|Source: The Economist (US), June 6, 1998 v347 n8071
Title: Bombs, gas and microbes: the desperate efforts to block the
Full Text COPYRIGHT 1998 The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved.
The desperate efforts to block the road to doomsday
India and Pakistan have reawakened the world to the dangers of nuclear weapons. Chemical and biological ones may be just as hard to control
IT DID not need the nuclear tests conducted last month by India and Pakistan to show that the nuclear age, which has dominated the second half of this century, is destined for a longer half-life than many had begun to hope. Indeed, almost a decade since the cold war ended and the threat of nuclear Armageddon that had hung over the world for more than 40 years was supposedly lifted, fears about the spread of weapons of mass destruction--nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them--have, if anything, intensified.
Such fears are not irrational. The collapse of the otherwise unlamented Soviet Union brought with it the danger that ex-Soviet weapons scientists might start to hawk their skills abroad--as some have. In any event, the secrets of building nuclear and chemical weapons are now decades old and increasingly hard to keep. Moreover, regional rivalries that used to be bottled up by America and the Soviet Union lest they led to a superpower confrontation are bottled up no longer. The rivalry between India and Pakistan had long driven a slow-motion arms race, in both missile and nuclear technology, before last month's tit-for-tat testing of bombs. Other potential flashpoints include the Korean peninsula and the Middle East, where tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbours are rising as hopes for peace collapse.
As India and Pakistan have proved, such regional pressures to proliferate should not be underestimated. Yet so far only a few countries have actually crossed the threshold to build weapons of mass destruction. One reason is general abhorrence of their use. The destruction visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 ensured that nuclear weapons were from then on held in reserve as a deterrent, rather than used as weapons for waging war. Similarly, most countries have ruled out the use of chemical weapons as too nasty for the battlefield (though Iraq has already proved one exception, both in its war with Iran and in its determination to suppress its own Kurdish population). Biological weapons--less useful in the heat of battle, as their awful effects may take several days to appear--have likewise been stigmatised.
Restraint, however, has not rested entirely on moral injunctions. As important in halting the spread of the horrible new weapons have been arms-control regimes. These work by raising the technical barriers and the costs to would-be proliferators. The question raised by the decisions of India and Pakistan to step across the nuclear threshold, however, is whether such regimes can really work.
The most intensive efforts have gone into controlling nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970 and was extended indefinitely in 1995, divides the world into two groups: the five nuclear haves (America, Russia, China, Britain and France, which had tested a nuclear weapon before January 1st 1967) and the rest. The haves promise to work towards nuclear disarmament, as part of an effort towards general and complete disarmament, and the have-nots promise not to acquire nuclear weapons of their own, in return for help with their civilian nuclear industry.
Is it a fair bargain? It is certainly one freely entered into by the 186 states that have signed the treaty: only India, Pakistan. Israel, Brazil and Cuba still sit outside.
In its near-universality, the NPT is one of the most successful arms-control regimes on record. Its system of obligations and checks has persuaded many countries that could have built nuclear weapons not to do so. In the 1980s Argentina and Brazil used the monitoring help and methods of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the NPT's watchdog, when they decided to roll back their competing nuclear-weapons programmes. In 1993 South Africa announced that it had built, then dismantled, six nuclear devices before it joined the NPT in 1991--and then invited the IAEA in to check its nuclear records.
Yet the NPT regime at one point nearly collapsed under the burden of its own complacency. After the Gulf war ended in 1991, it emerged that Iraq, which had signed the treaty, had secretly come within a year or two of building itself a bomb, despite regular IAEA inspections. Since the hardest part of building a bomb is getting hold of the highly enriched uranium or plutonium for its explosive core, the inspectors had been spending most of their time--at the behest of member governments--simply accounting for the nuclear material that was known to exist (because countries had declared they had made it). After Iraq had shown up the flaws in that cosy system of checking, and IAEA inspectors had caught North Korea telling lies about exactly how much plutonium it had produced, the agency was asked to devise a new, far more intrusive inspection system that would do more to deter cheats.
Under the new rules, inspectors have to be given much more information about nuclear activities and facilities in a country--and not just those where nuclear fuel is present; countries are also required to pass on more information about their trade in sensitive nuclear materials; and inspectors can use much more sophisticated equipment and sampling, including environmental monitoring, to ensure that no secret nuclear activity is taking place. The new protocol to the NPT incorporating the extra powers required came into force in 1997. It is not binding on a country unless that country has explicitly accepted it, and so far only a handful have.
Alongside the NPT and the work of the IAEA, there are two groups that seek to prohibit or control trade in sensitive nuclear technologies. The Zangger Committee is made up of 33 nuclear-exporting countries and provides a list to the IAEA of items which, if exported to an NPT member, should trigger the application of IAEA safeguards; the group also exchanges confidential information on exports to countries that are outside the treaty. The Nuclear Suppliers' Group has a slightly larger membership and operates a code that goes beyond strict NPT obligations, laying down rules about trade in nuclear exports, including any that could be used for either civilian or military purposes.
However, most recent efforts to control nuclear proliferation have concentrated on bringing into force the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty that was opened for signature in 1996, and on negotiating a new treaty to cut off the production of fissile material for bomb making. Both treaties are seen as crucial if support for the NPT among the non-nuclear states is not to waver. Yet neither will be easy to achieve.
Although 149 countries have put their signatures to a ban on tests, only 13 have fully ratified the treaty. Yet, to ensure that a test ban is truly comprehensive, the treaty cannot come fully into force until ratified at least by all 44 countries that have nuclear reactors on their territory. These include both India and Pakistan, neither of which has signed the test ban, but also other countries, such as Israel (which has signed but not ratified it) and North Korea (which shows no sign of doing either). Assuming the treaty is still in limbo, its members will meet next year to decide how to proceed. One possibility would be to try to bring the proposed monitoring and information-gathering system into effect, as a confidence-building step, before the treaty itself comes legally into force.
Neither a test ban nor a fissile-materials cut-off treaty(which has a lot of support but has been caught up in bickering at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva) would actually oblige countries that have nuclear weapons to abandon them. However, each in its own way would help to cap the ability of those with nuclear weapons to keep building more such weapons and testing ever more sophisticated designs.
The guardians of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which came into force just over a year ago, have in many ways an even harder task. Whereas it takes a lot of deliberate and nowadays increasingly noticeable effort to build up a nuclear-weapons capability, many countries have sizeable chemicals industries. Moreover, many chemicals with humdrum civilian uses can be combined to make deadly weapons.
For many years, it was against international law to use chemical weapons, but not to manufacture or stockpile them. The CWC, by contrast, outlaws all chemical weapons and requires the destruction of all stockpiles. It also bans trade in some chemicals and restricts it in others (non-signatories will find it increasingly difficult to buy chemicals from CWC members). Within 30 days of signing the convention, governments must give an account of the chemicals industry on their territory, with declarations subject to inspection, including short-notice "anywhere, anytime" checks. And, unlike the NPT's rules, the CWC's apply equally to all.
Already the convention has had its successes. Among the handful of countries that declared a chemical-weapons stockpile, which must now be destroyed under the supervision of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), were India and South Korea, neither of which had previously admitted to having a chemical-weapons programme. France and China, which had both previously had chemical-weapons programmes, said they destroyed their weapons shortly before signing the convention (those claims are subject to verification by OPCW inspectors). America and Russia, with the world's biggest stockpiles of chemical weapons (33,000 tonnes and 40,000 tonnes of them respectively), are destroying theirs, although Russia, which has only just started, is desperately short of funds for the job.
In their first year the OPCW's inspectors set a furious pace, with over 200 inspections in 25 countries, checking both on the destruction of weapons stocks and on the accuracy of industrial declarations. The danger, to some of the convention's critics, is that all this could prove ineffectively costly--with inspectors spending too much time on official declarations and too little ferreting out illicit activity.
The convention's chief deterrent power against cheats is the right to carry out short-notice challenge inspections, but none has yet been tried. That is in part because many countries are still in "technical non-compliance", taking an age to pass the national legislation and work through the bureaucratic procedures necessary to collect the industrial information that the convention demands. Governments with these problems are reluctant to challenge information supplied by others, however dubious it looks (Pakistan, Iran and some countries in the Balkans were thought to have chemical-weapons programmes but have not declared any), until they have their own house in order. But challenge inspections have to be shown to be possible if they are to have their intended deterrent effect. The real strength of the convention has therefore yet to be shown.
Other problems loom: barely noticed in the recent furore over the Indian and Pakistani nuclear testing, the American Senate last month attached amendments to enabling legislation that, if allowed to stand, would give the president the right to refuse challenge inspections. Many countries are uneasy about such inspections, which they fear might enable others to walk off with their commercial secrets. But for America to give itself the right to block them, contrary to the convention it has already ratified, sets a bad precedent that others might seek to exploit for sinister purposes.
Another big problem is the number of hold-outs. So far a gratifying 168 countries have signed and no have ratified the convention. But the CWC's most obvious bald spot, the Middle East, is also a region of serious concern about proliferation: though Israel and Jordan have signed the convention, they are still to ratify it, and so are not yet bound by the reporting and inspection regime. Meanwhile, most other Arab states, led by Egypt, have refused to sign, citing Israel's refusal to sign the NPT.
If searching out hidden chemical weapons is like looking for a needle in a haystack, trying to track a hidden biological-weapons programme is like looking for the eye of a needle in a haystack, in theory it takes only a tiny amount of a biological agent, such as botulinum, anthrax or plague, to spread destruction on a vast scale (making biological weapons closer to nuclear weapons in their potential effects). Luckily, turning biological agents into usable weapons is not always easy.
So far more than 130 countries have ratified the 1972 Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BWC), which prohibits development and production of such weapons (their use has been outlawed since 1925). But as yet the convention has no built-in checks. Groups of experts have been trying for several years to devise a new verification protocol, but it is difficult to strike a balance between useful checks and the need for bio-tech companies to preserve their legitimate commercial secrets. Even more so than chemical inspections, biological ones would need to rely heavily on the right to carry out sudden searches to investigate suspicious activity or unusual outbreaks of disease.
But if the biological-weapons convention has survived this long without such weapons being used, why worry? One reason is that, like any other arms-control regime, unless it is seen to be enforced it will fall into disrepute. What is more, as other proliferation loopholes are plugged, biological weapons, which are easier to make than nuclear weapons and more destructive than chemical ones, may become the weapon of choice for rogue governments or terrorist groups.
In 1992 Russia, one of the sponsoring governments for the convention, admitted that in the past it had illegally built biological weapons. Although it now claims to have abandoned the programme, not everyone is convinced. Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese sect that released a nerve gas, sarin, on the Tokyo metro in 1995, killing a dozen people, is now known to have experimented with biological agents too, which it attempted to spray from rooftops and trucks both in central Tokyo and near American military bases in Japan. None of the experiments appears to have worked.
But it was Iraq's industrial-sized biological-weapons programme, uncovered by UN inspectors after the Gulf war, that injected the new urgency into efforts to bolster the BWC. After repeated denials, Iraq eventually confessed to producing biological weapons. Some biological agents had even been loaded into missile warheads and artillery shells ready for use against American and allied troops. Although inspectors have since uncovered many of the details of the programme, Iraq has still failed to account for several tonnes of the medium used for growing microbes and other specialised materials. The fear is that iraq could restart production of anthrax and other substances within weeks unless the inspectors are allowed to complete their job.
Iraq and other countries suspected of trying to develop biological weapons often got their start in the business by ordering toxic microbes from western germ banks, ostensibly for the development of vaccines and suchlike. This has added to calls for much tighter controls. At the moment trade in such substances is monitored only by the Australia Group, an informal body of more than 20 supplier countries formed in 1985 to harmonise export controls on chemicals that could be used to produce either chemical or biological weapons.
Range of possibilities
But even if a verification protocol is eventually bolted on to the BWC, some governments are getting nervous about the threat from biological weapons, which can be distributed by anything from crop-spraying aircraft to aerosol canisters. America is considering the stockpiling of vaccines for use in the event of a biological threat against civilians (vaccines are already available for American troops).
Usually, however, the quickest way to deliver a bomb, and the one that is hardest to defend against, is by missile. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) was set up in 1987 in an attempt to restrict the sales of equipment and technology for missiles with a range (300 kilometres, or 190 miles) and payload (500kg, or 1,100lb) that would enable them to carry nuclear warheads. Export guidelines were later extended to cover missiles capable of carrying any type of weapon of mass destruction. The MTCR now has some 30 members.
But the controls are far from perfect. Russia is a member of the MTCR, but Russian companies have long been accused of supplying technology and know-how to anyone who will pay for it, most recently Iran, which is thought to be trying to build a new missile with a range of up to 1,300km, capable of striking Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. China, a major exporter of missile technology in the past, has said it will keep to the basic guidelines of the MTCR, but refuses to join it. It has been repeatedly criticised by America for providing missiles and know-how to others, including Pakistan. Other hard cases include Iraq (which is banned by UN rules from building missiles of more than 150km range but has been caught trying to circumvent the restrictions), Libya, Syria and North Korea. Both Iran and Pakistan are thought to have benefited from North Korea's missile programme to develop longer-range missiles.
The spread of weapons technologies seems inexorable. The best protection is to persuade countries to forgo particularly dangerous technologies in their own interests. Both India and Pakistan may find that, once the euphoria over their demonstrated nuclear prowess has faded, their security is not improved, indeed may even be worsened, by having--and facing--powerful new weapons loaded on missiles that bring a hair-trigger instability to any future crisis.
In the end, getting at the roots of regional disputes is the only sure way to reduce the danger of a hideously lethal exchange Arms-control regimes can help by building confidence that obligations not to build or to deploy certain deadly weapons are being kept. Yet such regimes are only as strong as the will of those whose task it is to enforce them, it is the hard cases that will test the world's resolve to prevent the further spread of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. India and Pakistan are the latest of these. They will not be the last.