CHEMEX Africa 2023


By Patrick Norén

CBNW Magazine Editor Patrick Norén investigates the first ever large-scale chemical emergency response exercise for African countries organized by the OPCW.

From September 23 to October 5, 2023, the capital city of Algeria hosted the first ever pan-African chemical emergency response exercise. Organized by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and funded by a voluntary donation from the Government of Canada through its Weapons Threat Reduction Program, CHEMEX Africa was a capacity-building exercise in which African instructors trained African first responders. From 2016, experts from the United Kingdom and Czech Republic trained the trainers who would eventually take part in CHEMEX Africa.

More specifically, first responder teams from the three regional groupings of West African, Central African, and Southern African nations received training from instructors from the East African Community, who were in turn supported by technical teams from North Africa, the Sahel, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development from the Horn of Africa.

In total, 102 participants from 33 African countries took part in the exercise in Algiers. Out of the 26 instructors, 12 were Algerian, while 16 experts, observers, and supervisors from the United States, United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, and the European Union were also present for the two-week event.

The Mauritius Fire and Rescue Service were only one of the many teams of civilian or military
first responders training in CHEMEX Africa 2023, © OPCW

Comprehensive Theoretical Framework

CHEMEX Africa consisted of a full training cycle dedicated to responding to a chemical attack, combining a “comprehensive theoretical framework with hands-on experience”. The Permanent Representative of Algeria to the OPCW, H.E. Ambassador Salima Abdelhak, said that the exercise was “unique as it brought together an important number of first responders from different regions in Africa serving as an exemplary model of peer-to-peer and South-South cooperation”.

“Their common goal was to enhance collective efforts, foster collaboration, and facilitate the exchange of experiences to effectively tackle the complex challenges associated with addressing chemical emergencies,” she added.

Opening presentations and introductory briefings took place on September 23, while a basic assistance and protection course ran until September 25. Algerian experts delivered specialized training on sampling and analysis on September 26-27, and advanced assistance and protection training took place on September 28-30.

Altogether, participants received training in five key areas of the threats posed by toxic industrial chemicals and chemical warfare agents. These areas included: identifying toxic industrial chemicals and chemical weapons agents, decontamination procedures, detection and sampling techniques, proper use of PPE, and incident commands.

Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army of Algeria, General Saïd Chanegriha, and Director-
General of the OPCW Fernando Arias were among the VIPs attending the live exercise on October 3,

Live Exercise and VIP Day

After two days of preparation, October 3 marked the culmination of the whole event with the live scenario-based exercise simulating a chemical terrorist attack. This coincided with the VIP Day chaired by the Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army of Algeria, General Saïd Chanegriha. Also attending the VIP Day were the Prime Minister of Algeria Aymen Benabderrahmane, and the OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias. Other high-ranking government officials from Algeria, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of South Sudan, as well as ambassadors and members of diplomatic corps accredited in Algiers, were also in attendance.

Speaking at the VIP Day, Director-General Arias said that CHEMEX Africa was indicative of the support that the OPCW and its partners provides to “build collective resilience against chemical threats”.

On his part, Army General Chanegriha said that Algeria was “honored” to host CHEMEX Africa, and that his country reiterated “its firm belief in the need to consolidate international security and peace, through the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, which constitute a serious threat to mankind and the very future of humanity”.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Abdelhak told CBNW Magazine that hosting the event held immense meaning for her country and was a source of personal pride. CHEMEX Africa not only “illustrated international recognition of Algeria’s readiness and commitment to upholding the Chemical Weapons Convention”, but also “underscored Algeria’s dedication to fostering South-South collaboration”. It also gave her country the opportunity to showcase its “infrastructure, expertise, and resources on a global stage and its capacity to organize and execute large-scale initiatives”, she said.

Such was the importance of CHEMEX Africa for the country and continent that the Algerian Ministry of Post and Telecommunications issued a new postage stamp to commemorate the exercise, with the issuing ceremony also taking place during the VIP Day in the presence of Minister Karim Bibi Triki. Furthermore, Algerian TV broadcast a documentary on the exercise as part of a dedicated communications and outreach strategy.

Finally, October 3 also saw the opening of the CHEMEX Africa industry exhibition of equipment related to the response, inspection, and laboratory analysis of chemical emergencies and incidents involving toxic chemicals. With 42 companies present, the exhibition welcomed more than 7,000 visitors over the course of three days. This was in addition to a simultaneous discussion forum involving some 70 representatives from scientific and academic institutions, also taking place at the exhibition center.

A postage stamp commemorating CHEMEX Africa 2023 was issued by the Algerian Ministry of
Post and Telecommunications on October 3, 2023, © Algérie Poste 

Female Participation

A particularly positive aspect of CHEMEX Africa was the participation of 29 female first responders, which is not usual in this type of exercise. According to the Canadian Permanent Representative to the OPCW, H.E. Ambassador Hugh Adsett, “work to safeguard the peaceful uses of chemistry and mitigating emerging threats can only be effective if rooted in diverse perspectives”.

To this end, in line with Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, Ambassador Adsett said their Weapons Threat Reduction Program “integrates a gender-responsive approach to its international assistance initiatives and works with organizations, such as the OPCW, to reduce barriers for equality in technical and scientific work”.

Significant female participation was one of the “worthy points to highlight”, Ambassador Abdelhak agreed. “The involvement of women not only promoted gender balance but also enriched the diversity of perspectives in CHEMEX Africa, contributing to its overall success.” 

“It has definitely set a positive example for future international events. Algeria continues to enhance the role of women in implementing the Convention, and we could notice this through the significant number of Algerian women participants in CHEMEX Africa,” she added.

29 first responders at CHEMEX Africa 2023 were women, marking an important
milestone in female participation in CBRN exercises both in Africa and globally, © OPCW

Spirit of Partnership

Having approached their financing of CHEMEX Africa 2023 in a spirit of partnership, Ambassador Adsett of Canada stressed on the sidelines of the 28th Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CSP28) that the exercise was not “one-and-done event”. In helping to foster the next generation of chemical security leaders, he noted the importance of participants contributing to further building the domestic capacity of their countries to respond to a chemical weapons incident, and the benefits of holding a lessons-learned exercise in the wake of CHEMEX Africa to help identify gaps, best practices, and fine-tune future exercises.

“Canada’s Weapons Threat Reduction Program has provided nearly [CAD]$50 million in voluntary contributions to the OPCW to date to support the destruction, verification, monitoring, training, and investigation of chemical weapons. The OPCW can continue to count on Canada for such support,” said Ambassador Adsett.

According to Ambassador Abdelhak of Algeria, the hands-on experience of CHEMEX Africa was “particularly beneficial for countries in establishing or assessing their national plans and methods to ensure a full and effective implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention”.

“CHEMEX Africa demonstrated that African States Parties can support each other by fostering regional cooperation and knowledge sharing. Furthermore, developing regional frameworks and mechanisms for responding to chemical emergencies collectively would facilitate coordinated responses and mutual assistance in times of crisis. African nations can create a more robust and interconnected network for addressing chemical safety challenges by leveraging their collective expertise and resources.”

Ambassador Abdelhak highlighted during the side event at CSP28 that “Algeria mobilized substantial logistical and material assistance in supporting the exercise. A total of 329 representatives from diverse sectors in Algeria were involved in its organization.”

Also speaking during CSP28 in The Hague in November 2023, the Botswanan Permanent Representative to the OPCW, H.E. Ambassador Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, added that CHEMEX Africa was “much appreciated by smaller states still in the capacity-building mode”.

Permanent Representative of Algeria to the OPCW Salima Abdelhak also attended CHEMEX Africa
2023, © OCPW

The Future

On their part, Algeria has adopted, since the entry into force of the Convention, legislative and institutional measures to ensure the implementation of the CWC and compliance with its provisions, placed capacity-building at the center of its national policy, established specialized training institutions, adopted training programs, and developed protocols for handling chemical incidents. Increasing public awareness and education about the threat of chemical weapons has also been a priority, as well as promoting international cooperation and universality.

“Last but not least,” said Ambassador Abdelhak, “Algeria supports the OPCW initiative to create Regional Centers of Excellence especially in Africa. We are convinced these centers are likely to contribute to strengthening cooperation between African countries and improving the performance of their national entities. My country has offered to host the Center for the North Africa and Sahel region, a region extremely exposed to several security challenges including terrorist attacks.”

For Botswana, it was the first opportunity in which their teams on the ground were able to get the full exposure and experience of what a global chemical threat could look like. “As first responders it was a very important that they get that exposure and training,” said Ambassador Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba.

“In terms of next steps, Botswana is an important member of the global community, and we all appreciate that a chemical threat is a global threat that requires a global response. Therefore, for Botswana to continue to collaborate with neighboring countries, to collaborate with more experienced economies in more experienced areas across the globe, is very important.”

“Given the importance of the OPCW to Botswana, the opportunity to participate in the exercise better prepares us to find out how we can be more effective in our membership, how we can appreciate the challenges, and most importantly how we can implement and roll out preparedness and mitigation strategies developed with partnerships across and beyond our country.”

As alluded to by Ambassador Adsett on the sidelines of CSP28, the OPCW has already begun looking at hosting the next edition of CHEMEX Africa over the coming years. Furthermore, plans are also afoot to hold a similar event in Latin America in the future.

Africa is as vulnerable as any other continent to a range of CBRN threats, whether it be terrorist attacks with chemical agents, infectious diseases, or occurring because of natural disasters. CHEMEX Africa and other events like it will continue to be essential in building capacity across this enormous continent, making the lives of all its 1.5 billion people safer and more secure.

Click here to watch a video on CHEMEX Africa 2023 produced by the OPCW.

Patrick Norén is the Editor of CBNW Magazine. The author thanks the Permanent Representatives of Algeria, Botswana, and Canada to the OPCW, as well as the OPCW, for their kind assistance in producing this article.

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