The Chemical Weapons Convention: Has It Enhanced U.S. Security?

By Tucker, Jonathan B. | Arms Control Today, April 2001 | Go to article overview

The Chemical Weapons Convention: Has It Enhanced U.S. Security?


Tucker, Jonathan B., Arms Control Today


Washington has weakened the CWC and missed opportunities to further its own security interests by not complying fully with the convention's affirmative obligations.

Long before the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) became international law, the United States decided that the possession and use of chemical arms was not in its national interest. In November 1985, Congress mandated that the U.S. stockpile of unitary chemical weapons be unilaterally destroyed. Then, in May 1991, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, President George Bush went one step further by declaring that the United States would formally forswear the use of chemical weapons for any reason, including retaliation, once the CWC entered into force.

By signing the convention in January 1993 and ratifying it in April 1997, the United States sought to ensure that other nations would also renounce the possession and use of chemical weapons, reducing the risk that U.S. civilians or soldiers would face poison gas at home or on the battlefield. The CWC requires member states to destroy all chemical weapons stockpiles and dedicated production facilities within a decade of entry into force and to renounce their reacquisition in the future. Functioning both as a disarmament and a non-proliferation measure, it is the first multilateral treaty to require the elimination of an entire category of weapons under strict international monitoring.

Although April 29 marks the fourth anniversary of the CWC's entry into force, the perceived threat of chemical weapons has not diminished significantly, raising the question of how effective the convention has been in enhancing U.S. security. That question is particularly germane now, with the arrival of a new administration in Washington. Despite the fact that the CWC was one of the major foreign policy legacies of the first Bush presidency, President George W. Bush and his advisers have generally taken a skeptical view of multilateral arms control.

The CWC may not be a panacea for the problem of chemical weapons proliferation-it must be augmented with other measures such as export controls and protective equipment-but it is a potentially powerful instrument in the U.S. policy toolkit. Compared with earlier treaties such as the Biological Weapons Convention and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the CWC is unique in the depth and breadth of its verification mechanisms, which include national declarations, routine on-site inspections, consultation and clarification mechanisms, and state-party-initiated challenge inspections. The convention also breaks new ground in the extent to which it monitors dual-use facilities in the private sector, in this case, the commercial chemical industry.

Several key states of concern are not yet members of the CWC, but as the treaty approaches universality, it will cement a worldwide norm against the possession and use of chemical weapons. And although the convention is binding only on states, it has indirect effects on the problem of chemicalweapons terrorism because states-parties are required to pass domestic implementing legislation making the prohibitions in the treaty binding on their nationals living both at home and abroad and imposing punitive sanctions for violations.

Unfortunately, the United States has not used the CWC effectively over the past four years to benefit its own interests or to further international security. Instead, Washington has weakened the convention by not complying fully with its affirmative obligations and by failing to make use of mechanisms within the treaty, such as challenge inspections, to resolve compliance concerns.

Assessing CWC Implementation

The results of the first four years of CWC implementation have been mixed. On the positive side of the ledger, the number of states-parties has grown rapidly, reaching 143 by early 2001 and including major regional powers such as Russia, China, and Iran. …

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The Chemical Weapons Convention: Has It Enhanced U.S. Security?
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