The Kurds, whose accusations that Baghdad's Army used poison gas against their civilians in Iraq helped lead to this weekend's conference in Paris on chemical warfare, appear to be the forgotten people of the meeting.
Kurdish leaders have expressed frustration with the United States, which proposed the conference, and France, which is hosting it. One Kurdish intellectual expressed a fear that his people could lose "this golden opportunity to highlight the plight of 20 million Kurds" and press demands for autonomy for Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Turkey.In September when almost every other government remained silent at Iraq's deadly gas attacks against Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, Secretary of State George P. Schultz's outspoken condemnation and tough sanctions approved by the Senate encouraged Kurdish hopes that Iraq would be held to account.
But Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., complained there had been pressure to dilute the proposals from agriculture and oil lobbyists and the project died when the Senate and House failed to reconcile sanctions bills as last year's Congressional session ended.
Kurdish nationalists also are embittered because France has taken measures to prevent a high-visibility Kurdish presence at the conference. France, which has encouraged its companies to make what is the biggest western economic investment in Iraq, may have feared jeopardizing its potential role in Iraq's postwar recovery if it allowed Kurdish leaders access to the media at the conference.
At the last minute France denied a visa to Hoshyar Zebari, the top European representative of six Iraqi Kurdish parties, who was reduced to issuing a communique in London pleading for the conference to adopt "punitive measures" against governments using chemical weapons, especially against their own citizens as befell Kurds in Iraq.
In what Kurds have argued was a concession to Iraqi-led Arab pressures, France told Iraqi Kurdish insurgent leaders months ago that they could not attend the five day conference - even as observers - on the grounds that only states could participate in the Paris meeting. Otherwise, the Kurds were told, the Arab states would boycott the conference.
Meanwhile, a U.S. proposal to strengthen the secretary general's power to investigate chemical weapons attacks appears to mark a sharp change in the American position, diplomats and U.N. officials say.
Herbert S. Okun, the No. 2 U.S. diplomat at the United Nations, said this week that "our goal will be to enhance the role of the secretary general to investigate promptly allegations of the use of these weapons and to report back to the international community so they can do something about it."
Officials say the United States and France have been most resistant to moves over the last four years to grant the secretary general an automatic authority to investigate allegations of toxic weapons usage.
"The United States seems to have been most doubtful" about granting the secretary general greater independence on chemical weapons, a senior U.N. official said. "If they are warming toward the idea of automaticity, it is very interesting."
Theoretically, Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar has had the right to investigate any allegations of chemical weapons use since the General Assembly unanimously instructed him to do so in 1987. But in practice he has sought the approval of the Security Council each time he has sent an inspection team.
This has embroiled specific requests for inspections in the conflicting concerns of council members, U.N. officials and diplomats say. The present procedure has led to slow and inconsistent U.N. responses to alleged attacks, sometimes reflecting the politics of the moment, a NATO diplomat said.
The Soviet Union, accused of using chemical weapons in Afghanistan, has never permitted U.N. inspections there, a U.N. official said.
"All sorts of people try to bend him (the secretary general) one way or another,"said a senior NATO diplomat who asked not to be identified. "It makes it difficult for him to act as tough as he likes."
A string of inconsistent U.N. responses to chemical weapons attacks over the past several years illustrates these political constraints, diplomats said.
Military specialists, using soil and weapons analyses, are said to be able to determine whether chemical weapons have been used, how they were delivered and by whom.
In May 1987, a U.N. team approved by the Security Council did just that, concluding that Iraq had used nerve gas rockets and mustard gas bombs against civilians in the Iranian city of Khorramshahr, killing at least 35. The team's report also said Iraqi soldiers had shown signs of injuries from the lethal weapons.
In March 1988, a chemical bombardment of the Kurdish city of Halabja was said to have killed thousands of anti-Iraqi Kurds. Iran requested an inspection similar to the 1987 one. But the mood of the council had shifted against Tehran because of Iran's refusal to accept a peace plan already accepted by Iraq.