into the equation; and of course we didn’t go along with that.

Israel and Syria’s Binary Chemical Weapons

The [Israelis] were delighted that we were able to protect their unannounced nuclear weapons program.…I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere on nuclear weapons, so I never even tried, but on the question of chemical weapons, we tried… It took us a couple of years, almost a year and a half, two years, to get the Israelis to agree to discuss chemical weapons. We finally got their attention when Dick Clark, who was then deputy assistant secretary of INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research]…came with us on one trip, and we gave a briefing to then Defense Minister Rabin, which really got his attention, because they were struggling with the fact that their own intelligence had not been able to keep track of the Syrian development of binary chemical weapons.

Binary weapons are those where the elements of the weapon are kept separate in basically nonlethal, inert, harmless stages, and they only would come together to form a lethal weapon in the warhead as it was moving in flight towards its target. And the Syrians had been able to get a lot of these weapons from the Soviets, and they had stockpiled them in places that the Israelis hadn’t discovered, and they were getting very, very worried about this capability. Why? Because the entire Israeli strategy for survival depended on their ability to…put their air force aloft very quickly at the beginning of a war or maybe even preempt by a few hours to get immediate control of the airspace, which would then allow them to mobilize their ground forces in the 24 to 48 hours that followed.

With them not having exact information on where and in what quantity the Syrians had binary chemical weapons strapped on short-range missiles (300-400 mile range) this could have absolutely destroyed their capability, because even though they might have had air superiority during the mobilization stage, barrages of these chemical weapons could have terrorized their population and made mobilization extremely difficult. And so they were very concerned. And I remember this particular briefing. Dick Clark gave a superb briefing on chemical weapons capabilities. Rabin was very interested, was very engaged in this discussion, and he allowed us then to get into discussions of the control of chemical and, eventually, biological weapons with the Israelis. We kind of broke the ice with them on this, and we were able to make that then – particularly chemical weapons – a regular feature of our embryonic arms control discussions with the Israelis.

Q: At your level did politics intrude, because everything with Israel ends up by being domestically political? Did you find that intruded there at all?

HOLMES: Not really. I’ll tell you, we were dealing with Israeli professionals, professional military and diplomats, but basically we were dealing with the Israeli Defense Force and with their Foreign Ministry….The only time I was ever aware of the politics of the Israeli-US relationship was during Israeli visits to Washington, when at the inevitable Israeli ambassador’s dinner there would be AIPAC [American-Israeli Political Action Committee] members there, at the dinner, and members of Congress who had big Jewish constituencies. Then in discussion at those dinners it was very clear that there was a political aspect….

We did occasionally have problems on the provision of technology. Any time we sold or loaned, gave or what have you, equipment to the Israeli Defense Force, we had a string, and it was always part of the agreement, on the re-export of this American technology. In other words, they understood that we were giving them top of the line technology and that they had to control it and that we would be watching and we would not permit the resale unless they asked us. Very old equipment or equipment that might be obsolescent, we might after review allow them to sell to third countries. And they pretty much abided by that.

But we began to have a problem in the relationship when at a certain point they would take some critical component of a defense system and remove it and then develop it and then place it in something constructed by Israeli defense industries and then sell it — as to the Chinese. And we had problems with their sales. They were developing a huge relationship with China at that time. They were selling them a lot of equipment, and in return for that, they got political diplomatic support from the Chinese in a lot of places. And of course they were very pleased to have relations with them, and they eschewed the relationship with Taiwan. But we had some difficult discussions with the Israelis at that time.