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An important step toward banning chemical weapons

EARLY next year, from Jan. 7-11, foreign ministers and senior arms control officials from more than 100 countries will meet in Paris to consider how to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in violation of international law. President Reagan proposed such a conference in his final address to the United Nations General Assembly this past September. In that address, he identified the need for the community of nations to take actions to reverse the erosion of the moral and legal structures that have held the use of chemical weapons in check since World War I.

France, as the depositary government for the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the first use of chemical and biological weapons in warfare, has moved forward to organize and host this important conference.

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The problem that all concerned nations face is fourfold:

Over the past decade there has been a disturbing trend toward more frequent use of chemical weapons in violation of international law.

This has been accompanied by the proliferation of chemical weapons capabilities, especially in regions of instability.

There is a growing perception that such weapons may have a significant military utility that could provide a decisive advantage, especially in conflicts between developing countries.

Unfortunately, there is the sense that the very threat of chemical weapons can be used to demoralize enemy troops and create fear among defenseless civilian populations.

It was the horror of chemical warfare in World War I, with more than 1.3 million gas casualties, that led to the conclusion of the Geneva Protocol in the first place. For more than half a century that treaty provided a restraint, albeit an imperfect one, on the use of chemical weapons. However, in the past decade, respect for the norms embodied in the Geneva Protocol have been eroded and now must be repaired.

The best solution for halting the illegal use of chemical weapons and bringing the threat of dangerous proliferation to an end is a truly global and effectively verifiable comprehensive ban. Since 1984, when Vice President George Bush presented a United States draft text of a chemical weapons treaty to the 40-nation Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, serious negotiations on such a ban have been under way. Considerable progress has been made in these negotiations, but extensive work remains to be done. The Paris conference is not intended to replace these negotiations. Indeed, it should give them added impetus.

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It is essential to restore the integrity of the Geneva Protocol if the successful conclusion of a chemical weapons ban is to have a fighting chance. Each violation of the protocol and other applicable rules of international law undermines the confidence of all states in the protection that a future ban might be able to provide.

The intensive exchange of views in preparation for the Paris conference that has taken place recently in the UN General Assembly reveals considerable common ground in the world community on the chemical weapons issue. As a further indication of broad support for the conference, in the General Assembly's First Committee an important resolution on chemical weapons arms control, which included an endorsement of the Paris conference, was adopted without a vote by consensus of all member states.

The conference promises to have a busy and critically important agenda. It will underline the significance of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, and other international norms relating to chemical weapons use, and thus reaffirm the need for compliance by all states. All states that have not yet done so are being encouraged to become party to the protocol. It is hoped that the conference can help reinforce the UN secretary general's authority to investigate promptly allegations of chemical weapons use.

In addition, participants could decide to develop and express support for appropriate measures in accordance with the UN Charter, should any future use of chemical weapons in violation of international law occur. The conference participants also may wish to consider what the members of the international community might do to provide humanitarian assistance to victims, or to facilitate assistance by others, in the instance of future use of chemical weapons.

Prospects for a positive outcome at the Paris conference are promising, but strong leadership is needed to deter any future illegal chemical weapons use and to find solutions in the ongoing negotiations on a ban. The US is committed to offering that leadership on behalf of the sizable majority of nations who share our concerns.

William F. Burns, head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, will be deputy head of the US delegation to the Paris conference.

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