A probable assumption of the OPCW is that the world could be free of chemical weapons in only 8 years’ time, says the spokesperson of the OPCW, Michael Luhan.

IB Consultancy’s recent interview with the OPCW spokesperson Michael Luhan, concerning the Nobel Peace Prize, Syria and the Future of the OPCW, proved rather fruitful in information and ultimate future goals of riding the world of chemical weapons.

How would you say the general feeling and atmosphere was and is at the OPCW after knowledge of the Nobel Peace Prize?

We just had a rather large delegation in Oslo last week for the actual ceremony when the award was formally presented to our Director-General, Ahmet Üzümcü, and it was just a constant…what’s the right word for it? I mean, everyone was just in an incredible mood. And it continued for the three days that we were there. This only happens once and especially with the OPCW – we are so little known outside the world of disarmament and arms control – and to suddenly receive an award like this, well, it borders on the unbelievable.

Does this euphoria also reflect on the OPCW’s mission in Syria? And what are the most important security issues concerning the OPCW’s Syria mission?

The most important in Syria is that this operation takes place in the safest and most secure manner. Those are our principle worries. Our people have to verify these activities, including the removal, the transport of the declared chemical weapons and materials from all these sites to the port of Latakia, and then their onward shipment to the US vessel that is going to destroy the priority chemicals.

We are concerned more than anyone else about the safety and security of our people. The UN mission there, and more specifically, the UN Department of Safety and Security, is in charge of the security of OPCW personnel. They are tracking the security situation on the ground on an hourly basis.

It is the Syrian Government that has the primary responsibility to ensure permissive conditions for OPCW inspectors to do their work. It is Syria’s territory, their chemical weapons programme and also their primary responsibility to arrange for the security of the monitoring and destruction mission.

It’s true that this is an extremely precarious situation and it hasn’t been getting better in recent weeks. But nevertheless, we are continuing to make the necessary preparations on the ground, getting the packing materials into the country, out to the sites and getting (the chemicals) packaged and ready to get shipped out.

Can you give us an update on the role of Norway and the destruction plan?

Norway and Denmark have offered naval vessels to pick up the materials in the port of Latakia and deliver them to the US vessel where they’re going to be destroyed.

With regards to the destruction plan, the full and complete destruction plan for the Syrian chemicals will be presented on 17 December by the Director-General to the OPCW Executive Council for its consideration and approval.

The Future of the OPCW

What will be the role of the OPCW if and when all countries have signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention?

First of all, the world is still not free of these weapons. The USA, Libya, Russia and now Syria still have chemical weapons or chemical weapons-related materials that still need to be destroyed. Our assumption is that probably all of the known, existing, declared chemical stockpiles will be gone in 7-8 years.

But beyond that, when the existing chemical weapons stockpiles have been destroyed, there is still the ongoing challenge of ensuring that new chemical weapons don’t emerge, which is the non-proliferation element of the Chemical Weapons Convention and another major area of work of the OPCW. The OPCW has teams of inspectors, every day of the year, who visit chemical industries all over the world which are involved in the manufacture of chemicals or with production technologies or capabilities that fall under the Convention. We inspect and monitor them to ensure that everyone is complying with their obligations. All of this is to ensure that chemistry is only used for peaceful purposes, and that is a job that has no specific endpoint.

How is the OPCW developing and fostering its capabilities?

We have a Scientific Advisory Board that exists to provide expert advice to our Director-General on developments in science and technology as they affect the work of the OPCW. As our Director-General often says, the OPCW is a science-based organisation and we have to make sure to keep abreast of scientific developments to ensure our verification methods are kept up to date.

What about Civil Society?

In the last few years we have seen a 300-400% growth in the number of NGO’s that participate in our annual conferences and in the 3rd Review Conference this past April. And we have taken a number of steps to increase the avenues of participation for NGOs to meaningfully contribute to the work of the organization and to our policy-making process.

We have also created a Temporary Working Group on Education and Outreach. The principal focus of this is to identify ways in which the OPCW can mainstream content on the Chemical Weapons Convention and the OPCW into chemistry curricula at the high school and university levels. Anyone who goes into the field of chemistry should go in with a clear understanding of the global ban against chemical weapons and know that it is not only unethical for a chemist to lend his or her efforts to developing chemical weapons, but that it is also illegal. At this point in time there is still a lot of work to do in that realm. In wide sectors of chemical industry and academia there is still very little knowledge and understanding of the Chemical Weapons Convention.