Destroying Libya’s Chemical Weapons: Deadlines and Delays

Libya continues to miss deadlines for the destruction of its chemical agent.

Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi

Former CW production facilities must be destroyed under the terms of the CWC, but a state party may request conversion of part or all of the installations to peaceful purposes. Based on the type of CW activities that took place in different sections of the Rabta plant, the OPCW agreed to split the facility into two parts: Rabta Pharmaceutical Factory 1 and Factory 2.

The CW production equipment in Factory 1 had to be destroyed due to the nature of the weapons work that had taken place there. With approval of the 2004 OPCW Conference of the States Parties (CSP), the building was converted for peaceful uses and is subject to a special inspection regime. The CSP accepted Libya’s argument that the equipment in Factory 2 had not been part of the former CW program and therefore could be entirely converted for peaceful purposes.

Despite this accommodation to Libya, the conversion process suffered from major delays. The Libyan government had already signed a contract with the Italian firm PharmaChem on February 11, 2002. An addendum dated June 1, 2006 indicated that completion of the conversion activities would not be achieved before September 2009 at the earliest—and PharmaChem had also added a three-month safety margin, pushing the possible completion date to December 2009. Despite the knowledge that it would miss the July 29, 2008 conversion deadline, Libya failed to notify the OPCW in advance and request an extension. The episode was the source of considerable friction. The Rabta plant now manufactures pharmaceuticals.

Libya continues to miss deadlines for the destruction of its chemical agent. A major factor contributing to Libya missing its original destruction deadline was Qaddafi’s cancelation in June 2007 of its contract with a US company for the delivery of a high-temperature incinerator. In its 2009 request for an extension (which was granted for December 2010), Libya also cited strong but unspecified opposition to the destruction activities by civil society. Western officials (primarily from the United States and the United Kingdom), however, gave more credence to safety concerns about transporting the agent from storage to the destruction sites, particularly as one British official reported that some of the polyethylene containers were leaking. The leakage required the chemical agent to be repackaged for safe transport to the Rabta Toxic Chemicals Destruction Facility.

Eventually, Libya teamed up with the Italian firm SIPSA Engineering to complete the agent destruction activities; however, Libya had stalled the signing of contracts, in an apparent effort to extract further concessions in exchange for the elimination of its unconventional capabilities. The destruction facility became operational too late for Libya to meet the new December 2010 deadline, and an extension to May 15, 2011 was given. The mid-May deadline was itself an extension granted by the OPCW of the previous deadline of December 2010—which was also an extension.

Most recently, a technical mishap at the CW destruction facility—combined with the political turmoil in Libya—contributed to delays. A replacement part for the facility had to be shipped from Italy; however, UN sanctions implemented in response to Qaddafi’s violent suppression of the popular revolt forced the ship to turn back before it reached Libya.

The OPCW has postponed destruction activities that it had planned for March 2011 and is waiting until the Libyan government can clarify the political situation and conditions at the CW sites. On May 16, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü announced that Libya had formally requested a further extension of the destruction deadline. While recognizing the extenuating circumstances, parties to the CWC intend to hold the Libyan government accountable for the lapses.

Jean Pascal Zanders is a research fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris.

Category: News