Though the world seemed to make some progress this week in the campaign against chemical warfare, there are sharp limits to how much encouragement mankind can take from it. That's because of the big gap that has long existed between translating good intentions into concrete deeds.
This week, nearly 150 nations meeting in Paris pledged to outlaw all chemical weapons and work toward their elimination. The new pledge goes beyond a 1925 treaty that only bans the use of chemical weapons but not their production. Consequently, the step taken in Paris should give impetus to the Geneva disarmament conference, which is drawing up a binding agreement banning the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons.But the Paris pledge itself is not binding. Indeed, this week's conference intentionally snubbed a U.S. call for economic and political sanctions against any new use of poison gas.
It will be hard for the superpowers to persuade negotiators at Geneva to go along with tough action against countries and firms making poison gas as long as the U.S. and Russia make such weapons.
After a long unilateral moratorium on making chemical weapons, the U.S. recently got back into the business and can't be expected to get out of it until Russia does so.
Though Russia recently promised to start destroying its stockpiles of chemical weapons sometime this year, the promise is riddled with loopholes. For example, the Soviets aren't saying how many weapons will be destroyed. Nor are they saying whether the weapons to be destroyed are obsolete or modern.
Moreover, even if the Geneva conference agrees on sanctions, they are no cure-all. They can be rendered ineffective if just one major nation decides to keep doing business with the country that violates the ban. Moreover, since a pesticide factory can be turned in only a few hours into a plant producing poison gas, it's easy for foreign suppliers to avoid penalties by claiming they were helping a legitimate project. That's the claim now being made by the foreign firms that helped Libya build its controversial "pharmaceutical" factory that the CIA describes as a chemical warfare plant.
But flawed penalties would be better than none at all. And if nothing else comes from the conferences in Paris and Geneva, at least they should prompt the world to start gathering more information on the production and use of chemical weapons. By all means, let's start shining bright lights into the dark corners of chemical warfare.