The United States Senate will soon have a chance to lessen the risk of chemical warfare and terrorism. But whether it will do so is uncertain.
After two years of delay, the Senate will finally take up ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Majority leader Trent Lott promised a vote sometime before mid-September. The opportunity comes none too soon.
The number of countries with chemical-weapons programs is increasingly worrisome. At about 25, the figure has doubled in the last decade. Moreover, the 5,500 injuries and 12 deaths caused by the nerve-gas attack in Tokyo last year are reminders of the continuing threat of chemical terrorism.
No treaty can entirely eliminate the chemical threat. But this one goes a long way. Besides banning chemical arms from national arsenals, the accord would make it difficult for terrorists to get the materials to produce them.
Yet obtaining the two-thirds Senate majority to ratify it is not assured. The treaty has been held back until now largely because of opposition from several senators, led by Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina. After the GOP won a majority in the 1994 elections, Senator Helms became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He refused to allow a committee vote on the matter, the usual step before full Senate consideration.
So 1995 was a year of wrestling between treaty advocates and opponents. Under pressure from former majority leader Bob Dole, Helms finally agreed to hold committee hearings followed by a vote. Despite the chairman's opposition, in April the committee recommended ratification.
But Helms is adamant. He invited about as many opponents as supporters of the treaty to testify at the hearings. Now he declares that "many of the experts" testified that the treaty would be costly and unverifiable. Further, he sent every senator excerpts from the testimony critical of the convention in hopes that they will be persuaded to vote against it.
The balanced witness list was misleading. Opponents are a small minority of people knowledgeable about the treaty. The convention, signed by 160 countries, has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support. After its completion in January 1993, the Bush administration signed it, and a Who's Who of people with a direct interest have endorsed it: the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the current and previous directors of central intelligence, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and arms-control experts from the Bush and Clinton administrations.
So why does anyone object? Despite the treaty's detailed provisions for international inspections, opponents say cheaters will go undetected. Of course no treaty can be foolproof, but Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Secretary of Defense William Perry both testified that the treaty is "effectively verifiable." Not good enough say Helms and other opponents.
Early US ratification is crucial. Thus far 56 countries have ratified, and more are in the process of doing so. The treaty will enter into force after 65 ratify, which is likely to happen in a few months. If the US is not a party to the treaty when it becomes effective, we will have no say in how it is implemented. Moreover, since non-parties will face trade restrictions by countries that have joined, US chemical exporters will lose millions of dollars in exports.
US inaction also suggests unconcern about the growing number of countries with chemical- weapons programs. Successful implementation of the convention - hardly conceivable without US participation - would press others to join and to forgo such weaponry. Ironically, even without the convention, the US has committed to near-total elimination of its chemical-weapons stockpile.
Moreover, the treaty takes straight aim at chemical terrorism. It mandates that all state parties enact laws to regulate and account for chemicals that go into making weapons. Groups like Aum Shinri Kyo, the cult behind the Tokyo attack, would have more difficulty putting their bad ideas into practice.
The most important message of the Chemical Weapons Convention is the moral statement it conveys - that the civilized world will hold in contempt any nation or group that traffics in these abhorrent weapons.
*Leonard A. Cole teaches political science at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. His new book, "The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare" (W.H. Freeman), will be published this fall.