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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Swiss Chemical Weapons

Public opinion on the use of poison gases shifted in Switzerland due to the disastrous effects of poison gas use in the Great War. However, on 02 February 1937, Rudolf Minger, the head of the Swiss Federal Military Department, formally instructed the General Staff of the Swiss Army to draw up an active chemical warfare (CW) program. In doing so, however, Minger ‘omitted’ to inform the Swiss government.

At a conference held in October 1938, during which Military Department and Army staff as well as Ciba Director, Dr. E. Steinbuch, and the director of Wimmis Munitions factory, Hermann Gubler, were present, the decision was taken that Ciba, one of Syngenta’s predecessor companies, should provide test facilities for the production of mustard gas. It was only on 3 October 1939 – two years after Minger’s secret instructions but compelled by the outbreak of World War II – that the Swiss government officially agreed to contract Ciba for the construction of a mustard-gas production plant in Monthey, canton Valais, with a daily output capacity of 2–3 metric tons. In the contract concluded in November 1939, Ciba was sworn to complete secrecy.

Moreover, to keep a lid on these activities, the code-name ‘RN1’ was to be used instead of ‘mustard gas’. However, the production of mustard gas presented serious health and safety challenges, largely due to utterly inadequate safety procedures. Swiss historian Peter Hug reported that, in 1940, 23 Ciba workers suffered severe poison gas injuries; a further 31 suffered the same fate in the first half of 1941. In total, workers were on sick leave for an average of 31 or 34 days, respectively, and six workers never returned to the plant.

Regardless of all these difficulties and serious problems, the General also pushed for the production and use of other chemical weapons that had been used in World War I. Among the substances were White-Cross class lachrimogenic agents (tear gas) containing bromoacetone (BA), or chloroacetophenone or phenacyl chloride (CN, also known as ‘Mace’), as well as Blue-Cross class nose and throat irritants also known as ‘gas-mask lifters’, including diphenylchloroarsine (DA, Clark I) and chloropicrin (PS, Clark II).

Paul Karrer (1889–1971) was among the most vocal advocates of the Swiss poison-gas program. Born in Moscow to Swiss parents and raised in Switzerland, Karrer had become a celebrated vitamin researcher, he was professor of organic chemistry at the University of Zürich, and the director of the Institute for Organic Chemistry at the University since 1919. As the doyen in vitamin research and a highly-regarded teacher and author of over 1,000 scientific papers, in 1937 had received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

By 1941, the considerable quantity of 92 metric tons of mustard gas had been delivered from the Ciba plant in Monthey, and by March 1942, Ciba had complied fully with its 1939 contract to produce 300 metric tons of mustard gas. The program was abandoned in March 1943; by 1949 the gas had been incinerated in a special facility in Altdorf, Uri.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1997 prohibits the development, production, acquisition, and use of chemical weapons. The Convention contains four key provisions: destroying all declared chemical weapons; operating a global verification regime for the relevant chemical industry and state institutions; providing assistance and protection against chemical threats; and encouraging international cooperation to promote the peaceful use of chemistry. The CWC has achieved near universal membership since it was first enacted. To date, 192 states have ratified the Convention. Only Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan have not yet joined.

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Page last modified: 24-09-2017 18:50:02 ZULU