STOPPING the proliferation of chemical weapons became a top priority in the 1980s, mainly out of Western concern that the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries would start a chemical-weapons export program. The end of the cold war eliminates this most serious threat. But proliferation of chemical weapons among developing nations continues.
That, along with a still-shaky new world order, is why the 39-nation chemical-weapons-disarmament treaty, finished last week in Geneva after 10 years of negotiation, is so needed.
Nations signing the treaty eventually will have to destroy existing stocks of chemical weapons and agree to no longer develop or sell them. They must also agree to both routine and short-notice inspection and verification.
The West has the task of urging, even pressuring, all nations to sign as soon as possible. The treaty has several built-in incentives for signing. In three years, for example, states that don't sign will be barred from buying chemical precursor components used in both chemical weapons and commercial products.
The most innovative incentive provides that "victim states" attacked with chemical weapons will immediately receive help from other signatories. This includes gas masks, detection and decontamination equipment, and other forms of protection - thus reducing the value of these weapons to aggressors.
So far, an encouraging number of nations are ready to sign - all 53 members of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and nearly all South American countries.
Currently, 15 developing nations either have chemical weapons or can produce them. India, Pakistan, and South Korea are the most recent additions to that list. Most are expected to sign. "Problem" states are likely to be Syria, Libya, and Iraq. Egypt and Israel may sign but not ratify until the current peace process unfolds.