Lessons from the Chemical Weapons Convention

September 13, 2021

By Emily Standfield

Emily Standfield was an intern with Project Ploughshares in Spring 2021.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 3 Autumn 2021

There is currently strong international interest in a formal arms control agreement for outer space. However, many obstacles that have prevented such an agreement in the past must still be surmounted.

While some believe that space requires novel arms control solutions, ongoing research for the Ploughshares project “Beyond norms: military restraints for enhanced security in outer space” reveals that we don’t have to start from scratch. Some key challenges, which relate to definitions, verification, dual-use technologies, and the role of industry, have already been successfully confronted in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which aims to eventually eliminate all chemical weapons by prohibiting their development, production, stockpiling, trade, and use by States Parties. Adopted by most of the world’s nations, the CWC is widely considered the “most successful multilateral disarmament instrument.”

It can also serve as a model for a new outer space agreement on arms control.


The CWC focuses on use and intent, barring the use of toxic chemicals for all non-peaceful purposes. A toxic chemical is loosely defined as “any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals.”

An Annex of chemicals that meet this definition is provided and is updated as needed. For example, the chemical Novichok and its precursors were added to the Annex in November 2018, after the chemical was used in an assassination attempt.

Many of the dual-use capabilities in space are being developed by private sector actors for new and beneficial activities such as satellite servicing and debris removal. All actors must be on-board to create and implement a useful agreement.

Theoretically, almost any object in outer space can be used to attack or damage another space object. As well, radio transmitters and other energy emitters can damage or disable space objects from afar. Thus, some critics assert that it is impossible to define a space weapon and so regulate its use.

However, as the CWC shows, focusing on certain effects and intentions can help to ensure that objects are used only for peaceful purposes.


Verification is the backbone of arms control because it allows each actor to trust that other actors are fulfilling their obligations and not cheating. The CWC has the most comprehensive verification system of any arms control treaty. At its heart is the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an external organization that was established to build trust and confidence among States Parties and ensure CWC’s implementation. The OPCW works in tandem with each State Party’s National Authority on chemical weapons, which submits detailed declarations on that state’s chemical weapons, chemical weapons storage facilities, and any other related production capabilities.

Additionally, the Verification Annex in the CWC sets out the procedures for verifying chemical-related activities, as well as monitoring through routine on-site and surprise ‘challenge’ inspections that can be called for by any State Party on another State Party. These multi-layered measures collectively ensure effective verification of compliance.

Aspects of this verification regime could be applied to space. While efforts to verify possible restrictions on weapons in space do not have to be as intrusive as those of the CWC, measures that increase cooperation, trust, and communication are critical.
An external organization could help to establish confidence among space actors by facilitating communications and reducing opportunities for misunderstandings and conflict escalation. It could also provide equal access to verification capabilities such as space situational awareness data.

Other measures, such as international cooperation programs and knowledge promotion and exchange, encourage collaboration and allay suspicion.


The CWC deals with many chemicals that have both civilian and military uses. For example, pesticides and ballpoint pen ink can also be used to create chemical weapons.

For this reason, the CWC focuses on use as well as capability. Besides prohibiting many known chemical agents, the CWC bans the use of any chemical as a weapon. And because some chemicals are more dangerous than others, the CWC groups chemicals into three Schedules according to the level of risk each poses to the convention and the likelihood that each will be used for peaceful purposes or in weapons. Those that are in Schedules 1 and 2 are rarely used for peaceful means and so are highly restricted. Those in Schedule 3 more often have dual civilian and military applications and are subject to controls rather than outright bans.

By prohibiting or restricting chemicals based on their effects and their capabilities, a wide-reaching regime that can deal with dual-use is created. It is not difficult to see how similar restrictions could be put in place for dual-use capabilities in outer space. For example, there could be a ban on the intentional damaging or destruction of a space object, as well as technologies with little or no civilian capability. Space objects that are most often used for civilian purposes, but also have military uses, could be subject to controls and verification measures.


The drafters of the CWC recognized industry as an important component of a successful convention. Industry, primarily concerned with the cost of compliance, inspections, loss of confidential business information, and shutdowns, was regularly consulted on the verification regime and the inspection process. Because of industry concerns, certain provisions, such as “Managed Access” and the “Confidentiality Annex,” limit OPCW inspections and protect classified information.

Trade and production are regulated according to the Schedule of each chemical. International trade is banned for all Schedule 1 chemicals, except for small quantities for peaceful purposes such as research or the production of pharmaceuticals. Schedule 2 and 3 chemicals, which are produced commercially, are subject to export controls and end-of-use certificates.

The CWC shows the importance of involving industry in arms control agreements. Many of the dual-use capabilities in space are being developed by private sector actors for new and beneficial activities such as satellite servicing and debris removal. All actors must be on-board to create and implement a useful agreement.


While not an exact blueprint for a successful arms control agreement in space, the CWC can inspire a process that overcomes the obstacles that have prevented earlier attempts to reach such an agreement. One last lesson to learn from the CWC is that it pays not to give up. The CWC was preceded by the 1925 Geneva Convention and 70 years of norm-building and negotiations.
If we can learn anything from the history of the Chemical Weapons Convention, it’s that with time, effort, and resolve, roadblocks to arms control can be overcome.

This article is based on research supported by the Canadian Department of National Defence through their MINDS (Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security) program for the project Beyond norms: military restraints for enhanced security in outer space led by Dr. Jessica West.

Photo: “World map with WMD hazard symbols superimposed on it” by Fastfission is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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