Arms Regulation and Disarmament - Other weapons of mass destruction

In 1946, the General Assembly envisaged not only the elimination of atomic weapons, but also of all other major weapons of mass destruction. The dangers of such weapons to humanity cannot be underestimated. Even in World War I, "first-generation" chemical agents caused some 1.3 million casualties, of which over 100,000 were fatal. In 1948, the Commission for Conventional Armaments, in setting out the limits of its jurisdiction, also defined weapons of mass destruction as including, besides atomic explosive weapons, radioactive material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future with comparable destructive effects.

Chemical and Biological Weapons

As mentioned earlier, the powerful sense of outrage generated by the use of chemical weapons during the First World War resulted in the signing of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banning the use, but not the production, possession, or stockpiling, of chemical or bacteriological weapons. As a consequence, possession and acquisition, particularly of chemical weapons, has continued and, indeed, in recent years has proliferated. Many parties to the Geneva Protocol have included reservations or statements with their signatures that open the door to the possible retaliatory use of such weapons.

The protocol also did not provide for mechanisms to verify compliance or for procedures to deal with violations. Recognizing the shortcomings of the protocol, the international community continued its quest for a complete ban on chemical and biological weapons. Although treated as a single issue previously, it was agreed in 1971 to separate consideration of chemical and biological weapons in the hope that an early ban on biological weapons could be achieved.

Biological Weapons

The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction entered into force on 26 March 1975 and was hailed as a first step towards a comprehensive ban on biological weapons.

The convention prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition, or retention of microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or methods of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes. It also prohibits weapons, equipment, or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict. The agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and means of delivery held by states that became party to the convention should be destroyed or diverted to peaceful purposes not later than nine months after the entry into force of the convention for that state. Furthermore, any state party that finds that any other state party is not complying with the provisions of the convention may lodge a complaint with the Security Council.

In 1986, states parties decided to initiate a set of confidence-building measures in the form of a voluntary exchange of information and data. The information to be exchanged included data on high-risk research centers and laboratories; outbreaks of infectious diseases; publication of results of biological research; and the promotion of contacts among scientists in biological research.

In 1991, the states parties established an Ad Hoc Group of Governmental Experts to identify and examine potential verification measures from a scientific and technical standpoint. A majority of states parties have requested a special conference to review the results of the expert group.

In December 1996, the Fourth Review Conference of States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention held a two-week session. The conference supported intensified work by an ad hoc group to design a verification protocol for the international treaty. The conference expressed hope that the group would reach agreement on a draft protocol to be considered by a special conference of states parties to the convention as soon as possible and before the Fifth Review Conference.

The Fifth Review Conference was convened from 19 November to 7 December 2001. Due to persisting divergent views and positions on certain key issues, however, the conference decided to adjourn its proceedings and resume its work in November 2002. The conference was reconvened from 11 to 15 November 2002 in Geneva. States parties adopted a final report that included a decision to hold annual meetings in the next three years leading up to a Review Conference in 2006. The Fifth Review Conference was held against a background of heightened global concern about the threat of biological agents such as anthrax being used as weapons. Extensive negotiations and drafting sessions were held as the international treaty's states parties sought to respond to recent developments and demands that the Biological Weapons Convention be vigorously and thoroughly enforced. Ninety-one of 144 States parties attended the session.

Chemical Weapons

In 1966, with the adoption of its first resolution on the question of chemical and bacteriological (biological) warfare, the General Assembly commenced a long process of international discussions and negotiations on issues relevant to the question. The adoption of the resolution reflected growing international awareness of the dangers involved with the possible use of such weapons of mass destruction.

The question of chemical and biological weapons was treated as a single issue requiring a unified approach before 1971. After agreement had been reached on the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, attention turned more to the chemical weapons aspect and numerous proposals were put forward in the multilateral negotiating body in Geneva, including the complete texts of drafts conventions. In 1980, the Conference on Disarmament began working toward a convention on chemical weapons, but progress was evident only late in the decade. The former Soviet Union and the United States, the only states that had admitted to possessing stockpiles of chemical weapons, began a series of bilateral contacts that led to agreement between them on sensitive issues of verification of implementation of a convention, including the question of challenge and on-site inspection.

The actual use of chemical weapons during the war between Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s, confirmed by an investigative team appointed by the Secretary-General, focused greater international attention on the need to reach early agreement on the prohibition of these weapons. In 1991, the war in the Persian Gulf and the possibility that chemical weapons might again be used added even greater urgency to the efforts to rid the world of chemical weapons as soon as possible. On 8 November 2002, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1441 calling on Iraq to immediately disarm itself of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. The threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was regarded by the UN as great, and the resolution included language that did not preclude the use of force against Iraq for noncompliance.

The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction was opened for signature on 13 January 1993 in Paris, France. The required number of ratifications (65) was completed in October 1996 and the treaty entered into force 29 April 1997, by which time a total of 87 countries had ratified it, including the US (which ratified it 24 April 1997). One year later, a total of 108 states were party to the convention. By that time the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), headquartered in The Hague, Netherlands, had already worked with nine cooperating states that provided the OPCW with information on past or existing chemical weapons programs. The OPCW had completed almost 200 inspections and witnessed the destruction of approximately 1,000 tons of nerve agents in its first year. By November 2002, 147 countries had ratified the chemical weapons convention.

The convention is considered a genuine disarmament measure in that it provides for the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. Its importance lies in the fact that these weapons exist in large quantities, have been used in combat in the past, and are believed to be possessed by a large number of countries. Further, the verification system provided for under the convention is the most comprehensive to have been formulated for a multilateral agreement in the field of disarmament.

By the terms of the convention, states parties undertake never, under any circumstances, to use chemical weapons, nor to develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, or retain chemical weapons, or transfer them, directly or indirectly, to anyone. They also commit themselves never to engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons nor to assist, encourage, or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited under the convention. Within a period of 10 years, each state party undertakes to destroy chemical weapons and production facilities that it may own or possess, or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction or control, as well as all chemical weapons it has abandoned on the territory of another state party. The convention also bans the use of riot control agents as a method of warfare.

The states parties are required to submit detailed declarations on any chemical weapons they might possess, on old and abandoned chemical weapons they might have on their territory, and on any related chemical weapons production facilities, as well as on the plans and implementation of the destruction of such. They have agreed to a comprehensive and graduated system of routine inspections for international monitoring of the implementation of their obligations under the convention. Also provided for is a system of short-notice, challenge inspections, by which each state party may request an international inspection team to monitor any facility or location in the territory of another state party, which is obliged to allow the inspection, for the purpose of clarifying and resolving any questions concerning possible non-compliance. An inspected state party may protect activities and installations that it considers unrelated to the inspection request.

New Weapons of Mass Destruction

The question of new weapons of mass destruction has been under consideration since the mid-1970s in the General Assembly and the Conference on Disarmament, which have stated that effective measures should be taken to prevent the emergence of such weapons. The former USSR and other nations supported a general agreement precluding laboratory development of weapons of mass destruction, as well as specific agreements as relevant possibilities are identified; other states feel that meaningful, verifiable agreements are practical only for specific, emergent weapons or systems.

A list of specific types of potential weapons of mass destruction presented by the former USSR in 1979 included the following: radiological weapons, using radiological materials, a possibility already foreseen in 1948; particle-beam weapons, using charged or neutral particles to affect biological targets; and infrasonic "acoustic radiation" weapons and electromagnetic weapons operating at certain radio frequencies, either of which could have injurious effects on human organs.

Radiological Weapons

At the 1976 session of the General Assembly, the United States proposed an instrument prohibiting radioactive weapons. This proposal led to bilateral negotiations with the USSR and the submission in 1979 of an agreed joint initiative for consideration by the then Committee on Disarmament.

Since 1980, the multilateral negotiating body has considered proposals for reaching agreement on a convention to prohibit the development, production, stockpiling, or use of radiological weapons. Some nonaligned and neutral states of the Conference on Disarmament, while recognizing the potential danger of the development of radiological weapons, considered that a military attack on a civilian nuclear power installation represented a more dangerous risk of mass destruction caused by the release of radiological substances. The former Soviet Union and the United States felt this idea altered the basic concept and content of the joint initiative.

Finding an acceptable way to cover both a ban on radiological weapons in the traditional sense and a prohibition of attacks against peaceful nuclear facilities has since been the main problem in efforts to negotiate a radiological weapons convention. This question has remained on the agenda of the Conference on Disarmament and the General Assembly, but differences of view concerning the question of the prohibition of attacks against nuclear facilities have persisted. In the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Conference on Disarmament put more attention on the problem of radiological weapons. The possibility of terrorists obtaining possession of radiological material and constructing a radiation dispersion weapon or "dirty bomb" was one taken seriously by the Conference. The IAEA and other bodies were working on ways of improving the physical control of such material in 2002.

PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT FROM MILITARY ACTIVITY In recent history, the world has viewed with mounting concern the specter of deliberate destruction of the environment as a method of warfare. The damage inflicted on the environment during the war in the Persian Gulf in 1991 and 1992 led to the inclusion of a new item on the agenda of the General Assembly, entitled "Exploitation of the environment as a weapon in times of armed conflict and the taking of practical measures to prevent such exploitation."

Prohibition of Environmental Modification

In July 1974, following a summit meeting between the United States and the USSR, the two powers advocated measures to preclude the use of environmental modification techniques for hostile military purposes. This proposal led to consideration of the question in the General Assembly and the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament and the opening for signature on 18 May 1977 of the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques. The convention entered into force in 1978. In essence, the convention bolsters existing provisions in international law protecting the environment by outlawing environmental modification techniques that would cause widespread, long-lasting, or severe effects to another state. During the process that led to the convention, many states decided it too narrowly defined the scope of the techniques to be banned. By 2002, the convention had acquired only 68 signatures.

The convening of the UN conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the specter of oil wells set ablaze and a massive oil spill in the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War of 1991–92 intensified the debate over the environmental consequences of war. Some of the states parties to the convention made it known that they would ask the Secretary-General of the UN, as depositary (the holder of the legal, certified copies of the treaty), to convene a consultative committee of experts to provide views on the scope and application of the provisions of the convention. The states parties also have confirmed that the use of herbicides as an environmental modification technique was a method of warfare that fell within the scope of the prohibition of the convention if such use upset the ecological balance of a region, thus causing widespread, long-lasting, and severe effects.

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