SURE, it's been a long time coming. The new international treaty banning the production, possession, and use of chemical weapons is the product of 20 years of talk. But negotiators in Geneva have finally wrapped up a draft text earlier this month and sent it to the United Nations for approval. It's all downhill from here, right?
Maybe. Maybe not. For one thing, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) must still be signed and ratified by enough individual nations to give it the status of a major pact. For another, implementation of the massive verification apparatus required by the treaty may turn out to be harder than anticipated.
"We're going to have a difficult settling-out period," says Air Force Col. John Gilbert, chief of the chemical operations division of the United States On-Site Inspection Agency (OSIA).
This is not to say the proposed CWC is less than a milestone. Efforts to ban poison weapons date back centuries. The most recent major pact, the 1925 Geneva Protocol, banned use of chemical weapons but said little about making or owning them. The CWC is meant to plug that big hole.
But the new convention marks only the end of the beginning. After expected approval by the United Nations, the CWC will be opened for signature. It will come into force two years after this opening, or six months after 65 nations have signed and ratified it - whichever is later. Under this timetable the earliest it can become official is January 1995.
Sixty-five nations may indeed sign the CWC at its signature-opening ceremony in Paris early next year. Treaty proponents say strong support there would put the pact on the same footing as such accords as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Countries that do not sign could then more easily be branded pariahs.
Treaty advocates worry about China. Beijing has said little about its intentions and appears reluctant to sign. Pakistan has objected to some of the treaty's monitoring provisions.
Putting those monitoring provisions into practice could take some time. Experts pouring over the fine print of the 192-page draft treaty say that setting up a multinational verification bureaucracy promises to be a major undertaking. "The paperwork is going to be enough to choke a computer," says Amy Smithson, a chemical-treaty expert at the private Henry L. Stimson Center.
Take facility agreements. The draft treaty says that the new international chemical weapons commission will have to sit down with each signatory nation to draw up a specific plan for verification procedures at each facility subject to on-site inspection.
Thousands of old weapons sites, military factories, and chemical-industry plants will be subject to inspection. Each customized agreement must specify what records inspectors can see, what kind of equipment they can use, and where they can go.
The treaty is ambiguous on the rights of inspectors in some cases, says Colonel Gilber of OSIA, which likely will be the US liaison for the new chemical bureaucracy. It says, for instance, that inspectors "may" search certain types of chemical equipment, rather than the more definite "shall."
"It could make the initial inspections confrontational as people find their way into a balanced regime," Gilbert says.