Treaty to Ban Chemical Arms Is Within Grasp

Governments are viewing a clean draft; but across-the-board ban will be tough to verify

AFTER more than a decade of talking, a long-awaited treaty banning chemical weapons from the globe is within the grasp of negotiators in Geneva.

Over the last two months the current chairman of the chemical talks, Ambassador Adolf von Wagner of Germany, has pushed delegates to settle all outstanding major differences. Now he has issued a clean draft treaty text - and proposed that there shouldn't be any further changes except by general agreement.

The talks, held under the auspices of the Conference on Disarmament, are now in recess and resume on July 20. Negotiators from the 39 member nations are all back home consulting on final positions with their governments.

In May 1991, President Bush called on delegates to wrap up a chemical weapons pact by the end of this year. The United States, for its part, appears satisfied with the final product, though an official approval hasn't yet been given. "Nothing is perfect, but it looks encouraging," says a US arms-control official.

General provisions of the proposed treaty would prohibit the development, production, ownership, and use of chemical weapons.

Such an across-the-board ban would be hard to check on, considering that many chemical weapons precursors have legitimate civilian uses and that pesticide plants could be quickly turned to making lethal agents.

Verification of the provisions has long been one of its thorniest issues. At one point the US proposed a simple verification scheme: Inspectors would be allowed to go anywhere, anytime, to snoop out suspected chemical- weapons activity. But last year the US, with the support of some Western allies, backed off from this position and proposed a less-stringent system of "managed access" challenge inspections.

Under the draft treaty, inspectors would have to be allowed inside a suspect site within five days after declaring their intent to visit it. Under this process, certain sensitive materials and machinery unrelated to weapons work could be shrouded from inspectors' eyes, however.

The treaty also calls for routine visits to factories known to produce dangerous chemicals.

Another outstanding issue the draft treaty proposes to resolve is the composition of the bureaucracy that will oversee treaty implementation. The text's solution, in essence, is to accommodate the desire of developing countries for a voice and that of rich nations for special treatment - a solution that causes some experts to worry that decisionmaking will be unwieldy.

Under the text, the treaty's Executive Council will have 40 members, plus a number of permanent seats as at the UN Security Council. Among those with permanent seats would be the US and Russia.

Another problem the new text attempts to finesse is the treatment of riot-control agents.

Almost alone among the countries involved, the US wants to preserve the right for some combat use of nonlethal agents such as tear gas. Pentagon officials feel such agents could be useful in subduing terrorists holding hostages, for instance. The treaty contains some waffle room in this regard, but it is somewhat narrow and this is one provision US officials are now studying closely.

The US also wants to maintain the right to restrict unilaterally export of certain chemicals that might be used to make these weapons. Developing countries worry that this might block their access to legitimate compounds needed for development of their industries. The draft text finesses this problem by saying the treaty will be implemented without hampering economic or technological development.

The Hague, in the Netherlands, will be the home of a preparatory commission working on treaty implementation, under the draft text. The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Austria have been competing to be the permanent home of the new chemical weapons treaty oversight bureaucracy.

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