Chemical Weapons Control Isn’t All About Syria

In the 15 years that the Chemical Weapons Convention banning the use or possession of such arms has been in force, 78 percent of the world’s declared stores has been destroyed, and the rest are scheduled for demolition. With the arrival in Syria this week of an international team to inspect this regime’s program, there is hope that another significant stockpile will be demobilized.

Of course, the goal is to have no chemical weapons left in the world, elusive as that may be. Syria was pressed to accept the weapons ban in order to ensure that the Aug. 21 massacre in which some 1,400 people died in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta is not repeated. But what can be done to reduce the possibility of another such atrocity elsewhere?

One goal should be to improve the control of chemicals that can be used to make weapons.

After Syria officially joins the convention on Oct. 14 -- as part of the U.S.-Russia plan to decommission its chemical weapons program -- the country will have to fully account for all the chemical arms it has ever had throughout its history, as well as detail any assistance or imports of chemical agents or precursors it has received from abroad. Finding out who may have aided Syria in gathering its stockpile will help plug holes in international enforcement of the convention.

Even if Syria received no help or if the facts can’t be determined, it is only prudent for all countries to improve controls on chemicals that can be used for weapons. Given the enormous volume of trade that national inspectors must police, it will always be difficult to stop proliferators who are determined to skirt the rules. But governments can work harder to prevent unintentional violations, many committed by the increasing number of small companies that aren’t even aware of their legal obligations -- for instance, to know who their customers are and how they intend to use sensitive materials.

Infractions are a special concern in Russia, China and India, where chemical industries aren’t well organized. Governments there should follow the example of the U.S. Commerce Department, which holds seminars -- co-sponsored by chemical industry associations -- to educate companies about the law.

Another step toward eradicating chemical weapons is to get the seven countries that have not yet joined the convention to come on board. Unfortunately, the one that is thought to have the most significant unaccounted stores, outside Syria, is North Korea -- a country that is unlikely to accede to the convention anytime soon. However, Egypt and Israel, which may also have chemical weapons, might be persuaded to join.

Israel has at least signed, though not yet ratified, the treaty. Yet it may be talked into doing so if the program in Syria, a bitter foe, is truly destroyed. After all, with its nuclear arsenal, Israel doesn’t need chemical weapons, or the specter of them, for deterrent power.

Egypt, which used chemical agents in Yemen in the 1960s, should be pressed to sign up at the same time as Israel.

Of the remaining four countries, Taiwan poses a special problem; it can’t be a member of the convention because China is. So Taiwan’s sizable chemical industry isn’t subject to inspection by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which enforces the treaty. A solution would be to apply the model used for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: The International Atomic Energy Agency applies nuclear safeguards to Taiwan as if it were a party to the convention.

The remaining outlier states -- Angola, South Sudan and Myanmar -- have no objections to joining the convention but have not made it a priority, given the burden of reporting involved and their relatively paltry resources.

Intense lobbying by OPCW officials and offers of help in drafting supporting legislation have in the past turned such small states around and could do so again. However, the organization itself is hurting for funds. Its budget of $92 million was flat for several years before it was cut by 5 percent last year. Major funders, including the U.S., had discussed another reduction this year.

Given the potential for progress in Syria, those cuts should be reconsidered. The backlash against the horror in Ghouta should be seized upon to ensure that no one is exposed to chemical weapons again.


To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.