Chemical weapons

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Why in news?

At least 72 people were killed in a chemical attack in Idlib province Syria. Doctors and first-responders at the attack site said symptoms shown by victims suggested use of Sarin.

What is a chemical weapon?

Chemical weapons are specialised munitions that deliver chemicals that inflict death or injury on humans through chemical actions.

Which chemicals are most commonly used?

Among the most commonly used chemical weapons are mustard gas, phosgene, chlorine, and the nerve agents Sarin and VX.

Sarin:  This odourless, colourless agent is extremely potent — even trace amounts can kill humans — but its threat after being released in the atmosphere is short-lived.

Mustard gas: Possibly the world’s most commonly used chemical weapon, it was widely used in World War I, and gets its name from its distinctive odour of rotten mustard. It is slow acting, and only about 5% to 10% of people exposed to it usually die.

VX: This is the nerve agent that was reportedly used in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this February. In its original form, it is odourless, and appears as a brownish oily substance. It is very persistent — once in the atmosphere, it is slow to evaporate, and thus tends to cause prolonged exposure.

The international convention against the use of chemical weapons:

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1993, outlawed the production as well as stockpiling of chemical weapons. 192 countries have so far agreed to be bound by the CWC — 4 UN states are not party: Israel, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan.

The CWC is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its efforts to curb use of chemical weapons internationally.

India’s stand on chemical weapon:

India was one of the original signatories of the CWC in 1993, stating that it did not possess chemical weapons or the technology to manufacture it. However, in June 1997, it declared a stockpile of 1,044 tonnes of sulphur mustard, and promised to start the process of destroying it as per CWC guidelines. In March 2009, India declared that it had completely destroyed its stockpile of chemical weapons.

Chemical weapons in the Syrian war:

Early on August 21, 2013, rockets containing Sarin hit the Ghouta suburb of Damascus, causing around 300 deaths. Western powers, led by the US, accused Syrian government forces of the attack. Faced with the threat of international intervention, President Bashar al-Assad admitted to having chemical weapons.

The worst chemical attack in history:

On march 16, 1988, in the final months of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s army had lost the city of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran. Some 48 hours after the loss, Saddam Hussein’s cousin and Iraq’s defence minister Ali Hassan al-Majid ordered warplanes to strike Halabja’s primarily Kurdish population with mustard gas and Sarin. The attack is thought to have killed up to 5,000 civilians.

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