After Tokyo, a Chemical-Weapons Ban?

March 24, 1995|By JONATHAN POWER

London -- Periodically, the world is rudely awakened to the awfulness of chemical weapons, and, just as periodically, it goes back to sleep. But after Tokyo, must history again repeat itself?

Perhaps what happened in the Tokyo subway this week is just a trial run for a full-scale chemical blitz on the New York subway or the London tube. Perhaps, too, we really have to worry less about expensive ''star wars'' systems to forestall a nuclear missile bombardment and more about a suitcase nuke or chemicals in a shopping bag.

Concern is necessary, but perhaps with a sense of proportion. Chemical weapons are not the end of the world. Nevertheless, we should push speedily toward ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention. If that seems to be something of a contradiction let me explain.

The last great panic over chemical weapons was during the Persian Gulf War. Saddam Hussein talked of ''burning half of Israel'' with chemical arms. He had used them in 1988 to devastate the Kurdish population of the Iraqi city of Halabja, and again in the final two years of his war with Iran. (Although the Iranian troops had been given masks, they refused to shave their beards, and the masks didn't fit tight.)

It isn't destructiveness so much as the perception of horror that gives chemical weapons such potency. To call them ''the poor man's nuclear weapon'' is a misnomer. Even for an unprotected population, a large chemical attack would have less impact than a small atomic bomb. While there is no defense against a nuclear blast, a population can be given masks and suits for total chemical protection, as Israel's was during the Gulf War. And since a major chemical bombardment would have to be staggered, it should be possible to evacuate a city before casualties are overwhelming.

For all that, negotiating a chemical-weapons treaty is worth while. Chemical weapons may not threaten Armageddon, but they are a powerful symbol of all that is rotten in war. The use of mustard gas in the First World War made a generation say ''never again,'' and its use, if not its possession, was outlawed by international treaty.

The new treaty is part of a general movement that seeks to put war beyond the pale for civilian societies. Another endeavor is a treaty against land mines, for which the International Committee of the Red Cross is now campaigning. Sadly, the education of society against war is an under-resourced business.

It is now two years and two months since representatives of 130 states signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in Paris. Once in force, the convention will create an international organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons, charged with supervising the destruction of both weapons and facilities in signatory states. It will also provide an inspectorate system to insure that the chemical industry, both military and civilian, is not misused for weapons' manufacture, as seems to have been the case in Tokyo.

Two years on momentum has slowed. George Bush, who was one of the convention's principal architects, is no longer in office, and Iraq's and Libya's chemical-weapons factories are now out of business or out of the limelight. Only 19 states have ratified the treaty. The U.S. and Russian parliaments have not even begun discussion of ratification.

Admittedly, the treaty might not stop what happened in Tokyo. Terrorists can always prepare small quantities in the kitchen sink. But chemical companies no longer would be able to turn a blind eye to whom they sell to, which would prevent the massive-scale use of chemical weapons. This time we mustn't go back to sleep.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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