The Chemical Weapons Convention, an international agreement to ban the production and stockpiling of chemical agents designed for war, has languished in the United States Senate for a little more than 3-1/2 years, awaiting ratification.
On Sept. 13, the CWC is scheduled to come to a vote in the Senate, and the outlook for garnering the needed two-thirds majority is uncertain. Why are some American legislators wary of an agreement that has near universal approval in the rest of the world?
The answer provided by opponents of the treaty typically centers around the intrusive nature of the CWC's verification system. Moreover, they say, the worst chemical proliferators - Libya, Iraq, and North Korea, for instance - won't sign the pact in any case.
The intrusiveness argument, which predicts the widespread dispersal of industry secrets, is undercut by American chemical producers themselves. The industry's largest trade organization, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, is a strong proponent of the chemical weapons treaty. It helped devise the verification procedures - which are, in fact, extraordinarily demanding. The industry recognizes that the treaty's success depends on comprehensive inspection and record-keeping. It also recognizes that US failure to ratify could isolate American companies and hurt business.
With regard to nonsigning countries that try to build chemical arsenals, the treaty includes trade sanctions designed to cut them off from all suppliers. Renegade states, like Libya or Iraq, will be less likely to find chemical-industry collaborators in Europe or elsewhere.
The true bottom line for many Senate opponents of the CWC may be a deep suspicion of international organization generally. But arms control is an arena where such organization and cooperation are indispensable. The chemical weapons treaty, originally pushed through and signed by former President Bush, promises to give all the world's nations a means of reining in a threat that recent events - from Saddam Hussein's secret arsenal to the terrorist gas attacks in Japan - have graphically underscored.
However belatedly, the United States Senate should seize its opportunity to lead in implementing the CWC.