Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Missed opportunities at the chemical weapons treaty meeting

Missed opportunities at the chemical weapons treaty meeting

By Malcolm Dando | 12 May 2008

Prior to the Chemical Weapons Convention's (CWC) Second Review Conference
last month, several attempts were made to raise the issue of the potential
for incapacitating chemical agents to skirt the convention's rules. Despite
these efforts, when the convention adjourned in mid-April, little had been
done to address the issue.

The CWC, which came into force in 1995, bans all chemical weapons. However,
among the peaceful uses exempt from the ban is "law enforcement, including
domestic riot control purposes." Observers have argued that this exemption
creates a potential loophole within the convention, as states might use it
to develop novel chemical agents. Under the exemption, standard domestic
riot control agents such as tear gas could be seen as a subcategory of law
enforcement agents. Because other law enforcement agents are not defined or
required to be reported under the convention, the development of novel
agents could take place in secret. The lack of state-level objections to the
Russian use of a new "nonlethal" chemical agent to break the Moscow Theater
siege in 2002 lends weight to this argument. The danger in reading the
convention in this way is that allowing the development of new chemical
agents by means of this potential loophole could lead to the erosion of the
whole prohibition--particularly as rapid developments in the life sciences
reveal new means of incapacitation.

At the First Review Conference in 2003, states attempted to raise this
issue, but they were unsuccessful. At the International Union of Pure and
Applied Chemistry meeting in Zagreb in preparation for the Second Review
Conference, the problem was discussed in some detail, and the report
concluded, "The risks associated with advances in science and technology
would increase significantly, should dedicated [chemical weapon] programs be
able to take advantage of them. There is, therefore, good reason . . . to
carefully assess the CWC compatibility of the development of devices that
use toxic chemicals for law-enforcement purposes (including so called
'nonlethal weapons')."

The report also suggested that parties at the Second Review Conference
needed to come to "agreement on the need for the declaration of toxic
chemicals for law enforcement purposes (types, qualities and delivery
systems)." Such an agreement would increase transparency about what types of
agents states are developing and increase trust, but while the report fed
into the deliberations of the conference, and a paper by Switzerland raised
a series of critical questions about so-called nonlethal chemical agents,
the issue did not feature in the final outcome of the meeting. (See Ralf
Trapp's further assessment of the Second Review Conference, "When States
Fail to Address Incapacitants."

It would appear, however, that the Swiss concerns were not removed from the
final consensus agreement until late on in the two-week review proceedings
and that a number of others states shared the Swiss's concerns. Taking an
optimistic view, by the time of the next review conference in 2013, States
Parties will have thoroughly examined this problem and agreed on an
effective solution. Yet, in order for that to happen, independent scientists
and nongovernmental organizations will have to ensure that states do not
lose sight of the problem.

The CWC has accomplished a great deal in a short period of time, but the
issues it addresses remain far from the public's attention. As the head of
the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Media and
Public Affairs Branch remarked in the run up to the Review Conference: "The
successful negotiation and implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention
is among the most significant multilateral achievements of the past 15
years--and one of the least known or appreciated by the public at large."
This facet of the CWC will pose particular challenges. The spokesman
continued: "Outside of a few specialized journals, scant attention has been
paid by media to the steady destruction of chemical weapons and their
production facilities, or to the development of OPCW's exemplary inspections
regime. Few policy institutes or think tanks have examined the relevance of
chemical disarmament for multilateralism and global security and only a
handful of nongovernmental organizations are engaged with the issue. Even
many in the chemical industry remain unaware of its own key role in
concluding the convention and monitoring the production and trade of
scheduled chemicals." Thus, the necessary nongovernmental attention is by no
means assured.

Considering the scope and pace of change in our understanding of the central
nervous system, and the possibilities for misuse of that knowledge in the
development of new forms of incapacitants, I take the pessimistic view that
the Second Review Conference of the CWC made a major mistake in failing to
deal with this issue. Waiting until 2013--or beyond--to deal with this
problem may be far too late.


Kicking the can down the road usually leads to more problems ala Iraq and it's supposed WMD's it would be far better to deal with issues now rather than later.

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