The Hindu (India)
Monday, October 1, 2007

On January 4 this year, an eminent panel of former United States Secretaries of Defence and State - George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger - and Senator Sam Nunn, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, published an opinion article that electrified the arms control community by calling for Washington to take the lead in the abolition of nuclear weapons. Adding to the effect was the newspaper in which it was published - the Wall Street Journal, the very bastion of conservative America. They did not dispute that nuclear weapons confer many national security benefits. Rather, they argued that these were subordinate to the threats posed to U.S. security by the uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons. And the efforts to impose non-proliferation were doomed to futility so long as the U.S. demonstrated the utility of nuclear weapons by keeping them and developing new doctrines of use and deployment.

In the search for total nuclear abolition, a worthy precedent has already been set. Chemical weapons share with nuclear and biological weapons the capacity to inflict mass casualties even in a single attack. Unlike nuclear weapons, biological and chemical weapons have been outlawed under universal international conventions. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), signed in 1993 and in force since 1997, was the final crown in the trinity of global treaties regulating the three classes of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It deserves to be talked up far more in efforts to pursue nuclear disarmament.

Unlike the more familiar NPT, the CWC is universal and does not create a world of chemical apartheid in which a small group of countries holds legitimate possession of weapons that are banned for everyone else. The principles of universality, equality and non-discrimination have secured near-total adherence to the CWC, embracing 98 per cent of the world's population and chemical industry.

Unlike the Biological Weapons Convention, the CWC contains rigorous, state-of-the-art provisions on monitoring and verification. For example, its monitoring procedures routinely reach into the private sector to a depth and breadth neither contemplated before nor emulated since.

The BWC established a norm against BW possession and is the symbol of the world's abhorrence of these weapons. But because of weaknesses in its verification system that reflect the scientific state of the world in 1972, the BWC has not prevented the proliferation of biological weapons.

The use of chemicals as tools of war is almost as old as human history, for example poisoned arrows, arsenic smoke and noxious fumes. The means, range, accuracy and lethality of chemical weapons and their delivery systems increased exponentially over the course of the last century. Their efficient harnessing for large scale deployment and use owes much to modern industrial processes and organisation.

Alongside the use of chemicals as weapons of war has been a long-standing interest in limiting such use. The CWC was the product of 20 years of negotiations for a treaty-based ban on the production, possession, proliferation, transfer and use of chemical weapons, and their total elimination. It is unique as the first multilateral treaty to ban an entire category of WMD, provide for international verification of the destruction of these weapons and the conversion of their production facilities to peaceful purposes, and actively involve the global chemicals industry and its ongoing cooperation with the industrial verification regime. The CWC also promotes cooperation among countries in the peaceful uses of chemicals and provides for assistance and protection to signatories under chemical weapon threat or attack.

The CWC required destruction of all declared chemical weapons arsenals and production facilities within ten years, by 2007. Unlike the NPT and BWC, the CWC establishes an implementing secretariat, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The OPCW is required to oversee and verify the total destruction of all declared chemical weapons; inactivate and destroy or convert to peaceful purposes all chemical weapons production facilities; and inspect the production and, in some cases, the processing and consumption of dual-use chemicals, and receive declarations of their transfer, in order to ensure their exclusive peaceful use.

How can the OPCW monitor the stocks and destruction of chemical weapons and facilities without compromising the proprietary commercial knowledge of legitimate chemical industry activities? It provides technical assistance to countries across a broad spectrum but custom-tailored to the individual requirements of each. The OPCW has developed a peer-reviewed and certified analytical database with information on over 1,500 chemical weapons-related compounds. In addition, a network of protection experts consults on a regular basis on the means to improve the capacity to respond to chemical weapon attack and protect civilian populations.

To date, 188 countries have joined the OPCW. All declared chemical weapons production capacitystockpiles has been inactivated, with two-thirds of the declared facilities either verifiably destroyed or converted for peaceful purposes. With respect to chemical weapons, the inventory of all declared has been completed and verified but less than one-third of the declared 8.6 million chemical weapon munitions have been verifiably destroyed.

Of the 70,000 tonnes of declared chemical weapons agents, just over one-third has been verifiably destroyed. The road yet to travel remains long, for just a tiny drop of nerve agent the size of the head of a pin can kill an adult within minutes of exposure. Almost 6,000 industrial facilities around the world are liable for inspection; the OPCW has conducted 3,000 inspections at over 1,000 military and industrial sites in 79 countries.

The CWC can be viewed either as a dinosaur of international relations, a relic left over from the Cold War; or a model for multilateral undertakings to build global consensus, create confidence and deter treaty violations in the field of international security through disarmament. The OPCW needs to adapt to an evolving situation where chemical weapons are part of a bigger picture of the possible use of hazardous materials by terrorists or criminal organisations. The challenge is as real as the stakes are high.

The CWC is unique among disarmament treaties for having outlawed a class of weapons, instituted a comprehensive verification regime, establishing its own organisation responsible for implementing all provisions of the treaty, and placing its own restrictions on export of dual-use technology. But while the "architecture" is complete and effective, many critical components of the inspections regime remain untested, and efforts are in train for achieving universality, reporting of dual-use exports and imports, and ensuring effective verification and enforcement.

The OPCW is yet to refer a case of possible non-compliance to the U.N. Security Council. This curious oddity, of a distinctively strong challenge inspection system that has never been utilised, may indicate that the convention's deterrent effect has been perfect. But one could just as easily question the effectiveness of the system until such time as it has been tested. Perhaps we need an intermediate mechanism between a routine industrial inspection and the politically charged challenge inspection system.

The international challenge inspection system would amount to nought unless backed up by national legislation. Strengthening treaty regimes means national legislation and measures on criminalisation of proliferation activities, effective protection of proliferation sensitive personnel, materials and equipment, control and accounting systems for monitoring materials and stocks, and regulation and surveillance of dual-use transfers. In these respects, the OPCW shows the way for the NPT and the BWC by placing emphasis on national implementation of the CWC in addressing proliferation threats.

The CWC global treaty has been reinforced by national implementation legislation, and the implementation of Article 7 obligations under the CWC also creates an environment of enforceability. Yet states have lagged behind in the CWC-mandated destruction of chemical weapons stocks. The OPCW has verified the destruction of only one-third of declared weapons agents. At this rate, the convention's goal of complete destruction of all CW stockpiles by the agreed extended deadline of 2012 will not be met.

The High-level Panel on U.N. reforms, which included retired Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar from India, recommended that the Security Council should establish a permanent liaison with the OPCW (as also the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group); the Directors-General of the OPCW and IAEA should be invited by the Security Council to report to it twice yearly on the status of safeguards and verification processes, and on any serious concerns they have short of actual treaty breaches; and the Security Council should be prepared to deploy inspection capacities for suspected nuclear and chemical violations, drawing on the OPCW and IAEA capacities.

In other words, there is merit to operational linkages between the verification machinery of the three different classes of weapons of mass destruction. That being the case, the question arises even more strongly: isn't there a compelling case for a matching nuclear weapons convention to complete and strengthen international regimes that are universal, non-discriminatory, verifiable and enforceable in banning all WMD?

About the Author

Ramesh Thakur, former CIGI Distinguished Fellow

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.