Chemical Weapons Convention marks the 20th year since its historic enactment

by Yumi Kanazaki, Yu Yamada, and Makoto Iwasaki, Staff Writers

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) marks the 20th anniversary of its entry into force on April 29. While this agreement has been a model for other multilateral disarmament treaties, current conditions in Syria and North Korea have revealed its limitations, too. At the same time, the CWC treaty is deeply relevant to Japan. For instance, the destruction of abandoned chemical weapons, which the former Imperial Japanese Army had brought to China during the war, is still ongoing. Meanwhile, Ohkunoshima Island in Takehara, Hiroshima Prefecture, the island where a poison gas plant was operated by the former Imperial Japan Army, is now facing an urgent task in preventing tragic memories of that time from fading away after more than than 70 years since the end of the war. The A-bombed cities share this same sense of urgency when it comes to handing down the past. With the United Nations having begun negotiations to establish a treaty that would outlaw nuclear weapons, also categorized as weapons of mass destruction, the Chugoku Shimbun will explore the lessons learned from the path of prohibiting chemical weapons.

CWC is ratified by 192 states, exceeding the number of NPT membership

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was signed in 1993 and entered into force four years later. It prohibits, in all cases, the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, among other nuclear-related actions.

In line with the treaty, member states holding chemical weapons and the materials for producing these weapons must destroy them. There is also an inspection system in place to verify whether or not nations are abiding by the treaty. It has been ratified by 192 nations, with the exception of North Korea, Egypt, South Sudan, and Israel, which has not yet ratified the treaty, and the number of member states exceeds the number of nations that have signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The CWC is a treaty intended to impose a total and universal ban on chemical weapons.

Chemical weapons release chemical substances that cause harm to the human body through bombshells, missiles, and spraying equipment. Banning these weapons was achieved as a result of executing partial restrictions, step by step, after a history of chemical weapons use and related disasters.

“Nuclear weapons of the poor”

The full-fledged use of chemical weapons began in World War I. More than 90,000 people were reportedly killed by the use of chlorine gas and blister agents, such as mustard gas, by the German military. In 1925, the Geneva Protocol was concluded to prohibit the use of chemical weapons, but this was unable to end their development and stockpiling. As soon as it obtained the necessary technology, Japan also began producing chemical weapons, which have been dubbed “nuclear weapons of the poor.” Even after World War II, they have frequently been used in conflicts, like the Iran-Iraq War, and as tools of oppression, such as their use against the Kurdish people in Iraq by the Hussein regime. Because they are relatively easy to produce, ever since the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by a cult group called Aum Shinrikyo, chemical weapons have been identified as a danger in terrorist attacks in urban areas.

The CWC entered into force in the midst of the shock caused by this incident in Tokyo. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was established in The Hague, the Netherlands to carry out inspections of nations and the agreement has been highly effective in banning chemical weapons among the international community as a whole. The treaty has played an important role in the disarmament and non-proliferation of these weapons, with eight nations to date, including India, Russia, and the United States, declaring their stockpiling of chemical weapons and four of them finishing the process of destroying their stockpiles. More than 90% of the materials used to produce these weapons, which the nations have acknowledged holding, have been destroyed.

At this point, however, the CWC is at a critical crossroads. One of the challenges the treaty faces is the difficulty of checking the conditions of non-member nations. In fact, when Kim Jong-un, the elder half-brother of Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, was killed in February, VX, a highly toxic nerve agent, was detected in his body. There have been warnings that toxic gas, like sarin, could be added to North Korean missiles.

The treaty has been sidestepped by member nations, too. On April 4, an air strike killed about 90 people, including children, in western Syria, and the use of chemical weapons is suspected in this attack. While the Assad regime in Syria, along with Russia, denied involvement, the United States carried out a counterstrike, contending that the initial attack had been perpetrated by the Assad regime. Subsequently, tensions have grown in the Middle East.

Interests of big nations are prioritized

Around 5 million people have reportedly fled Syria, and 400,000 people have died, as a result of the fighting between the Assad regime, the opposition groups, and the so-called Islamic State. Pressed by the United States and Russia, the Syrian government, which has allegedly used chemical weapons since the start of the civil war, joined the CWC treaty in 2013. This development helped the OPCW win the Nobel Peace Prize in that year. A total of 1,300 tons of chemical weapons that Syria said it possessed were supposed to have been destroyed.

In spite of this, the damaging consequences of chemical weapon attacks have been reported time and again. Though the CWC promotes a total ban on chemical weapons, the integrity of this agreement would be badly undermined if the poor precedent of not condemning a member nation over such violations comes to pass. The interests of the superpowers that support the states that use chemical weapons must not be prioritized over the necessity of curtailing the damage caused by chemical weapons. Any use of chemical weapons by any nation should be condemned.

This is a key point in considering the ideal state of a treaty that would outlaw nuclear arms, a pact that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have long sought to see established. The broad and deep recognition of the inhumanity of these weapons remains at the heart of this quest for a nuclear ban treaty.

Major developments involving the CWC

Iran-Iraq War breaks out.

Poison gas museum is completed on Ohkunoshima Island. Iraq uses poison gas against the Kurdish people.

Gulf War breaks out. Negotiations to establish CWC accelerate.

CWC is signed.

Matsumoto sarin attack takes place.

Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system takes place.

Residual arsenic is detected on Ohkunoshima Island.

CWC goes into effect.

China and Japan sign memorandum of understanding on destroying abandoned chemical weapons.

Syria joins CWC. OPCW wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

Groups of poison gas sufferers from Ohkunoshima Island agree to consolidate their work.

Kim Jong-nam is assassinated. U.S. forces attack a Syrian air base, contending that the Syrian government used chemical weapons.

Japan still paying off its historical debt

A massive amount of chemical weapons, abandoned by the former Japanese military, has caused harm to local residents.

Japan engaged in the production and use of poison gas in China during the war years. Many decades later, it is still paying off its historical debt.

Along with banning chemical weapons, the other significant aspect of the CWC is that it obliges member nations to take responsibility for destroying the chemical weapons they abandoned in other nations dating back to the year 1925. The chemical weapons left behind in China are emblematic of that provision.

After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese military transported an enormous amount of chemical weapons to China. The quantity of such weapons that were abandoned there toward the end of the war, including mustard gas bombs, has not been precisely identified. Japan has estimated to the OPCW that there are about 300,000 to 400,000 chemical weapons in the Harbaling area of Jilin Province in northeast China. However, even in this century, other abandoned chemical weapons, beyond those noted by the Japanese government, are being found in other parts of China.

With a tremendous amount of money from the Japanese government, the destruction of the abandoned weapons is proceeding slowly but surely, in line with a memorandum of understanding signed by Japan and China. The original aim, though, was to complete this work within the 10 years since the CWC entered into force. And it seems this goal is still a long way off.

There is also a serious issue not covered by the CWC. Some local residents have suffered harm to their health because of the chemical weapons left behind after the war. For example, in 2003 in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, poison gas fluid leaked from a drum found at a construction site, which affected 44 people and resulted in one death. In 2004, two children happened to touch an abandoned mustard gas bomb when they were playing at a river in Dunhua, Jinlin Province.

In certain cases, the Japanese government has provided some money for these people’s suffering from the national budget that was allocated to handle the issue of destroying the abandoned weapons, but it is reluctant to compensate more broadly for the greater damage done. Though the sufferers sought compensation by filing a lawsuit in Japan, their effort was unsuccessful.

In China, the cost of medical care is high and some question if it is right to let local residents there suffer as a result of Japan’s chemical weapons. To address this need, there are voluntary efforts being made in Japan and China to raise funds and remedy the situation from a humanitarian perspective. Last October, a joint Japan-China fund to support the sufferers of chemical weapons was established by lawyers in Tokyo and others as a non-profit organization.

In March, in Heilongjiang Province, a region where there are many sufferers of the abandoned weapons, Japanese and Chinese doctors discussed their future activities to aid these people, including conducting medical examinations in local hospitals, providing medical assistance, and offering financial support for costs involving medicine and other medical needs. Maiko Sugamoto, a lawyer who works for the fund’s head office, said, “The people who have been affected have suffered permanent nerve damage. We would like to expand the circle of support and call on the Japanese government to create a mechanism for compensation.”

The other issue, also fading from awareness, involves the actual conditions of poison gas production and use during the war. Two sites in Japan were used as bases for producing poison gas: one was Ohkunoshima Island, operated by the former Japanese army; the other was the Sagami arsenal in Kanagawa Prefecture, run by the former Japanese navy. Many details of this time are still unknown, including the process of producing the poison gas and the use of these weapons by the former Japanese military.

Yasuto Takeuchi, 60, a researcher of modern history living in Hamamatsu, discovered the hidden connection between the air force and the chemical weapons by studying local documents, and described this relationship in a recent book titled Nihon rikugun no ajia kushu (Air Strikes by the Japanese Military in Asia). The flight training school in Hamamatsu kept records which indicate that military exercises were held at the mouth of the Tenryugawa River in 1934 which involved dropping mustard gas bombs. The idea was explored at the school and these exercises took place. It is believed that the poison gas produced on Ohkunoshima Island was transported to Hamamatsu by train. The exercises then led to poison gas attacks by Japanese planes during the Sino-Japanese War. That is the conclusion drawn to date by Mr. Takeuchi.

Despite the many historical materials that exist, the Japanese government has not clearly acknowledged that deadly poison gas like mustard gas was actually used in China. Mr. Takeuchi said, “When Japan criticizes Syria and North Korea for their use of chemical weapons, it should also look back and recognize what it has done in the past.”

Negative legacy of Ohkunoshima Island, site of a poison gas plant

Ohkunoshima Island, known as “rabbit island,” attracts many tourists from Japan and overseas. The history of the island, though, includes a poison gas plant run by the former Japanese military, and people who once worked at the plant still suffer from the aftereffects of their exposure to the poison gas, such as chronic bronchitis. Today the danger of chemical weapons has again drawn the attention of the world because of recent incidents including Mr. Kim’s assassination in Malaysia, allegedly orchestrated by North Korea, and the civil war in Syria. Under such circumstances, handing down memories of this negative legacy in Japan to younger generation holds more significance than ever.

According to the work of researchers, 6,600 tons of poison gas, including mustard gas and sneezing gas, are believed to have been produced by the military on Ohkunoshima Island from 1929 to 1944. To maintain the secrecy of this operation, the presence of the island was removed from maps.

The confederation that provides support to the sufferers of the island’s poison gas production consists of eight groups of sufferers and other entities, including the city of Takehara. Masaaki Shinmei, 85, the vice chair of the confederation of support groups and a resident of Mihara, is distressed by the recent incidents involving the use of chemical weapons. Mr. Shinmei said, “Even a small amount of a chemical weapon can cause significant damage. It’s disappointing because I hoped that our suffering would never be repeated in the generations that followed.”

Though the sufferers want to continue speaking about the island’s history, they are advancing in age and this poses serious challenges. Based on data from the Hiroshima prefectural government, 1,830 sufferers have been certified as harmed by the poison gas and hold the health management booklet issued by the government, and their average age exceeds 89 (as of April 1). Since all eight groups of sufferers are finding it difficult to maintain their activities, they are making efforts to integrate their work. Mr. Shinmei said quietly, “We’ve grown old and can only lead our daily lives. It’s hard for us to take on additional activities in the group, like sharing our experience with others.”

Their situation is in contrast to the tourist boom now taking place on the island. Thanks to the more than 700 rabbits that make their home there, the number of tourists has grown rapidly, reaching 250,000 in 2015, including about 17,000 people from abroad. On the other hand, the island’s poison gas museum, which is located near the pier, has failed to attract many visitors. In fiscal year 2016, only about 60,000 people came to the museum. It seems the museum has been unable to properly take advantage of this tourist boom. For one thing, the museum’s exhibits still largely lack explanations in English.

Kazunori Harada, 25, a tourist from Nara, didn’t enter the museum, but he looked at the ruins of the poison gas plant’s storage facility, which is located near a resort hotel used as a base for sightseeing. Mr. Harada said, “This is a relaxing place where people can interact with the rabbits. It’s sad to know that poison gas was once produced on this island.”

How can the wishes of the sufferers of Ohkunoshima Island be handed down to future generations? One possible solution involves a group pursuing research on the history of the island so that people of younger generations, without firsthand experience of this history, can continue telling the story on behalf of the aging sufferers.

Reiko Okada, 87, a former art teacher in Mihara, hopes that their experience on Ohkunoshima Island can be handed down to younger generations. When she was 15 years old, Ms. Okada was mobilized to work at the poison gas plant. About 27 years ago, she published a book of drawings which convey her experience carrying drums filled with the chemicals to make poison gas. Even now, there are children who read her book and send her letters. Because of her advancing age, she is no longer able to actively share her experience with others. Still, she hopes that encouraging others to learn about the history of poison gas production in Japan will help prevent war from breaking out again in the future.

Interview with Professor Masahiko Asada on the significance and challenges of the CWC treaty

The Chugoku Shimbun interviewed Masahiko Asada, 59, on the significance and future challenges of the CWC, now marking the 20th year since its enactment. Mr. Asada, a professor in the Graduate School of Law at Kyoto University and an expert on international law, was also involved in the negotiations to establish the CWC treaty.

In what sense is this treaty historic?
Biological weapons have hardly ever been used in wars fought to date, because it is difficult to control the spread of infection. Thus, it was relatively easy to reach an agreement and establish a treaty to ban them. However, chemical weapons have been actively used in war. The CWC is the only disarmament treaty which stipulates a complete ban and elimination of certain weapons with the membership of so many nations.

What was the background behind the successful negotiations of the treaty?
As the negotiations took place at a time when the Cold War was ending and the Gulf War was breaking out, the U.S. and Russia showed a willingness to compromise. The contents of the treaty were relevant, too. The NPT has been heavily criticized for allowing only five nations, including the U.S. and Russia, to possess nuclear weapons. With the CWC, all nations share the same obligations.

The strict inspection system of the CWC is unique, isn’t it?
Compared to the Biological Weapons Convention, which has no measures for verification, the CWC stipulates measures like on-site inspections by the OPCW. Because chemical weapons can be easily produced using commercial materials, it’s vital that a broad range of inspections be pursued.

Syria is alleged to have used chemical weapons for a long time despite its participation in the CWC. What are your thoughts?
In principle, inspections are carried out based on the declarations made by the member nations. There is a mechanism called “challenge inspections,” which is used to check possible non-compliance with the obligation of reporting. But so far it has never been used because, from a political perspective, it is very difficult to apply. I believe the CWC should establish an intermediate system between the routine inspections and the challenge inspections to enhance its effectiveness.

The use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war isn’t limited to issues involving the CWC, right?
This is directly linked to the issue of international peace. That’s why the OPCW and the United Nations have organized a cooperative system. In the report jointly issued by both entities last summer, a description of the chemical weapons used in Syria from 2014 to 2015 was included. It said that it was highly likely Syrian government forces had used these weapons, but that the so-called Islamic State may have been involved in some cases. If government forces used chemical weapons, this is obviously a violation of the law. Similarly, non-state terrorist organizations like the Islamic State are not allowed to use chemical weapons either. Through the conditions in Syria, we must reaffirm the strict rule that prohibits the use of chemical weapons by everyone in the entire international community.


Masahiko Asada
Born in Gotsu, Shimane Prefecture and studied at the Graduate School of Law at Kyoto University. Served as assistant professor at Kyoto University and professor at Okayama University before assuming his present post in 1999. Took part in the negotiations to establish the CWC treaty as a researcher in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1991 to 1993. Has assumed positions such as a member of OPCW’s Commission for the Settlement of Disputes related to Confidentiality, and a member of the U.N. Panel of Experts to assist with the implementation of sanctions on North Korea.

(Originally published on April 24, 2017)