Thursday, November 3, 2011

Emphasis on Education: Local Student’s Award-Winning Research on Chemical Warfare Policy

The Edgewood Chemical Biological Center Rock Island site shared in Edgewood’s commitment to education by inviting Quad City, North Scott High School Senior, Sarah Riedel, to present her award-winning research project, "Stuffing the Genie Back into the Bottle: A Century of Diplomatic Efforts to Ban Chemical Weapons," on August 10, 2011. Riedel’s presentation was chosen to compete in a National competition. One-hundred twenty entries from across the country, Department of Defense (DoD) Schools, Guam, International School of Shanghai and American Samoa were in Riedel’s division. She placed sixth in the 2011 Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest at the University of Maryland at College Park last June.

National History Day is an academic competition that challenges students to research, analyze and learn from the past while connecting to a yearly theme. This year’s theme was: Debate and Diplomacy: Successes, Failures, and Consequences.

"The National History Day Program not only allows students to communicate their knowledge on a specific topic, it provides an opportunity for teachers, and in this case, the professionals at ECBC Rock Island, to learn from the student’s in-depth research," said Chris Green, Riedel’s teacher. "The opportunity to present to ECBC and other organization also provide insight to the student on how their educational lessons apply in the public and private sector."

Riedel’s three-year research on chemical warfare began with research on Fritz Haber, often referred to as the "father of chemical warfare," when she learned about the first gas attack in World War I (WWI).

"It shocked me to learn how chemical weapons were continually used, through history, despite a century of treaties banning them, and I wanted to learn more about it," Riedel said.

Irrespective of early attempts to ban chemicals weapons including the Hague Convention of 1899, their use was widespread in WWI. The Germans utilized chlorine gas against the French in the Second Battle of Ypres, unleashing the proverbial "genie in the bottle" and setting in motion the development and use of chemical weapons by other countries without restraint or consequence. Their use continued, despite the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which forbade Germany from manufacturing or developing chemical weapons. In 1922, Allied Powers at the Washington Armament Conference agreed to, but never ratified, the section of the treaty to prohibit chemical use.

Riedel admits that the greatest lesson she learned from this research project was "that chemical warfare is as much psychological, as it is physical."

"The use of chemical weapons is scary in and of itself. But the threat of using it is equally, if not more, terrifying," Riedel said. "In the wrong hands, chemical warfare has the potential to result in catastrophic events. I saw many shocking photos of disfigured children, images that represent millions of other children and the unforeseen consequences of chemicals used in war."

Resulting from Fritz Haber’s industrial chemical research work developing and deploying chlorine and poisonous gases, many countries began using and creating massive chemical weapon stockpiles during WWI. This included: Germany’s use of nerve agents in the 1930s; Italy’s use of chemicals against Ethiopia in 1935; and Japan’s use of chemical weapons against China in the 1930s. To this end, in 1925, the U.S. initiated the Geneva Protocol, which was stalled by opposition that prevented its adoption until 1974. Surprisingly, chemical warfare was used very little during World War II. However, during the Cold War, both the U.S. and U.S.S.R.’s use of nerve agents led to increased usage and stockpiling.

Even though chemical weapons were banned, the U.S. and other countries still put a focus on their use and protection from it into their defense plans; primarily to guard against the threat of chemical weapons use and the suspicion of countries that continue to stockpile. Chemical warfare continues, leaving toxic reminders through the devastating effects of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants used in Vietnam in the 1960s and Iraq’s use of chemicals against Iran in 1983.

Riedel’s presentation and corresponding exhibit tell the whole story. Her presentation illustrates how the 1899 Hague Convention and the 1925 and 1974 Geneva Protocol failed to end the development or use of chemical weapons. Her research highlights how diplomatic efforts did not contain any provision to prevent the stockpiling of chemical weapons.

In fact, it took two decades of efforts before the Chemical Weapons Convention successfully banned chemical weapons in 1993 incorporating into the agreement a statement to "not develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons." This agreement was implemented by an organization to oversee the destruction of chemical weapon stockpiles, efforts which continue to this day.

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