Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare

Background

The Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare is an annual event held 30 November each year as a “tribute to the victims of chemical warfare, as well as to reaffirm the commitment of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to the elimination of the threat of chemical weapons, thereby promoting the goals of peace, security, and multilateralism.”

It is officially recognised by the United Nations (UN) and has been celebrated since 2005.

The observance was previously held on 29 April each year, but it was moved in 2015 and the original day is now ‘International Day for the Foundation of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (“OPCW Day”)’.

By OPCW from The Netherlands – OPCW Pays Tribute to All Victims of Chemical Warfare at Day of Remembrance, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78346770

History

On 11 November 2005, during the last day of the UN’s Tenth Session of the Conference of the State Parties, the members of the UN officially recognised the Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare, following a suggestion by Rogelio Pfirter, Director-General of the Secretariat.

In addition, Pfirter’s proposal to erect a monument at the Hague commemorating all victims of chemical warfare was approved. 29 April was chosen as the date for the event’s celebration because the Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force on that day in 1997.

Although the majority of the world has either given up or destroyed their stockpiles of chemical weapons as of 2013, several nations have yet to do so. Five of these, Angola, Burma, Egypt, Israel, and North Korea, have not ratified the Convention and are suspected to possess chemical weapons.

Syria is also known to possess a sizeable stockpile and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted this in his 2013 speech, condemning the nation for its alleged exploitation of chemical weapons in its ongoing civil war.

On 14 September 2013 the United States and Russia announced in Geneva that they reached a deal whereby Syria would ratify the treaty and give up its chemical weapons.

The Syrian government has been cooperating and as of November 2013, all but one of Syria’s 23 publicly declared chemical weapon sites have been visited by international inspectors that are dismantling the Syrian chemical weapons programme.

World War One

The French were the first to use tear-inducing irritants, aka tear gas, in 1914, but it was the Germans who were the first to use gas on a large scale as a weapon on 31 January 1915 against the Russians.

Although the British were outraged at the Germans for using gas – Lieutenant General Sir Charles Ferguson, Commander II Corps, called a cowardly form of warfare – they used it at the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915.

The first choice of gas was chlorine, but this was replaced by Phosgene in 1915 – which was harder to detect and deadlier than chlorine.

Austria used a mix of chlorine and phosgene on Italian troops on 290 June 1916.

The Germans also used sulfur mustard, in July 1917, commonly known ‘mustard gas’. Mustard gas was not an effective killing agent and was used to harass and disable the enemy – blistering, sore eyes, vomiting (attacking the bronchial tubes in the lungs). It was extremely painful, and fatally injured victims sometimes took four or five weeks to die of mustard gas exposure.

Countries that used chemical weapons during WWI include the UK, France, Germany, the US, and Austria.

Around 36,600 tons of phosgene were manufactured during the war, out of a total of 190,000 tons for all chemical weapons, making it second only to chlorine, at 93,800 tons, in the quantity manufactured:

  • Germany 18,100 tons.
  • France 15,700 tons.
  • United Kingdom 1,400 tons (also used French stocks).
  • United States 1,400 tons (also used French stocks).

Although phosgene was never as notorious in the public consciousness as mustard gas, it killed far more people. Of the approximately 1.3 million casualties and 90,000 deaths from chemical weapons, about 85% of the 90,000 deaths were caused by phosgene. German gas attacks against Russia on the Eastern Front resulted in the deaths of over 56,000 Russians, mainly due to the lack of effective countermeasures.

British figures, which were accurately maintained from 1916, recorded that 3% of gas casualties were fatal, 2% were permanently invalid and 70% were fit for duty again within six weeks. The proportion of mustard gas fatalities to total casualties was low; 2% of mustard gas casualties died and many of these succumbed to secondary infections rather than the gas itself. Once it was introduced at the third battle of Ypres, mustard gas produced 90% of all British gas casualties and 14% of battle casualties of any type.

When the United States entered the war, it was already mobilising resources from academic, industry and military sectors for research and development into poison gas. A Subcommittee on Noxious Gases was created by the National Research Committee, a major research centre was established at Camp American University, and the 1st Gas Regiment was recruited. The 1st Gas Regiment eventually served in France, where it used phosgene gas in several attacks.

Post World War One

Chemical weapons were used in several, mainly colonial, wars where one side had an advantage in equipment over the other.

  • The British used poison gas, possibly adamsite, against Russian revolutionary troops beginning on 27 August 1919.
  • The British also contemplated using chemical weapons against Iraqi insurgents in the 1920s.
  • Bolshevik troops used poison gas to suppress the Tambov Rebellion in 1920.
  • Spain used chemical weapons in Morocco against Rif tribesmen throughout the 1920s.
  • Italy used mustard gas in Libya in 1930 and again during its invasion of Ethiopia in 1936.
  • In 1925, a Chinese warlord, Zhang Zuolin, contracted a German company to build him a mustard gas plant in Shenyang, which was completed in 1927.

Eventually, public opinion turned against the use of such weapons which led to the Geneva Protocol, an updated and extensive prohibition of poison weapons. The Protocol, which was signed by most First World War combatants in 1925, bans the use (but not the stockpiling) of lethal gas and bacteriological weapons.

Most countries that signed ratified it within around five years; a few took much longer – Brazil, Japan, Uruguay, and the US did not do so until the 1970’s, and Nicaragua ratified it in 1990.

Chemical weapons have been used in at least a dozen wars since the end of the First World War; they were not used in combat on a large scale until Iraq used mustard gas and the more deadly nerve agents in the Halabja chemical attack near the end of the 8-year Iran–Iraq War. The full conflict’s use of such weaponry killed around 20,000 Iranian troops (and injured another 80,000), around a quarter of the number of deaths caused by chemical weapons during the First World War.

World War Two

All major combatants stockpiled chemical weapons during the Second World War, but the only reports of its use in the conflict were:

  • The Japanese use of relatively small amounts of mustard gas and lewisite in China;
  • Italy’s use of gas in Ethiopia (in what is more often considered to be the Second Italo-Ethiopian War); and
  • Very rare occurrences in Europe (for example some mustard gas bombs were dropped on Warsaw on 03 September 1939, which Germany acknowledged in 1942 but indicated had been accidental).

Mustard gas was the agent of choice, with the British stockpiling 40,719 tons, the Soviets 77,400 tons, the Americans over 87,000 tons and the Germans 27,597 tons.

The destruction of an American cargo ship containing mustard gas led to many casualties in Bari, Italy, in December 1943.

The UK made plans to use mustard gas on the landing beaches in the event of an invasion of the United Kingdom in 1940, and the US considered using gas to support their planned invasion of Japan.

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