Putting the genie back in the bottle. Propaganda, proliferation, and dollars for disposal are hurdles at Geneva disarmament talks

This time, it was the American ambassador's turn to trump. Max Friedersdorf - a silver-haired, no-nonsense Indianan - billed the move as ``unprecedented.''

``Today, the United States delegation is taking another major step toward greater openness,'' he told the Conference on Disarmament here in July.

``We are declaring the location of each of our chemical weapons production facilities,'' he said, handing a map to the diplomats assembled in the United Nations' high-ceilinged conference room.

The gesture made news headlines.

Something, however, was overlooked in the hubbub: As American officials later admitted, each of the five sites had already been disclosed publicly - in some cases years earlier. Furthermore, not all of the facilities produce chemical weapons - one, in fact, has been mothballed for 31 years. (See article, Page B3.)

Soviet Ambassador Yuri Nazarkin was less than thunderstruck by the American revelations.

``This,'' he said, with a hint of a smile, ``was to impress people that didn't know anything about the subject.''

It was also meant to do something more - to goad the Soviets into revealing the locations of their chemical weapons facilities, which, unlike those of the US, are a closely guarded secret.

The Soviets themselves have not been above headline-grabbing when it suited their purposes.

THE year before, the Soviet Union had invited diplomats and journalists from around the world to visit the main chemical weapons proving ground at Shikhany, in the central Soviet Union. It was billed as a thorough disclosure of the Soviet chemical arsenal.

What the waiting audience got was something else.

``It was quite clear that the weapons they demonstrated were of World War II and 1950s vintage,'' a West European military official says. ``The visit sort of begged more questions than it answered.''

The Soviets also claimed at the time that they possessed only 50,000 tons of chemical weapons - a figure far below Western intelligence estimates.

Still, staging the Shikhany visit allowed the Soviets to press the US to disclose one of its secrets - the size of its chemical weapons stockpile.

`Guerrilla' tactics at talks

SO it has gone for 20 years. Legions of diplomats have used a combination of patient plodding, patent puffery, and pure propaganda to nudge one another other toward a comprehensive, verifiable, worldwide ban on the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons.

The chief forum has been the Conference on Disarmament here in Geneva. One participant says, only half jokingly, that what passes for diplomacy here more closely resembles ``discreet guerrilla warfare.''

On the face of it, the Geneva talks would seem to be a classic case of fiddling while the city burns. During the two decades of negotiations, the number of nations confirmed or suspected of having a chemical warfare capability has risen, according to the US government, from five to 22.

And over the past five years, the world has witnessed the first sustained use of chemical weapons since World War I - in the Gulf war between Iran and Iraq, and by Iraq against its own Kurdish minority.

Still, although there are major hurdles ahead, the world is probably closer to a ban on chemical weapons than anyone would have thought possible even a few years ago. In fact, the outlines of a formal treaty or convention banning chemical weapons are clear. And what's taking shape here in Geneva is perhaps the most detailed, far-reaching arms control document in history.

``At the simplest level, a lot of people are very frightened at being attacked with chemical weapons,'' says Nicholas Sims, a lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics. ``The simplest way to get rid of that fear is to get rid of the enemy's weapons. And you're not going to get that without getting rid of your own. Hence, multilateral disarmament.''

``It seems to me,'' Mr. Sims adds, ``we're a lot closer to disarmament in this area than in any other.''

Matthew Meselson, a biochemist at Harvard University and a close follower of the chemical weapons talks, echoes that optimism. He predicts that there will be an agreement in a year or two.

One reason for hope, Dr. Meselson says, is that US President-elect George Bush has repeatedly and forcefully declared his support for such a treaty - and says he wants to be the President who signs it.

In fact, it was Mr. Bush who introduced a comprehensive proposal for a treaty at Geneva in 1984. The document has since become the principal working text for negotiators.

But it probably would have languished had not Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, in 1987, announced that the Soviet Union supported even more extensive verification provisions than those in the Bush proposals.

What US plan would do

THE treaty document, though it has received little publicity, would have a major impact on the chemistry, biotechnology, and pharmaceutical industries worldwide. It would give international inspectors virtually unfettered access to many nations' most sensitive high-security areas.

It would create a new international agency, and obligate nations to foot the multimillion-dollar cost of keeping such an agency in business. And it would also require the destruction of thousands of tons of deadly chemical warfare agents, raising untold environmental and safety considerations.

In just 146 pages, it would do all that - and more.

Why the CIA wouldn't like it

TO be sure, some of the text bears only passing resemblance to political realities. One US proposal, for example, allows any country signing the treaty to initiate a ``challenge'' inspection of a suspect site ``anywhere'' in other countries that have signed the convention - with no possibility of refusal.

That proposal, as written, would theoretically allow the Soviet Union to demand that inspectors be allowed into the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Va. For that matter, the US could demand an inspection of the headquarters of the Soviet Committee on State Security (KGB) in Moscow.

The Soviets, in a game of diplomatic one-upmanship, agreed to the US proposal - knowing full well the US would eventually back down from it.

``There are facilities that the CIA doesn't even want to acknowledge exist at all,'' let alone open to inspections, one US government official says.

``It's safe to assume that the final inspection clause will be something less than what's on the table now,'' says another US official familiar with the American side's negotiating strategy.

But that's the nub of the problem: If the treaty can't be verified, it won't be effective.

``We can't take a treaty that's not verifiable,'' Friedersdorf says, ``because it won't be ratified by the [US] Senate.''

Chemical, weapon, or both?

VERIFYING the destruction and nonproduction of chemical weapons agents is particularly difficult, because they can be manufactured as easily in an ordinary chemical complex as in a military installation. In fact, many of the chemicals that go into warfare agents are widely used by the civilian chemical industry worldwide.

The diplomats here in Geneva have crafted a unique solution to the problem - one that is far more detailed than any previous arms control effort.

The treaty not only demands destruction of military stocks of warfare agents, but provides for inspections at certain civilian facilities as well.

It includes lists, called ``schedules,'' of chemicals that would be monitored during the production process. The schedules are open-ended; that is, new toxic chemicals can be added to them, if and when they are developed.

There is disagreement over the details of carrying out the treaty. The degree of consensus that has been reached so far is, however, remarkable, especially since there are 40 countries taking part in the talks.

``A multilateral treaty of such enormous complexity has never been taken up like this,'' a West European ambassador says.

``This is certainly new,'' he adds.

Who's talking to whom

IN no other arms control negotiations does, for example, a country like Kenya, which has no chemical weapons, and only a fledgling chemical indus-try, enjoy equal status with the superpowers.

According to negotiators and close observers, the countries taking part in the Geneva talks have played varying roles during the course of the talks.

One reason is that they are representing not only the interests of their respective governments, but their commercial chemical industries as well.

Their performances have drawn mixed reviews.

Sims, the London School of Economics lecturer, who has followed the talks over the years, is full of praise for some countries like Britain (``an honest broker''), Canada (``a consistently excellent role right the way through''), and the Netherlands (``excellent'').

On the other hand, he says, ``France has been incredibly irresponsible'' by touting a proposal, since abandoned, that countries should first have the right to build up their chemical weapons stocks before destroying them. ``The other Western countries have been, I think, up and down,'' Sims says.

Other analysts are more critical.

Countries like Brazil, Japan, and West Germany have been in favor of destroying existing chemical weapons stocks, but far less enthusiastic about tough inspections to ensure that no new chemical agents are being manufactured, says one well-placed diplomat.

``The dividing line in the West is basically West Germany and Japan against everybody else,'' says Elisa Harris, a researcher at the Brookings Institution. Other countries ``are reconciled to the inspections.''

The West Germans, she says, are concerned about the loss of proprietary information to snoopy inspectors, although Bonn is ``coming around.''

The Japanese are concerned about that - but also about the suggestion that some outside agency needs to ensure that they aren't cheating. ``They feel it's an insult and humiliation to them,'' Ms. Harris says.

India and other developing countries have, according to a number of diplomats, attempted to extract economic aid for their chemical industries from developed countries in return for accepting international inspections and controls.

Mr. Friedersdorf, while being careful not to name names, is highly critical of such moves. ``Of the 40 countries here, 90 percent of them are sincere....'' He has an unadorned term for what the other 10 percent are doing:

``I call it bribery.''

Other countries, meanwhile, are making substantial contributions to the negotiations, even though they're not directly involved. (See story, Page B9.)

Who foots inspection bill?

THERE are disagreements over the size and the authority of an international inspection agency to enforce the treaty.

But there is wide agreement that it will be a costly undertaking, reaching into the tens of millions of dollars.

Some developing countries question why they should be asked to foot even part of the bill - especially when they have no chemical weapons stockpiles themselves.

There is also the problem of ensuring that other countries, which have not taken part in the negotiations, will sign the resulting treaty. Iran is a member of the Conference on Disarmament.

But other Mideast countries that possess chemical weapons - such as Iraq, Israel, Libya, and Syria - are not.

In some countries, private chemical companies could throw up roadblocks to a treaty. West European chemical trade groups, in particular, have been opposed to inspection plans being drawn up.

The treaty is, however, receiving broad support from US chemical manufacturers, most of which want to avoid association with chemical warfare.

The difference is partly because US chemical companies enjoy a large domestic market. European manufacturers are more dependent on export markets and would be more affected by export controls.

``We are foursquare for a treaty,'' says Kyle Olson, associate director for health, safety, and chemical regulations of the American Chemical Manufacturers Association.

``There's no money in it that justifies this business, and we don't want this kind of business.''

Experts from such companies as Monsanto and DuPont have advised US diplomats during the negotiations.

Keeping tabs on compliance

AS experts have looked into the problem, Mr. Olson says, it's become clear that ``there are a large number of companies out there that have the capability of producing weapons material.''

``That, unfortunately, is the nature of toxic chemicals.''

Some experts also conclude that a civilian plant could be switched to chemical weapons production, then ``scrubbed'' and switched back to normal production quickly - with little chance of detection.

``You can convert a chemical facility in 24 hours,'' says one US intelligence analyst.

The CIA has been asked to determine how easily such clandestine production could be detected, an American official says.

The conclusion: The probability of successful detection is ``pretty low.''

``Most people I've talked to are convinced that 100 percent verifiability is not possible,'' Friedersdorf says.

The challenge, a European diplomat says, is to ``provide ... a security framework that ... makes it attractive for [countries] to conclude that the advantages of not producing chemical weapons outweigh the advantages gained by producing them.''

Ironically, the challenge is not just to convince other countries of the benefits of forswearing chemical warfare - but to convince diverse arms of the United States government, too.

The US view

THE US State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency are notably more warm to the idea of a treaty than the Pentagon.

``I think we can all dream,'' says Gen. Gerald Watson, the commander of the US Army Chemical School at Fort McClellan, Ala., referring to the goal of eliminating chemical weapons from the battlefield.

``But the reality is,'' he says, ``we can't achieve that with any degree of verification.''

Thomas Welch, an adviser to the US secretary of defense, says that while he favors eliminating chemical weapons, ``no nation has ever been attacked with chemical weapons if that nation had a credible chemical deterrent capability.''

``Sometimes,'' sighs Nikita Smidovich, a Soviet diplomat who is taking part in the Geneva negotiations, ``it seems as if the Americans are hesitating to accept their own proposals.''

One West European diplomat involved in the talks complains that ``the great problem this year at the negotiations has been that the White House has not been capable of getting its act together.''

``It is felt,'' he says, ``that there is no consistent [United States] policy.''

But US officials note that only in the last two years have the Soviets been energized.

Some of them say the negotiations at Geneva would still be deadlocked if the US had not, in 1984, embarked on a multimillion-dollar effort to modernize its chemical weapons arsenal.

Friedersdorf says of the Soviets: ``Their interest started, almost to the exact hour, when Congress gave approval to the modernization program.''

Soviet negotiator Nazarkin denies that the US program was the stimulus: ``The real stimulus is our real and sincere desire to have an agreement.'' A treaty should be signed ``as soon as possible - the sooner the better,'' he says.

Countering arguments of deterrent capability, Harvard's Meselson says it's unlikely that newer weapons systems will lead to chemical disarmament.

``There is no technological fix,'' he says. ``The only fix is to set an example of acceptable behavior in the world so that people don't use chemical weapons.''

And making a commitment to hammering out a treaty is a necessary step, he adds. ``Sooner or later, the human race has to get off the notion of doing everything like scorpions in a bottle.''

The superpowers, Meselson says, should focus on their common interest in decreasing the threat of chemical and biological warfare worldwide.

``Our interest,'' Meselson says, ``is a common interest in keeping these things from becoming the norm in future wars.''

The 1925 Geneva Protocol

Horrified by the use of chemical weapons during World War I, 29 nations agreed on June 17, 1925, to a protocol prohibiting ``the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous, or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare.''

Signatories included the United States and Soviet Union, though the US Senate did not ratify the protocol until 1975. More than 100 nations have now signed.

The protocol's framers counted on it to bind ``the conscience and the practice of nations.'' Some signatories observe the ban as absolute; others, including the US and Soviet Union, have signed on with no-first-use conditions, reserving the right to retaliate in kind. Along with others, such as Israel, the superpowers regard the protocol as binding only in a conflict with signatory nations.

Among the protocol's weaknesses are ambiguous language, lack of enforcement procedures, and lack of restrictions on production, stockpiling, or transfer of chemical weapons. Since 1968, 40 nations have worked toward a full-fledged treaty that would plug such gaps. Although verification has been a stumbling block, a treaty could emerge within three years, diplomats say.

The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention

On April 10, 1972, more than 100 nations signed a convention banning development, use, and stockpiling of biological weapons.

The US had already abandoned research on biological weapons three years earlier. President Richard Nixon cited the ``potentially uncontrollable consequences'' on the ``health of future generations'' in renouncing biological warfare.

The Soviet Union, though it signed the ban, is suspected of continuing research into biological warfare. The US has increased its research spending on defense against biological weapons.

National representatives meet every five years to review the convention, which has no enforcement provisions. Experts say scientific advances require strengthening prohibitions.

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