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Removing the poison

RESOLVING international conflicts without resorting to force of arms is a goal to be cherished and persistently sought. It will be a long struggle, however. Nations must set aside what in some cases are centuries of accumulated suspicion, mistrust, and animosity. The goal will be achieved incrementally. The question becomes one of selecting the increments. Building institutions, such as the United Nations, for airing and dealing with international concerns is one important approach. So is trying to control the spread and use of specific types of weapons that most readily lend themselves to indiscriminate death. Nuclear weapons clearly fall in that category. The prospect of the destruction they would wreak has played the major role in forestalling their use.

That hasn't been true of chemical and biological munitions, and therein lies the importance of the renewed focus on these weapons. They have the potential to kill indiscriminately and in large numbers. Yet since their introduction on the battlefield in World War I, and despite postwar attempts to ban their future use, they continue to spread and be used - most recently in the Persian Gulf war.

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A four-part Monitor series on chemical and biological weapons, which ends today, serves as a timely reminder of the scope of the problem. But it also points to efforts at stemming the spread.

Foremost among these are the resumption of negotiations in Geneva in January to ban the manufacture, stockpiling, and use of chemical munitions. Although glacial in their progress, the 40-nation talks are yielding the outlines of a treaty. It would give international inspectors an unprecedented degree of access to some of the world's most closely guarded facilities.

No verification regime is immune to circumvention. That is no excuse, however, for failing to accept strong verification measures - even if less than perfect. Open access and publication of the results of inspections is mandatory. A more solid and cost-effective sense of security comes more from reliable information on what other nations are doing than on weapons, gas masks, and special clothing in one's own storage depots.

Nor should negotiators succumb to calls from some developing countries for aid to their chemical industries in exchange for support for the treaty. Chemical and biological munitions are security concerns, and must be dealt with on that level.

The United States and the Soviet Union could set an example by opening their facilities for research on chemical and biological agents to regular inspection by teams from each other's research communities. This would not substitute for a broader international regime, but it could help build confidence in the workability of a broader agreement. The two countries should also consider cooperation on research into defenses against this warfare.

Research projects such as Finland's Project on Verification of Chemical Disarmament should be encouraged in other countries. The project has developed a data base on chemical agents that not only includes their unique ``fingerprints,'' but includes detailed lab techniques for spotting them.

Ultimately, research into biological and chemical weapons comes down to individual scientists. Research is necessary to prevent one country's developments from catching another by surprise. It is necessary to develop defenses against chemical or biological agents that another country may be working on. But the line between defense and offense can grow fuzzy and sometimes can't be distinguished until long after it has been crossed. The financial incentives to accept classified defense work can be hard to resist. Within their professional societies, scientists need to discuss thoroughly the ethical and moral implications of research on biological and chemical agents. Only close scrutiny by their colleagues as well as by public officials can help keep a sufficient rein on military chemical and biological research - both before and after any new arms control regime is in place.

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