The Slate Gist

The Chemical-Weapons Treaty

On April 29, an international treaty banning chemical weapons will take effect. So far, the United States isn’t committed to taking part. Thanks mainly to the efforts of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate has delayed ratification of the treaty and may ultimately vote it down. Helms claims that despite the ban’s best intentions, it will actually encourage chemical-weapons attacks. Proponents of the treaty, including the Clinton administration, worry that Helms’ delaying tactics will shut the United States out of critical decisions about chemical arms control. What’s really at stake?

Images from the Gulf War of U.S. troops and TV correspondents donning gas masks spurred the Bush administration to complete negotiations of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1991. The treaty requires the member states to destroy all stockpiles of chemical weapons within 10 years. It also bans production, possession, and use of all nerve and mustard gases. Production of other chemicals, such as chlorine and certain pesticides, which have commercial as well as military applications, will continue, but a U.N. agency will monitor production to prevent their military use.

This distinction between military and commercial production is itself controversial. Several chemicals exempted from the ban have only esoteric civilian applications, but obvious military uses. For instance, phosgene and hydrogen cyanide, gases ubiquitously used in World War I, will continue to be readily accessible to terrorists and armies.

In large part, the CWC simply reiterates previous international agreements. After World War I, 145 countries signed the Geneva Protocol, prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in battle. And under a 1990 bilateral agreement, the Soviet Union and the United States (Russia and the United States are estimated to control two-thirds of the world’s chemical weapons between them) committed themselves to the destruction of most of their arsenals by the year 2004. This will occur regardless of the CWC’s fate. The United States spent $78 million last year to help the Russians get rid of their 40,000-ton stockpile, and plans to spend $27 billion over the next 10 years destroying its own 30,000 tons. However, neither of these agreements goes as far as the CWC, which bans all future production of weapons.

D espite the enormous number of chemical weapons, most do not pose an imminent threat. The majority in the American and Russian stockpiles date back to the 1950s and are contained in rusty shells, no longer useable in battle. Nor has Russia or the United States ever shown much interest in modernizing them. But curbing Russian/American arms is not the CWC’s principal aim. Instead, the United States hopes the treaty will ultimately force potential ground-war opponents to abandon their chemical weapons, and prevent the recurrence of chemical attacks against civilian populations, like the Iraqi assaults against the Kurds in the late 1980s.

However, many of the countries that the United States would like to check have yet to sign up. One hundred and sixty countries have agreed to the CWC, but this includes only 15 of the 20 believed to possess chemical weapons. The list of nonparticipants is ominous, including most of the United States’ current adversaries: North Korea, Libya, Iraq, and Syria. Of the 68 that have actually ratified the treaty so far, only India and Ethiopia are suspected of owning chemical weapons. (Iran has signed but not ratified the treaty.) Both China (the third-largest stockpiler) and Russia (the largest) appear to be waiting for the Senate to ratify the treaty before doing so themselves. Even then, some critics doubt that Russia, which is currently reluctant to participate in further arms-control efforts, will move to ratification.

Critics of the CWC say that chemical weapons are an essential deterrent against such attacks by these nonparticipating nations. Countries like Iraq and Iran have been reluctant to use their chemical weapons, the critics argue, because they have feared the United States would retaliate with its own chemical attack. Proponents of this argument point to the chemical arms race during the 1920s and 1930s, which they say prevented a repeat of World War I-style gas attacks in World War II.

The treaty’s proponents respond that the U.S. military would be unlikely to retaliate with chemical weapons in any case and is already moving to destroy its stockpiles. The Pentagon considers these weapons too unreliable for use in battle–the wind could blow the chemicals back on your own troops. And with the exception of napalm and Agent Orange used in Vietnam, the United States is not known to have used chemical weapons in battle since World War I. To allay concerns about any loss in deterrence, the Clinton administration has said that the United States will respond to any use of chemical weapons with an “overwhelming and devastating” attack. According to the Washington Post, administration sources say this is a coded way of threatening a nuclear response.

Because a ban can be easily circumvented (chemical weapons can be produced from everyday products without elaborate facilities), the treaty installs a sweeping verification program, originally proposed during the Reagan administration by Vice President George Bush. Conservatives say it’s a further intrusion on American sovereignty. The CWC allows any member country to inspect any site–public or private–it suspects of producing illicit chemicals in another member country. This means agents of foreign governments could legally search American businesses. Snooping foreign agents, critics fear, will exploit their visits for industrial espionage, stealing company secrets for firms in their homelands.

Some legal scholars, such as Robert Bork, claim these search powers are unconstitutionally broad. Random CWC inspections, Bork says, violate the Fourth Amendment, which requires a warrant to search private facilities. However, the treaty requires all inspections to accord with the constitution of the country where the inspection takes place. Thus, if a U.S. court rules a search is unconstitutional, the inspectors will be forced to obtain warrants. Also, the routine random inspections used by U.S. government agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are almost exactly like those planned under the CWC, and these have been found constitutional.

Domestic manufacturers of chemicals are pushing hard for the treaty. Though the CWC limits the chemicals they can legally produce, it also imposes stiff penalties against countries that fail to ratify the ban, to encourage nonparticipants to sign up. Signatory countries will be prohibited from buying chemicals–those with only residual military use that are not banned–from nonsignatory countries. According to the Chemical Manufacturers Association, failure to ratify the ban will cost U.S. producers $600 million each year in lost sales to such countries as Germany, Japan, and India.

Proponents say the treaty will suffer a fatal loss of credibility if the United States opts not to join. Aside from the large U.S. budgetary commitment to the treaty’s enforcement–some $25 million a year–U.S. officials have played a key role in concocting the treaty and stewarding it to its conclusion. Failure to ratify the treaty by April 29 squanders U.S. influence. Only representatives from the member states can sit on the committee that finalizes the treaty’s logistics, and the United Nations won’t hire verification inspectors from nonmember countries.

These proponents concede that in the short run, the agreement will do little to reduce the threat of a chemical attack. But the analogy, they say, is the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that took 20 years to obtain 178 members–and only after the United States used sanctions to force the hand of reluctant governments.