Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction


Using Emerging Technologies to Reduce Proliferation Risks

By Henry L. Stimson Centre

New technologies do not only create risks but also new opportunities for strengthening treaty compliance and other nonproliferation obligations.  Harnessing new technologies, for example, can help the international community prevent the proliferation of chemical weapons, whether the re-emergence of State chemical weapons programs or CW use by non-State actors.  The Henry L. Stimson Center, with support from Global Affairs Canada, is conducting two different projects that illustrate how one might exploit emerging technologies to this end: The MATCH project, starting in September 2021, uses distributed ledger technology, and cheminformatics which combines information technology and chemistry. Although at different stages, both projects aim to create potential solutions to some important challenges for the chemical weapons nonproliferation regime.

Monitoring and Tracking Chemicals (MATCH)

Under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), States Parties are required to report their annual aggregate national data (AND) on Schedule 2 and Schedule 3 chemicals to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). For Schedule 2 chemicals, declarations must include the quantities produced, processed, and consumed whereas only the quantities produced are required for Schedule 3 chemicals. For both Schedule 2 and 3 chemicals, States must declare the quantities and quantitative specification of imported and exported chemicals. The OPCW Technical Secretariat then works to match up imports with exports.  The track record of matching international trade in Schedule 2 and Schedule 3 chemicals has historically been less than optimal. In 2020, annual declarations on past activities (ADPAs) for 2019 showed a total of 1,603 transfers of Schedule 2 and 3 chemicals between States Parties. Of these, 817 transfers were declared with quantities above the declaration threshold, of which 581 (71%) involving 92 States Parties showed discrepancies.1 The percentage of discrepancies were similar for 2018 (69%)2 and 2017 (66%).3 Discrepancies can indicate ineffective national controls, lack of harmonized reporting, or in the worst case, usage of chemicals prohibited by the CWC. Sources indicate that the Organisation historically resolves less than 15% of the discrepancies, which has discouraged some States undertaking the effort to declare.  Distributed ledger technology (DLT), which includes 'blockchain technology,' may be especially relevant for improving oversight of cross-border transfers of scheduled chemicals. DLT is a software architecture for validating, storing, and sharing data. Its appeal lies in its ability to establish an immutable records management system with consensus that creates a shared reality among parties in a way that lowers uncertainty and builds confidence by: (1) providing participants access to the same ledger in a specific instant; (2) transaction history cannot be changed (immutability) and (3) records are permanently persisted to allow provenance and auditing (auditability).4  Although there remain some misunderstandings about blockchain given its association with cryptocurrencies, DLT has wider applications than just currencies. Indeed, DLT is being used today for streamlining global operations across a wide range of sectors including finance, health, supply chains, and logistics.  The Stimson Center’s MATCH (Monitoring and Tracking Chemicals) project will explore, incubate, and test DLT as a novel, tamper-evident technology for tracking dual-use chemicals for the purpose of strengthening the accuracy of declarations. The project, which is funded by the Government of Canada, will test the feasibility of DLT as an accessible solution to improve monitoring of schedule 2 and 3 transfers with the aim of reducing the occurrence of chemical transfer discrepancies. MATCH will enhance awareness of how DLT can be aligned with confidentiality and security requirements of the OPCW and National Authorities. The research will also outline potential political and operational roadblocks to implementing DLT for chemical security in support of the CWC, United Nations Security Council resolution 1540 (2004) and other international instruments. The 17-month project began in September 2021.  

Cheminformatics

Does the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) Schedule 2B10 chemical N, N-Dialkyl (Me, Et, n-Pror i-Pr) aminoethyl-2-chlorides and corresponding protonated salts, a family of chloroethylamines, include the chemical named N-(2-Chloroethyl)-N-(1-methylethyl)-2-propanamine?   Customs officials often must make decisions on an import or export of this nature in a matter of seconds given the massive number of trade transactions they face, yet even experienced chemists can struggle with determining if a specific chemical falls within a control list that uses the names of families of chemicals. In this case, the answer is yes, as the latter chemical is a pre-cursor for the nerve agent VX, and it also appears on the Australia Group Chemical Weapons Precursors list. If a front-line officer relies on the individual names or the associated registry numbers by the Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) in the Chemical Weapons Precursor list, however, they face other problems.  First, the 2B10 chemical family includes at least nine other chemicals, including precursors for the nerve agents VM and VR, and these do not appear on the Australia Group.  Second, the VX pre-cursor name noted above has several synonymous names, which don’t appear on the Australia Group list.  Third, that same chemical has more than half a dozen variants, such as salts or isomers, each with their own CAS Registry Number® that also do not appear in the Australia Group list, yet they can also serve as precursors for nerve agents like VX.5  And, unfortunately, the problem of interpreting families of chemicals, dealing with synonymous names (some chemical names have hundreds of synonyms), multiple registry numbers for chemical variants occurs so frequently, that it makes managing trade in most dual-use chemicals of concern a significant challenge even for the most robust customs and border agencies.

In response to these challenges, the Stimson Center in collaboration with American University has created a desk-top prototype Non-Proliferation Cheminformatics Compliance Tool (NCCT).  Using an existing cheminformatics platform, the project team identified structural references (i.e., Markush structures) for individual chemicals, their variants, and the families of chemicals that appear in the three CWC schedules and the chemicals in the Australia Group and Wassenaar Arrangement lists.6 These curated lists also contain a range of additional information in which an informal expert Consultative Group and other stakeholders have expressed interest (See Figure 1).  To see if a chemical falls on one of the lists, users enter a chemical name or a registry number into the NCCT that the NCCT converts to a chemical structure.  Alternately, users can enter a common chemical line notation like the Simplified Molecular-Input Line-Entry System (SMILES) or a diagram of a chemical structure (see Figure 2).  The NCCT, in a matter of seconds, checks to see if the entry structure matches a structure in the curated lists (see Figure 3).

Through ample outreach to potential stakeholders over the last year, the Stimson Center and American University have improved the existing prototype, identified several requirements for future improvements, and began preparations for field testing the desktop prototype.  In the next phase of the project, the project team intends to field test the desk top prototype and begin work on developing a more user-friendly and web based NCCT.  Ideally, front-line officers will be more able to accurately and swiftly determine if a chemical falls on one or more of the lists of chemicals controlled for nonproliferation purposes. The use of the NCCT may also help governments meet objectives of the sustainable development goals, as many of these chemicals also pose significant environmental hazards.

 

Figure 1

 

 

Figure 2

Figure 3

Emerging technologies may be especially relevant for chemical nonproliferation and disarmament as many challenges in this area – vast volumes of transactions, highly technical information, the need for secure, authentic, and verifiable exchange among States, illicit trafficking concerns, insider threats – suit the use of these new approaches to monitoring and verifying in ways that reduce risks for high value assets (e.g., chemical materials and technologies). Taken together, cheminformatics and the MATCH project are examples of how the Stimson Center, with support by the Government of Canada, is field testing technology to strengthen compliance with treaties and other international instruments. The MATCH and Cheminformatics projects offer new pathways to monitoring and managing trade in dual-use chemicals specifically, but also have potential in other areas of nonproliferation concern.

 

[1] OPCW, “Report of the OPCW on the Implementation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction in 2020,” p. 13: https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2021/12/c2603%28e%29.pdf.

[2] Report of the OPCW on the Implementation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction in 2019, p. 16: https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2021/04/c2504%28e%29.pdf.

[3] OPCW, “Report of the OPCW on the Implementation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction in 2018,” p. 8: https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2019/12/c2404%28e%29.pdf.

[4] Cindy Vestergaard, Haimanot Anbesaw Bobosha and Karolin Langfeldt, “Distributed Ledger Technology: Beyond the Hype,” in Cindy Vestergaard (Ed) Blockchain for International Security: The Potential of Distributed Ledger Technology for Nonproliferation and Export Controls, (Springer) 2021, p. 8.

[5] For more details on the need and how the use of cheminformatics tools may reduce proliferation risks, see Stefano Costanzi, Gregory D. Koblentz, and Richard T. Cupitt (2020), “Leveraging Cheminformatics to Bolster the Control of Chemical Warfare Agents and their Precursors,” Strategic Trade Review, 6, 9 (Winter/Spring): 69-91: https://strategictraderesearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Cheminformatics.pdf.

[6] The project team recently added the list accompanying the World Customs Organization Strategic Trade Control Enforcement (STCE) Implementation Guide and the Syria-related list of the European Union.