Recapturing the Chemical Weapons Genie

RELIABLE reports of Libyan, Syrian, and Iranian attempts to acquire poison-gas production and delivery capability, along with Iraq's use of chemical weapons against its Kurdish minority, make it clear, as former Secretary of State Shultz said, that the chemical weapons genie is out of the bottle. A frightened world community is asking, how can we put the genie back into the bottle? Despite the heightened concerns brought about by Libya's Rabta facility, there is some cause for optimism.

At the recently concluded Paris conference, while affirming support for the 1925 Geneva protocol that banned first use of chemical weapons, 149 countries called for ``appropriate and effective steps.'' For the first time, there is some willingness to support multilateral sanctions to prevent the spread of such weapons.

The superpower leaders have pledged to eliminate chemical weapons. President Bush did so in a foreign policy speech last October. At the Paris conference, Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze announced that the Soviet Union would begin destroying its stocks of chemical weapons later this year.

Some 50 countries meeting in Geneva, including the USSR, are closing in on a comprehensive ban on the production, storage, and transfer of chemical weapons, subject to rigorous verification procedures. However, before the Chemical Weapons Convention is finalized, important steps must be taken.

First, the convention must develop a suitable framework that provides necessary incentives to ensure comprehensive participation. Recent disclosures make it clear that the trade in chemical weapons is an intricate international web. Libya's Rabta facility reportedly received inputs from as many as a dozen countries. The incentives provided by this framework, e.g., international financial support, trade credits, foreign aid, or other commercial incentives, should be mirrored by a system of punitive measures against violators. The convention should also clearly outline the steps it would take against suspected violators. These steps would begin with diplomatic action. Without satisfaction, they would quickly escalate toward punitive trade and financial measures until finally culminating in the full weight of comprehensive diplomatic, political, commercial, and financial sanctions.

Second, given the relative ease with which numerous commercially available chemicals can be converted into poison gas, there must be an effective international regime to control trade in potentially lethal chemical materials and technology. There is no existing multilateral entity capable of doing this. The so-called ``Australia Group,'' a group of mainly Western industrialized countries that has been meeting since evidence of chemical weapons use in the Gulf war became available, would be a good starting point. This international regime must be backed up by parallel domestic regimes in each of the chemical-producing participating countries.

The US already has an existing export-control regime that licenses some chemical exports. This regime should be strengthened and brought into conformity with any international regime. We have over 40 years experience in attempting to regulate sensitive high-technology trade, as well as a variety of episodes where we imposed punitive measures against countries that broke our laws or reneged on international agreements. From these experiences we have learned a variety of lessons that would apply to enforcement efforts for a chemical weapons convention.

Enforcement mechanisms are more likely to be effective if they are multilateral in nature, carefully targeted against key industries, and easy means of circumvention are avoided. If they are to be more than sound and fury, they should include a broad variety of responses, including tough punitive measures against violators such as denial to the US market and government procurement, as well as a forfeiture of rights at international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In the past, sanctions have often been circumvented by using third-country markets. As the convention is negotiated, it should be made clear that countries aiding and abetting targeted countries will also be subject to sanctions.

There is reason for hope that an international agreement banning chemical weapons can be reached; however, we should ensure that it is not a false hope. An agreement by and of itself will not be sufficient. Eliminating the threat will require vigorous compliance and verification efforts coupled with both international and domestic regimes that control trade in potentially lethal chemical materials and technology.

The United States must first put its own house in order. This means putting into place an effective export regime that denies terrorists the chemicals they need to make weapons of death, and by seeing that this is backed by tough measures against violators. By doing that, along with continuing to press for a verifiable international pact that bans all chemical weapons, coupled with an effective international regime monitoring the global chemical trade, we can put the chemical weapons genie back into the bottle.

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