Checking toxin warfare

New reports out of Washington that the Soviet Union and its allies are using chemical and toxin weapons in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia should elicit the deepest concern in the international community. These regions may seem far from the worries of most nations. But, as US Secretary of State George Shultz remarked in presenting a report to the Congress and the United Nations, any Soviet violation of treaties banning the use of such weapons has serious implications for the security of the whole world.

This is one arms race that mankind had thought had already been brought under control. The 1925 Geneva Protocol bans the use of chemical and biological weapons in war and the 1972 convention prohibits even possession of toxin weapons. Then why is the world not speaking out? So far only Canada, Thailand, and Britain have done so. If the public can be so preoccupied with the dangers of a nuclear war that has not happened, surely it should be no less concerned about the hazards of weapons being used right now.

The relative silence may be due to disbelief of what in the past has seemed meager evidence, or perhaps to a lurking suspicion that the Reagan administration is vigorously pursuing such charges against Moscow in order to help justify its own development of chemical weapons and its military buildup generally. Yet all the evidence now accumulated - blood samples, gas masks, testimony from a Soviet defector, a Laotian pilot, and Afghan refugees - indicates that something is definitely going on, Soviet denials to the contrary. The Canadians, among others, have also unearthed evidence of the use of banned chemicals and toxins.

To resolve this problem, the US seeks two things. One is the naming of a permanent panel of scientific experts to be available to the UN secretary general which could investigate future charges. The other is a reconvening of the Biological Convention to toughen the provisions dealing with verification and compliance. Both deserve strong international support. The UN itself has a group investigating the issue but it has been hampered in its work largely because of lack of access to the sites.

Washington might also consider appointing a high-level panel of scientists to study and assess all the material gathered to date. It should concern the administration that academic scholars raise questions about the evidence and its presentation - for instance, the lack of adequate controls on experimental samplings. Also, the US should press the Russians harder on the issue of on-site inspection for possession or destruction of chemical weapons. Resumption of bilateral US-Soviet talks would be helpful in nudging further progress on this issue in the UN Disarmament Committee.

World apathy now would be unfortunate. The point is, if the Russians and their Southeast Asian clients are widely employing the poisons in violation of international agreements, there can be little confidence in the whole arms control process and in signing new agreements. Surely even the Soviet leadership must see that violations in the biological and chemical area merely strengthen the hand of hawkish elements in the US government who oppose serious nuclear arms talks. It is hard to refute the argument that, if the Russians cannot be trusted on agreements already signed, pursuing further accords is a futile exercise.

Here is an early opportunity for the new crew in the Politburo to demonstrate their trustworthiness. Yuri Andropov can either let the Soviet Union remain under a cloud for breaking existing pacts - thereby poisoning the disarmament climate as well as men - or he can join in a good faith effort to strengthen safeguards and make progress toward the control of this lethal weaponry.

Needed ultimately is an international agreement banning the development and production as well as the use of chemical weapons. That objective seems as distant as ever, however - unless the nations of the world find their voice on the subject and call Moscow on the carpet.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.