Chemical Arms Crossroads

Four years ago the world took a needed step toward greater peace and sanity. Eighty-eight nations signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which called for the destruction of all chemical weapons by 2012. Since then, the countries joining the pact have swelled to 174.

The agency formed to monitor compliance with the agreement, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has conducted more than 850 inspections at 408 production and storage sites. Thousands of tons of the weapons have been destroyed, including 7,000 tons of American chemical ordnance. But that's only a quarter of the US total. It's a big and expensive job.

And the biggest part of it resides in a country where bureaucratic sludge is still plentiful but government money is in short supply - Russia.

Russia's arms depots hold 40,000 tons of chemical agents, shells, and warheads. Under the convention, Russia was supposed to have eliminated 1 percent of its supply by last April. It missed the deadline.

The Putin government vows to move ahead this year, and has earmarked $105 million for the task. The full bill for destroying Russia's chemical weapons is estimated to top $5 billion. Clearly, Moscow will need international help, which has been slow in coming. The US had been ready to contribute $888 million, but Congress last fall froze those funds because, reportedly, many members doubted that the expense fulfilled US national-security interests.

How can there be any doubt that the destruction of Russia's chemical arsenal - thus ensuring some of it won't filter into the hands of terrorists - is in the interest of the United States, to say nothing of the rest of the world?

The agency set up by the convention would check whether money given Russia was effectively used. But that agency, disturbingly, has warned that its own funding is falling short.

The Bush administration, which is reported to be reviewing its arms-control options, and Congress should do more to make sure that the means are available for this giant task.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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