After repeated reports that chemical weapons have been used in Afghanistan, Laos, Kampuchea (Cambodia), and the Persian Gulf, efforts to ban such weapons are in danger of stalling. In the last year, the United Nations Conference on Disarmament has stepped up its efforts to update a 1925 Geneva protocol on chemical weapons. It would like to draft a new convention that would ban the production as well as the use of chemical weapons, and lead to the destruction of existing stockpiles.
The draft Chemical Weapons Convention is high on the agenda of the 40-nation Disarmament Conference, which resumed this February for six months.
There are no new reports of chemical weapons being used in Afghanistan or Laos, but a UN team confirmed their use in the Gulf war last year, and Iraq is known to be still producing them. Delegates agreed that the importance of the work was underlined Tuesday when Thailand accused Vietnam of using poison gas in the fighting against Kampuchean guerrillas.
[On Thursday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the United States House Foreign Affairs Committee that Nicaragua has acquired defensive chemical weapons equipment, Reuters reports. Gen. John Vessey said there was no evidence the Nicaraguans had acquired chemical weapons.]
The disarmament delegates in Geneva also expressed concern privately that the convention may be jeopardized by a complex East-West disagreement over verification. The disagreement finds East European governments pressing for a system of regular verification, while Western governments are proposing inspection on demand in the event of reported violations. Both proposals have been rejected as too strict by the other bloc.
On March 14, 1984, a UN team of four medical specialists arrived at an Iranian field hospital to investigate charges by Iran that Iraq was using chemical weapons in the Gulf war. On March 26, they published a report stating that two types of chemical agents had been used against Iranian troops: mustard gas and a nerve agent known as ``tabun.''
There is general agreement that the UN report on the Gulf war increased the need for effective verification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, while at the same time making it more difficult. This was because phosphorus oxychloride, the principal ingredient, or ``precursor,'' of tabun nerve gas, is widely used for industrial purposes and easily produced.
To facilitate routine verification, the Soviet Union has proposed that one exceptionally lethal group -- phosphorus methyl compounds -- only be permitted at one designated plant in each country.
One Western delegate said the Soviet proposal had been vigorously opposed by several Western governments, particularly West Germany, where phosphorus methyl compounds are used in the production of fire retardants and pesticides.
Last year the British government circulated a questionnaire to find out how many firms were producing the most lethal precursors. Firms in Switzerland and Japan refused to provide information.
On the second aspect of verification, however, the roles are reversed.
In an address to the UN Conference on April 18, 1984, Vice-President George Bush proposed that any country should be able to challenge another to admit an international team of inspection within 24 hours on receipt of a complaint that the convention had been violated.
This was again submitted before the Disarmament Conference here last week by Kenneth Adelman, director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
The following day, the US proposal was immediately rejected by Viktor Issraelyan, the head of the Soviet delegation to the disarmament meeting. Mr. Issraelyan said that any government should have the right to reject a challenge. The US proposal, he said, ``broadened the gap'' between the two positions.
The deadlock has caused frustration among other delegates, who expressed skepticism about the motives of the two superpowers. The Soviets, said one, appear to have two goals: they want access to Western chemical companies, and they also want to preempt any possibility of the resumed production in the US.
The Reagan administration, he continued, had deliberately proposed an ``unrealistic'' scheme in order to provoke a Soviet rejection and to make it easier to ask Congress for money to resume production. Mr. Adelman conceded last week that requests to Congress had proven ``increasingly unsuccessful.''
Meanwhile, efforts are under way to find some kind of compromise. Delegates said that the British questionnaire, while failing to elicit information from the Swiss and Japanese, had at least established clearly that relatively few companies in other Western countries were producing the highly toxic precursors. This, they said, showed that routine inspection would be feasible.
In what is seen as a significant concession, the Soviets agreed in 1984 to allow inspectors to monitor the destruction of stockpiles. In addition, officials from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Wednesday that the Soviet Union has agreed for the first time to open up its nuclear energy plants -- estimated to number 40 -- to inspectors from the IAEA.
Delegates said that this concession was not sufficient to break the wider deadlock over verification. They expressed hope that the draft Chemical Weapons Convention might be raised in the arms talks between the US and Soviet Union that are due to resume March 12 in Geneva -- within walking distance of the UN Disarmament Conference.