September 6, 2013

Chemical weapons Q&A

Here are some questions and answers on Syria's chemical weapons:

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This World War I photo shows American prisoners of war captured by the Germans. Their eyes were bandaged after being wounded in a gas attack.

Alliance/dpa/AP Images

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Q: What are chemical weapons?

A: The term chemical weapon is applied to any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action. Choking agents like chlorine gas make breathing difficult. Blister agents like mustard gas can cause severe skin and eye irritation. Arsenic- or cyanide-based blood agents are often fast-acting and lethal. Nerve agents like sarin or VX disrupt the nervous system.

Q: Why are chemical weapons considered worse than other types of weapons?

A: The taboo against chemical weapons is more than a century old. "The primary idea is that they are indiscriminate and an inherent threat to civilian populations," says historian Richard Price. "The kernel of that really arose in the aftermath of World War I. Chemical weapons were used on a wide scale in that conflict. There was a real fear, particularly as air technology got better, that there'd be massive chemical attacks on cities."

Conventional munitions can be deadly and indiscriminate, too. But for a variety of historical reasons, a set of international norms developed around chemical weapons never developed around conventional explosives. By World War II, most countries had voluntarily ruled out the use of chemical warfare on the battlefield.

Q: Are chemical weapons banned under international law?

A: Yes. The 1925 Geneva protocol first prohibited the use of poisonous gas as a weapon of war. The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention then went even further and outlawed the production, stockpile, transfer, and use of chemical weapons. Countries that ratified the treaty pledged to destroy their existing stockpiles. Syria, North Korea, Egypt and Angola are notable omissions.

Q: Which countries currently possess chemical weapons?

A: At least five countries still have officially declared stockpiles: The United States, Russia, Libya, Iraq and Japan. These nations have all pledged to destroy their remaining stocks, but progress has been slow: As of July, there were still more than 13,000 declared tons of chemical agents left. But the U.S. intelligence community believes that Syria, Iran, and North Korea all have their own covert chemical arsenals. Syria, in particular, "maintains a stockpile of numerous chemical agents, including mustard, sarin, and VX."

There are also a number of other countries that may have chemical weapons or the facilities for producing them, but public information is murky. The list of possible suspects includes: Burma, Egypt, Pakistan, Serbia, Sudan, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Q: Which countries have used chemical weapons?

A: Ancient history records plenty of instances of chemical weapon use -- Chinese armies apparently used arsenical smoke back in 1000 BC. While the battlefields of World War I were notorious for the use of chemical weapons, the most recent incidents took place in Iraq during the 1980s. Saddam Hussein used various gases on a wide scale in his war against Iran and then later in his campaign against Iraq's Kurds. His general in that effort, Ali Hassan al-Majid, was given the nickname "Chemical Ali."

-- The Washington Post

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