U.S. May Request Chemical Weapons Convention Inspections

Seth Brugger

The United States is considering calling for challenge inspections under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) but is concerned about the management of the treaty’s implementing body, according to a U.S. official.

During a February 11 interview with Arms Control Today, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton said that Washington is “thinking about the possibility of asking for challenge inspections.” (See interview.) In a separate interview, another administration official said that the United States is “actively considering” the issue and has identified “some candidates” for inspection.

To resolve concerns about another member state’s compliance with the CWC, which bans chemical arms, a state-party can request the convention’s implementing body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to investigate a suspect facility or activity. However, to date, no state has ever requested a challenge inspection.

Asked why the United States has not yet called for a challenge inspection, Bolton said that the OPCW “is a very troubled organization for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is its management. There are a whole host of issues raised by challenge inspections that require our attention and require also an effectively operating OPCW.”

The undersecretary added that the United States is currently focusing on the OPCW’s management “because, if those questions are not resolved, the organization itself will not be able to function effectively, and the whole CWC will not be able to function effectively…. [U]ntil we resolve these management issues, I think it would be risky to put a big burden on the OPCW.”

Bolton’s remarks follow a January 24 speech he gave to the UN Conference on Disarmament, in which he said that challenge inspections are a “flexible and indispensable tool that, if viewed realistically and used judiciously, can be instrumental in achieving the goals of the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
The undersecretary also cautioned countries the United States believes are violating the convention, saying, “You should not be smug in the assumption that your chemical warfare program will never be uncovered and exposed to the international community.”

Bolton also said that the United States has made “effective use” of provisions in the CWC that allow states to consult privately with one another to address compliance concerns, noting that the United States has conducted “several visits” at the invitation of other states to resolve compliance questions. However, he said that such consultations “are not a prerequisite for launching a challenge inspection.”

The United States has recently publicly named states it believes are violating their international commitments on biological and nuclear weapons, and Washington may next publicly name countries it thinks are violating the CWC, according to a U.S. official. U.S. agencies and officials have traditionally restricted such comments to reports or congressional testimony.

Iran is likely one country on which the United States is focusing. In past reports, Washington has said that Iran, a CWC member state, possesses weaponized stockpiles of chemical agents and is seeking to improve its chemical arms capabilities. Furthermore, in his January 29 State of the Union speech President George W. Bush identified Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq—neither of which have joined the CWC regime—as a country that is pursuing weapons of mass destruction.