Destroying a Toxic Threat

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The Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in April 1997 and is the first multilateral treaty that bans an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. It is comprehensive and nondiscriminatory, prohibiting the development, production or use of chemical weapons by all member states under conditions of strict verification. A core objective is the complete elimination of such weapons within the deadlines stipulated by the convention.

Chemical weapons contain some of the most toxic substances ever created, and the work of destroying them has been more daunting than the drafters of the convention might have anticipated. High levels of financial and technological resources must be invested to ensure that these highly dangerous chemical agents can be safely destroyed while also protecting the environment.

This month, Russia has opened yet another facility to destroy its chemical weapons at Shchuchye in the Kurgan region, in addition to three other destruction facilities that are currently operating: in Kambarka in the Udmurtia republic; Maradykovsky in the Kirov region; and Leonidovka in the Penza region. A fifth facility in Gorny in the Saratov region has already finished neutralizing its chemical agents.

This is a praiseworthy development and a concrete demonstration of Russia's firm commitment to complete the destruction of its stockpiles within the deadlines set by the convention. Russia met the convention's intermediate deadline to destroy 20 percent of its chemical weapons by April 29, 2007, and it is now well-positioned to achieve the next intermediate deadline of 45 percent destruction by Dec. 31.

The lion's share of the substantial financial resources needed to build and operate the new facility has been provided by Russia -- another commendable demonstration of its commitment. This effort has been complemented with significant support for the Shchuchye project from a host of other convention member states, including Canada, many European Union members, New Zealand, Britain and the United States.

Globally, 43 percent of all declared chemical weapons stockpiles have been destroyed to date, a laudable achievement by any measure. But this still leaves 57 percent to be eliminated before the final deadline set by the convention of April 2012. I am confident, however, that Russia, as well as the three other convention member states that still possess chemical weapons will all do their utmost to comply with their obligation to completely eliminate their stockpiles by the given deadlines. They deserve positive recognition for their firm commitment to the convention and for the concrete steps they are taking.

Russia can take satisfaction in playing a key role in one of the most successful international treaties in the sphere of disarmament and nonproliferation. As of today, the Chemical Weapons Convention has attracted the membership of 186 countries with 98 percent of the world's population and chemical industry - the fastest rate of accession for any disarmament treaty in history.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, which I lead, is the international agency charged with implementing the convention. It does so through four main areas: 1. ensuring the destruction of existing chemical weapons under strict verification; 2. conducting year-round inspections of industrial facilities to ensure the nonproliferation of toxic chemicals and precursors that could be used to make chemical weapons; 3. strengthening the capacity of convention member states for assistance and protection against the use, or threatened use, of chemical weapons; and 4. facilitating the exchange of information and expertise for the peaceful uses of chemistry.

Once the destruction of all existing chemical weapons stockpiles is completed, the ongoing long-term nonproliferation activities of the OPCW will naturally become the focus of more attention and resources.

Russia should be commended for its firm commitment to fulfilling its obligations under the convention and its support for the work of the OPCW. The many Russian technicians and workers who are responsible for implementing the chemical weapons destruction program play a crucial role, and their work is making a genuinely historic contribution to global peace and security.

Ambassador Rogelio Pfirter is director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague.

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