NEWS ANALYSIS: Chemical Weapons Parlay’s Outcome Uncertain

Oliver Meier

During April 7-18, representatives of 183 states-parties of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) will meet in The Hague for the second time to review the operation of the treaty and to find ways to adapt it for the future. Although there is likely to be broad agreement that the treaty has registered significant accomplishments in its first decade in operation, it is not clear if there is sufficient political will to tackle current diplomatic, technological, and economic challenges. Moreover, the meeting could be affected by tensions between developed and developing countries and between the United States and Iran that have hampered other multilateral talks.

Chemical Weapons Destruction

The biggest unfinished task for the convention’s members is to complete destruction of declared chemical weapons stockpiles. A November 2007 report by the Technical Secretariat of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body charged with implementing the CWC, points out that, by then, only about one-third of the 70,000 metric tons of chemical weapons stockpiles declared by Albania, India, Libya, Russia, South Korea, and the United States had been destroyed.

The convention requires possessor states to have finished destruction by 2007, but Albania is so far the only country to have eliminated its entire chemical weapons stockpile. The CWC does allow extensions for as long as five years, and all chemical weapon-possessor states have taken advantage of the option to extend their destruction deadlines. (See ACT, January/February 2007. )

The two largest possessor states, Russia and the United States, have been granted the maximum extension, until April 29, 2012. It seems all but certain that they will not be able to meet that deadline. Destruction programs in each country have been affected by delays caused by a variety of political, technical, financial, and legal factors. Construction of major destruction facilities in Russia and the United States in some cases has just started or is still behind schedule.

U.S. Department of Defense officials have said that the United States will not be able to complete destruction of its stocks before 2023. In reaction, Congress in the 2008 defense appropriations bill has called on the Pentagon to speed up destruction and complete that task by Dec. 30, 2017. Achieving this goal would require increased funding for construction of the chemical agent neutralization facilities at the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado and the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky.

States-parties at the review conference will have to decide how to deal with the fact that Russia and the United States are likely to be in noncompliance with their obligations to destroy existing stockpiles before the next regular review conference meets in 2013.

Ambassador Donald A. Mahley, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for threat reduction, export controls, and nego­ti­a­tions, admitted to Arms Control Today Feb. 8 that the issue of chemical weapons destruction is a potential obstacle to a successful review conference. But in an interview, Mahley argued that “it’s too early to try to do something that will formally address that issue at this review conference.”

An Iranian diplomat told Arms Control Today Feb. 18 that Iran would like the review conference to describe any violation of the 2012 deadline “as a clear case of serious noncompliance,” which would automatically trigger treaty procedures for dealing with noncompliance.

The CWC establishes a gradual approach to dealing with noncompliance. In the first instance, policymaking organs will try to resolve the situation together with the concerned state-party. Only if there is serious damage to the object and purpose of the treaty and the noncompliant party does not respond to proposals or deadlines can the states-parties collectively take punitive measures.

Mahley drew a contrast between a “technical violation” caused mainly by unforeseeable technical difficulties on chemical weapons destruction and an act of noncompliance with the object and purpose of the treaty. He warned of the possibility that “states that have a different agenda with the review conference” that is “more accusatory and more disruptive” might use the delays in destruction as a pretext for preventing agreement at the meeting.

Mahley proposed that the review conference “set the groundwork for a work program to be able to find constructive ways to address the 2012 question before we get to 2012” by establishing a working group. Within a two- to three-year time frame, such a group could develop options for states-parties on how to deal with a possible violation of the 2012 deadline and establish a timeline for destruction of any remaining stocks, Mahley suggested.

The idea of postponing a discussion on the 2012 destruction deadline seems to find support in other quarters also. OPCW Director-General Rogelio Pfirter, in a Feb. 14 interview with Arms Control Today, echoed Mahley’s point that the delays in chemical weapons destruction are not the result of a lack of political commitment by Russia and the United States. In the November 2007 report, Pfirter had proposed that states-parties at the review conference “consider the option of calling, at an appropriate date close to 2012,” a special meeting of all states-parties “in order to review the status of destruction and agree on whatever action they might deem necessary.” The Iranian diplomat also conceded that Iran believes “that there is still plenty of time ahead of us” and that “therefore the second review conference should call upon the possessor states, in particular the major possessors, to make all their efforts to ensure to meet the final deadlines.”

Reforming the Verification Regime

The slow pace of destruction also has hindered the OPCW’s ability to verify that states are not producing chemical weapons. Because the OPCW is spending most of its verification resources on monitoring the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles, currently only 20 percent of inspectors’ time is dedicated to industry verification, according to the November 2007 OPCW report.

The review conference likely will debate other reforms of the industry inspections regime, such as altering the balance between systematic and routine inspections of certain facilities and more random inspections of about 5,000 so-called Other Chemical Production Facilities (OCPFs). OPCW officials, some states-parties, and outside experts have expressed concern about the growing number of OCPFs, particularly because about 10-15 percent of these facilities are perceived as especially susceptible to manufacturing chemical weapons, that is, because they apply flexible production technologies that could be easily converted to the production of chemical weapon agents. (See ACT, January/February 2007 .)

Pfirter told Arms Control Today he views OCPFs as a “risk category” and said that the OPCW’s reform efforts have two goals: to increase the percentage of inspections at OCPFs and to ensure that “facilities that are most relevant to the convention” are inspected. In the November 2007 OPCW report, he urged the review conference to address the issue of OCPFs and described its resolution as “overdue.”

Until recently, the allocation of industry inspections was biased toward equal selection of states-parties rather than the potential for misuse of certain types of facilities. In order to change the verification focus to inspect more OCPFs, the OPCW at the beginning of this year began using a revised selection mechanism for industry inspections that has “resulted in a proportional increase in the number of selected plant sites with advanced engineering features and process capabilities,” according to the November 2007 OPCW report. This reformed algorithm, however, does not yet introduce any new criterion aimed at targeting those OCPFs considered most vulnerable to proliferation.

Such a change would require a political decision by states-parties. So far, there has not even been agreement among states-parties on whether declarations should be expanded to include additional information on OCPFs so that the OPCW might be better able to identify the most relevant facilities. There are also disagreements how such information might be factored into a new mechanism for allocating inspections.

Moreover, some developing countries are wary of shifting verification resources toward OCPFs. Because a significant share of chemical manufacturing is moving from traditional locations in North America, western Europe, and Japan to other regions of the world and many modern chemical production facilities are OCPFs, developing countries fear that, under such a plan, their relative share of inspections will increase. Some nonaligned countries also suspect that the discussion is less about their technical capabilities and potential for violating the CWC than it is an indication that developed countries want to paint them as less trustworthy than industrialized states. A Nov. 5, 2007, statement by Cuban Ambassador Oscar de los Reyes Ramos on behalf of Nonaligned Movement countries insisted that the OPCW’s verification regime must “correspond to the hierarchy of risks inherent to the respective category of chemicals,” implying that the current approach, which views OCPFs as less essential, does not need to be fundamentally reformed.

 Mahley indirectly confirmed suspicions that the United States sees the discussion on OCPFs as a way to redirect verification resources and attention toward countries that are perceived as problem states. “We’d also like to see if we can’t get some redirection in some of the efforts of the OPCW more into the idea of where the threat really occurs now and the unscheduled producers in some of the Third World countries,” Mahley stated. He maintained that such a change in focus would be preferable to reinspection of certain facilities in Western countries where past verification efforts have given “a very clear indication that those aren’t a potential proliferation threat for chemical weapons.”

Addressing Nonlethal Incapacitants

On the other hand, Washington would like to avoid scrutiny of its controversial interpretation of treaty exceptions permitting the use of toxic chemicals for “law enforcement, including domestic riot control purposes.”

For example, on Jan. 20, The New York Times reported that the private security firm Blackwater Worldwide in May 2005 had dropped CS (tear) gas from a helicopter in Baghdad to clear an intersection for a convoy. The Department of State has maintained that the use of the riot control agent, which also injured U.S. soldiers, did not violate the CWC because under the circumstances it is “not considered a method of warfare.”

Mahley said of the controversy, “If anything, in the review conference [there] needs to be a relatively brief discussion reminding people of what the convention itself says.”

By contrast and in an apparent attempt to encourage an open exchange on the issue of novel, allegedly “nonlethal” weapons at the review conference, the European Union agreed in June 2007 that it was an “essential issue” for the review conference to reaffirm that the convention’s prohibitions “apply to any toxic chemical,” with a few specific exceptions.

Similarly, the Iranian diplomat also described the issue of nonlethal weapons as a very important one and stated that Iran “would like the conference to pay more attention to it so that it can take clear decision that we prevent the use of such weapons as a method of warfare.”

Concern about the development of so-called chemical incapacitants and nonlethal weapons has grown after a 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, in which the use of a chemical incapacitant by Russian forces resulted in the deaths of more than 150 hostages and kidnappers. Subsequently, several countries, including the United States, have shown interest in the military application of such incapacitants. Technological advances in biochemistry have also made the development of more capable nonlethal agents more possible (see page 20). (See ACT, September 2007. )

Pfirter told Arms Control Today that there will be a need to address the impact of new nonlethal weapons on the convention in “due course” but argued that “there is not sufficient information” for the review conference to address the issue in depth. Given the divisions among states-parties, it seems uncertain whether expert proposals to launch an independent review of the potential consequence of using chemical incapacitants will gain support at the review conference.

Preventing Chemical Weapons Terrorism

When speaking to Arms Control Today, Pfirter pointed out that “the expectations of the international community are big and the expectations of individual member states are big” that the OPCW should cooperate in anti-terrorism efforts. As a positive example, Pfirter pointed toward ongoing cooperation between the OPCW and the committee implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires all states to implement domestic measures to prevent nonstate actors from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. (See ACT, November 2007. ) He highlighted assistance provided to smaller and developing states to translate CWC obligations into national law. These countries “are guided mainly by their concern about terrorists using chemical weapons on their territory,” Pfirter stated.

Discussions at the review conference are likely to concentrate on measures to target national implementation assistance better, rather than additional steps to strengthen the convention’s role in preventing chemical weapons terrorism. At the November 2007 conference of OPCW states-parties, U.S. Ambassador Eric M. Javits argued that states-parties should focus efforts to improve national implementation on those approximately 20 states “that lack effective implementing measures but have more activities relevant to the convention within their territories.” Mahley, in the interview with Arms Control Today, refused to cite examples of those countries but emphasized that broader national implementation rests on more and better awareness raising, outreach, assistance, and training.

Another U.S.-Iran Fight?

The review conference, likely to be chaired by Saudi Arabia, is expected to adopt a brief political declaration and a longer final document that reviews the operation of the convention in detail, similar to the products of first review conference, in 2003. Achievement of these goals will depend largely on the political climate at the conference and particularly whether there will be another confrontation between Iran and the United States of the type witnessed at many similar meetings recently.

At the first review conference, the United States had provoked angry reactions by asserting that more than a dozen countries possess or are actively pursuing chemical weapons. In 2003 the United States voiced specific concerns about the compliance of Iran and Sudan, which are members of the CWC, as well as nonmembers Libya, North Korea, and Syria. Mahley says that Washington believes that the CWC “has been working reasonably well” but also stated that the administration still upholds the conclusions of a 2005 State Department report on noncompliance, which listed compliance concerns about China, Iran, Russia, and Sudan. Mahley said that the administration is “still debating whether or not the review conference is a forum at which we wish to make [compliance] a major issue.” He cautioned that the United Stated would not ignore noncompliance concerns: “Certainly, we are going to note it.”

An Iranian proposal to set up a “Chemical Weapons Victim’s International Funding & Assistance Network” is another potential subject that could provoke controversy. (See ACT, December 2007. ) Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran during their war in the 1980s.

Mahley rejected the Iranian proposal, which was first made in 2006 and repeated at the 2007 conference of states-parties. “There are other ways to try to address the question [of providing financial assistance to chemical weapons victims] rather than trying to turn that to being a function of a nonproliferation organization,” he said. Mahley argued that humanitarian agencies might be better suited to address the issue of chemical weapons victims assistance.

The Iranian diplomat dismissed this argument and maintained that humanitarian organizations do not deal with victims of weapons of mass destruction. He said that Iran will pursue its proposal and wants to highlight that the CWC’s provisions on assistance and protection against chemical weapons are “meant not only to address immediate humanitarian consequences resulting from the use of chemical weapons but also the long-term effects.”

The scope and content of efforts to support peaceful use of chemistry is another traditional battleground between Western states and nonaligned countries. So far, however, developing countries appear not to have come up with specific demands to strengthen such cooperation, which is currently being discussed as part of a specific OPCW framework.

Technical issues, particularly those related to the operation of the OPCW, also appear to be noncontroversial. Unusual for the head of any international organization, Pfirter is happy with the states-parties continuing to maintain current funding levels. He told Arms Control Today, “I have been the first promoting a zero nominal growth in the budget because I believe that the organization has the financial resources necessary for it to address adequately program demands.”