WORLD

A POISONOUS THREAT

REPRESENTATIVES OF 149 NATIONS ARE DETERMINED TO ELIMINATE STOCKPILES OF CHEMICAL ARMS

ANDREW PHILLIPS January 23 1989
WORLD

A POISONOUS THREAT

REPRESENTATIVES OF 149 NATIONS ARE DETERMINED TO ELIMINATE STOCKPILES OF CHEMICAL ARMS

ANDREW PHILLIPS January 23 1989

Some were lying in a state of stupor, the flies buzzing about their faces; some were sitting up gasping for breath, with hands and faces of a deep dusky hue, evidently in the greatest distress; over the countenance of others, the pallid hues of death were beginning to creep.... They were the first gas cases from Ypres and Hill 60. —excerpt from the First World War diary of Canadian army doctor William Boyd

When Boyd recorded those observations on April 28, 1915, chemical warfare was in its infancy. Just six days earlier, the German army had launched the first effective chemical attack in the history of war by lobbing 6,000 canisters of choking chlorine gas at French, British and Canadian troops defending trenches around the Belgian town of Ypres. The terrifying new weapon—which by the end of the war had killed 100,000 soldiers on both sides and injured 1.2 million more—produced a worldwide revulsion against chemical warfare that has endured for seven decades. In Paris last week, representatives of 149 nations affirmed their determination to eliminate such arms. At the end of a five-day conference, they pledged to redouble efforts toward a treaty that would ban the “development, production, stockpiling and use of all chemical weapons.”

The conference succeeded in focusing world attention on the spread of chemical weapons, which have been acquired by at least eight countries in the past 10 years and were used extensively in the Iran-Iraq war. It gave the Soviet Union an opportunity to score a public relations triumph by declaring that it intends to start destroying its stockpile of chemical arms this year. In addition, the meeting provided much-needed political momentum to talks that have been dragging on for 20 years in Geneva on a comprehensive treaty against the proliferation of poisonous gases. Canada’s ambassador to the Geneva arms talks, de Montigny Marchand, declared that the Paris conference was a “high-dosage injection of adrenaline” into the complicated negotiations.

At the same time, the conference underscored the many obstacles to concluding a workable ban on chemical arms. Many Third World countries, especially Arab states, argued that they would be left at a disadvantage if they were forced to abandon comparatively cheap chemical arms while more-developed states—possibly including Israel—possessed nuclear weapons. And as delegates debated in Paris, the United States and Libya continued a bitter confrontation over a Libyan factory that American intelligence officials maintain is intended to produce chemical weapons. U.S. officials accuse Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi of seeking to acquire chemical arms for use against Israel—or to supply terrorists.

Last week, Gadhafi again denied that charge and called on the new administration of George Bush to “bury this stupid and silly policy.” But Gadhafi did not allow Western journalists to inspect the controversial factory at Rabta, 55 km southwest of Tripoli, which he insisted is a harmless pharmaceutical plant. Instead, in a bizarre episode on Jan. 7, Libyan authorities took about 120 foreign reporters to within 500 m of the plant—a dark-grey building in an industrial park protected by antiaircraft missile batteries—and then promptly ordered them out of the country. The incident only fuelled speculation that the Libyans did indeed have something to hide.

Attempts to negotiate a chemical arms treaty took on new importance with the breakdown of a long-standing ban on their use. Appalled by the use of gas in the First World War, in 1925 leading nations signed a protocol in Geneva outlawing the use—but not the production or stockpiling—of chemical arms. That agreement was violated by such countries as Italy, which used poison gas against Ethiopia in 1935, and Japan, which used it in China between 1937 and 1942. More recently, Iraq employed chemical weapons in its war with Iran. And in a particularly horrifying incident 10 months ago, the Iraqis used a combination of nerve and mustard gases against their own Kurdish population in the town of Halabja, killing as many as 5,000 people.

Meanwhile, more nations have acquired chemical weapons. As recently as the late 1970s, only the United States, the Soviet Union and France were known to possess such toxins. But according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, that number has grown to at least 11—and U.S. officials say that it may be as high as 22. As well as Iran and Iraq, the list includes Israel, Egypt, Syria and North and South Korea. Adding to the growing danger is the fact that many Third World countries have begun to acquire missiles that could be armed with chemical warheads and fired hundreds of miles. In Paris last week, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz warned of the “nightmare” of chemical arms “in the hands of governments with histories of terrorist violence.”

Observers say that stopping the spread of chemical weapons—and setting up reliable verification procedures—is even more difficult than checking the spread of nuclear technology. Most important, say experts, are the vast differences between the two industries. Nuclear technology is complicated, expensive and usually under state control. As a result, building nuclear weapons is beyond the means of less-developed nations, while governments with nuclear capability keep a tight rein on the technology and key ingredients. The chemical industry, by contrast, is dispersed throughout the economy, requires comparatively inexpensive ingredients—and is both competitive and secretive.

In addition, chemicals with legitimate commercial purposes may, in combination with other ingredients, be used to make deadly weapons. And a plant built to produce chemical fertilizers or drugs may be adapted to make poison gas, then switched back at short notice. For that reason, U.S. officials rejected Libya’s offer of a onetime inspection of its Rabta plant. Instead, they insisted, frequent visits by experts—with as little as 24 hours’ notice—are the only way to ensure that a factory is not secretly making poison gas. Said one American chemical warfare expert in Paris last week: “Without those elements, no one is going to have the confidence that that place is not producing chemical weapons.”

Such thorny problems have produced a dilemma for advanced countries trying to stop the spread of chemical arms. In Paris last week, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark reaffirmed Canada’s policy of no use, production or stockpiling of such arms. But Abbie Dann, External’s deputy director of media relations in Ottawa, said that controlling the export of ingredients and technology for chemical weapons is extremely difficult. “Do you monitor and interfere with every export that can remotely be connected to something that can be abused?” she asked. “Or do you try to control the most dangerous exports?” At the same time, Dann said that a few Canadian engineers are believed to be helping Iraq build a chemical fertilizer plant 200 km north of Baghdad. But the firm employing them is American, not Canadian. “There is nothing we can do about it,” said Dann. “We can control exports from our country, but not individuals.”

Canada has taken one step by helping to form the 19-nation Australia Group, which has agreed to place export controls on some chemicals that are known to be key ingredients of toxic weapons. Canada has listed 14 substances that require licences from Ottawa before chemical companies can ship them out of the country. But if an effective treaty is worked out, the chemical industry may have to accept other, more intrusive controls, including on-site inspections. Said Nicholas Sims, an authority on chemical weapons at the London School of Economics: “A global treaty for chemical disarmament will require international verification on a scale never before attempted.”

While tensions between developed countries and Third World nations dominated last week’s conference, rivalry between the superpowers also continued. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze announced that his country intends to start destroying its chemical weapons this year—even before a comprehensive treaty is signed. He said that the Soviets are building a plant to destroy their stock of chemical arms, which NATO officials estimate at about 300,000 tons.

The announcement threw U.S. officials on the defensive. They pointed out that Washington is already destroying old stocks of chemical weapons. But the Americans’ position was weakened by the fact that the U.S. army resumed production of chemical arms in 1987—after an 18-year halt—to replace decaying stockpiles. And it was further undermined by the defence budget—unveiled last week by President Ronald Reagan—which proposed sharp increases in spending on bombs and artillery shells designed to deliver the new generation of so-called binary chemical weapons. They consist of two chemicals that are harmless by themselves, but are deadly when combined in an explosion.

Washington’s plans drew a rebuke from chief Soviet arms negotiator Victor Karpov. “I don’t consider that reasonable restraint,” he declared. Conceded Lynn Hansen, assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control Agency: “I know how it looks. But our primary concern is that we protect our security.”

The United States was also caught last week in an awkward dispute with one of its closest allies, West Germany. U.S. officials had told American newspapers that five German companies helped Libya build its plant at Rabta. Bonn officials expressed outrage, insisting that the Americans had not produced any evidence. But, last week, the West German government announced new controls on exports of technology and equipment useful in arms production. And a Bonn spokesman later acknowledged that there was, after all, evidence linking West German firms to the Libyan plant. The same day, authorities in Antwerp announced the arrest of a Belgian shipping agent on charges of arranging to conceal a West German shipment of suspect chemicals destined for Libya by giving their destination as Hong Kong.

Bonn’s embarrassing admission underlined another obstacle to effective control of chemical arms: there is money to be made in helping to produce the poison. Experts say that without effective sanctions against both the countries that make toxic weapons and the companies that aid them, there will be little progress. Julian Perry Robinson, an expert on chemical warfare at the University of Sussex in Britain, noted that many of the same nations that condemned Iraq for using poison gas rushed in to do business once the fighting stopped. He added, “There have to be sanctions against transgressors, or no treaty will have an effect.” For the arms negotiators in Geneva, that will be just one of many obstacles on the way to finding an effective antidote to the spreading trade in poison.