No Quick Farewell To Chemical Arms

Senate finds fault with global weapons pact

AFTER more than 20 years of tough negotiations, a broad treaty that would outlaw the scourge of chemical weapons is stalled on a final obstacle: the United States Senate. The poison-gas pact - known as the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) - has been a top diplomatic goal of three US presidents. George Bush made it almost a personal crusade, and proudly saw the treaty signed just days before he left office. But so far senators haven't ratified the CWC, even though it was submitted for their consideration in 1993. Key Republicans say they have concerns about treaty verification and Russian compliance - questioning whether the CWC should be ratified at all. ''Our position is, it's not going anywhere,'' says a GOP Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer. At the very least, it will be months before the Senate Foreign Relations panel even considers a CWC vote. That's because the chemical pact is behind both a controversial State Department reorganization effort and the START II nuclear treaty in the Senate's foreign affairs work queue. Pact proponents say US delay has already hampered the start-up of an inspection commission, based in the Netherlands, that's intended to enforce CWC provisions. ''Can this treaty recover from such a sluggish start?'' says Amy Smithson, senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. As finally adopted after years of excruciatingly slow talk, the Chemical Weapons Convention bans the use, development, production, purchase, and even possession of poison gas. Nations that currently have a stockpile of chemical weapons - notably the US and Russia - would have to destroy them, under the treaty. Inspectors working for the CWC commission would have broad rights to poke around in former chemical weapons sites, to verify that weapons were gone. They would also be allowed to visit commercial chemical companies in signatory nations, to check up on production of various precursor chemicals that can be combined to form poison gas. Officially adopted in 1992, the treaty has so far been signed by 159 nations. At the most recent count only 33 signatory countries had ratified the CWC, however. Under treaty terms, 65 ratifications by national legislatures are needed for the CWC to take effect. It's the lack of US action that is slowing the worldwide ratification drive, complain CWC proponents. Other nations may well be waiting until the US acts before moving themselves. ''We're not leading here,'' says Ms. Smithson. ''This is a treaty where we were pushing the rest of the world to sign on.'' The recent use of nerve gas in a Tokyo terrorist attack is something of a litmus test on beliefs about the need for the CWC. To proponents, the fact that a shadowy cult named Aum Supreme Truth could produce a crude form of sarin poison is all the more reason to ban chemical weapons. The CWC would give prosecutors an added legal ''hook'' to go after the cult - and inspections of chemical companies might have revealed suspicious purchases of raw material by cult members. Chemical weapons have long been called ''the poor man's atom bomb,'' after all. If superpower poison stocks are destroyed, terrorists won't be able to get their hands on them. ''Loose chemicals'' might be just as much a problem as ''loose nukes'', particularly in Russia, say some. Opponents take away a different lesson. They say the fact that a cult with crude technical skills could produce sarin on its own shows the essential futility of the poison ban effort. Chemical weapon precursors are commonly used for many legitimate purposes, such as ballpoint pen ink. Their small size makes them easy to smuggle into crowded areas. ''How can you verify something when the delivery vehicle comes in a lunch pail?'' asks the GOP Senate aide. The administration's own recent arms-control report cited Russia for withholding chemical weapons data promised by previous agreements, point out Republicans. They say Senate Foreign Relations chairman Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina is unlikely to allow the CWC to proceed unless his concerns about Russian compliance are met. The Clinton administration, for its part, says it still hopes that the chemical treaty will come up for consideration after the Senate returns from recess and ratifies Start II. ''We don't have a firm feeling from the Senate as to what the potential time line is,'' admits an administration official. Some activists criticize the administration for not pushing the CWC hard enough. But Clinton officials call it a ''top priority.'' 'We're not leading here. This is a treaty where we were pushing the rest of the world to sign on.' - Amy Smithson

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