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Chemical and Biological Weapons

At the time of writing, the 1993 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction (the Chemical Weapons Convention, CWC), an international treaty that came into force in April 1997, had gathered 118 ratifications. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the agency set up to monitor the CWC’s implementation, reported that it had carried out more than 250 inspections on the territory of twenty-five States Party to the convention. Eight states declared former or existing chemical weapons production plants (China, France, India, Russia,South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan) and pledged to destroy their stockpiles of chemical agents. Yet the CWC remained crippled by the failure of many states to provide the OPCW with the mandatory data declarations needed forverification of their compliance with the treaty. The United States, which had ratified the treaty—with some difficulty—in April 1997, was one of the notable culprits in this group.

International discussions on the verification mechanisms associated with the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (Biological Weapons Convention, BWC) proceeded in 1998 without significant progress. The Ad Hoc Group charged with carrying out negotiations to strengthen the BWC continued to meet in Geneva and refined a “rolling text” that was to form the basis of any future agreement. Negotiations were expected to continue into 1999, and possibly until 2001, when the Ad Hoc Group was to submit a draft text to the Fifth BWC Review Conference.

Despite improvements in the international control over chemical and biological weapons, there were some disturbing developments in 1998 as well, underlining the pressing need for the universalization and ratification of the two treaties and their active implementation and enforcement by the international community. One was the reported existence of production facilities, past or present, in a number of countries that had not signed one or either treaty and were therefore not subject to inspections by, for example, the OPCW.

In August, U.S. military forces used Tomahawk missiles to destroy a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan. The U.S. claimed the facility, the Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant, was used to store or manufacture chemical weapons, based on signal intelligence (communications intercepts) and a soil sample, allegedly collected at the site some time before, that was said to contain traces of the chemical agent Empta, a key ingredient in the highly toxic VX nerve gas. The U.S. government failed to make public the evidence it had, rejected calls by the Sudanese government for a U.N. Security Council investigation of the Al-Shifa facility, and refused to allow an independent laboratory analysis of the soil sample. Yet given the U.S. claims about Al-Shifa and allegations by opposition sources for a number of years that Sudan had been involved in chemical weapons storage or production at other facilities, the matter was deserving of an international investigation. In 1998, Sudan had yet to accede to the CWC or ratify the BWC.

Reports from Israel suggested that the Israeli government also continued to be involved in the production of both chemical and biological weapons. At the end of September, the governments of Israel and the Netherlands ordered investigations after a Dutch newspaper published freight documents belonging to an El Al plane that had crashed into an Amsterdam neighborhood in 1992. Victims of the crash had been complaining of mysterious illnesses. The documents indicated that the plane had carried 240 kilograms of dimethyl methylphosphonate, a chemical used in the production of the nerve agent sarin, obtained from a U.S. company and intended for the Israel Institute for Biological Research in the Tel Aviv suburb of Nes Ziona. This facility had long been suspected of involvement in Israel’s chemical and biological weapons program. Israel had yet to accede to the BWC or ratify the CWC.

In a further case, in testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa, participants in a covert military program during the apartheid era gave evidence of the development of chemical and biological weapons by South Africa. The government of President Nelson Mandela, which came to power in 1994, declared in June 1998 that it had terminated this program earlier and had destroyed the material for offensive purposes in government storage. In response to a request from the TRC, the government made documents from this program available to the TRC, which placed them in the public domain.

The U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), charged with identifying and destroying Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and their production facilities, suffered a serious setback when Iraq announced, on August 5, that it would no longer cooperate with the commission, and blocked all further spot inspections. UNSCOM was seeking additional Iraqi documents concerning its program of weapons of mass destruction, as well as additional weapons that Iraq claimed it had destroyed but for which it was unable to give a full accounting. At the time of writing, the Security Council’s response to Iraq’s obstruction of UNSCOM was still under discussion. Earlier in the year, the United States had nearly gone to war to force Iraq to cooperate with the commission.

In another interesting development, state parties to the BWC completed their first investigation of an alleged biological weapons attack. Cuba had alleged in 1996 that a U.S. State Department aircraft, apparently on an approved flight to Grand Cayman, had dispensed the Thrips Palmi insect over Cuba in October that year, which caused significant crop damage. The United States denied the allegations. The assembled states failed to reach a definitive conclusion, and, because of the technical complexity of the issue and the passage of time, no further investigation was undertaken. The final report of the Bureau of the Formal Consultative Meeting of BWC States Parties, released on December 15, 1997, concluded: “The Bureau agreed that the experience of conducting this process of consultation had shown the importance of establishing as soon as possible an effective Protocol to strengthen the Convention which is being negotiated in the Ad Hoc Group”—a recommendation wholeheartedly supported by Human Rights Watch.



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