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Syria Joins International Treaty Banning Chemical Weapons, Now What? A guest blog from 2006 Goldman Prize winner Craig Williams

December 17, 2013

2006 Goldman Prize winner Craig Williams has dedicated his life to the safe disposal of the United States’ chemical weapons stockpiles.

As a member of the Kentucky Governor’s Commission on Chemical Weapons, and as a central figure in the fight to eradicate chemical weapons, Williams has attended two sessions of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body overseeing global chemical weapon elimination efforts at The Hague in the Netherlands.

We reached out to Williams to get his take on the recent decision to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons at sea. Read below for his take on the issue:

The good news is that Syria became the 190th country to accede to declaring and destroying their Chemical Warfare Agents on 14 October of this year. Unfortunately this occurred only after a half-dozen alleged uses of these materials, the most blatant and deadly on 21 August of this year. 1,400 people, including women and children were killed, underscoring the heinousness and indiscriminate nature of such weapons.

Becoming part of the Chemical Weapons Convention brought Syria’s stockpiles of this material under the authority of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who recently was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2013 for their efforts to rid the planet of an entire class of Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) – the first such undertaking in history.

Huge challenges face the OPCW regarding how to dispose of Syria’s stocks now that they have taken on the responsibility to do so.

The first hurdle will be getting the materials, all liquid stored in bulk containers, not weaponized, out of Syria in the middle of the armed conflict still ongoing there. Sigrid Kaag, head of the UN mission for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, told a press conference recently “there are factors beyond our control” that could interfere with the OPCW’s efforts to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014.

Getting the materials to the port at Latakia, Syria is one issue that when addressed initiates the destruction process currently planned to take place on the U.S. vessel Cape Ray via a neutralization process. Once neutralized (a technology that was/is used in the U.S. to destroy agents at 4 of the 8 U.S. stockpile sites) the remaining “waste” will be stored below decks on the ship until a final treatment and location are identified. This highly hazardous waste is estimated to be approximately 4,000 tons of material.

Being an advocate for neutralization as a safer and more ecologically protective approach than incineration, I was asked to participate in the recently held Conference of State Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention in The Hague. My focus was two-fold: First, discuss my experience with the technology planned to be used and build confidence in the process from a scientific and safety point. 

In addition, as it seems inevitable that the secondary waste, if not the agent materials themselves will have to be treated somewhere on land, I presented the history of governments and military agencies gaining cooperation with local governments and civil society (citizens) when undertaking such hazardous projects.

Earlier efforts to solidify agreements for land-based locations for disposal failed due to lack of transparency and cooperation between government agencies and the population.

I have offered to assist the OPCW in any way to facilitate confidence in the technology and build acceptable methods for governments and populations to forge satisfactory agreements to proceed with this critical disarmament effort.

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