Chemical Weapons Deadlines Extended

Caitlin Harrington

A Dec. 5-8 meeting in The Hague of members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) granted the United States and Russia a five-year extension to a 2007 deadline for destroying their chemical weapons stockpiles. Both countries, however, will likely need more time.

The OPCW is charged with verifying the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which went into effect in April 1997. The CWC calls on all member-states—now 181 countries—to stop developing weapons and destroy their stockpiles by April 29, 2007.

Prior to the meeting, outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged states “to destroy these cruel and inhumane weapons within already established deadlines.” Even before the meeting began, however, it seemed likely that the 2007 deadline would be extended for the treaty maximum of five years to accommodate the United States and Russia, owners of the world’s largest supplies of nerve and blister agents.

At the meeting, OPCW members also formally approved the request of five other countries to extend their deadlines. China and Japan received five-year extensions to destroy weapons abandoned by the Japanese army in China during World War II. South Korea received an extension until 2008; India received an extension until 2009; and Libya’s deadline was moved to 2010. The only country likely to meet the original deadline is Albania, which has only a small stockpile of mustard agent.

As a condition of their extensions, Russia and the United States agreed to accept visits by members of the OPCW Executive Council starting in 2008. Council members will pay at least one visit to each chemical weapons destruction facility to verify the ability of the United States and Russia to meet the 2012 deadline. Given the current state of chemical weapons destruction programs in Russia and the United States, however, OPCW officials will likely find that neither country is on track to fulfill their obligations by the time allotted. (See ACT, May 2006. )

Both countries have struggled to destroy chemical weapons stockpiles on schedule because of a raft of complex policy issues and spiraling costs.

Financial woes have been a major obstacle for Russia. The country redesigned its chemical weapons destruction program in the hopes of destroying its entire 40,000-metric-ton stockpile by April 2012. By April 2006, however, it had destroyed less than three percent. Russian officials have said they will need international financial assistance to meet their goal. Yet, even with international aid, it is unclear whether Russia will be able to destroy its stockpiles by the deadline.

The United States also faces its share of setbacks, including financial constraints, political resistance, and technical challenges. Like Russia, the United States seems unlikely to meet the new deadline. In fact, U.S. officials recently estimated that they will be unable to dispose of the country’s massive stockpile, which still totals some 18,000 metric tons, until 2023. To date, destruction has been completed at only two of seven storage depots. Efforts to destroy the chemical weapons stockpiles have been stymied by technical problems, such as unanticipated heavy-metal contamination and fires at destruction sites. Political resistance at the state and local level also has slowed progress, with local communities raising concerns about health and safety. Finally, limited funding has contributed to a snail-like pace of destruction at U.S. Army chemical weapons disposal sites in Pueblo, Colorado, and Blue Grass, Kentucky.

The consequences of a U.S. or Russian failure to meet the CWC’s final deadline are unclear. Article XII of the convention permits states-parties to take measures to address issues of noncompliance but does not spell out any automatic penalties. CWC states-parties could choose to pursue various individual or collective actions against the United States. (See ACT, June 2005. ) However, U.S. officials have argued that they do not expect other states-parties to impose any serious sanctions and have downplayed the possibility of amending the CWC to extend the deadline.

Other, less-punitive possibilities could call for the United States and Russia to explain the reasons for further delay and how they plan to get back on track. They may also have to provide more reporting to the OPCW on their progress.

Several countries in addition to Russia will need international aid to destroy their stockpiles. The delegations at the meeting approved a 2007 budget that includes 75 million euros, roughly the same funding level as in 2006, for verification activities to monitor chemical weapons destruction, to help states destroy their stockpiles, and to protect states against chemical weapons attacks.

Countries also again pledged support for a 2003 action plan to help bring all states into the treaty. Countries that have not yet ratified the treaty include states in the Middle East, some parts of Africa, and North Korea. Rogelio Pfirter, director-general of the OPCW, told Arms Control Today in September 2005 that persuading Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria to join the treaty would be his most difficult challenge.(See ACT, November 2005. ) Pfirter said most of these countries tie nuclear weapons to chemical weapons, and the OPCW is now working to encourage countries to consider the weapons categories separately.

The Middle Eastern states appear to be showing some signs of interest. Israel, one of the eight states that have signed the treaty but have not yet ratified it, attended the conference as an observer. Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon, which have not signed or ratified the treaty, also attended as observers.

Iraq has officially expressed its intentions to join the treaty and to accede to international nonproliferation norms, according to a Dec. 15 OPCW release. In December the organization provided training to Iraqi officials on aspects of the CWC.

Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.