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'10 years should be enough to finish the job'

DW talked to Paul Walker, the newly-crowned winner of the "Right Livelihood Award" - AKA the "Alternative Nobel Prize" - on his life's work: destroying the world's last stockpiles of chemical weapons.

On Thursday (26.09.2013) Paul Walker was honored with the "Right Livelihood Award" - often called the "Alternative Nobel Prize" - for over two decades of dedication to destroying the world's remaining chemical weapons. The Right Livelihood Organization described the 67-year-old as the key to "leveraging over one billion dollars annually in programs for disarmament" leading to the safe elimination of "more than 55,000 metric tons of chemical weapons from six declared national arsenals." DW spoke with him about his work and how much he still has left to do.

DW: Are you intending to go to Stockholm on December 2 to receive the award, and if so, have you thought about what you will say in your acceptance speech?

Paul Walker: Yes, I'm definitely going to Stockholm, and my wife and two sons are coming as well. I wouldn't miss it for the world. I'll definitely talk about chemical weapons, the need to universalize the [1997 Chemical Weapons] Convention, and the need to complete the destruction program in Syria.

What does the award mean for the cause of destroying chemical weapons?

I think it will be very helpful in eliminating chemical weapons from the world. The United States and the Russians have been very involved since the early 1990s in destroying their enormous Cold War chemical stockpiles, but we don't get much press or public attention, so this will be very helpful in raising public awareness and in putting additional pressure on non-member countries such as Israel, Egypt, North Korea, Myanmar, South Sudan, and Angola to join the treaty. Also it'll be helpful in the immediate future in putting more attention on the seriousness of the Syria situation.

A file picture dated 31 August 2013 shows the logo of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) outside its building in The Hague, The Netherlands. The OPCW has received a declaration from Syria on the country's chemical weapons arsenal, a spokesman said on 20 September 2013. EPA/EVERT-JAN DANIELS *** Local Caption *** 50975436 +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

The OPCW is responsible for chemical weapons inspections

How did your interest in chemical weapons come about? Did it have anything to do with your experience in the US army?

It did in a very general way. I did military service at the height of Vietnam, and I was very fortunate not to have to go to Vietnam directly, but I served in intelligence against Russia in West Germany, at a small listening post near Hanover. That experience got me very interested in Soviet affairs and arms control and various Cold War efforts at disarmament.

But what drove me to chemical weapons was an experience in the early 1990s, when I had the good fortune to organize the first American on-site inspection of a Russian chemical weapons stockpile, and in July 1994, myself and the assistant Secretary of Defense and two Congressmen who came from districts with chemical weapons stockpiles in the US went through one of the biggest Russian stockpiles on the steppes of Siberia.

And we were really struck by how large this stockpile was, though we knew it was there from satellite intelligence. The weapons were clean, battlefield-ready, there were over two million artillery shells with nerve agent, there was very little security, and there was no inventory. So we realized that we had to move forward quickly to help Russia put better security on the site as well as other sites, and to work with them to design a destruction program. And that site today - almost 20 years later - is about 75 percent destroyed, after a $2 billion [1.5 billion euro] construction effort that took six or seven years. That really encouraged me to begin to focus on chemical weapons before they disappeared to other countries or terrorist groups.

On the Syria issue, it seems as though one year is a totally unrealistic deadline for destroying the weapons, given that it has taken the US and Russia decades to destroy their weapons.

It is an ambitious schedule. The US has worked 23 years now - it opened its first destruction facility in 1990, and they still have 10 percent of their stockpile left. The Russians have worked for 11 years. But you have to recognize that the Russian and American stockpiles were much larger - 40,000 tons in Russia, 28,500 tons in the US, and probably only about a thousand tons in Syria. I say "only" in relative terms, that's still an enormous stockpile. Also, it's configured differently - we'll know more when the full declaration from President Assad comes out, but if it's mostly in "bulk agent," in other words not in weapons, and if a good part of it is in precursor chemicals - dual-use chemicals that can be used in industry as well - all of that can be destroyed relatively quickly. The difficult part would be how much of the stockpile is weaponized already, and whether those weapons have explosives and rocket propellant in them. That's a much more dangerous and difficult and risky operation to undertake.

Two Russian soldiers make a routine check of metal containers with toxic agents at a chemical weapons storage site in the town of Gorny, 124 miles (200 kms) south of the Volga River city of Saratov, Russia in this May 20, 2000, photo. Russia plans to start dismantling the world's largest chemical weapons stockpile in 2001, but will need massive Western help to keep up the costly process. (AP Photo)

Destroying chemical weapons is costly and dangerous

In the last 20 years or so, has it become easier to destroy chemical weapons?

Over the last 20 or 25 years, we've come from a situation where just the Russians and the Americans had agreed to reciprocally destroy their stockpiles. That was an important step forward in the late 80s and early 90s, because they were the two states with 95 percent of the existing chemical weapons stockpiles.

In the current period, we have 190 countries that have joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. All have agreed to put all their chemical industry under inspection, so that we can not only destroy stockpiles but we can keep an eye on the ongoing chemical commercial industry, so that chemical weapons never re-emerge in some fashion.

Also the technologies today are much, much better than they were in the 1990s. The only real option in the early 90s was to burn everything, and as you know that's a big red flag for the environmental and public health communities. Today there is a variety of neutralization options, there are secondary treatments, and there are mobile technologies too, that have been used in Russia and China for old and abandoned chemical weapons. Syria will be able to benefit from that quite a bit.

Do you think your work will be done in your lifetime?

It depends on how long I can stay alive, of course! But I expect the US and Russian stockpiles to be destroyed in the next ten years, and we'll see Syria's destroyed in about a year. And then the question is how long will it take Iraq to destroy its remaining agents, which are dumped in two big bunkers - that's going to be a very complicated program, and expensive and dangerous. Then it depends if we can get all the remaining countries - particularly North Korea - to join. I'm optimistic because we've made such enormous progress in the last 20 years, another ten years should be sufficient to complete the job, and say goodbye to chemical weapons, and hopefully continue to have a very strong inspection regime through the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The elimination of a whole class of weapons of mass destruction like this also portends well for the elimination of nuclear weapons - the worst class of weapons of mass destruction of course - and also biological weapons. We still have at least 25 or 30 countries outstanding from the biological weapons convention. We need to universalize all these non-proliferation treaties, then it'll be a much safer and secure world, free from these enormous, inhumane, and indiscriminate weapons.

What other countries still have chemical weapons stockpiles?

The only ones we know of are Syria and North Korea. There are some allegations that Israel and Egypt may have a stockpile, but I've seen no proof of that at all, and my own inkling is that they probably don't, because they recognize it's not really of much use, and may be more of a political liability. I would really urge Israel and Egypt to join the treaty, now that Syria has joined.

Paul Walker is director of Green Cross International's environmental security and sustainability program.

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