Anti-Chemical-Weapons Group Seeking a Home

Australia, Netherlands, Switzerland want to host organization

THE lobbying isn't exactly rough-and-tumble, like that between states vying for a new auto plant. But with a multilateral treaty banning poison gas now close to reality, a competition has broken out among nations that want to house a new international bureaucracy: the Organization to Prohibit Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Austria, the Netherlands, and Switzerland are all in the race. The prize they're vying for won't exactly have the cachet or job-creating infrastructure of the United Nations General Assembly. The competitors involved, however, see the OPCW as a powerful symbol of new security cooperation in the world. And who knows what benefits might flow to a nation hosting that?

So far, the Austrians have flown the world's chemical-weapons negotiators into Vienna to promote their case. The Dutch earlier this month held a seminar on setting up the OPCW, to the same effect. And the Swiss are hosting the chemical negotiations in the first place, in Geneva. June decision possible

A decision could come as early as June. The rivals are getting a bit concerned. "We think we have a good package to offer," says Brig. Gen. Christian Clausen, Austria's defense attache in Washington.

But the treaty might be a little further off than they think. It's taken decades of negotiations at the multilateral Conference on Disarmament to bring the talks to the point they have now reached.

A big breakthrough occurred a year ago, when the Bush administration agreed to drop its insistence that the United States should be able to keep a small reserve of chemical weapons after a chemical ban went into effect.

This stockpile was supposed to serve as a deterrent to rogue states not party to the treaty, but in practice it was an extremely unpopular position with almost all the 39 other nations directly involved in the Geneva talks.

President Bush called for the treaty to be ready this month. That won't happen, but negotiators still think things might be wrapped up by fall. Ambassador Stephen Ledogar, the US negotiator, told Congress on May 1 that "the negotiations have gained momentum this year."

Probably the most contentious issue still outstanding is that of challenge inspections - snap visits to sites suspected of harboring secret poison-weapon material. Some nations, such as China, want to be able to keep certain areas off-limits to all inspections. Others favor an "anytime, anywhere" approach.

The US, which once pushed for unrestricted access, proposes "mandatory access within any challenged site and the right of the inspected state to determine how much access and what kind of access will be granted," according to Ambassador Ledogar.

In other words, the two sides would negotiate exactly what kind of peeking around inspectors would do at a particular site. Ledogar told Congress this position is "close to the mainstream of what is negotiable."

Other issues still unresolved include what commercial chemical plants are relevant to the treaty for inspection purposes, and whether riot-control agents, such as tear gas, should be covered by the pact. (The US argues no, saying such agents have legitimate law-enforcement uses.)

Negotiators also still have to nail down the composition of the new bureaucracy's executive council, which will pay for destruction of chemical-weapons stocks, and a firm destruction schedule.

It's unclear whether Russia in particular has the technical and financial means to destroy its large poison stocks - as is already called for under a bilateral agreement signed by the US and the USSR.

Still, "overall agreement is within our grasp," judged Ledogar. Decade-long project

Thus, the stirrings of competition to host the new bureaucracy that a global chemical-weapons ban will create. Current plans call for an inspection and destruction stage of roughly a decade. Those would be the peak employment years for the OPCW; afterwards, a smaller maintenance force making sure no new poison weapons arise might be all that is required.

Austria is offering to pay for construction of a new building to house the OPCW administration, contribute toward construction of lab facilities, and provide interim quarters. Austrian officials say their nation would offer the most impartiality of any site, as they are closer to the East than Switzerland and not a NATO country like the Netherlands.

The Swiss boast a nation that is the very symbol of neutrality the world over, and that already has a large multinational organization presence. The Dutch are also planning a new building in The Hague for a chemical organization - dubbed "Peace Tower" - and claim they are one of the least-expensive nations in Europe.

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