After a Decade of Talking, 39 Nations Finish Work on Chemical-Weapons Treaty

WITH 192 pages of mind-numbing provisions, the document is about as easy to read as a phone book. But after 10 years of negotiations it is one of the longest-awaited arms pacts in history - and it appears to have finally come to fruition.

On Sept. 3, negotiators from 39 nations are scheduled to wrap up work in Geneva and formally send the United Nations a finished chemical-weapons-disarmament treaty. If things go according to plan, consideration by the UN General Assembly will follow, with a signing ceremony currently set for Paris early next year.

Individual nations will have to ratify participation according to their own procedures, and it will be many years before destruction of declared chemical stocks will actually be complete. Still, some analysts hail the new poison-weapons pact as the most important multilateral agreement since the 1970 nonproliferation treaty tried to stop the spread of the atomic bomb.

"This fills a large hole in global efforts to combat proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," says Michael Krepon, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.

The general obligations of the chemical-weapon treaty state that signatories will never "develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone."

The pact further bans both the use of poison weapons and "any military preparations" for their use, and requires signatories to destroy any chemical weapons they already possess.

Those nations with chemical stockpiles can decide what kind of destruction process they want to use, as long as it is not "dumping in any body of water, land burial, or open-pit burning," according to the treaty text.

Well over two-thirds of the treaty's text relates to verification procedures. One key type of verification - snap "challenge inspections" - was a major snag during the negotiations in recent years.

At one point, the United States proposed a simple scheme that would have allowed inspectors to go anywhere, at any time, to snoop out suspected chemical-weapons activity. But last year the US backed off from this provision, with officials claiming there were legitimate national-security problems with such access. The solution was a European-developed process called "managed access" inspections.

Under the "managed access" process, inspectors must be allowed to visit any designated site within 108 hours after their arrival at a country's port of entry. The extent of their access within the site, however, is up for negotiation, and, in any case, the host country is allowed to use various confidentiality measures, including removing sensitive papers from offices, shrouding sensitive equipment, and logging off computer systems.

The treaty also calls for routine visits to sites the host country itself declares were once related to chemical weapons. Overseeing all this activity will be a new bureaucracy, with a somewhat awkward name: the Preparatory Commission for the Organization on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This commission will be based at The Hague, which, among other things, has promised free office space, "telephones on every desk, and 10 fax machines free of charge," according to the draft treaty text.

US officials have said the treaty meets with their approval, but some difficulties remain. One of these is that poison stocks are to be destroyed within 10 years after the pact takes effect. Given its financial, technical, and environmental problems, "it will be very difficult" for Russia to make that deadline, says Elisa Harris, a chemical-weapons expert at the Brookings Institution.

The cost of destruction is considerable: The latest US Army estimate is a total of around $8 billion for US stocks alone. But the treaty holds open the possibility of a five-year deadline extension for some nations.

Another possible problem is that nations will be allowed to keep small amounts of chemical agents around for analyzing defensive equipment and other laboratory purposes. That creates a "built-in tension" with the pact's verification procedures, notes Mr. Krepon of the Stimson Center.

FINALLY, how will a global pact stop rogue states that do not sign the treaty - read Iraq - from waging chemical warfare? In the short run, it cannot. The treaty does not call for specific penalties in the event of noncompliance. If a signatory of the treaty is attacked with chemical weapons, the pact only calls for other nations to provide defense gear and advice to the victim.

Nevertheless, Ms. Harris of the Brookings Institute says she is "optimistic" about the treaty's overall impact - in part because both India and Pakistan, possible chemical weapons users, are reportedly ready to join the pact.

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