OPCW Chief Sees Chance to Promote Chemical Weapons Pact in Middle East


WASHINGTON -- An international declaration issued in May at a major nuclear nonproliferation event created a new opportunity to press Middle Eastern states to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, a top arms control official said last week (see GSN, July 28). 

Nearly 200 nations attending the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference in New York pledged in a final statement to organize a 2012 meeting "on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction" (see GSN, June 1).

The WMD reference includes chemical warfare materials -- blistering agents and nerve gases that have been used in conflicts around the world and are still held by a number of nations, said Ahmet Üzümcü, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

"To me it seemed as a new opening," Üzümcü said. "At least from our point of view this should be seen as an opportunity by the whole international community to be fully used to impress upon those concerned states to join both the NPT as well as the CWC."

The veteran Turkish diplomat spoke to reporters in Washington during his first trip to the United States after becoming head of the convention's verification body in July.

The chemical arms pact has 188 member nations, each of which pledged not to develop, produce, stockpile or use military agents such as mustard, sarin and VX and to destroy any existing stockpiles. There are now just seven states that have yet to sign up: Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia and Syria.

Üzümcü's organization has long pressed convention "universality" as a means to ensuring that no state again deploys chemical weapons and that the lethal materials cannot be diverted for acts of terrorism.

Full Middle Eastern membership has been tied up by a host of security issues facing the region. Egypt and Syria have refused to become convention states until Israel joins the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty with a pledge to eliminate its widely presumed nuclear arsenal. Jerusalem, meanwhile, says its inclusion in arms control agreements would depend on progress in the peace process with its neighbors.

"It's a chicken and egg issue. It's difficult to get around," said issue expert Paul Walker, who leads the Security and Sustainability program at the environmental organization Global Green USA.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders met earlier this month in Washington to begin a new round of peace talks, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to visit the region next week in hopes of pushing the process forward. Even if there is a breakthrough on that longstanding dilemma, Israeli suspicions regarding Iran's atomic activities reduce the chances that it would give up its own nuclear weapons, according to experts (see related GSN story, today).

The hope for a WMD-free Middle East was formalized at the 1995 NPT review conference but never materialized. The Obama and Netanyahu administrations have already said that singling out Israel as a focus of the talks could jeopardize the 2012 event on establishing the sector. Plans for discussions this year on the matter have already collapsed, the Associated Press reported last week.

There is not likely to be progress on the zone without a regional peace deal encompassing Israel and Syria, according to chemicals weapon expert Jonathan Tucker.

"The reason is that Damascus appears to view its extensive chemical arsenal and missile delivery systems as a strategic deterrent that partially offsets Israel's undeclared nuclear weapons capability," he told Global Security Newswire by e-mail. "Egypt, which may or may not possess chemical weapons, has established a political linkage between its willingness to accede to the CWC and Israel's potential accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapons state."

Participation in the Chemical Weapons Convention could serve as a confidence-building measure to promoting peace and nuclear disarmament in the region, Walker argued.

Üzümcü said his organization would pursue increased contacts with the three Middle Eastern outliers ahead of the 2012 WMD-free zone conference and intends to offer "substantive input" at the event itself.

"Of course our efforts will focus on ... delinking the issue from the NPT," he said. "The use of chemical weapons in any circumstances in my view has become militarily meaningless and morally unacceptable. So having a chemical weapons capacity does not mean much in ... terms in any circumstances."

The organization intends to highlight the benefits of membership in the convention, including obtaining defense assistance from other states against possible chemical weapons attacks and multilateral support for peaceful chemical industry activities, Üzümcü said. It also hopes to persuade member nations to raise the issue during bilateral talks with allied states that have yet to join the pact.

The OPCW chief met with officials from the State and Defense departments and other federal agencies during his trip to the U.S. capital. He did not say beforehand whether he intended to ask their assistance in pressing Israel or other friendly governments to consider joining the convention.

The seven non-CWC states are all "hard nuts" to crack, whose potential membership remains in doubt, Tucker indicated. Angola and possibly Myanmar are the countries most likely to join the convention in the near term, he said. Angola has other priorities but no political objections to membership, while the Burmese junta might look to boost its international standing through ratification, according to Tucker, who cautioned that a "significant effort" would be required to bring even those two states into the fold.

Somalia does not have a working government able to organize membership efforts, while North Korea is focused instead on the apparent passing of leadership from Kim Jong Il to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, Tucker said.

Üzümcü said he had no interest in adopting an approach similar to one floated informally by supporters of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty -- accepting a nearly universal arms control pact that does not include Pyongyang (see GSN, June 4, 2009).

"I hope not," he said. "That is not our goal right now."


The global chemical-weapon disposal time line has also sustained setbacks recently, Üzümcü acknowledged in the wake of Russia's announcement that it would miss its deadline for disarmament.

More than 60 percent of the world's known amounts of prohibited chemical warfare materials have been destroyed to date. Albania, India and South Korea have eliminated their arsenals, while four CWC member nations continue to hold stockpiles.

The United States has acknowledged that its campaign to destroy 28,600 metric tons of banned chemical agents is likely to be concluded in 2021, nine years past the end date set by the convention. Üzümcü last week visited the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky, which is expected to be the last U.S. site to complete disposal of its stockpile.

Russia, which for years said it would adhere to the 2012 disposal mandate, this summer acknowledged it would not finish off its 40,000-metric-ton arsenal until 2015. The Kremlin's program has been set back by funding issues linked to the global economic crisis and by the failure of some nations to fulfill promises of financial aid in a "timely manner," Üzümcü said.

A Russian official recently told GSN recently his government had spent roughly $5 billion on chemical disarmament and had received slightly more than $1 billion in foreign assistance. The Kremlin, though, generally counts only money it receives directly rather than funds provided to contractors, observers say. Walker estimated that Russia had received between $2 billion and $2.5 billion for the program through the Group of Eight leading industrial powers' anti-WMD program (see GSN, Aug. 16).

Russia this summer sought another $300 million in further assistance, Walker said. The United States has agreed to provide roughly $35 million over three years for construction and operations at the Shchuchye disposal plant and is considering a similar funding plan for another site, he added. No other G-8 state appears to have yet offered further assistance, Arms Control Today reported.

"It is in the interest of the international community to finish this destruction program as early as possible," Üzümcü said. "We would of course encourage the international community and third parties to provide within their means ... some assistance for the possessor states so they can proceed and increase the pace of destruction."

Libya has destroyed some secondary agents but has failed to move forward with disposal of roughly 23 metric tons of mustard agent. Last December, Tripoli received a disarmament deadline extension to May 15, 2011. In June it told the OPCW Executive Council that it would request amendments to the intermediate demilitarization deadlines on the way to the completion of operations, according to the organization.

Iraq holds an uncertain amount of chemical weapons materials and munitions left over from the Saddam Hussein era. Some nerve agent-loaded rockets in one bunker are believed to be leaking due to damage incurred in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, creating hazardous conditions for counting, recovering and finally eliminating the stockpile.

It could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to prepare the munitions for destruction -- a cost that states are reluctant to bear amid extended financial worries, Walker said. One alternative would be to cover the bunker containing leaking weapons with a concrete "sarcophagus" like that used at the Chernobyl nuclear plant following the 1986 disaster, Tucker said.

"I'm concerned that encasement may just be kicking the ball down the field," Walker warned. "And the CWC prohibits dumping or burial."

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