HIGH pressure in the North Atlantic in recent days has enabled the smooth passage of the Ark Futura, a Danish vessel, from Syria to Britain. The stable conditions are helpful, as the Ark Futura is carrying the worst of the remaining Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. The task of decommissioning Syria’s weapons programme has gathered speed since the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body responsible for implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention, was allowed access to the Syrian arsenal last year. Much of what remains of Bashar Assad’s deadly armoury is due to dock in Southampton on July 15th.
Following a chemical attack on the civilian area of Ghouta on August 21st 2013, Mr Assad complied with international calls for the destruction of his chemical weapon programme. The OPCW announced in June that all identifiable agents and precursor chemicals had been removed from the country. The most potent materials were transferred to the Cape Ray, an American ship, for destruction in the Mediterranean Sea, and the Ark Futura for destruction in Britain. The less potent but still thoroughly unpleasant remainder will be destroyed in Finland and America over the coming months.
The development of chemical weapons was perhaps science’s poorest contribution to humanity. Toxic chemicals have been used as weapons throughout history, but the wars of the 20th century must bear most of the blame. It is fitting, then, that primary responsibility for the destruction of Syria’s arsenal has been borne by America, Britain and Germany (which will be disposing of the leftover chemical sludge after the Cape Ray has finished her work). The load expected in Southampton consists of 150 tonnes of precursor chemicals for VX, a nerve agent, as well as 50 tonnes of hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride. Thankfully, no weapon can be made from mixing these materials alone. But you still wouldn’t want this stuff on your high street, courtesy of a terrorist attack. Hence the involvement of the British armed forces, which will be destroying the cargo through a standing contract with Veolia, a utility-management company.
It is getting harder for people such as Mr Assad to use chemical weapons with impunity. Advances in science mean that detection and attribution of such attacks are becoming easier. But with many precursor materials having legitimate civilian uses, and with little time needed for factories to switch from making legitimate products to weapons, the real challenge for the authorities is determining in advance who plans to misuse the precursors in question. There is, as yet, no answer to that conundrum. But by helping to destroy these grotesque weapons, science has gone some way to redeeming its earlier activities.
This article was published in The Economist on July 14th 2014. See this link.