When the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was finalized in 1992, a world with no production, storage and use of such weaponry was envisaged. But in spite of the fact that almost all chemical weapons have been destroyed (97 % by now) and chemical warfare by conventional thinking should have become almost unlikely, incidents involving such weapons have increased in numbers and scale in recent years. This has indeed had an impact, and ordinary citizens now seem to regard chemical weapons more of a threat than a few years back. The main reasons for this are serious reports from Syria, where chemical weapons have been part of the war theatre more or less regularly since 2012, but the assassination of Kim Jong-nam by VX at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the attack of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian agent, and his daughter Julia with novichok, the most deadly nerve agent known , in Salisbury, UK, have also left disturbing impressions.
An obvious question has therefore emerged, also within the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), established to implement the CWC: What can be done to stop this destructive development once and for all? Possible solutions seem to have been discussed ever since the CWC went into force in 1997 and particularly in preparation of and in connection with the reviews of the Convention, which have taken place every fifth year since 2003. One issue in this discussion has been the value of expanding the list of chemical compounds mentioned specifically in the Convention. An argument against such an expansion has been that enlisting a chemical does not change anything since all chemicals that are used to kill people by definition become chemical weapons. This indeed curbed the discussion for about 25 years—until last month. When the States Parties assembled in The Hague to their 24th session at the end of November last year, the CWC was amended for the first time ever. The amendment amounted to adding of a series of novichoks (see Figure) to the annex on chemicals to the Convention, as proposed by Canada, United States and the Netherlands . For many chemists, this addition will make them aware of a new structural feature to watch out for in a chemical-weapons context, the O=P-N moiety, but the novichoks are chemical weapons weather they are listed or not, so their inclusion has no practical consequence really . However, from a diplomatic point of view the amendment looks different. Thus, the Director-General of OPCW, H.E. Mr Fernando Arias, made the point that this amendment is important because it “demonstrates the adaptability of the Convention to changing threats while enhancing the OPCW’s ability to remain vigilant, agile, and fit for purpose .”
See a news release in Nature 28 November 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03686-y