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Defusing Rogue Weapons

Outlawing biological, chemical devices not easy

FOR more than a century, the world has been trying to outlaw especially horrifying weapons of mass destruction. It has not been easy. The Brussels Convention of 1874 and the Hague Declaration of 1899 proved ineffectual in preventing the more than 1 million casualties of poison gas in World War I. The "no first use" Geneva Protocol of 1925 did not deter the development of nerve gases and other unusual forms of devastation during and after World War II, or the use of chemical weapons in regional conflicts,

culminating in Iraq's attack on its own Kurdish population.

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The latest milestone on the journey is the Chemical Weapons Convention, signed last month by 130 nations. The new convention is particularly promising because it contains the most comprehensive provisions for verification ever undertaken under any treaty, and it designates an impartial international body to carry them out. But, although the convention is a momentous accomplishment, the time when it will become obsolete can already be foreseen.

In military laboratories, experiments have been underway for some years with new types of chemical warfare agents that can be produced in entirely different ways and are active in much smaller quantities - up to 100,000 times less - than the many tons of nerve gases, blister agents, etc., that the new Chemical Weapons Convention has been designed to control.

Fortunately, we already have another treaty that could control these biological chemicals more adequately: the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972. There is just one problem: this convention has no verification provisions at all. It was signed just before the scientific breakthroughs that have made it relatively easy to produce biological chemicals in the quantities needed for warfare, and also before genetic techniques became available to engineer new types of agents.

Within a few years of its signing, changes in the military assessment of biological and toxin weapons cast doubt on the efficacy of the convention, and it has been dogged by suspicions and unresolved allegations ever since.

Many experts now consider biological weapons to be a much greater threat than chemical weapons, with potential destructive power in a league with nuclear weapons. If the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention is left as a gentlemens' agreement, the hard-won achievement of a stringent verification regime for chemical weapons could end up merely shifting the choice of the Saddam Husseins of the world from chemical to biological weapons.

Most of the 125 parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention are seriously concerned about its lack of verification. A series of meetings is now in progress in Geneva to identify and evaluate possible verification measures, and, on the basis of a report due next fall, a decision will be made whether or not to negotiate a formal protocol to the convention. The most voluble dissent, thus far, has come from the US.

The Bush administration was reluctant to cede the power to carry out inspections on US territory to a multinational body. During negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the US held out until concerted pressure from the other Western countries finally forced an 11th-hour compromise permitting on-site access. Well before that, the US chemical industry had offered to open all chemical production facilities, regardless of the chemicals produced, to routine inspection.

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The US moderated its position on biological weapons verification following completion of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the conclusion of an agreement last September with Britain and Russia, providing for on-site visits to biological facilities. This agreement, intended to provide assurance that suspect Soviet biological weapons activities have ceased, makes it difficult to sustain opposition to on-site access for demonstrating compliance with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

THERE is ample reason to believe that a regime with on-site inspection provisions resembling those of the Chemical Weapons Convention would be feasible for biological weapons as well, and would strengthen the biological convention enormously. Although a biological regime of this kind has widespread support, the parties to the convention still look to the US for leadership.

The new administration, with its avowed multinational outlook, now has the opportunity to score an early point against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It will have to work quickly to prepare for a critical meeting on biological verification measures in May, and it will have to give thought to implementing the technological cooperation clauses in both the chemical and biological conventions. These clauses are the lures that attract developing countries to the conventions.

In particular, if obligations under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention are to be increased by the addition of a compliance protocol, a carrot or two would make the increased burden more acceptable.

Given the global interest in environmental protection and public health, there are many projects of value to both developing and developed countries that could serve double-duty as incentives to treaty adherence.

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