For over ten years, and under both the Reagan and Bush Administrations, the U.S. fully participated in the negotiation of the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). But despite several years of bipartisan cooperation, the treaty nearly did not survive its bitter, partisan trip through the U.S. Senate. Republican Senator Jesse Helms, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, used the CWC as a bargaining chip, holding up action in his committee to draw attention to his proposals to reorganize the U.S. foreign policy system. Helms’ move stirred up prominent current and former U.S. officials to speak out on both sides of the issue. The opening months of 1997 were consumed with statements, rallies, petitions and editorials all focused on whether the U.S. should or should not embrace the convention.
The CWC was set to enter into force on April 29, 1997 with or without U.S. ratification. However, for the treaty to have international success and legitimacy, the U.S. needed to ratify it. In addition, the U.S. needed to deposit its instrument of ratification prior to the treaty’s entry into force in order to ensure that it would play a strong role in the initial stages of CWC implementation.
Before the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 was the only international agreement that addressed chemical weapons. However, the inherent weakness of the 1925 treaty is that it only bans the use of chemical weapons, meaning that research, development, production, storage and stockpiling of chemical weapons remained perfectly legal. In essence, this left the international community with no legal means to raise objections to any nation’s chemical weapon activities short of actual use.
The Chemical Weapons Convention’s strength is that it bans all non-defensive chemical weapons activities. It also mandates that each state member of the CWC pass legislation to criminalize activities prohibited under the convention. This gives nations the means to prosecute individuals or groups, including terrorist organizations, acting within their borders to pursue chemical weapon capabilities. A stunning example of the necessity for this occurred in Japan in 1995. Members of the cult Aum Shinrikyo released poison gas into the Tokyo subway killing 12 people and injuring many more. The Japanese police had knowledge of the plot but had no legal means to search for or seize shipments of chemicals to prevent the attack. Within 6 months of the attack, Japan had ratified the CWC. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the increased awareness of terrorist groups worldwide, giving states the legal means to investigate non-state actors involved in chemical weapons activities is even more important.
More information is available on the timeline of U.S. ratification, the main positions and issues, and the key players and their roles in the U.S. ratification of the CWC. A complete list of documents from the time is also available.