Stay the Course on Chemical Weapons Ban

By Smithson, Amy E. | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Stay the Course on Chemical Weapons Ban


Smithson, Amy E., Issues in Science and Technology


Leave it to Washington to toil for more than two decades to create a new arms control regime that abolishes poison gas and then, once it takes off, to begin foolishly undercutting its own achievement by trying to water down the treaty's verification provisions. But that is exactly what Congress is trying to do and it must be dissuaded.

On April 29, 1997, a revolution unlike any other in arms control history began. Teams of inspectors began criss-crossing the globe to monitor compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of poison gas. Participating countries are obligated to destroy their chemical arsenals and weapons production facilities under international supervision. In addition, inspectors will routinely check the activities of the chemical industry to ensure that chemicals used in commercial products are not being diverted to produce lethal chemical agents.

Perhaps the most notable achievement of the CWC's early days is that so many governments embraced a treaty that unambiguously mandates the acceptance of short-notice challenge inspections of any site on their territory suspected of engaging in prohibited activity. To date, more than 100 countries have joined this accord, and more than 60 others have signed but not yet ratified it. The possessors of the world's two largest chemical weapons stock-piles, ia and the United States, are CWC members, and the roster of participants includes countries from every comer of the earth -- South Africa, Cuba, Brazil, Japan, France, Jordan, and Belarus, to name a few.

Of the roughly two dozen countries considered likely to possess a chemical weapons capability, only North Korea, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Libya remain outside the CWC. In May 2000, the CWC's automatic economic penalties will cut off aspiring proliferators from the marketplace of commercial chemicals that can also have military utility. Whether by making it more difficult for countries to stockpile poison gas or by compelling countries to relinquish their chemical weapons programs, the CWC endeavors to reverse the proliferation trend.

U.S. interests undercut

The CWC undoubtedly would have been seriously undermined without U.S. participation. At the eleventh hour and after a rancorous debate, the U.S. Senate voted to ratify the CWC on April 24, just five days before it was activated. Even before ratification, the United States had already begun to destroy its stockpile of more than 29,000 metric tons of poison gas. CWC inspectors have initiated continuous monitoring operations at the destruction plants at Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean and at Tooele, Utah. Destruction facilities will be constructed at seven other locations where U.S. chemical weapons are stored. In addition, inspections have been conducted at former U.S. chemical weapons facilities and at the sites involved in the U.S. chemical weapons defense program. The treaty permits research to develop and test protective gear, vaccines, and antidotes, but will closely watch defense programs. Thus, CWC inspectors are monitoring all aspects of the United States' former chemical weapons program.

Nonetheless, the United States is not in full compliance with the CWC because it has not yet approved its implementing legislation. As a result, the U.S. chemical industry, which supported the CWC's ratification and has accepted the treaty's data reporting and inspection burdens, does not have the guidelines to fulfill these obligations. The legislation directs the chemical industry to provide data about certain chemicals that the CWC's inspectors would then check during routine inspections. Both houses of Congress passed the implementing legislation, but the Senate did not vote on a rider that the House attached just before Congress recessed. Thus, the legislation died.

Perhaps equally disturbing, Congress has tried to tinker with the CWC's verification provisions to give U. …

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