We have the way, but is there the will?

December 7, 2001

To rid the world of chemical weapons requires sustained political and financial commitment, argues John Hart

Chemical weapons have been a feature of conflict throughout the 20th century, employed by both sides in the first world war, by the Italians in Ethiopia in the 1930s, by Japanese forces in China during the second world war, by Egyptian forces in the Yemeni civil war in the 1960s and, more recently, by Iraq.

The issues surrounding the use of such weaponry tend to be complex because they encompass political, legal and technical problems that are dealt with at local, regional, national and international levels by a variety of players, from academic departments and think-tanks to private defence contractors and government ministries. Each group has its own set of interests and access to different types of information.

The 1993 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (CWC), the foremost international legal instrument against such weaponry, is implemented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). It incorporates a careful definition of a chemical weapon and covers lists of toxic chemicals as well as certain discrete organic chemicals that may contain phosphorus, sulphur or fluorine. Equipment and devices designed for the use of these chemicals are also covered by the convention. Its "general purpose criterion" bans the production, development, stockpiling and use of all toxic chemicals except for peaceful purposes, thus ensuring that the OPCW takes into account technological changes and can cover any unlisted chemical suspected or known to be used for non-peaceful purposes. The OPCW requires countries to provide annual declarations and carries out systematic international inspections.

Virtually every country with a significant military capability has, at some time, devoted resources to defending itself against the use of chemicals. Estimates of the number of chemical weapon producers vary widely, partly because of a lack of information. In addition, the CWC allows countries to pursue programmes to defend against chemical weapons, but it is sometimes difficult to differentiate defensive activities from offensive programmes based on publicly available information. CWC parties are required to declare information about weapons programmes, but access to the contents of other states' declarations is restricted. Unresolved compliance concerns can be addressed through informal consultation, clarification procedures, and as a last resort, by challenge inspections.

Four countries officially admit to the OPCW to possessing chemical weapons - India, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Other states, such as China and Iran, have declared that, in the past, they had the ability to produce such weapons. Others still, such as Belgium, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, are bound by the CWC to dispose of "old" chemical weapons produced before 1946. Some of these weapons are uncovered periodically, particularly from European first world war battlefields. Stockpiles of such munitions pose a continuing threat to health and the environment.

Three states - China, Italy and Panama - have declared that chemical weapons have been abandoned on their territories. At least several hundred thousand abandoned munitions await destruction in China.

The CWC treaty requires chemical weapon destruction by no later than 2012. But destruction efforts have sometimes been slowed or halted due to opposition by people living near storage or destruction sites, particularly in the US.

Limiting the dangers posed by these weapons will require sustained political and financial commitment. Independent scientific expertise is required to help inform questions on destruction technologies and the evaluation of sampling and testing in cases of alleged use. It is important to know the limitations of detection equipment and to be able to confirm whether trace chemicals known to be the byproduct of weapon degradation could have alternative sources.

Governments and multilateral organisations also need to consider what information may assist in the production of these weapons and reassess attitudes regarding information that may be sensitive for legal, political or organisational reasons. For example, some of the information is classified because it could be useful to business competitors. States, meanwhile, do not like international organisations divulging information about them. South Korea, for example, will not allow the OPCW to identify it as having chemical weapons, although this is known to interested parties. Moreover, if governments do attempt to restrict information, they should at least acknowledge that international law prohibits chemical weapons.

Related literature needs to be written as accurately as possible with an eye for the nuances in terminology so that journalists can cover the field better. Academics, particularly those with a natural science background, can play a constructive role by describing the technical requirements of a problem and the related institutional interests of various states, and by recommending specific actions to resolve any potential gap between the two.

John Hart is a researcher on the Chemical and Biological Weapons Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Solna.
For more information visit: www.opcw.org and www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/hsp

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