Timely action on chemical weapons

CONTINUING use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war raises the acute question of whether, and to what extent, countries that oppose chemical weapons use and proliferation in principle will take steps to prevent them in practice. At issue is a variety of difficult diplomatic, political, economic, and commercial questions. Of particular significance is the question: To what extent must concerns for freedom of trade and the privacy of proprietary information, principles shared by democracies around the world, yield to urgent efforts toward interrupting current chemical weapons use and halting their proliferation? This question of political ethics has become a pressing issue of practical policy in recent months and years. Both the number of countries possessing chemical weapons and the occasions of such weapons being used are increasing at a worrisome rate.

The number of nations having chemical weapons has tripled in the past 20 years, from 5 in 1963 to some 14 to 16 in 1985. More states seek to acquire them from abroad or to manufacture them at home. Unlike nuclear weapons, chemical weapons are relatively cheap to make or buy. A chemical weapons capacity, modest in size but immoderate in potential effects, costs no more than a handful of second-line tanks.

Increasing use of chemical weapons is in some respects still more troubling, for it represents nothing less than a breakdown in international norms. In 1925, in the Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons use, the world community confirmed one of the most horrible lessons of World War I, namely, that use of chemical weapons was so inhumane and uncivilized that even military necessity could not justify their use.

Since 1925, over 100 states, including Iraq and Iran, have become parties to the convention, making it one of the most widely recognized international agreements but regrettably, not one of the most scrupulously adhered to. In the 1930s, Mussolini's forces killed 15,000 Ethiopian people with poison gas; countless more were injured. Soviet-supplied chemical weapons were employed in the mid-1960s Yemeni civil war.

From 1975 onward, Lao and Vietnamese forces under Soviet supervision brought lethal chemical and toxin weapons to bear against adversaries, including the population of Cambodia. In Afghanistan, Soviet forces themselves relied on similar weapons. Now, Iraq uses mustard gas and nerve agents against Iran. It may be only a matter of time before Iranian forces retaliate in kind, in what would be the first two-sided use of chemical weapons since the dreadful acts of desperate states in World War I.

The preferred answer to these concerns has been proposed. In April 1984, Vice-President George Bush put forward in Geneva a draft for additional prohibitions on the production, acquisition, transfer, retention, or stockpiling of chemical weapons. The goal of the United States is to eliminate chemical weapons from the earth.

While negotiations toward this worthy goal continue, so do the use and proliferation of chemical weapons. It will take time to devise and implement a comprehensive and coordinated international approach to these problems. Meanwhile, prompt interim measures to limit them are needed.

US agencies are working to develop guidelines on what transactions should be carefully scrutinized and, if appropriate, avoided. For now, a good initial measure would be voluntary commitment on the part of chemical companies and similar resolve on the part of chemical engineers and other professionals in the field to be part of the answer, not part of the problem. In the absence of fully developed formal mechanisms for review of transactions, and restraint on those deemed inadvisable, corporations and individuals should accept the moral responsibility to consult with government agencies regarding dubious transactions. If American banks and other enterprises can disinvest in countries whose discriminatory practices are unacceptable, they can surely scrutinize business activities that may result in the use or proliferation of chemical weapons.

John Stuart Mill once observed that ``For a great evil, a small remedy does not produce small result; it simply does not produce any result at all.'' Chemical weapons use is certainly a great evil. Yet, in this instance, discretionary efforts that by comparison with fully elaborated governmental controls seem modest may have much potential for good.

The more done now, voluntarily, the more likely it is that these problems can ultimately be contained and, with determination, reversed through a comprehensive ban on chemical weapons.

Thomas H. Etzold is assistant director of the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

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