India makes a U-turn on UK chemical attacks

The News

  • India performed a diplomatic balancing act to redeem a previous wrong turn at the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) by unreservedly condemning recent chemical attacks in Amesbury, UK.



  • Recently a British couple fell ill at a house in Amesbury and remained in a critical condition.
  • It is believed that they were exposed to Novichok – a nerve agent.
  • In March, a former Russian military intelligence officer and British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury, England, with the same nerve agent, according to UK officials. However Russia had denied any involvement.
  • Sergei Skripal was a Russian officer who was convicted in 2006 of spying for the United Kingdom.
  • Skripal was accused by Russian prosecutors of working for MI6 in the late 1990s and passing secrets to the British.
  • This was followed by a series of punitive measures including the expulsion of Russian diplomats from UK.
  • More than 115 Kremlin diplomats have since been expelled from Western countries in solidarity with Britain.


Indiaā€™s stand

  • Indian Prime Minister had expressed concern about chemical weapons attacks in Salisbury and Syria when he met the British PM at the sidelines of CHOGM summit in April 2018.
  • Without mentioning Russia anywhere, Indiaā€™s stated position was that it opposed the use of chemical weapons anywhere, at any time, by anybody, under any circumstances.
  • In June 2018, India voted against a UK draft empowering OPCW to investigate perpetrators of chemical attacks with special powers to the director.
  • However majority of the member states of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted in favor of a British-led proposal.
  • A draft decision was sponsored by the UK and supported by the western countries.
  • The draft then would have given the powers of investigation etc to an expert body rather than keeping it with the highly politicised UN Security Council.
  • In other words it gave the power to OPCW to assign blame for attacks with banned toxic munition
  • India along with Russia, China, and Iran had opposed the draft decision.
  • This was severely criticized as India is not a permanent member of the UNSC and important decisions there are routinely blocked by Russia and China, the very countries India stood with.
  • Now India has taken a middle-of-the-road position expressing widespread concern over fresh allegations on the use of chemical weapons coming from different parts of the world.
  • Indiaā€™s position is that use of chemical weapons is in complete disregard of humanity and is reprehensible and contrary to the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention as well as accepted international legal norms.


About Novichok

  • Novichok is a family of nerve agent compounds that the Soviet Union developed in the 1970s and 80s from chemicals normally used for insecticides and other non-military purposes.
  • Novichok is designed to be persistent – it neither evaporates nor decomposes quickly.
  • Traditional nerve agents such as sarin evaporate quickly means people are rapidly exposed through breathing it in during a chemical attack.
  • Novichok agents are understood to evaporate far more slowly.
  • Like sarin and mustard gas, their exact chemical structures and properties are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries.


Basics on Nerve Agents

  • Nerve agents are a class of chemicals called organophosphates that are extremely poisonous.
  • They attack the nervous system of the human body.
  • It acts by restricting the conduction of nerve impulses by blocking the action of acetylcholineesterase.
  • When acetylcholinesterase is prevented from performing its normal function of breaking down acetylcholine, muscles go into a state of uncontrolled contraction ā€” a sign of paralysis or a seizure-like state.
  • When the cardiac and respiratory muscles are paralyzed, it results in death.
  • Nerve agents can also be absorbed through the skin.
  • Along with theĀ potent VX, one of the best known nerve agents in existence is sarin.
  • However, it has gained notoriety through its use in warfare and was outlawed in 1997 by the Chemical Weapons Convention.


Chemical Weapons

  • The term chemical weapon is applied to any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action.
  • Chemical weaponsĀ are classifiedĀ according to how they affect human beings:
  1. Choking agents like chlorine gas make breathing difficult.
  2. Blister agents like mustard gas can cause severe skin and eye irritation.
  3. Arsenic- or cyanide-based blood agents are often fast-acting and lethal.
  4. Nerve agents like sarin or VX disrupt the nervous system.


A brief history of use of chemical weapons is represented in the chart below.




Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)

  • The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is an intergovernmental organisation which seeks to promote countries’ adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the use of chemical weapons.
  • In order to verify countries’ adherence to the ruling, the OPCW carries out bothĀ evaluation of declarations by members states and on-site inspections.
  • The organisation is located in The Hague, Netherlands.
  • The organisation is not an agency of the United Nations, but cooperates both on policy and practical issues with the UN.
  • The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), won the Nobel Peace PrizeĀ in 2013 for disarmament efforts in Syria.


Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

  • Primary objective of CWC is to eliminate an entire category of weapons of mass destruction by prohibiting the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons byĀ States Parties.
  • Under OPCW, all States Parties have agreed to chemically disarm by destroying any stockpiles of chemical weapons they may hold and any facilities which produced them, as well as any chemical weapons they abandoned on the territory of other States Parties in the past.
  • It allows member states to retain rights to use some of these chemicals for peaceful purposes such as riot control.
  • States Parties have also agreed to create a verification regime for certain toxic chemicals.
  • A unique feature is its incorporation of the ‘challenge inspection’, whereby any State Party in doubt about another State Party’s compliance can request theĀ Director-GeneralĀ to send an inspection team.
  • The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)Ā entered into force on April 29, 1997.
  • It currently hasĀ 193Ā states-parties. One state has signed but not ratified (Israel). Threestates have neither signed nor ratified (Egypt,Ā North Korea, and South Sudan).


Countries that possess or use chemical weapons

  • Of the 192 CWC signatories, Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia, Syria, and the US declared possession.
  • Albania, India, Libya, Russia ā€” and Syria ā€” declared completion of destruction of chemical weapons.

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