Understanding regarding the aerosolized use of central nervous system-acting chemicals for law enforcement purposes

Bern, 01.12.2021 - After years of work in the area, Switzerland achieved an important success in strengthening the international norm against chemical weapons at the 26th Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). In The Hague today, the states parties voted by a large majority in favour of a decision initiated by Australia, the US and Switzerland stipulating that the aerosolised use of central nervous system-acting chemicals be forbidden in national law enforcement. This is an important step towards strengthening the ban on chemical weapons, which has come under some pressure.

Although the CWC prohibits the use of toxic chemicals as weapons, some substances can be used in specific circumstances to maintain public order. This exception applies, for example, to irritants such as tear gas and pepper spray.

Because of their non-lethal effects in a controlled medical setting, central nervous system-acting chemicals such as the opioid fentanyl and its derivatives might be viewed by some as an appealing tool in specific law enforcement scenarios, particularly for quelling unrest and dispersing demonstrations. However, their use is problematic and can cause long-term health issues or even death. The use of these substances also risks undermining the international norm against chemical weapons, as states may use law enforcement as a pretext to develop such chemicals for military purposes.

Switzerland first raised this issue within the framework of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2008 and, with the support of scientific and civil society organisations, has since undertaken several political initiatives to raise awareness and call for action by states parties to the CWC.

After more than a decade of informal discussions and following intensive political engagement, Switzerland, alongside the US and Australia, has now successfully put forward a decision at this year's Conference of the States Parties to the CWC.

In March of this year, the OPCW Executive Council had already adopted this politically controversial decision by a qualified majority and recommended it to the Conference of the States Parties for approval. Fifty states parties have joined as co-sponsors of the proposed draft decision, which was adopted today by an overwhelming majority of 85 states parties.

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