Examples of Ambiguities in Compliance Disputes
Deciding whether a country has complied with an agreement is not always clear-cut.
Many arms control disputes are really over how ambiguous information should be interpreted. Some of the frequent clashes over the Limited Test Ban Treaty, for example, revolved around the differing meanings of the word "debris" in the English text and its counterpart "osadki" in the Russian text. Unfortunately, these two words had slightly different meanings but were equally authentic. This led to disputes over whether the Soviet Union had violated the treaty.
Likewise, under the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, the seismic data from Soviet tests were clear enough, but translating these into nuclear yields was difficult and led to charges of violations that may not always have been warranted.
There were also differing interpretations of the famous 1979 "South Atlantic Flash." Not everyone agreed that it was a nuclear explosion and who was responsible if it was. In 1982 the United Nations sent a team of experts to Southeast Asia to investigate "yellow rain" and whether the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) had been violated. In spite of their efforts, the results were ambiguous.
In the 1990s, a chemical mix-up may have led to allegations of chemical weapons use among warring ethnic factions in the former Yugoslavia. Differences over the definition of "ambulance" and the distinction between ambulances and armored combat vehicles occurred in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty.
On the other hand, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union sometimes used plausible explanations of ambiguous data to cover up violations. In the fatal 1979 Sverdlovsk incident, in which illegally produced anthrax spores escaped from a facility, officials claimed that the anthrax was caused by infected meat and that anthrax spores had been present in the region for many decades.
The Soviet Union used a similar strategy to discount the construction of a large tracking radar for an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system near Krasnoyarsk, claiming that the radar was intended for space tracking. …