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Chemical Weapons Watchdog Wins Nobel Peace Prize as U.S. Opposes Calls for WMD-Free Middle East

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As the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons wins the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, we look at international efforts to rid Syria and other countries — including the United States — of chemical weapons. While Syria recently pledged to sign the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, four other countries have not: Egypt, North Korea, Angola and South Sudan. Israel and Burma have signed the treaty, but not ratified it. Both Egypt and Syria say they maintained chemical weapon arsenals to counter Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile, the United States and Russia, both signatories of the treaty, missed a 2012 deadline to destroy their remaining chemical weapons arsenals — which is some 95 percent of the global stockpile. We speak to 2013 Right Livelihood Award winner Paul Walker of Green Cross International and Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle East studies.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. The Hague-based organization was established to enforce the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. It recently sent inspectors to carry out the dismantling of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. Norwegian Nobel Committee Chair Thorbjørn Jagland praised the OPCW for its work to rid the world of chemical weapons.

THORBJØRN JAGLAND: During World War I, chemical weapons were used to a considerable degree. The Geneva Convention of 1925 prohibited the use, but not the production or storage, of chemical weapons. During World War II, chemical weapons were employed in Hitler’s mass exterminations. Chemical weapons have subsequently been put to use on numerous occasions by both states and terrorists. In 1992 to ’93, a convention was drawn up prohibiting also the production and storage of such weapons. It came into force in 1997. Since then, OPCW has, through inspections, destructions and other means, sought the implementation of the convention.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the Nobel Peace Prize and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, we’re joined by two guests. Paul Walker is with us from Washington, D.C., program director of the Environmental Security and Sustainability Program at Green Cross International. He has just won the 2013 Right Livelihood Award for his work on chemical weapons. Also with us, Steve Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle Eastern studies.

Let’s begin with Paul Walker. First, Paul, congratulations on your own on getting the Right Livelihood Award, which will be awarded in the Swedish Parliament in December. But your comments on the OPCW, the announcement today that they are receiving the Nobel Peace Prize?

PAUL WALKER: Good morning. Good morning, Amy. I’m really delighted to see that the OPCW has won the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a wonderful occasion, a wonderful award for them. It’s well deserved. They’ve been working day and night, literally, for the last 16, 17, 18 years to free the world from a whole class of weapons of mass destruction—chemical weapons. So it’s very well deserved and really a pleasure to talk about them.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what they do.

PAUL WALKER: You know, the OPCW was established under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which was opened for signature in 1993. It’s the implementing agency. It’s got about 500 people working from all over the world. It’s a multilateral agency. Now with Syria’s accession to the treaty, it has 190 state bodies, or 190 countries, who are members. And they inspect declared chemical weapons stockpiles, such as the big ones in Russia and the United States. They inspect 24/7, around the clock, the destruction of those weapons, which is required under the treaty. And they also inspect the chemical industry, because we have over 5,000 chemical plants all over the world which can produce dual-use chemicals. So, they’re really the watchdog—the international, multilateral watchdog—to eliminate a whole class of chemical weapons and make sure that they never re-emerge or reappear somewhere in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Stephen Zunes, can you talk about its history?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Well, the OPCW has overseen the destruction of close to 80 percent of the world’s chemical arsenals. It’s been quite effective, given the technical complexity of it. But they’ve had to do so amidst occasional hostility, particularly from the United States. For example, José Bustani, who was the director-general beginning in 1997, oversaw the greatest expansion of the treaty. The largest amount of destruction of weapons were under his leadership. And yet, in part because he was so effective, he was forced out by the Bush administration, because he insisted that the United States chemical weapons stockpile should be inspected just like everybody else’s, and because he was very close to making a deal with Saddam Hussein to allow Iraq to become a signatory so inspectors could come in and prove that in fact Iraq had eliminated their arsenal, contrary to the claims of Washington. And so, in many respects, I think the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the OPCW is a means of saying, you know, “Hey, look, great powers have tried to dismiss and to discredit the OPCW, but multilateral actions based on treaties are a far better means of controlling the spread of these deadly weapons than unilateral military action.”

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Walker, can you talk about what happened, that kind of pressure that was brought to bear on the first head of the OPCW right before the Iraq War, that could have averted the U.S. attack on Iraq?

PAUL WALKER: Well, the—one of the major catchwords for the OPCW and all multilateral organizations is “universality.” In other words, you want every country in the world to join these regimes. And we’ve all been working very hard for the last 15, 20 years on trying to universalize the Chemical Weapons Convention. José Bustani, Ambassador Bustani from Brazil, was the first director-general, what we call the DG, the director-general of the OPCW. And he was outreaching to a wide range of countries to join the treaty. I think in—by the year 2000, three years after entering the force, we had maybe 125 members, 130 members of the treaty. There’s 196 countries in the world, so we had a large number still outstanding.

And one of his areas of outreach was to Iraq. We knew Iraq had had chemical weapons, had used them actually in the 1980s in the Iran-Iraq War, and in fact had, you know, brutally murdered Kurds in Halabja in 1988. So his outreach in the early 2000s—2001, 2002—was, I think, in the views of many of us, very, very appropriate. The United States and the Bush administration took umbrage at that, however, and eventually made a public campaign to oust José Bustani, and he was actually ousted—fired, essentially—by the OPCW, the Executive Council, in 2002. Subsequently, he went to the international labor court, International Labour Organization, and sued the OPCW and won the suit, actually, in violation—that he was fired in violation of his contract.

He subsequently became the Brazilian ambassador to Britain, went to London, and a second director-general came on board, Rogelio Pfirter from—also from Latin America, but from Argentina. And Rogelio Pfirter actually turned out to be very, very good. And now the current director-general, who’s a Turkish ambassador, Ahmet Üzümcü, is likewise very good. But the whole José Bustani affair, to me, was quite embarrassing, that the United States would make such a public display of its effort to control the OPCW and preclude Iraq from joining the treaty before, of course, “shock and awe,” which happened in March of 2003. So, it was—it was a very sad time, and, I think, frustrating for everybody. But the United States has moved on from that, and so has the OPCW now.

AMY GOODMAN: Who has and has not signed on to the chemical weapons treaty? And what does that mean?

PAUL WALKER: Well, we have—we have still five countries remaining outside the treaty. It’s a strange mix. It’s—now that Syria has joined, you have Israel, which has not ratified the treaty yet. You have Egypt, which has neither signed nor ratified. You have Angola, which has neither signed or ratified, but is thinking about joining. I think it will in the near future. You have Myanmar, Burma, which has signed but not ratified. And then you have the—you have a African country, South Sudan, brand new, very difficult to get it to join any regime. And then, I guess it’s actually six. You have North Korea, which of course is the high-hanging fruit, the most difficult country of all. But other than those six countries, 190 countries have joined. And, you know, a number of those have declared chemical weapons stockpiles—the United States, Russia, the two big ones that hold 95 percent of the declared chemical weapons stockpiles. Then the smaller possessors were India, South Korea, Albania, Libya, Iraq—with the leftover chemical agents and materials that we still don’t have a full handle on from the ’91 Gulf War—

AMY GOODMAN: Though they did sign on.

PAUL WALKER: —and, finally, Libya.


PAUL WALKER: They did sign on. Ironically, Iraq—Iraq came on board in 2009. And they’ve been a very positive addition to the treaty. And they’ve declared two large bunkers of old chemical agents from the Saddam Hussein pre-’91 Gulf War era that was sealed up in the mid-1990s by the United Nations inspectors, but there were never any additional chemical weapons as the Bush administration claimed in 2003 when they attacked Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Stephen Zunes, talk about Egypt and Israel not being signatories to the chemical weapons treaty.

STEPHEN ZUNES: I think the very fact that we do have the OPCW beginning the process of disarming Syria’s chemical weapons, whereas we don’t have such activity in Israel and Egypt, is indicative that even the best international organizations are limited by what the great powers can say they can or cannot do. Indeed, the United States blocked an effort by Syria to create a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone throughout the region. When Syria was a non-permanent member of the Security Council back in 2002, they had a draft resolution to this effect, but it was tabled because of a threatened United States veto. Indeed, U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, the Iraq disarmament resolution, specifically said that Iraq said disarmament of its weapons of mass destruction was only a first step in a region-wide disarmament of these kinds of weapons. But, interestingly, the United States has shown no interest in bringing this clause forward, because, obviously, Israel and Egypt are close strategic allies of the United States. Indeed, it’s not just a matter of, well, Syria has used them, so they should be a priority, because Egypt used chemical weapons back in the 1960s when they intervened in the civil war in Yemen. There’s no indication that the generals in charge of Egypt right now have made any effort to stop the production or eliminate their weapons or join the treaty.

So, while I’m certainly glad that we’re in the process of seeing Syria disarm, I think it does raise serious questions around this very issue of universality, because I think if the United States had not been so hostile to that concept 10, 12 years ago, you know, we may have—Syria’s weapons may have been eliminated, along with Israel’s and Egypt’s, and the recent tragedy that took place in Syria and the crisis that nearly led us to war would have never happened.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back—just a correction: Israel is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention—

STEPHEN ZUNES: Yeah, correct, yeah. Sorry, not a party to it. That is correct.

AMY GOODMAN: —but they have not—but they have not ratified that convention. I want to talk about the significance of that and the connection between chemical weapons and nuclear weapons. This is Democracy Now! We’re speaking with Paul Walker, who has just won the Right Livelihood Award for his work around chemical weapons—he’s with Green Cross International—and Stephen Zunes, professor at University of San Francisco. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. I want to go back to the Norwegian Nobel Committee chair, Thorbjørn Jagland, from earlier today, announcing the OPCW’s receiving the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, and particularly talking about their work in Syria.

THORBJØRN JAGLAND: OPCW has not been given this prize, first and foremost, because of Syria. As I said, it is because of its long-standing efforts to eliminate chemical weapons and that we are now about to reach the goal—namely, to do away with a whole category of weapons of mass destruction. That would be a great event in history, if we could achieve that. And that’s why we are highlighting this and giving a message to all those who has not ratified the convention and to those who have not honored their obligations under the convention—please, ratify; please, honor their obligations—and then we can reach this honorable goal—namely, to do away with a whole category of weapons of mass destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Norwegian Nobel Committee chair saying that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, is not getting the award first and foremost for their work in Syria, but their overall work over these years, that they have been dismantling chemical weapons.

Our guests are Paul Walker of Green Cross International, who has just won the Right Livelihood Award for his work around chemical weapons, and Professor Stephen Zunes at the University of San Francisco.

Paul Walker, talk about how the OPCW actually does dismantle chemical weapons. For example, in Syria, how do they do it, and especially now in the midst of this civil war there?

PAUL WALKER: Yeah, well, it’s a complicated process, Amy. But, in short, what you have to do is you have to locate the weapons first, of course; do an inventory, see how many you have; investigate what the weapons hold, you know, which agents, whether it’s mustard agent or nerve agents—I think in Syria we have both those cases—and then you have a variety of processes which you can use.

In the case of Syria, I think because most of the weapons appear to be in precursor chemicals—in other words, the chemical constituents are dual-use industrial-type chemicals that can be mixed just before they’re used as a weapon. And because they’re stored in bulk containers, in tanks of some type, most of that material can actually be fairly easily neutralized. And by neutralization, I mean mixed with other reagent chemicals. Mustard, for example, self-destructs very easily with hot water. So if you just mix it with hot water—we’ve done that for decades—a very, very simple process. And then you have to, of course, take care, in a secondary process, of the toxic liquid waste. In some cases, you can burn the weapons, too. And this is the primary role that the United States has—method the United States has used for the last 20 years, is incineration.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the U.S. met its goals in getting rid of chemical weapons?

PAUL WALKER: Yes and no. I would say yes in the sense that the United States and Russia, too, have fully committed to completing the destruction of their stockpiles; no in the sense that they had to finish the destruction of their stockpiles under the treaty regime, by law, by April 2012, and neither country has accomplished that, for a whole number of reasons. So, both the U.S. and Russia had to ask for kind of understanding from the OPCW. There was a long debate between 2010 and 2012 over what to do about this potential violation of the treaty by both the two major possessor states. Both are still working very hard to destroy their stockpiles, but the United States has another decade to go. There’s two—

AMY GOODMAN: Where are the U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles?

PAUL WALKER: We have two stockpiles left, of seven originally, and the two remaining are in Bluegrass, Kentucky, and Pueblo, Colorado. It’s together about close to 3,000 metric tons.

AMY GOODMAN: And where do they destroy them?

PAUL WALKER: On site. Congress, in its wisdom years ago, prohibited transportation. These weapons are not moved anywhere except on the military base. So all the destruction facilities in the United States have been on site, on the military base. So the farthest they’ve been moved is probably half a mile, perhaps, in very protective, heavy, heavy trucks that move slower than human beings walk. So, everything is done on site, very sophisticated, very expensive, $4 to $5 billion per site to destroy the stockpile, total program cost since 1990 of probably $40 billion. It’s an enormously expensive, dangerous and contentious, difficult process.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Stephen Zunes, on the United States not meeting the deadline that it had agreed to?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Unfortunately, this does undercut the credibility of the United States, even though, as far as we know, the delay has largely been logistical and technical, not a deliberate attempt to maintain an illegal arsenal. But still, it—like as in a lot of areas regarding weapons of mass destruction, not the least of which is the U.S. refusal to live up to its end of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it definitely hurts the credibility of the United States in trying to be an enforcer of these universal disarmament resolutions.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Walker, what are the chemical weapons the U.S. still has?

PAUL WALKER: U.S. chemical weapons stockpile had absolutely everything in it. And the ones remaining now at Pueblo and Bluegrass are mustard agent—we have mustard agent solely at Pueblo, Colorado, and then in Bluegrass, Kentucky, we have all the nerve agents, plus mustard agent and lewisite. So, you’ve got mustard and lewisite, which are blister agents, and then you’ve got sarin, soman and VX, which is the most deadly nerve agent ever invented in the world. So, it’s a large—these are large and very complicated and weaponized stockpiles.

The other point to make, Bluegrass, Kentucky, is a weaponized stockpile, so almost all the agent there is actually in weapons—in landmines, artillery shells, rockets, spray tanks, aerial bombs, you name it. Some of us, you know, have said many times, “Why in heaven’s name did the United States and Russia produce all this stuff through the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s?” They’re enormously dangerous, leaking risky stockpiles. So it’s in everyone’s interest to get rid of these weapons as safely and as quickly as possible. But the main goal is safe and sound and irreversible. And that’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Walker, what about the connection between chemical weapons and nuclear weapons, particularly looking at the Middle East?

PAUL WALKER: Yeah, the step of Syria to accede to the treaty, I think, is a major historic step. And I keep emphasizing that point, and I think both the Right Livelihood Award and the Nobel Peace Prize have now sort of acknowledged that. Syria maintained its chemical weapons stockpile, it said publicly many times, to defend against Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Egypt has followed the same suit. So there’s been linkage between chemical and nuclear weapons. Those countries—none of those countries have also ratified the Biological Weapons Convention. And our hope is that with growing pressure to build a weapon-of-mass-destruction-and-WMD-free zone in the Middle East, these steps now by Syria, and hopefully followed by Israel and Egypt, together perhaps joining the CWC, will lead them to further join the Biological Weapons Convention and then to begin to address nuclear weapons, particularly the Israeli existing arsenal and the allegations against Iran, of course, that they may be developing nuclear weapons, as well. But it’s a very good step in the right direction towards a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, that of course the Americans have been nervous about, the Israelis have been nervous about, but we all, I think, in the abolition community,q trying to abolish weapons of mass destruction, are very much in favor of moving forward on.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Stephen Zunes, can you comment further on the U.S. role in the possibility of there being a WMD-free zone in the Middle East?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Well, in addition to blocking the efforts in the United Nations back in 2002, the United States has traditionally been hostile to these kinds of efforts, you know, as we saw with the hostility of the Reagan administration on the nuclear-free South Pacific and other efforts. But despite that, WMD-free zones have been established in major parts of the world: Latin America, Southeast Asia, South Pacific, Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. So, you know, there is certainly precedent for this sort of thing.

And—but, you know, despite all this, the very fact that there was such a thing as the OPCW made it possible to prevent the war that just a few weeks ago seemed inevitable, when President Obama announced the intention to attack Syria. And so, I think it’s significant that despite the efforts by the United States to try to control or—if you can call it that—the chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction through military means, that the ability of the international community, through organizations like the OPCW, has, I think, been an exciting development, and it has demonstrated there are far better ways of arms control than military intervention.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle East studies, and Paul Walker, program director of the Environmental Security and Sustainability Program at Green Cross International. He has just won the 2013 Right Livelihood Award, which will be awarded in the Swedish Parliament in the beginning of December, the same week that the Nobel Peace Prize will be actually awarded in Oslo.

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