After 24 years of negotiations, the 39-nation Conference on Disarmament this week finally produced a proposed new treaty designed to eliminate the threat of chemical warfare in the next 20 years.
Though the treaty is a major breakthrough, its potential accomplishments are being oversold and need to be viewed more realistically than has been done so far.Under the pact, signatory nations would be forbidden from using, producing or stockpiling poison gas and other lethal chemical weapons. Though the treaty does not specify punishment for violators, it leaves open the possibility that the United Nations Security Council could take steps against them. The steps could conceivably include military action like that taken against Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait.
After the treaty goes into effect, perhaps as early as next year, signatory nations would have 10 years to eliminate their stockpiles of chemical weapons - with provision for a five-year extension in case of unusual technical, ecological, financial or other problems.
On the basis of such provisions, various observers like the ambassadors of the United States and Germany are speaking in glowing terms about the toughness of the treaty and its potential accomplishments in curbing chemical warfare.
If only it were so. But history is littered with broken promises among nations. This particular new promise is just as subject to the flaws of human nature.
For openers, the chemical warfare treaty won't take effect until 65 nations sign it - and many of them in the Third World are balking on the grounds that the pact is too intrusive.
While the treaty provides for on-site inspections, it falls short of the United States' demand for surprise inspections anytime, anyplace. Instead, the precise terms of access must be negotiated by the inspection teams and the country being inspected. Iraq currently is showing how easy it is to cheat by putting off inspectors until the evidence of guilt can be removed.
It's always going to be particularly easy to cheat on chemical warfare bans because the plants making such weapons can readily be passed off as ordinary pharmaceutical firms.
Besides, what can the United Nations legally do about countries that choose not to sign the pact? Even when signatory nations violate the treaty, how tough is the United Nations likely to get with nations having nuclear weapons and long-range missiles as well as chemical weapons?
If the world is to become a safer place for peace-loving people, it must keep trying to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction, chemical and conventional as well as nuclear. By all means, then, let's ratify the new pact. But when it comes to dealings between nations, words on paper are still notoriously unreliable. So let's go into this idealistic undertaking with our eyes wide open.