Ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention: Strategic and Tactical Implications

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Whether or not gas will be employed in future wars is a matter of conjecture. But the effect is so deadly to the unprepared that we can never afford to neglect the question.--General John J. Pershing (1)

CHEMICAL WEAPONS were first used in May 1915 during World War I when the Germans released chlorine gas into the wind during the Battle of Ypres in France. (2) By the time hostilities ceased, new agents such as cyanide, phosgene, and mustard gas had been used, killing thousands of soldiers and injuring many more. The number of casualties was small compared to total casualties, but chemical weapons had played a profoundly unpleasant role.

Shortly after the war, the Geneva Protocol condemned chemical warfare. Unfortunately, the treaty banned only the first use of the weapon, but retaliation in kind was acceptable. However, the protocol lacked enforcement and verification provisions. Instead, it relied on a signatory's integrity, a virtue that was virtually nonexistent.

Since World War I, chemical warfare has occurred during the 1935 Italian-Ethiopian War, the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, and Saddam Hussein's attacks on the Kurds from 1987 to 1988. For each confirmed use, there have been many alleged cases of chemical-weapons use (for example, by Japan in China during the 1930s, by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during 1992, and in the Yemeni civil war during the 1960s).

Countries (or individuals) seeking a weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) capability are attracted to chemical weapons because they are inexpensive to produce and do not require an extensive technological infrastructure such as that necessary to create nuclear weapons. Currently, about 25 nations have or might be developing a chemical-warfare capability. (3)

The UN-sanctioned 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) comprehensively addressed these concerns and established a legally binding global standard for state-parties to--

* Never use chemical weapons and not retaliate for their first use by an enemy.

* Declare in writing their chemical-weapons stockpiles, production facilities, relevant chemical-industry facilities, and other weapons-related information.

* Never develop, produce, acquire, stockpile, transfer, or retain chemical weapons or help anyone to do so.

* Destroy chemical-weapons production facilities and the munitions themselves by April 2007. (4)

The treaty went into effect in April 1997. So far, 151 state-parties have ratified it. State-parties include countries with large chemical industries (the United States, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands) and major regional powers (China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Iran). After many years of noncompliance, Libya became a signatory state on 6 January 2004. Key nonsignatories include North Korea, and Syria, which "possess or are actively pursuing" chemical-warfare capabilities. (5) The United States, Russia, India, and South Korea have declared chemical-weapons stockpiles totaling 69,863 metric tons and 8.4 million munitions and containers. (6) Eleven state-parties began dismantling former chemical-weapons production facilities and converting them to peaceful purposes.

American CWC critics argue that complying with the CWC treaty is prohibitively expensive and leaves America exposed to rogue states that either will not accede to the treaty or will become clandestine violators. Critics feel the United States will be unable to deter chemical-weapons use or retaliate proportionally, making U.S. forces vulnerable to chemical attack. They also contend the obligatory destruction of the U.S. chemical-warfare capability will lead to a decrease in chemical-defense funding and a lowering of the U.S. nuclear threshold.

Does the absence of a chemical-warfare tactical capability hurt the U.S. military? Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili testified in Congress that the treaty is "clearly in our national interest. …