How the U.S. Can Help Rid the World of Chemical Weapons


If President Obama is serious about ridding the world, and not just Syria, of chemical weapons, he and America’s closest allies in the Middle East should lead the way.

Although the United States has ratified the 20-year-old Chemical Weapons Convention, it has not destroyed its entire arsenal, as required under the CWC. In reference to the United States, the 2011 report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons states, “Since the beginning of destruction activities, the OPCW has verified the destruction of … 89.71% of the declared stockpile.” That’s a high percentage, but it is not 100 percent, and the United States had one of the largest stockpiles in the world. The U.S. government can set a better example than that. (As if it needed any chemical weapons. Besides its nuclear arsenal, the U.S. military has the world’s most destructive arsenal of “conventional” weapons — so powerful that it erases the line between such weapons and most “weapons of mass destruction.”)

Besides destroying its own arsenal, the United States should go even further in showing good faith by publicly telling its closest Middle East allies, Egypt and Israel, to ratify the CWC and destroy their chemical arsenals. The governments of these countries get billions of dollars in military aid each year from American taxpayers and routinely use military force against innocent people. It is outrageous for the U.S. government to make high and mighty pronouncements about chemical weapons with regard to Syria while winking its eye at Israel (which also has biological and nuclear weapons) and Egypt.

The Obama administration’s selective demands about chemical weapons ought to be judged in light of this overlooked bit of history: According to Stephen Zunes, a Middle East scholar at the University of San Francisco, “Syria has joined virtually all other Arab states in calling for … a ‘weapons of mass destruction-free zone’ for the entire Middle East. In December 2003, Syria introduced a UN Security Council resolution reiterating this clause from 12 years earlier, but the resolution was tabled as a result of a threatened U.S. veto.” (Emphasis added.)

Why would the United States have vetoed the resolution? Because ally Israel refuses to acknowledge, much less give up, its WMD arsenal. So much for a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free Middle East.

Had that resolution been adopted, Syria would not have chemical weapons today.

The CWC has no built-in enforcement provision, but the International Criminal Court in The Hague could be used to prosecute war criminals. However, as Matt Welch points out, “mostly because of lobbying efforts from the United States[,] the ICC cannot go after dictators that do not recognize the court’s legitimacy. Prosecutions of rogue actors must be referred to the ICC by the United Nations Security Council.… The only time residents of non-signatory countries like Syria — or the United States — can be hauled in is at the request of the UN Security Council.… Assad might have been charged already had it not been for American diplomatic resistance to a more aggressive court.”

Moreover, Gavin de Becker writes that the United States — the exceptional and indispensable nation — has managed to exempt itself from some international rules concerning warfare: “As happens with many contracts, countries sign the conventions only after adding their reservations and objections, composed by lawyers who write in cozy offices. One quickly sees that the treaties are not quite so lofty as many imagine.”

Here’s something else the U.S. government could do: ratify the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans cluster bombs, those nasty weapons that can spread hundreds of unexploded bomblets that are capable of indiscriminately killing innocent children and adults years after the initial bombing. Israel and Egypt, as well as Syria, are also not parties to this convention. The U.S. military has used cluster bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other places. Moreover, the United States manufactures cluster bombs and recently sold 1,300 of them (for $640 million) to Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by an authoritarian monarchy with a miserable human-rights record. The U.S. government has also sold the weapons to Israel, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

American presidents love to brag about their world leadership. Here are concrete ways to lead that would actually bring constructive results.

Sheldon Richman  is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org).

Sheldon Richman keeps the blog “Free Association” and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society.

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