Chemical weapons remain a concern

With an Oscar for best feature documentary now linked to his name, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is one of the world’s better-known victims of a chemical weapons attack. Poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in 2020 by Russian operatives, Navalny was airlifted in a coma from Russia to Germany where he spent months recovering.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Russia to investigate the chemical poisoning. Russia rejected the accusations and five months after he was attacked, Navalny returned to Russia where he was immediately arrested. The renowned Kremlin critic is now in prison outside Moscow and in March this year, a documentary feature about him, titled Navalny, won an Academy Award, again turning the world’s attention to the dangers of chemical weapons.

A visceral fear of the insidious dangers of these sorts of poison gases and toxic chemicals dates back to WWI and the public horror after as many as 90,000 soldiers and civilians were killed and many others blinded by chemical weapons: primarily chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997, is the only international convention with a system of verification encompassing an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. Australia was an original signatory and one of the first nations to ratify the convention. Parties to the convention agreed they were determined: “for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons”.

By August last year, 193 states had ratified or acceded to the convention: Egypt, South Sudan and North Korea have not. The Convention flatly bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, and measures are used to check on potential transgressions.

Russia is a signatory. In 2018, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with Novichok in the British city of Salisbury in 2018. Both recovered, but an unconnected British woman was killed by Novichok associated with the attack and left in a bottle by the reputed Russian assassins.

Countering these sorts of chemical weapons attacks initially requires the rapid and comprehensive analysis of the weapon in question. The Chemical Defence group within Australia’s defence department can assess, verify, attribute and counter chemical threats. With expertise in chemical synthesis, reaction chemistry and analytical chemistry, the group can provide specialist training and advice to other defence and national security groupings.

Researchers focus on new materials or detection systems for specific chemicals of concern, collaborating with international partners as well as with Australian universities and industry. The experts also evaluate wide area and personal decontamination systems and provide advice regarding the remediation of contaminated sites.

Last year, assistant minister for defence Matt Thistlethwaite noted the Defence Science Technology Group ran one of the 15 laboratories globally designated by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which implements the Chemical Weapons Convention. “It is a further demonstration of the Australian government’s enduring commitment to support the Chemical Weapons Convention and the work of the OPCW,” he said.

Australia has another primary role to play in the suppression of chemical weapons: as chair of the informal Australia Group forum of nations established in 1985. The Group works to ensure exports of certain chemical, biological agents and dual-use chemical and biological manufacturing facilities and equipment are not contributing to the spread of chemical and biological weapons.

In November 2019, Novichok nerve agents were added to the banned weapons on the Chemical Weapons Convention list. Nine months later, Navalny was poisoned when Russian operatives apparently contaminated his underpants with Novichok.

In 2020, the Australia Group agreed to add Novichok precursors to the Group’s control list of chemical weapons precursors, saying the listing “reinforces the Australia Group’s concern at the re-emergence and use of chemical weapons, in violation of international laws and norms”. The Group condemns the use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances, it said.

Even so, it is difficult to proscribe or circumscribe dual-use chemicals, which may purchased for an innocent purpose. Chlorine, for instance, has been used in chemical attacks, but it is also routinely used for sanitation and to keep swimming pools clean.

Gabriel da Silva, an associate professor at Melbourne University’s department of chemical and biomolecular engineering, says Russia has clearly demonstrated in recent years that it has ongoing chemical weapons programs. Other states, including North Korea, also appear willing to deploy chemical weapons.

Before the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force, brutal chemical weapons attacks shocked the world. In 1988, Iraqi armed forces launched a chemical weapons attack – a toxic mix of mustard gas and nerve agents – in Halabja, in northern Iraq, killing an estimated 5,000 Kurds in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war.

More recently, and in defiance of the Convention, according to investigators from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Syrian armed forces dropped toxic chlorine gas cylinders on two apartment buildings in the rebel-held city of Douma in April 2018, killing 43, and in February the same year dropped another cylinder of chlorine gas in Saraqib in north-western Syria. Syria is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The investigators also found Syrian armed forces deployed chemical weapons – chlorine and sarin – three times in Ltamenah, northern Syria, in 2017.

Also in 2017 Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un, was assassinated with the nerve agent and chemical weapon VX in Kuala Lumpur airport.

“A lot of the chemical arms that built up during the Cold War have now been destroyed and dealt with,” da Silva says. “The Chemical Weapons Convention is quite powerful – weapons inspectors have a lot of ability to control the production of the most serious chemical weapons.” But, he adds, it’s difficult to prevent rogue nations producing or developing chemical weapons in secret, resulting in a tragic litany of chemical attacks around the world.

“From a military strategy point of view, there’s no need for different, better weapons,” da Silva points out, noting that some chemical weapons attacks consisted of nothing more than dropping a container of a toxic chemical from a helicopter and expecting it to rupture on impact.  “Most of the weapons are liquids and need to be distributed into the air with aerosols, which can be easily done by putting them on the end of a munition.”

These sorts of chemical weapons attacks are “redline issues”, da Silva says, and some sort of action and retaliation is expected for the nations that break the rules.

The Australian