FOR more than a century, the world has been trying to outlaw especially horrifying weapons of mass destruction. It has not been easy. The Brussels Convention of 1874 and the Hague Declaration of 1899 proved ineffectual in preventing the more than 1 million casualties of poison gas in World War I. The "no first use" Geneva Protocol of 1925 did not deter the development of nerve gases and other unusual forms of devastation during and after World War II, or the use of chemical weapons in regional conflicts, culminating in Iraq's attack on its own Kurdish population.
The latest milestone on the journey is the Chemical Weapons Convention, signed last month by 130 nations. The new convention is particularly promising because it contains the most comprehensive provisions for verification ever undertaken under any treaty, and it designates an impartial international body to carry them out. But, although the convention is a momentous accomplishment, the time when it will become obsolete can already be foreseen.
In military laboratories, experiments have been underway for some years with new types of chemical warfare agents that can be produced in entirely different ways and are active in much smaller quantities - up to 100,000 times less - than the many tons of nerve gases, blister agents, etc., that the new Chemical Weapons Convention has been designed to control.
Fortunately, we already have another treaty that could control these biological chemicals more adequately: the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972. There is just one problem: this convention has no verification provisions at all. It was signed just before the scientific breakthroughs that have made it relatively easy to produce biological chemicals in the quantities needed for warfare, and also before genetic techniques became available to engineer new types of agents.
Within a few years of its signing, changes in the military assessment of biological and toxin weapons cast doubt on the efficacy of the convention, and it has been dogged by suspicions and unresolved allegations ever since.
Many experts now consider biological weapons to be a much greater threat than chemical weapons, with potential destructive power in a league with nuclear weapons. If the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention is left as a gentlemens' agreement, the hard-won achievement of a stringent verification regime for chemical weapons could end up merely shifting the choice of the Saddam Husseins of the world from chemical to biological weapons.
Most of the 125 parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention are …