Chemical weapons: The devastating effect of their use throughout history
This Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of the first large-scale implementation of chemical weapons (CW) in warfare. On Thursday 22nd April 1915, near the Belgian town of Ypres close to the French border, German forces released a deadly greenish fog into the air – chlorine gas – and watched as it dissipated, caught the wind and drifted silently towards Allied soldiers.
Chlorine gas was only one of around 50 different such weapons to be used by troops during the First World War. One of the most popular and most shocking was mustard gas, which affected not only the respiratory tract, but skin, too.
Photographs of soldiers suffering from the devastating effects of mustard gas – a “blister agent”- can be easily found, and make for extremely distressing viewing. In one example, a soldier is bolstered up in bed by two nurses, his eyes shut tight with pain, his skin marked by large, bulbous blisters.
In John Singer Sargent’s 1919 painting Gassed a line of nine soldiers blinded during a mustard gas attack walk single-file, aided by two others, while around them other affected men lie bandaged and incapacitated.
Chemical warfare was used by all sides during World War One and is estimated to have caused 90,000 deaths, as well as more than a million casualties between 1915 and 1918. By the end of the war, 125,000 tons of chemical weapons had been expended.
Despite the horror caused by CWs during the First World War, and contrary to the terms of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which prohibited their use in international warfare, many countries continued to deploy them in the succeeding years.
Although they were scarcely used in Europe during the Second World War, their terrible efficacy was exploited by the Japanese in China during the Second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), primarily against prisoners of war and civilians.
According to the website for the Royal Society of Chemistry, since 1945 over 50,000 Japanese chemical weapons have been found scattered across 90 sites in China and have “reportedly caused 2000 injuries and even a few fatalities”.
This last example demonstrates one of the most significantly harmful characteristics of chemical weapons: the long-term damage to victims. CWs have a sustained effect upon the human body and these effects can even be passed on across generations.
Between 1961 and 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, US forces used a cocktail of herbicides known as Agent Orange to defoliate areas of the country in order to expose North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces.
The harmful effects of these chemicals have since been strongly felt by US veterans of the war and members of the Vietnamese population. Among the illnesses now considered to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange are Leukemia, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and prostate cancer.
Whilst acknowledging the damage done to US veterans by Agent Orange, the US government has failed to accept responsibility for the prolonged effects of the operation on the Vietnamese people, whose claims have since been supported by independent investigations.
In March 1988, the citizens of the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq, was victim to one of the worst chemical attacks of recent times perpetrated by the Iraqi government. Experts at the time suspected that mustard gas and nerve agents, such as Sarin and Tabun had been released. 5,000 people were reportedly killed during the attacks and another 10,000 injured.
Even in the advent of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1993, these continue to threaten the safety of civilians in times of strife.
Syria has now become the main focus of international attention regarding the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). One of the most notable and recent instances occurred on 21st August 2013 in the suburbs of Ghouta, near the Syrian capital Damascus.
The Syrian government was initially blamed for the attacks, although the state-run news agency, Sana, dismissed these allegations as “baseless”. A UN report on the incident later confirmed the use of chemical agents, specifically Sarin, in the attack. Official figures for the number of casualties have been difficult to establish, with various estimates placing it anywhere between 300 and 1,400 people.
In the time since the attacks, Syria has agreed to abide by the terms of the CWC and destroy its considerable stockpile of chemical weapons.
Unfortunately, reports of chemical warfare in Syria have persisted since this promise was made, the most recent of which occurred in Idlib, north-western Syria, on 16th March this year, exactly 27 years after the attack in Halabja, Iraq.
In spite of numerous and hard-fought international efforts to eradicate the threat of CWs, there are certain groups who continue to use them to commit unthinkable atrocities against innocent men, women and children.
Nevertheless, it appears that globally the threat of chemical weapons has significantly diminished since they were first introduced 100 years ago. However, the danger that remains, no matter how reduced, is still very much a cause for international concern; those responsible must be called to account.