Well, sorry to say, things are not all that squeaky clean when it comes to this organization. The group is not all that effective, it serves as a get-out-of-jail card for the worst chemical weapons offenders, and it is even a likely conduit for spies seeking access to the world's chemical manufacturing plants.
What Is the OPCW?
The organization was formed in 1997 as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an agreement between nations to rid themselves of chemical weapons stockpiles. As of last month, Syria became the 190th signer of this convention (of course, this was only after the Assad regime reportedly gassed Syrian rebels, killing more than 1500 people in one attack alone). The OPCW is the investigative arm of the treaty. It can look and report, but only with the host country's permission and without any tools of enforcement. Their inspectors are supposed to be given access to all declared sites.
Who Watches the Watchmen?
The OPCW can't force itself into a country, but it is authorized to conduct so-called challenge inspections, which occur when one CWC signer accuses another of cheating at an undeclared site, and a team of specialists is then authorized to go to the suspected site to look around. But such a snap inspection has never happened. And even if the OPCW tried, a two-thirds majority vote by its governing council could block the inspection. And who is on that 41-seat council? According to the OPCW website, "Each State Party has the right, in accordance with the principle of rotation, to serve on the Council." So the nations with chemical weapons, none of which wants these challenges to happen, could block any challenge. Right now, includes nations that are not known for their human rights or sensible policies on weapons proliferation, including Sudan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Libya, Russia, and Serbia. This is why people complain that verification is nearly impossible, especially because chemical weapons manufacture is easy to mask as peaceful industrial chemistry.
Furthermore, the OPCW seems easy to dupe. , for example, declared itself to be chemical weapons—free, and the disarmament community rejoiced and used the regime as an example of the CWC's success. But after the United States and European powers helped Libyan rebels throw off the Gaddafi regime, the new government disclosed three clandestine chemical weapons manufacturing plants and many chemical weapons and precursor chemicals.
Foxes in the Henhouse?
With the OPCW's access to sensitive chemical sites, the fear is that the OPCW serves as an easy way to conduct espionage on the United States and Europe. This is not an idle fear. There's been at least one fox found in the henhouse: Iran is a member of the OPCW. It joined in 1997, and since then has been accused of failing to disclose its full chemical weapons arsenal. Nevertheless, Iranians sit on the council and offer support staff to serve as investigators. Even worse, the Iranians have tried to slip in staff members who previously have been sanctioned as chemical weapons proliferators. In 2009 that one of the Iranian OPCW inspectors was employed by Melli Agrochemical Company, a pesticide maker that is under United Nations sanction for buying nerve agent precursors on behalf of Iran's defense ministry.
And according to diplomatic cables stolen and released by WikiLeaks, the OPCW has become a farce when it comes to making a recalcitrant member behave. "Of course," one cable from 2010 says, "the two U.S. 90-day CW destruction progress reports will provide Iran ample opportunity for political theater." Translation: Iran and other nations justify their own lack of progress on chemical weapons destruction by citing the reports, which say that the U.S. itself is behind schedule.
It's not just Iran that has trouble with the OPCW. The United States has limited OPCW inspectors on its own sites. "The Department of Defense has been criticized for narrow, legalistic, and at times confrontational behavior on the part of inspector escorts, and for failing to deliver equipment and training courses promised to the OPCW," for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Even more troubling, the U.S. is implementing legislation passed in October 1998 that contains three unilateral exemptions and restrictions on inspections and oversight.
The idea that foreign governments could get access to chemical plants, pilfer proprietary information, and use some of the information to advance thier own weapons programs is not far-fetched, as the Iranian example shows. Concerns such as this have impeded the 15-year CWC's implementation, especially when it comes to surveying the civilian chemical industry in many nations.
The OPCW can only be strengthened by the Nobel Peace Prize, and its goal of stemming the flow of chemical weapons certainly makes the world feel safer. Unfortunately, the organization has a way of bettering the positions of those nations that build stockpiles of chemical weapons. When the Assad regime signed the CWC, they are the ones who felt safer.