The Senate begins debate today on a treaty that would ban the development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons. But it has been a long time coming: Treaty negotiations began under President Ronald Reagan in 1984, and the agreement was signed by 130 countries (including the United States) at the end of the Bush administration, in 1993.
Members of the Senate must decide whether to ratify the agreement, formally guaranteeing that the United States will abide by its terms.
The Senate is expected to vote tomorrow night, but the outcome is too close to call. President Clinton has lobbied strenuously in recent weeks, but ratification requires 67 "yes" votes -- and the Senate's Republican majority is split. Republican leader Trent Lott has not announced how he will vote.
Mark Matthews of The Sun's Washington Bureau reports the arguments senators are making for and against the treaty.
Is this the first attempt to control chemical arms?
Efforts began after World War I, after the use of mustard gas shocked the world. A 1925 convention banned the use of chemical weapons, but not their research, development, production or storage.
The weapons resurfaced most recently in the 1980s, when Iraq used them against Iran and then against its own Kurdish population.
U.S. officials have recently disclosed that an Iraqi ammunition dump blown up at the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991 contained chemical weapons agents.
What does the new treaty do?
It forbids the development, production, use, storage or transfer of chemical weapons. It also requires that any such weapons that exist be destroyed. It calls for creation of an organization to enforce the treaty's rules, controlled by a conference of all the members and a 41-member executive council.
Will it eliminate all chemical arms?
No. Even if all the countries that signed the treaty really abided by it -- a big "if" in the case of Iran, for instance -- other countries known to have the ability to make chemical weapons have not signed. These include Syria, Libya, Iraq and North Korea. Any of them could threaten U.S. troops overseas.
The treaty also cannot eliminate the possibility of a terrorist attack, such as the release of a nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995.
Then what is the point of the treaty?
Supporters say it will make the world safer by increasing pressure on countries that try to produce such weapons, and give the United States and like-minded countries better tools to catch them.
The treaty will establish a tough international inspection system, supporters say. The treaty also restricts trade in the materials needed to develop chemical weapons, significantly raising the costs of producing them. Countries that refuse to join the treaty thus risk becoming the focus of attention and suspicion.
Will violators be punished?
The treaty calls for the United Nations Security Council to take a series of escalating actions against violators: condemnation, economic sanctions and -- if those fail to produce results -- military action.
Who supports the agreement in the United States?
The treaty has the almost unanimous support of Democrats, led by Clinton, and of most senior members from the Bush administration. An exception is former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who has spoken against it. Moderate Republicans in Congress tend to support it.
So does much of the chemical industry, which could face trade restrictions imposed by other countries if the United States fails to ratify the agreement.
Who is opposed?
On Capitol Hill, opposition is led by Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican and Foreign Relations Committee chairman, who delayed its reaching the Senate floor for debate. Most senior members from the Reagan administration are opposed, too.
What are their arguments against the treaty?
In Helms' words, "It is not global, it is not verifiable, it is not constitutional and it will not work. Otherwise, it's a fair treaty."
The treaty has not been signed by some of the governments it is intended to control, such as Iraq and Libya. And because the technology and raw materials for chemical weapons are widely available, verification will be difficult, if not impossible, opponents say.
They also complain that the treaty will allow international inspectors to poke into American chemical manufacturing plants. And it requires the United States to share information about defensive measures.
Have Russia and China approved the treaty?
No. Both countries are waiting for the United States to act first. But treaty opponents here want them to ratify the treaty before the United States.
So if given the chance, what changes would the opponents make?
At a minimum, they would remove the sections that call for the disclosure and sharing of defensive measures, and for the sharing of certain chemicals, scientific data and equipment.
The response of treaty supporters?