The year 2012 signifies the 15th anniversary of the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international agreement that prohibits all activities related to development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and promotes timely destruction of existing stockpile.1 With 188 state parties, which translate into 98 percent of the world’s population, the Convention is one of the most successful international treaties with near universal membership. Only a handful of countries did not accede to the convention. These countries are Angola, Egypt, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria, which have neither signed nor ratified the Convention; and Israel and Myanmar which have signed but not ratified the treaty. On the other hand, during the 17th session of the Conference of the States Parties (CSP) to the CWC, held in November 2012 at The Hague, Netherlands, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that “if a world free of chemical weapons is to be fully realised, it is crucial that these eight states join without delay”.2 Since the third Five-Year Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention is scheduled to be held in April 2013 in The Hague, it is appropriate to study the case of Angola.
Angola, a country in southern Africa, has no officially confirmed history of possession and use of chemical weapons by the state. However, it should be noted that South Africa, in defence of its earlier chemical and biological weapons programme, often cited the capture of chemical detection and decontamination equipment and treatment systems in Angola during the 1980s as concrete evidence to argue that the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and Cuban forces were prepared to use chemical weapons against the then South African Defence Force (SADF). South Africa also claimed that the Western European Defence Alliance (WEDA) endorsed a chemical attack on the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) by the MPLA.
Historically, there were instances of chemical weapons being used inside Angola when it was under Portuguese colonial rule. It was reported that on May 1, 1970, the Portuguese began chemical warfare against the people of Angola by spraying chemical defoliants and herbicides over the cultivated areas of “liberated regions” in Angola, thereby destroying the harvest and killing hundreds of people. 3 Some of those chemicals used by the Portuguese included:
These chemicals are highly poisonous and were known to cause digestive problems, the vomiting up of blood, and respiratory diseases. Particularly, the chemical 2, 4, 5 trichlorophenoxyacetic acid acts on pregnant women, causing congenital malformation; Cocadylic acid contains arsenic and is used as a lethal dose; and Picloram is so toxic that in a test conducted in a Puerto Rican equatorial forest, trees sprayed with Picloram remained without leaves for over two years. Strongly opposing the use of chemicals by Portugal against Angola, the then president of the MPLA, Agostinho Neto, appealed to U Thant, the then Secretary General of the United Nations to condemn Portugal’s resort to chemical warfare against the people fighting for independence. 5
Immediately after achieving independence in November 1975, Angola slipped into a civil war that continued until 2002. The civil war was primarily a struggle for power between two former liberation movements, the MPLA and the UNITA, supported by opposing camps during the Cold War period. 6 Hence, the civil war witnessed sporadic intervention with chemical weapons by major powers of opposing camps. For example, an investigation by the UN and the World Health Organisation found that during the 1978 “mass murders at Kassinga” in Angola, conducted by the South African Special Forces, victims were paralysed with gas before they were shot dead. 7
At the same time, there was evidence to suggest that the MPLA government in Angola used chemical weapons, acquired from the Cubans, and backed by Russian and the erstwhile East German supporters, in counter-insurgency operations during the 1980s. Brig Isidro Peregrino Chindondo, the intelligence chief of the UNITA, complained that the Soviet-aided government troops used chemical weapons in the civil war, which killed three rebel fighters, blinded several others and turned leaves on trees “totally dark”. 8 He explained that the government air and ground units used a “toxic agent” that emitted a yellow and green vapour in battles at Bie in June, 1986, at Lucusse in July, 1986 and at Cuito Cuanavale in August, 1986.
New allegations of chemical weapons use by government forces in Angola were leveled in 1993. In January that year, the UNITA accused the MPLA of dropping chemical weapon bombs on the city of Ndalatando and also against civilians in the city of Huambo. 9 However, the attention was diverted to the cases of so-called “steppage-gait” syndrome that were reported by UNITA forces between 1986 and 1990. 10 Although no samples were collected from the area where the syndrome was reported, a number of hypotheses, including chemical weapons use, were put forward to explain the symptoms of those affected. Later in the year 2000, the Angolan Army announced that it found chemical weapons in a UNITA arms cache in the central highlands. 11
Given this background, notwithstanding the optimism expressed by the then Director General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Rogelio Pfirter, who stated at the 2007 Conference of the States Parties that Angola “fully supports” the CWC, Angola does not seem any closer to accession. .12
To conclude, despite 15 years of operation, some suspected chemical weapon possessor states remain outside the CWC regime. Immediate efforts should be made to bring these counties under the CWC umbrella, which will enhance trust and confidence in CWC for countries like Angola who would join thereafter. Until the whole world is open to inspections, one can never be certain that all chemical weapons have been fully destroyed and that no banned chemicals are being secretly produced or traded.
Under the OPCW’s supervision, more than 43,000 metric tons (nearly 78 per cent) of the declared stockpiles of chemical weapons were successfully destroyed since the Convention’s entry into force in April 1997. At the same time, estimates suggest that almost 30,000 metric tons of chemical agents still await destruction. .19