The rules-based international order is under increasing assault, with significant implications for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and its implementing arm, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). During the CWC’s first 15 years, no states parties were known to have used chemical weapons and substantive decisions rarely were taken at the OPCW except by consensus. The Syrian regime’s continued use of chemical weapons following its CWC accession ended the OPCW’s ability to take all major decisions by consensus. Russia’s concerted efforts to shield its Syrian ally from responsibility and consequence for repeated, blatant violation of the most fundamental obligation of every CWC states party, and the support Russia received in doing so from China and Iran, among others, made it impossible for other CWC states party to hold Syria to account without an open break with Syria’s enablers. The norm against chemical weapons was further challenged by Russia’s use of novichok nerve agents in two assassination attempts. Since 2016 and at an accelerating rate, the OPCW’s governing bodies have taken 12 substantive decisions by majority vote over the opposition of Russia, China, and Iran. The breakdown of consensus at the OPCW is reflective of a more contentious security environment in which Russia, China and Iran are aggressively challenging the norms and rules of a U.S.-led international order. There is a limit to which material differences among major players in the OPCW can be papered over before the organization and Convention become ineffective in holding back proliferation and deterring significant use. Nevertheless, the United States and like-minded nations can continue to use the OPCW and CWC to represent a broadly held norm; to investigate, confirm and attribute violations of that norm; and thus provide the basis for most states parties to continue to pursue the Convention’s purpose. At the same time, they must recognize that the likelihood of chemical weapons proliferation and use will increase in this more contested international security environment and must augment active nonproliferation diplomacy with enhanced chemical defense capability to deter and protect themselves against chemical aggression.
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