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Euro-centrism and chemical warfare

Quite rightly there is horror at the thought of chemical weapons being used in Ukraine. This horror easily translates into propaganda, and both Russia and the West are keen to implicate one another in chemical weapons development and their potential future use. A BBC-selected ‘expert’ recently suggested that if chemical weapons are used in Ukraine, this will be their first use since World War II. Perhaps the expert was thinking, as BBC pundits often do, in purely Euro-centric terms.

International law

In 1925 chemical weapons were banned under the Geneva Protocol. Their use was also prohibited in the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, with signatories from most major nations including Russia, the United States and the UK. The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) was set up to drive forward multinational treaties against WMD proliferation (chemical, biological and nuclear), and OPCW (the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) monitors the illegal use of chemical weapon and strives to limit their proliferation.

So why is the world now concerned that such weapons may be used in Ukraine?

Well, despite these protocols, treaties and institutions, our track record on inhibiting their use is poor.

Here are some examples.


Unable to win the Vietnam war using conventional weapons, the United States in the late ’60s and early ’70s resorted to the use of a variety of chemical weapons. The best known of these are Napalm and Agent Orange. Napalm is a mixture of jet fuel and polystyrene which sticks to the skin and causes agonizing injuries and death. It was banned in 1980, but this didn’t stop the US from using an updated version in Iraq. In Vietnam they also used Agent Orange, a defoliant aimed at forest clearance. This chemical caused leukemiaHodgkin’s lymphoma and various other kinds of cancer in the Vietnamese population. Many children continue to be born with defects as a result of these weapons and the contaminated areas still produce unsafe food. Agent Orange alone has damaged the health of over a million Vietnamese people.


In the Halabja Massacre in Iraq in 1988 Saddam Hussein’s army used mustard gas and nerve agents which killed up to 5,000 people and injured up to 10,000 more, mostly civilians. These weapons were developed, stockpiled and used in large quantities in the Iran-Iraq war, which ended in 1988. Iraq’s chemical weapons were disposed of as part of an agreement after the Gulf War of 1990.

However, this did not stop the US and UK from using Iraq’s alleged possession of chemical weapons as a pretext for their invasion of Iraq in 2003. In a bitter irony, the US themselves then deployed chemical weapons against Iraq: white phosphorous in attacking Fallujah, and napalm against targets close to Baghdad.

White phosphorous is often used in tracer rounds or for generating smoke screens, but for combatants and civilians it causes burn injuries and harm to the throat and lungs. Residues damage plant life, accumulate in fish and remain active in deep soil.

The US also used depleted uranium in Iraq. This is not normally categorized as a chemical weapon but, given its chemical and radiological toxicity, it should be. Depleted uranium residues cause particular harm to the kidneys and lungs. The US ignored their own guidelines on its use and deployed depleted uranium against troops, unarmored targets and buildings in populated areas. According to, more than 1,000 uranium-contaminated sites have been identified in Iraq.

Libya, Syria, Israel

There are claims that NATO utilised depleted uranium in its bombing missions against Libya in 2011 and that the US used these weapons in bombing sorties in Syria in 2018. Chemical weapons have also been used by government forces throughout the Syrian civil war (2011 to present), with OPCW documenting the use of chlorine, sarin and sulphur mustard. There are credible claims of the ‘false flag’ use of chlorine gas in Douma by groups associated with al-Qaeda – linking the origins of the gas to Turkey. The Israeli government admit to using white phosphorous against targets in Gaza in 2009.

Russia and Ukraine

Given this extensive use of chemical weapons over the last fifty years, it is understandable that Russia fears their use in Ukraine, either in active warfare, or as a false flag manoeuvre. Similarly, given Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war, the fear in Ukraine and the West that the Russian army will deploy these weapons is also legitimate. Experts in the West are saying that Russian forces are not geared up for chemical warfare, but other commentators suggest they may take advantage of either chemical or biological weapons potentially available from research facilities in Ukraine. In my view, the greater risk is not from either the Russians or the more traditional Ukrainian forces, but that these weapons may fall into the hands of smaller militant groups, such as the Nazi-aligned Azov Battalion, where it would be difficult to control or monitor their use.


Is there an ethical case against chemical warfare? The answer is: How could there not be?

These weapons cause painful and protracted deaths in combatants, and, where not fatal, lead to disability and poor health long after the cessation of hostilities. They are also indiscriminate, putting civilians at risk and causing health issues and birth defects long after their use. They cause long term harm to eco-systems and harm future generations through food and water supplies. Given this, their use is clearly morally abhorrent, and criminal sanctions should apply to any nation or group who use them.

The danger in Ukraine is that we may see an escalation from conventional to non-conventional weapons, whether openly or as false flags, and then to nuclear… That would be, for Ukraine, for our species and for the entire biological world, the most dangerous and immoral outcome of all.

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Luke Andreski

Luke Andreski is a founding member of the @EthicalRenewal and Ethical Intelligence collectives and author of Intelligent Ethics (2019). You can find his article, 10 Reasons Why War Is Wrong here. His new books, Short Conversations: During the Storm and the free eBook Our society is sick, but here’s the cure, are out now.

Andreski: Short Conversations - During the Storm

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