PERSPECTIVE: THE FIRE NEXT TIME

WEAPONS which exploit gas and germs to maim and kill may well be the greatest danger Israel faces at the end of the 20th century.

The damage that a tiny quantity of a virus such as bough or aflatoxin, or a larger amount of a gas such as Sarin or VX, can cause to the lungs, kidneys, eyes and skin of human beings is indescribably awful. There are few, if any, effective measures to take against these invisible killers.

At least three regimes known to be among the most unstable on the planet have access to such weapons. All are sworn enemies of Israel, and no great lovers of the United States. One, Iraq, has already used chemical warfare against opponents of the regime.

And yet the efforts by the global community to stamp out this scourge have been ludicrously inadequate. As the Chemical and Biological Weapons Chronicle noted last January:

"mechanisms to address a plethora of chemical and biological weapons problems are available, but many states are currently ignoring or underutilising them".
Three conventions have been instituted as measures against non-nuclear, non-conventional warfare:
  1. Actual use of biological and chemical weapons is outlawed by the 1925 Geneva Protocol;
  2. The development, production and stockpiling of weapons based on biological (germ) warfare agents was outlawed by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), to which more than 100 states, including the UN Security Council's five permanent members, were party:
  3. After 25 years of negotiation, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was finally opened for signature in 1993.
Yet notwithstanding the Geneva Protocol, Saddam Hussein has used chemical weapons at least twice against the Iranian army during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s, and against Kurdish civilian dissidents.

The BWC is seriously emasculated by the fact it contains no on-site verification provisions. And although the CWC allegedly has more muscle in the optimistic opinion of the London Times (April 12, 1993), it is "the first treaty to ban outright an entire category of weapons and oblige countries to submit to rigorous controls designed to prevent cheating" it remains to be seem just how well it will work in practice.

Four years down the road, a number of concerned officials from the former Reagan administration including former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and former Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger have questioned the supposed clout of the CWC. In a recent letter to the New York Times (February 9, 1997) they called the convention "hopelessly unenforceable", and said "cynical signatories like Iran, China, Russia and Cuba know that they could ratify it, make and store nerve gas in violation of it, almost certainly escape detection and certainly escape serious penalty".

Furthermore, the signatories to the letter pointed out, the Clinton administration had recently told Senate leaders "that it has no intention of imposing meaningful punishment on treaty violators".

EVIDENCE has emerged in the past year to suggest that Iraq's arsenal of chemical weapons has not only been kept hidden from UN inspection teams scouring that country, but is indeed being enlarged. Syria and Iran have similar programmes underway.

Adopting the time-honoured "if we ignore it, perhaps it will go away" approach, the world's governments have done little to stop this alarming build-up.

Memories of the Gulf War, gasmasks and sealed rooms remain vivid in Israelis' minds. Then, the Scud missiles Saddam fired at the Jewish state were not armed with chemical or biological warheads.

But if the world's powers, the United States and European Union, don't start taking the threat seriously, and acting against it, next time the siren's cry is heard over Israel's cities and towns, God alone knows what may happen.

PATRICK GOODENOUGH

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