What chemicals are used in chemical warfare?

History of Chemical Weapons


Ypres 1915


Chemical substances were used for warfare in ancient times, but the date of the birth of the modern chemical weapon is April 22, 1915, when a German chlorine gas attack near Ypres claimed 5,000 deaths and 10,000 burned people. In 1916 a warfare agent (phosgene, a lung poison) specially developed for military purposes was used for the first time. As a result, new substances were developed and used in ever faster succession: skin toxins, lung toxins, mask-breaking irritants. By the end of the First World War, a total of 125,000 t of chemical warfare agents had been used, causing 90,000 deaths and over 1,000,000 injuries.


Geneva Protocol 1925


Worldwide public pressure, triggered by the horrors of the "gas war" that had just been overcome, led to the signing of the Geneva Protocol on June 17, 1925. Although this ban on the initial use of chemical weapons, the development, manufacture and storage as well as the use of chemical weapons for retaliatory purposes remained permitted. So this relatively weak protocol could not prevent the repeated use of chemical weapons in the 1930s, be it in Abyssinia (through Italy), in China (through Japan) or in Sinkiang (through the Red Army). In 1937, Dr. Gerhard Schrader introduced the first nerve agent, Tabun, in Germany under the greatest of secrecy. The discovery of sarin (the poison gas that was used in the Tokyo subway) followed in 1938 and soman in 1944.


Geneva Protocol


After the Second World War


When the Allied troops discovered production facilities for the previously unknown nerve gases in occupied Germany in 1945, this triggered two different developments: On the one hand, many countries began chemical weapons research programs to improve protective equipment or to develop their own nerve gases (1956 discovery of the VX in England). At the same time, several hundred thousand tons of old chemical weapons, which were no longer of military interest with the discovery of nerve gases, had to be destroyed. This was done under time pressure, often in the fastest and cheapest way: by burning, burying or sinking in the sea.


Even after World War II, warfare agents were used again and again: Agent Orange in Vietnam; Hydrocyanic acid, mustard gas and neurotoxins through Egypt in the Yemen War; various alleged deployments in Laos and Cambodia by Vietnam as well as by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; Mustard gas and taboo through Iraq against Iran and against the defenseless Kurdish population (Halabja, 1988).


The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)


With the discovery of the atomic bomb, the chemical weapon increasingly disappeared from military doctrines. At the end of the 1960s, negotiations began on a new chemical weapons agreement, which, however, made little progress in the icy atmosphere of the Cold War. It was not until January 13, 1993 that the ‘Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction’ (Chemical Weapons Convention, CWC) was finally signed in Paris. The CWC, which has no time limit, represents the most progressive global disarmament agreement to this day, so some of its elements should also be included in future bio and nuclear weapons treaties. New approaches are:


  • The principle of a comprehensive, non-discriminatory ban, i.e. in contrast to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, no state is allowed to possess chemical weapons.
  • The direct on-site verification of contractual compliance (as opposed to indirect means such as satellite images) through regular, strict controls of chemical weapons storage and destruction facilities as well as the chemical industry.
  • The means of suspicious inspections under the motto ‘anytime, anywhere, no right for refusal’.
  • The exclusion of non-member states from global trade in certain chemicals.




With the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention on April 29, 1997, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is responsible for the implementation of the CWC, started its work in The Hague. The OPCW receives a confidential declaration from each member state about industrial plants that could potentially produce chemical weapons (in Switzerland there are around a dozen companies), as well as about any previous offensive development programs (there were no such programs in Switzerland). On the basis of this declaration, the OPCW monitors the destruction of any chemical weapons storage facilities and production facilities and regularly inspects the declared industrial facilities that can potentially produce warfare agents.


At the end of September 2001 the OPCW had 143 member states, 31 other states have signed the CWC but have not yet ratified it. The OPCW has a staff of around 500, including more than 200 inspectors. The 1000th inspection was carried out in the summer of 2001. Four member states have declared possession of chemical weapons, and three of these countries have started destruction programs.




Threats to the CWC


A few years ago, Russia declared that, due to its difficult economic and political circumstances, it would not be able to implement its extermination program within the guidelines of the CWC without international support. In 1996 the USA therefore offered Russia support in the construction of one of a total of seven extermination plants. The total costs for the construction and operation of the extermination facility in Shchuch’ye (South Urals) as well as the necessary improvements to the local infrastructure are estimated at 1.5 billion USD, of which America paid 888 million USD. In addition to the actual destruction of the camp, the joint project should also give a 'jump start' for the entire Russian extermination program and at the same time motivate other countries to also provide substantial financial support.


In August 1999, however, the American Congress refused the financing tranche for the year 2000, which immediately led to a slowdown in project implementation. Important arguments that led to this decision were - in addition to domestic political reasons - the inadequate efforts of the Russian side (a result of the economic crisis and the lack of priority for chemical weapons destruction in the Duma), the lack of commitment from other nations (which together only amounted to around 50 million . USD), the resulting imbalance between American project costs and the decrease in the threat (the Shchuch'ye warehouse comprises only 13.6% of the total Russian inventory), the worsening political weather situation over the past few years and a shift in interest on nuclear and biological weapons.


The Shchuch’ye project is also in danger in the current American budget discussion for the 2001 financial year. If, however, the American Congress in July 2000 again fails to provide funding for the construction of the plant, this project is likely to fail. At the same time, following the decision of the American Congress, the European states are very unsure whether they should give Russia any financial aid at all, since the prospects for the entire extermination program are so uncertain.


If the funds from the USA are finally canceled, all European funds will be lost and the Russian program of extermination will collapse. The success of the CWC depends very much on the successful destruction of the Russian chemical weapons depots. If the largest owner state cannot destroy its arsenal, the CWC will be massively undermined. Likewise, a number of non-member states would confirm in their position that the world public is not really interested in chemical weapons destruction and that they can therefore continue their chemical armament unchecked.


A general failure of the CWC would be a setback for efforts to disarm and deal with the contaminated sites as a whole. Failure would also have unforeseeable negative consequences for further complex international agreements (Bioweapons Convention, Nuclear Agreement). Or as someone has compared: The Shchuch’ye project is the central pole in the disarmament tent, if you pull it out, the whole tent collapses.


Historical development of chemical warfare agents on the website of GVW e.V.