Margaret E. Kosal
The recent use of chemical weapons (CW) in Syria has once again brought attention to this method unconventional warfare that has been reviled throughout history. Chemical weapons have been used by military forces on the battlefield, states against their own citizens, and by terrorists in cities and towns. In this respect, they are unique among the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that have been used in the twentieth century. The world’s recognition of the horror of chemical weapons prompted the only disarmament treaty that is intended to eliminate an entire category of weapons under strict international verification. The Cambridge University Press journal Politics and the Life Sciences has a long history of recognizing the threat and exploring the political challenges domestically and internationally of chemical weapons.
In this special virtual issue of Politics and the Life Sciences, we highlight articles providing insight on the use and threat of chemical weapons by states and non-states actors, challenges of reducing the threat, politics of attribution, behavioral norms, and theoretical origins of why states pursue unconventional weapons, as well as looking to the future threats related to chemical weapons. These articles are available free of charge until May 15, 2017.
The same weapon allegedly used by the Syrian state against its civilians, sarin nerve agent, was used by the Aum Shinrikyo in a March 1995 attack on Tokyo’s subway system. The late Jonathan Tucker (1996) reviews the threat of chemical weapons and assesses policy gaps, many which twenty years on should be considered domestically and internationally. The Aum Shinrikyo was a non-state actor that came as close as any terrorist group thus far to attempting to mimic a state-based program. Stern (1996) reviews the use of chemical weapons by US domestic terrorist groups and assess the political motives and constraints on group, and Shoham (1996) looks at trends in motives and use of chemicals in terrorist attacks in the Middle East and ways an individual, group, or rogue regime might improvise in creating havoc with CW. The dissemination of information related to chemical weapons production and weaponization, including via the internet, is analyzed by Gee (1996) with a specific lens to the diplomatic community who at the time was constructing the processes that would be used by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
The political and technical challenges of determining perpetrators in a conflict area are examined by Katz and Singer (2008). They propose a systematic methodology for increased transparency and confidence, which the authors note has political importance for establishing legitimacy of responding international organizations and states. Presciently they, also highlight the perils of extracting information from news sources in relationship to CW attacks. How the organizational structure and capacity of international bodies can complicate investigating and assigning responsibility for a chemical weapons attack is discussed by Chevrier (1992), including the importance of credibility – both technical and diplomatic. In the context of CW use in the Iran-Iraq War and by the Iraqi state against its own civilians in Halabja, Barss (1992) provides a model for probing potential use of CW based on an epidemiological model to deal with the challenges of indirect evidence.
While principally focusing on another member of the WMD trio, Joyce (1989) proposes an evolutionary biology-based model of development and use of unconventional weapons and balance of power politics in conflict, which is worth re-evaluating in the context of recent CW use and more dominant international relations theories. Pilat (1996) and Roberts (1996) discusses changes in terrorist risk taking and assumption of political risks and after the Tokyo incident, which is helpful in thinking about drivers for changing political, psychological, and normative barriers to use of chemical weapons. Chevrier (1996) challenges assumptions regarding political rationality of those pursuing CW, an area ripe for review in light of recent uses. The development and cultural history of the normative ‘taboo’ against the use of chemical weapons is analyzed historically by van Courtland Moon (2008). Understanding how the norm of disuse came about may be useful in understanding why it appears to be faltering now.
Emerging Threats & Governance Challenges
Tucker (1994) provides a foundational assessment of the challenges of dual-use science and technology, i.e., materials, like chemical and toxins that have both beneficial uses (such as for medical or other industrial applications) and potential harmful use as a weapon. Rabodzey (2003) discusses chemical synthesis of toxins and small virus in a laboratory. Makunda, et al., (2009) examine the intersection with synthetic biology. Most recently Kosal and Huang (2015) explored the implications and governance challenges related to military applications of brain chemistry.