Ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention: Past Time for Action

By Moodie, Michael | Arms Control Today, February 1996 | Go to article overview

Ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention: Past Time for Action


Moodie, Michael, Arms Control Today


In January 1993, 130 countries signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) at a ceremony in Paris. The gala event signalled the international community's determination to rid the world of chemical weapons, a commitment embodied in an agreement that took over two decades to negotiate.

It is now three years since that ceremony, and the CWC is still not operational. Too few countries have deposited their instruments of ratification with the United Nations. (The convention will enter into force 180 days after the 65th instrument is deposited; as of mid-February only 47 nations had deposited their instrument.) Of greatest concern, the two states with the largest declared stockpiles of chemical weapons-Russia and the United Stateshave not ratified the CWC. (See p. 34.) The agreement has languished in the U.S. Senate for more than two years, and while the Russian Duma has held some informal hearings on the treaty, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has yet to formally submit the treaty for consideration. The fear is that without the United States and Russia on board, the CWC will either never take effect, or, if it does, be meaningless.

In Washington and Moscow the fate of the CWC is to some extent a hostage to domestic politics. But legislators from both countries have also raised a number of substantive issues related to the treaty's provisions and implications. Can these issues be resolved? Will the CWC enter into force, and, if so, when? If it does not, does it matter?

The Value of the CWC

The CWC is both an arms control and a non-proliferation agreement. It requires parties to destroy all of their chemical weapons as well as the facilities that produced them, and to desist from engaging in any research and development of offenserelated chemical warfare (CW) capabilities. They must also open their civilian chemical industries to international inspection to ensure that the potential to make chemical weapons-inherent even at low levels of industrial capacity-is not translated into actual military capability. The treaty prohibits signatories from transferring chemical weapons to others or from providing any assistance related to proscribed activities. Parties must ban trade in specified chemicals with countries that decline to join the convention, and they must provide some form of assistance that will be made available to states subjected to the use of chemical weapons or the threat of their use. Parties must also accept financial and other obligations related to the operation of a new international organization, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that will be established in The Hague to oversee the agreement's implementation.

With 160 signatories now, the CWC represents an international norm that provides a political standard against which the behavior of states can be measured. More importantly, however, the CWC creates an important legal regime that does not now exist. Today the only international agreement addressing chemical weapons is the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which bans only their use, leaving CW research, development, production and storage unaddressed. Indeed, it is now perfectly legal for a state to engage in any activity short of use. Unless the CWC is adopted, the international community has no legal basis for raising objections to CW-related activities (short of use) even though these actions would be viewed by some states as a significant threat to their security and to regional and global stability. By prohibiting all of the activities associated with procuring chemical weapons as well as their use, the CWC provides an indisputable basis for action by the international community in the face of unacceptable behavior.

The CWC is important legally for another reason. All treaty parties are obliged to pass domestic legislation criminalizing activities prohibited by the convention. Such legislation would be useful in dealing with sub-national groups, particularly terrorists, that may be interested in exploiting chemical weapons. …

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Ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention: Past Time for Action
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