A century on, deadly chemical shells are still being dug up – and the mission to destroy them is a daunting one

How chemical weapons from the first world war never went away

ON A bright day in late April, dignitaries gathered in the Belgian town of Ypres for a little-noticed commemoration: the hundredth anniversary of the first modern use of chemical weapons. Under a clear sky, representatives of the 1997 treaty banning such weapons – signed by almost every nation – reaffirmed the unacceptability of their use “anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstances”.

As they spoke, there were reports that the Syrian government was dropping chlorine on civilians and ISIS was resurrecting another first world war relic, mustard gas, probably a leftover from the 1980s.

So a century after Ypres, are chemical weapons coming back? Despite these recent atrocities, the global ban largely holds. Last year, treaty inspectors confiscated 1300 tonnes of mustard and nerve gas from Syria, largely unopposed. All countries except North Korea, Egypt and Israel have in principle declared their chemical weapons and almost entirely destroyed them …

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