Address to 15th Chemical Weapons Demilitarisation Conference 2012

Speech by Sir Nick Harvey, Minister for the Armed Forces.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Sir Nick Harvey


Director-General, Your Excellency, ladies and gentlemen, good morning.

I’m delighted to welcome you all today to the 15th and final Chemical Weapons Demilitarisation Conference.

Shortly after the Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in 1997, the United Kingdom hosted the first of this series of annual conferences, so it is perhaps appropriate that the final conference should also be held here.

I would like to thank the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory for the efforts that they have made, year after year, to arrange and manage these conferences. I must also thank their partners, the United States Army; the Abandoned Chemical Weapons Office, Japan; and our contractors; Battelle Memorial Institute; Bechtel Corporation; Bowhead Systems Management, Inc; Kobe Steel; Parsons Infrastructure and Technology Group; Science Applications International Corporation; and URS Corporation.

It is a particular pleasure to welcome Ambassador Üzumcu the Director General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

He and his predecessor, Rogelio Pfirter, have been key supporters of these conferences.

The United Kingdom has sought the widest participation from all countries which are faced with the problems of destroying chemical weapons, including old and abandoned chemical weapons.

Important traditional partners such as the US, Japan, and Germany have given sustained support;

But also newer partners, such as the representatives from China, Iraq, and Libya, who are attending this year.

We can each contribute our own experience and learn from each other.

There are no fewer than 15 countries in total at this conference.

It is a measure of the success of these conferences that you, the participants, continue to attach such importance to attending, even at a time when increasing budgetary pressures limit the scope for travel.

Chemical weapon destruction

2012 is of course an enormously important year for chemical weapon destruction.

The 29th of April was the final deadline provided for by the Chemical Weapons Convention for the destruction of all chemical weapons.

Destruction is a central obligation under the convention.

But it has been clear for some time that the deadline would not be met by the 2 major possessors of chemical weapons: US and Russia.

This, understandably has dominated the agenda of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for the past year or more.

What view should we take of this?

Clearly we cannot be satisfied that the deadline has been missed.

There is no doubt that there have been insufficient funding and technical failures in some cases, and schedules which have frequently proved to be over-optimistic.

But it is also clear that the original deadlines were essentially political, not based on real experience.

The main aim, when the deadlines were agreed in 1993, was to set target dates which would be sufficiently challenging to ensure that political and financial priority was given to meeting destruction obligations.

Of course, at that stage, no-one had substantial experience of chemical weapons destruction, and the practical, safety, environmental, regulatory or financial challenges involved.

These have all proved much more demanding than originally realised.

The test of any organisation is how it deals with difficult problems.

Handling the 2012 deadline has been a real test for the OPCW, and it has taken long and painful efforts to reach a conclusion.

I commend the States Parties for succeeding in resolving the issue, as well as the important related question of abandoned chemical weapons in China, and I commend the Director-General for his personal role in helping to achieve this.

So let us also celebrate the successes we have had.

Over 73% of all declared stockpiles have been destroyed, around 51,000 tonnes of chemical agent put permanently beyond use.

Three countries have completed destruction.

The US has now destroyed nearly 90% of its stockpile, Russia has passed the 60% mark.

Libya had destroyed over 50% of its small stockpile before operations were interrupted; and Japan has started destruction of abandoned chemical weapons.

All those holding chemical weapons have clearly demonstrated their political commitment to destroying their stockpiles at the earliest practicable date, and have provided unprecedented transparency of their efforts in an area that was previously highly secretive because of national security.

We must never forget both the technical complexity of the task, and the enormously dangerous nature of these toxic chemicals.

Destruction must be both effective and safe.

It is truly a great achievement that destruction has been carried out with such an outstanding safety record, and many of you here are personally responsible for this.

UK contribution and Chemical Weapons Demilitarisation Conference

The UK has contributed to this process over the past 15 years.

First, starting at home, we destroyed all our initial holdings of old chemical weapons, some 4,000, by April 2007.

Disposing of these old munitions, often in a heavily corroded state after being buried for 60 years or more, was difficult and dangerous.

I pay tribute to the staff of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Porton Down, who did this successfully, without accidents or injuries.

Second, during the past decade, in very close cooperation with the US and Canada, the UK led a £90 million international programme of assistance to Russia with its chemical weapon destruction programme, managing projects at the Shchuch’ye destruction facility on behalf of 12 other donors.

Since the facility started operations in March 2009, these projects have helped to destroy well over a million individual munitions and nearly 3,000 tonnes of nerve agent. Just to illustrate what this means, just 1kg of Sarin could potentially cause up to 1,000 fatalities.

The UK is also pleased to be planning to provide training for Iraq in dealing with its uniquely challenging chemical weapon legacy, and we have offered technical advice to Libya.

Third, the UK has also sponsored this series of conferences which have provided a unique opportunity for a wide range of experts from governments and industry to engage and exchange ideas and lessons about the shared challenges that we have faced.

The continued support shown for these conferences is clear evidence of the value attached to them.

As you all know, this will be the final conference in this series; a valuable opportunity to reflect on the shared challenges we have faced over the past 15 years, and successfully overcome.

Chemical weapons convention: the future

The expertise that you have developed and shared at these conferences will continue to be vital as we face new challenges in the future.

So I very much hope that the strong informal networks of experts that the conferences have helped to encourage will be robust enough to survive.

Because there are still major challenges ahead of us.

There are still significant quantities of chemical weapons to be destroyed, mainly in Russia and the US.

This must remain a priority and be done safely, transparently and as soon as practical.

I do not doubt the commitment or ability to achieve this

But we cannot assume that there are no other threats from chemical weapons.

The convention has not yet achieved full universal membership and full compliance.

So we must also remain ready and prepared to admit new members, including ones who possess chemical weapons stockpiles. Current events in the Middle East highlight the difficulties here.

We must retain the necessary skilled personnel, and stand ready to carry out the necessary verification tasks, including challenge inspections and investigations of alleged use of chemical weapons.

And even when chemical weapon destruction is complete, the OPCW and the convention will have to continue to adapt to new threats, challenges and priorities, to prevent the re-emergence of chemical weapons any time in the future.

We will have to respond to developments in science and technology, and maintain the effectiveness of industry verification.

In this context, I commend the Director-General for the work which has already been undertaken on the future of the OPCW, the report of the advisory panel.

The review conference next April will of course provide an excellent opportunity for the OPCW to start to focus on the future.

The UK will play a full part in these discussions, and we look forward to a constructive outcome which will further strengthen the convention.


In conclusion ladies and gentlemen, enormous progress has been made, for which many of you can claim personal credit.

We must continue to share information, experience and expertise, so that we can complete the job.

We must prepare for the new challenges which lie ahead.

I can assure you that the UK will continue to engage actively and constructively on all these issues.

Chemical weapons were developed over decades of international suspicion, rivalry and conflict, in conditions of the greatest secrecy.

But together we are putting all this into the past, and with unprecedented international cooperation, are destroying these horrific weapons, so that this shadow will no longer hover over our citizens.

In Brussels in 2007, the members of this conference laid a wreath at the Menin Gate in Ypres to commemorate the soldiers who died there with no known grave.

As you know it was at Ypres, on 22 April 1915, that chemical weapons were first used on the battlefield.

One survivor, Anthony Hossack, a British soldier wrote this:

We could see in the failing light… a low cloud of yellow-grey smoke or vapour, and, underlying everything, a dull, confused murmuring.

Suddenly down the road … came a galloping team of horses, the riders goading on their mounts in a frenzied way; then another and another, till the road became a seething mass with a pall of dust over all.

Plainly something terrible was happening…

Over the last 15 years we have acted to see that this terror is banished.

This conference series will come to an end, but our shared mission will continue, to ensure that chemical weapons are never produced or used again.

That is why we are all here.

Published 22 May 2012