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Chemical weapons in focus at NATO Conference in Helsinki

Finland is hosting an annual NATO Conference on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-proliferation. One of the most burning issues under discussion is the use of chemical weapons in Syria. North Korea and nuclear disarmament are also on the agenda of the two-day gethering opened by Foreign Minister Timo Soini on Monday.

A child receiving treatments after poison gas attack.
A Syrian child receiving treatment in a field hospital following a poison gas attack in Idlib province in April 2017. Image: EPA/STRINGER

The conference, with its stated aim of ensuring a better understanding of global security challenges, has drawn around 100 participants from nearly 50 NATO and NATO-partner countries, as well as international organisations.

Chemical weapons

There are three varieties of weapons of mass destruction - biological weapons, chemical weapons and nuclear weapons.

A biological weapon is used to deliberate spread a disease, such as anthrax. Chemical weapons use toxic substances that lead to loss of functionality, permanent injury, or death.

"Chemical weapons make no distinction between targets and anyone in the area. Children, the elderly - it makes no difference," says Mikael Långström of the Finnish Foreign Ministry.

Longström's job at the Foreign Ministry is to advance efforts to prevent of the use of chemical and biological weapons.

"It's an incredibly painful death with acute symptoms. In addition, the gas is usually invisible, which means that victims cannot defend themselves or flee before it is too late," Långström adds.

Mikael Långström.
Chemical weapons are indiscriminant in spreading death, says Mikael Långström. Image: Yle/ Dan Ekholm

Chemical weapons are prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention. This agreement, which is binding on 192 countries, outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors. 

"There is no legal use of chemical weapons," Långström states flatly.

Syrian attack 

In early April, more than 80 people died in a chemical weapons attack in Syria.

The attack, which has been widely condemned by the international community, took place in the rebel-controlled province of Idlib. The United States, France and numerous NGOs have placed blame for the attack on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Russia has pointed a finger at Syrian rebels as the guilty party, claiming that the deaths followed a bomb strike on a site where rebels had stores of nerve gas.

Syrian President Al-Assad has called the incident a fabrication. An investigation is still underway.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has established that the nerve gas sarin or a similar substance was used. OPCW and a UN investigative unit are gathering and analysing information about the incident with the aim of determining and assigning responsibility for the attack.

Longström says that it requires a level of expertise to manufacture these weapons that is not available to just anyone.

He adds that that there has been a worrying trend of late, where chemical weapons are targeted at non-combatants to spread fear and panic.

As early as 2013, Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons in order to avoid threatened military action by the US and France.

Finland took part in the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons programme by providing facilities to destroy toxic waste from Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. (See: Last shipment of Syrian chemical waste arrives in Finland )

According to Sannamaaria Vanamo, who heads the arms control unit at Finland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no official statement on the Syria investigation will be made at this week's conference in Helsinki.

North Korea and nuclear disarmament

North Korea's nuclear weapons programme and its global effects are also being discussed at the Helsinki gathering.

The prospect of global nuclear disarmament through a comprehensive test ban treaty is undermined by any country still testing nuclear weapons.

"North Korea is a threat to a world without nuclear weapons," says Sannamaaria Vanamo.

Submarine launch of a North Korean missile.
A submarine-launched missile being fired in an undated North Korean photograph. Image: EPA/KCNA

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is an agreement that prohibits all nuclear explosions. The treaty was adopted in 1996 by the UN, but still needs more key counties to sign and ratify it before coming into force.

North Korea has not signed the agreement and continues nuclear testing despite international condemnation and sanctions.

The United States has signed the agreement, but has not ratified it.

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