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Senate should ratify chemical weapons pact

By April 29, the United States Senate must ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention or forfeit any pretense to being a leader in world disarmament efforts.

The Chemical Weapons Convention is an international treaty that would ban production, possession and use of chemical weapons. Under the treaty, existing chemical weapons and production facilities would be destroyed, and a rigorous inspection/verification system would ensure treaty compliance. Nations not joining the weapons treaty would be penalized through tough trade restrictions.

This treaty has had strong bipartisan support. It was started under President Reagan, negotiated and signed by President Bush, and is strongly supported by President Clinton, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense.

This treaty also has wide popular support. Public opinion polls conducted in February show that 84 percent of the U.S. public supports passage.

This is a treaty that has the backing of the U.S. chemical industry. Dow Chemical, DuPont and Union Carbide all helped craft the treaty's provisions and strongly support it.

It does not take much to remember the power of chemical weapons. Two years ago this month, a ruthless poison gas attack in a crowded Japanese subway killed 12 people and injured over 5,500. Not long ago, the Pentagon announced that 20,000 American troops may have been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons during the Gulf War, possibly causing "Gulf War syndrome," whose symptoms include fatigue, memory loss and nausea.

Despite all this, it is far from certain the treaty will be ratified by the Senate where it has some powerful opponents, including Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., who object to financial costs for the U.S. chemical industry, the risk of losing industry secrets and the refusal of rogue states to sign the treaty. Just recently, Helms announced that he would hold the treaty hostage until the administration closes several important agencies such as the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Agency for International Development.

Failure to ratify the treaty, as the Washington-based Council for a Livable World has stated, "would send the signal that the U.S. sees chemical weapons as legitimate weapons of terror."

According to the council, if the Senate fails to ratify the treaty, trade restrictions could cost this country $600 million in lost exports annually. Americans will also be ineligible to join the treaty bodies that influence inspection procedures and budgetary decisions.

Of the 161 countries that signed the treaty, 68 have already ratified it.

The Senate has only six weeks to act before the treaty becomes international law -- with or without us.

Treaty supporters must act now to build support in the Senate where a two-thirds majority vote is needed for ratification. Passage will help pave the way for other important treaties this year, including the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 1997