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Treaty Compliance Raises Concerns

Lapses in disclosures and delays in chemical arms destruction prompt proliferation fears

May 10, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 19

Using incineration, this Anniston, Ala., facility is now destroying chemical weapons.
Using incineration, this Anniston, Ala., facility is now destroying chemical weapons.

Just days before the seventh anniversary of the Chemical Weapons Convention on April 29, the General Accounting Office released a report charting obstacles to treaty implementation that pose proliferation concerns.

GAO acknowledges that the treaty and its implementing entity, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), have reduced the risks from these weapons. But GAO finds compliance with the treaty spotty, and hurdles to nonproliferation many.

Among the difficulties are delays in destroying declared stockpiles. GAO calculates that, as of November 2003, only 11% of the more than 70,000 metric tons of declared chemical weapons worldwide has been destroyed. Russia and the U.S.--holders of more than 95% of the declared arsenals--are unlikely to meet the treaty's extended deadline of 2012 for complete destruction of these weapons, GAO states.

A key aim of the treaty is to stem the spread of chemical weapons (CW), especially to terrorists. To achieve this, the treaty requires member countries to adopt sweeping national laws to criminalize treaty-banned activities. GAO says fewer than 40% of the current 162 member countries have adopted such laws.

One of the treaty's myriad requirements is that member countries submit timely and accurate declarations of their treaty-related activities. Reciting 2001 State Department assessments of arms control compliance, GAO--without elaboration or more recent information--states that "China, Iran, Russia, and Sudan have not fully declared the extent of their chemical weapons programs."

The GAO report also tracks OPCW's monitoring of declared CW destruction facilities operated by the military and of commercial facilities producing or using treaty-listed chemicals. By GAO tallies, from April 1997, when the treaty became effective, until the end of 2003, OPCW has conducted about 1,600 inspections in 58 member countries.

More than half of those inspections have occurred at military facilities. Some 634 inspections have taken place among the 5,460 declared commercial facilities. But GAO warns of impending problems for the resource-strapped OPCW as its workload increases in the future.

Although the report makes passing reference to compliance activities of other countries possessing chemical weapons, it focuses primarily on Russia's efforts to dispose of its vast arsenal. This is not surprising because Russia is a prime concern of the report's requester, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.

A GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL familiar with treaty implementation who asks not to be named tells C&EN that Hunter "is a pronounced skeptic on any U.S. funding for Russia's CW destruction program, even after [the terrorist attacks] of 9/11." Others say Hunter has become more open-minded in the post-September 2001 world.

Funding for the dismantling of Russian nuclear and chemical weapons comes from the Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, also known as the Nunn-Lugar program. Hunter was successful in zeroing out CW destruction funding under CTR for fiscal 2000 and 2001. But since 2001, President George W. Bush "has fully supported the effort to destroy the Russian stockpile," Paul F. Walker says, and CW destruction money has been restored--but with conditions. Walker is director of the nongovernmental Global Green USA's Legacy Program that facilitates the elimination of Russia's Cold War weapons.

One condition on CTR funding, Walker says, is that the Pentagon certify to Congress that Russia has fully and accurately declared its stockpile. "Russians have refused to respond adequately to that request because they see it as an attack on their sovereignty and a sign of lack of trust and cooperation between the two countries." So each year since 2001, President Bush has had to waive the condition to release the flow of CTR funding. The need for the waiver has "led to some delays in the funds" reaching Russia, Walker explains.

IN POSSESSIONSix states have declared chemical weapons stockpiles
South Koreabna292007
NOTE: The amount of stockpile declared applies only to the most dangerous chemical weapons, known as category 1. a Projected data are by General Accounting Office (GAO) analysis based on declared stockpiles and destruction facilities currently in operation or under construction. b Known as "a state party"--a nation that has ratified the treaty--in official Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) documents. na = not available; considered confidential by OPCW and for official use only by the U.S. government. SOURCE: GAO analysis of information provided by Departments of Defense and State, OPCW, and chemical weapons possessor states

"AMERICA'S APPROACH to supporting Russia's weapons destruction efforts has been hardball," Walker says. An example he cites is an unpublicized U.S. proposal "that the U.S. have access anytime, anyplace--within a 24-hour notice--to suspected but undeclared stockpiles." Russia has balked at this proposal.

The 2001 State Department claim--repeated in GAO's report--that Russia has not fully disclosed its CW holdings or the full extent of its CW program is based on "old intelligence when it was thought the Russians had a much larger stockpile" than the 40,000 metric tons they declared to OPCW, Walker says. "No one knows whether the old intelligence reports were correct or whether Russia had destroyed part of its stockpile over the last couple of decades," he adds

"There is no current proof that the Russians have hidden stockpiles," Walker says. "There is no rational reason why they would hide any stocks because of the large political downside if any were found out," he continues. "I'm very dubious that the old allegations of undeclared stockpiles are valid."

Based on those intelligence reports, the State Department declared in 2001 that Russia was developing a new generation of nerve agents--known as Novichok agents. It was thought then that these agents could circumvent the treaty and possibly defeat existing detection and prophylactic measures.

"To the best of my knowledge," Walker says, "offensive research and development of Novichok agents has been stopped." A government official says the Russians "are not producing anything now, but lab work continues. The concern is that this research is for offensive use." The treaty allows member countries to conduct research on small quantities of prohibited agents for defensive, but not offensive, purposes.

GAO repeats the Pentagon and State Department line that Russia, in addition to incomplete disclosure of its CW programs, lacks a credible CW destruction plan. The absence of such a plan "has hindered and may further delay destruction efforts, leaving Russia's vast chemical weapons arsenal vulnerable to theft or diversion," GAO contends.

Of Russia's seven stockpile sites, the most vulnerable to theft is the one at Shchuch'ye. This site, east of the Urals on the steppes of Siberia, borders Kazakhstan. Russia considers Chechens in this region terrorists.

The destruction facility at Shchuch'ye, about 12 miles from the stockpile site, is under construction with support from the U.S. Shchuch'ye holds about 14% of Russia's total arsenal, mostly nerve agent in artillery shells. These are portable weapons and, as the government official says, "the problem with small munitions is an insider problem. The best way to solve that problem is to destroy the weapons."

The Shchuch'ye facility is also slated to destroy small nerve gas munitions transported from the Kizner storage facility. Shchuch'ye and Kizner together warehouse about 30% of Russia's arsenal.

The U.S. has underwritten security upgrades at Shchuch'ye to the tune of $20 million. This hardening of the facility was completed in late 2003. But as the government official mentions, Shchuch'ye's weapons still remain vulnerable to theft and diversion. This lingering vulnerability has made Hunter "a bit more receptive and understanding of Russia's chemical demilitarization projects now," Walker says.

Security enhancements aside, the government official contends that the "Russians don't have a practical plan for destroying their CW stockpile." Such a plan--a condition for further CTR funding--was to be supplied by the Russians this past March. They missed that deadline.

Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and an expert on the treaty and its implementation, argues that "the Russians do have a credible plan." But, she says, "putting that plan into action requires significant [foreign] funding."

The government official counters by saying "a plan is more than spelling out what destruction method will be used," which in the Russian case is a two-step neutralization process (C&EN, Dec. 1, 2003, page 28). A plan, this official says, "spells out how you get it all accomplished--detailed schedules for destruction, testing, and operation. A plan calculates how much money is needed to accomplish the things you plan to do, and where this money is coming from." Most important, "the schedules and the finances need to be realistic."

For example, the official says, "Russia is still claiming that Shchuch'ye will begin operating in 2005. That is not credible." Pentagon officials have said that 2009 is more likely.

Based on information the Pentagon has provided, GAO estimates that Russia will not completely destroy its arsenal until 2027. Comparable information puts the U.S. date for complete destruction at 2014.

In their comments to GAO's draft report, State and Pentagon officials said the estimate was "misleading." In its comments, the State Department wrote: "The 2027 date assumes a single nerve agent destruction facility, Shchuch'ye, yet elsewhere the report cites Russian plans for three additional nerve agent destruction facilities."

Walker says that "a realistic goal" for complete dismantlement of the Russian arsenal is probably "2020 at best."

GAO also misrepresents the amount of funding Russia has contributed to its destruction program. Foreign donors, including the U.S., Germany, Italy, and Canada, have spent about $585 million, with commitments of more than $1.7 billion.

The accounting agency originally said Russia had spent only $95 million. The Pentagon and the State Department corrected GAO by pointing out that Russia had spent $95 million for the Shchuch'ye site but about $420 million for all CW destruction-related activities.

In addition to Russia, GAO says China, Iran, and Sudan "had not acknowledged the full extent of their chemical weapons programs." These countries are all parties to the treaty.

Again, relying on the 2001 State Department report, GAO says, "China maintains an active chemical weapons research and development program, a possible undeclared chemical weapons stockpile, and weapons-related facilities that were not declared to OPCW." Iran, GAO says, "is seeking to retain and modernize key elements of its chemical weapons program." In Sudan's case, GAO says this African nation has set up an R&D program to produce chemical weapons indigenously.

A chemical warfare expert who asks to remain anonymous questions the 2001 intelligence assessments based on "how far off the mark" intelligence estimates were for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

HOWEVER, the government official says the 2001 assessment for China remains unchanged today, although "what 'program' means is hard to figure out" from publicly available information. This official says the U.S. "still believes Iran has an active 'program.' " But, the official says, the Sudan allegations should be taken with a "very large grain of salt."

Libya, which recently became a treaty member, has fully declared its chemical arsenal. In doing so, it became the sixth declared possessor state.

In addition to Libya, the U.S., and Russia, the three other possessor states-- which together have about 3% of the world's stocks of chemical weapons--are Albania, India, and South Korea. Under an agreement with South Korea, OPCW never publicly names it as a possessor state. Instead, OPCW calls it "a state party."

By February, Libya had destroyed some 3,300 empty aerial bombs. Nearly 24 tons of mustard agent and hundreds of tons of precursor chemical remain to be destroyed. A number of U.S. companies are vying for contracts to help Libya destroy its mustard gas using incineration.

GAO makes no recommendations on how member states can ensure that the treaty continues "to credibly address nonproliferation concerns worldwide." Instead, GAO notes that member countries and OPCW face tough choices in addressing destruction delays--especially for Russia--the slow progress in criminalizing treaty-prohibited activities, and OPCW's increasing inspection workload.


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