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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Six-Year-Old CWC Passes Some Tests and Fails Others
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Kerry Boyd

The United States deposited its instrument of ratification for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on April 25, 1997, following months of wrangling over the treaty between the Clinton administration and Republican lawmakers. Opponents’ concerns included the possibility that violations might be undetectable, states with chemical weapons would remain outside the regime, the financial costs might be high, and inspections might threaten legitimate U.S. industry. Proponents countered that the world would be a safer place without at least 70,000 tonnes of toxic gas lying around, creating an environmental nightmare and increasing the risk of chemical weapons proliferation and warfare.

More than five years later, as CWC states-parties prepare for the treaty’s first review conference starting April 28, those arguments are at the crux of the ongoing debate over the accord’s progress.

The CWC bans chemical weapons and requires their destruction within a specified period of time. The treaty, which entered into force April 29, 1997, contains verification measures and penalties to ensure compliance. It currently has 151 member states, and another 25 states have signed but not yet ratified the treaty. Eighteen states have not signed.

By some measures, the CWC has been a successful treaty. The vast majority of the world has agreed to abide by the treaty’s terms. Four states—India, Russia, South Korea, and the United States—that have declared chemical weapons stockpiles are working to destroy them. The deadline for destroying all their Category 1—the most dangerous—chemical weapons is April 2007, although states can request an extension until April 2012.

Russia, with the largest chemical weapons stockpile, began destroying its Category 1 weapons at Gorny in the Saratov region in December 2002. The United States has destroyed 22.9 percent of its Category 1 weapons under the treaty. India had destroyed 20 percent of its Category 1 arsenal by the end of 2001 and appeared to be on schedule to meet the final CWC deadline, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). South Korea finished destroying 1 percent of its Category 1 weapons in 2000, and the OPCW granted the country an extension on the 20 percent deadline until April 2003.

As of late February 2003, the OPCW had conducted 1,359 total inspections in 51 states-parties, including inspections of chemical weapons production and destruction facilities, abandoned chemical weapons, old chemical weapons, and chemical weapons storage facilities. Around 6, 700 tonnes of chemical agent have been destroyed, according to the OPCW.

By other standards, however, the CWC has encountered many problems. Although many states have joined the regime, 18 states have neither signed nor ratified the treaty. Several of these states, including Iraq, Libya, Syria, and North Korea, are considered threats to U.S. security. Several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, have refused to sign the treaty until Israel signs the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

In addition to the states outside the treaty’s restrictions, U.S. officials have indicated that some CWC states-parties, such as Iran, are violating the treaty and developing chemical weapons. Despite concerns about violations by states-parties, no state has ever called on the OPCW to conduct challenge inspections. Under the CWC, a state-party that suspects another party of violating the treaty may request that the OPCW conduct a challenge inspection of the suspected site. There are various reasons that might explain why states have not called for challenge inspections, including concern over the political risks. Some analysts have expressed concern that, without use of challenge inspections, the CWC will not be robustly implemented and verified.

Although many chemical weapons have been destroyed, there have been some significant delays. The CWC includes four incremental deadlines for destroying 1, 20, 45, and 100 percent of the stockpiles. Russia has already missed the first two deadlines, and it has asked the Conference of the States-Parties—the CWC decision-making body—for extensions on all four of the incremental deadlines. The conference granted Russia extensions on its first two deadlines but has not yet decided whether to grant extensions on the next two deadlines.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense approved a revised schedule in September 2001 under which the United States would also miss the 2007 deadline by two years. The United States has not yet asked the CWC states-parties to extend its deadline in hopes that plans to accelerate the demilitarization process will be successful.

Meanwhile, the OPCW has faced its own challenges, including serious financial difficulties that forced OPCW officials to cut back on inspections significantly. Different parties cited different reasons for the financial problems. The United States blamed former OPCW Director-General José Bustani—who led the organization from its inception—for the situation; Bustani said the problems resulted from an inadequate budget imposed by the United States and from “chronic underfunding.”

The argument and other issues snowballed into a U.S. campaign that began in January 2002 to remove Bustani. Supported by several countries, the United States won a vote that removed Bustani in April 2002. CWC states-parties chose Argentinean Rogelio Pfirter as the new OPCW head in July 2002. The OPCW continues to suffer from financial difficulties, but management and cooperation with states-parties appear to be improving.

The states-parties are now preparing for their first review conference, which will take place in The Hague from April 28 to May 9, 2003. The CWC calls on states-parties to meet every five years to review “the operation” of the convention. Some of the key issues states-parties are likely to discuss include challenge inspections, Russia’s destruction delays, and whether to reaffirm the treaty’s importance. Developing countries might also call for discussion of Article XI, which encourages trade among states-parties of chemical-related goods for peaceful purposes; export controls is often a point of contention between the developing and developed countries.