Current as of: June 27, 1997


The Chemical Weapons Convention is a global treaty that bans an entire class of weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons. The CWC bans the production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical weapons. It entered into force April 29, 1997 (see Signatories and Ratifiers).

Chemical weapons pose a threat not just to our military but to innocent civilians, as the 1995 poison gas attack in the Japanese subway showed. Certain aspects of the Chemical Weapons Convention, including its law enforcement requirements and nonproliferation provisions, strengthen existing efforts to fight chemical terrorism. The CWC is a central element of U.S. arms control and nonproliferation policy that strengthens U.S. national security and contributes to global stability.

Under the CWC, each State Party undertakes never, under any circumstances, to:

In addition each State Party undertakes, all in accordance with the provisions of the Convention, to:

Today, we suspect some 20 countries have or may be developing chemical weapons. These weapons are attractive to countries or individuals seeking a mass-destruction capability because they are relatively cheap to produce and do not demand the elaborate technical infrastructure needed to make nuclear weapons. It is therefore all the more vital to establish an international bulwark against the acquisition and use of these weapons.

The CWC is the most ambitious treaty in the history of arms control. Whereas most arms control treaties in the past have only limited weapons, the CWC requires their outright elimination. Parties to the Convention must destroy any and all chemical weapons and chemical weapons production facilities.

The CWC penalizes countries that do not join. Entry into force of the CWC served to isolate the small number of non-participating states as international pariahs and inhibit their access to certain treaty-controlled chemicals. Since many of these chemicals are not only required to make chemical weapons but have important uses in commercial industry, the hold-outs have economic as well as political incentives to join the treaty regime.

The Chemical Weapons Convention and Industry

The CWC is the first arms control treaty to widely affect the private sector. Although the United States does not manufacture chemical weapons, it does produce, process, and consume a number of chemicals that can be used to produce chemical weapons. For example, a solvent used in ballpoint pen ink can be easily converted into mustard gas, and a chemical involved in production of fire retardants and pesticides can be used to make nerve agents. Thus, any Treaty to ban chemical weapons must monitor commercial facilities that produce, process or consume dual-use chemicals to ensure they are not diverted for prohibited purposes.

The CWC provisions covering chemical facilities were developed with the active participation of industry representatives. The verification regime is intrusive enough to build confidence that member states are complying with the treaty, yet it respects industry's legitimate interests in safeguarding proprietary information and avoiding disruption of production.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Fred Webber, President and CEO of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, said, "We have studied this treaty in great detail; we have put it to the test. We think the CWC is a good deal for American industry....The Chemical Weapons Convention protects vital commercial interests. I know because we helped design the reporting forms. And I know because we helped develop inspection procedures that protect trade secrets while providing full assurance that chemical weapons are not being produced...The Chemical Weapons Convention makes good business sense and good public policy...Our simple. Pass the Chemical Weapons Convention."

The CWC and the Military

The CWC specifically allows Parties to maintain chemical weapons defensive programs and does not constrain non-CW military responses to a chemical weapons attack. General John Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said in Senate testimony, "Desert Storm proved that retaliation in kind is not required to deter the use of chemical weapons." He explained, "the U.S. military's ability to deter chemical weapons in a post-CW world will be predicated upon both a robust chemical weapons defense capability, and the ability to rapidly bring to bear superior and overwhelming military force in retaliation against a chemical attack." As Defense Secretary Cheney said during the Gulf War, and as former Defense Secretary Perry reiterated, the U.S. response to a chemical weapons attack would be "absolutely overwhelming" and "devastating."

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March, Lt. General Wesley Clark, on behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "From a military perspective, the Chemical Weapons Convention is clearly in our national interest...The nonproliferation aspects of the Convention will retard the spread of chemical weapons, and in so doing, reduce the probability that U.S. forces may encounter chemical weapons in a regional conflict. Finally, while foregoing the ability to retaliate in kind, the U.S. military retains the wherewithal to deter and defend against a chemical weapons attack.... I strongly support this Convention and respectfully request your consent to ratification."

CWC Implementation

With or without the CWC, the United States is already destroying its chemical weapons in accordance with a law Congress passed more than a decade ago requiring destruction of the bulk of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile. That process is under way, with completion slated by the end of 2004. The CWC now requires all States Parties that possess chemical weapons to destroy their stockpiles by April 2007.

The U.S. is a member of the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, in The Hague, that will oversee implementation of the CWC. U.S. citizens serve as international inspectors and in other key positions relating to verification of the treaty (see Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). In the United States, the Department of Commerce expects to publish regulations pertaining to CWC verification shortly after enactment of the CWC Implementation Act of 1997 passed by the Senate in May, and currently up for House consideration.

The CWC puts into place a legally binding international standard outlawing the acquisition and possession, as well as use, of chemical weapons. The Convention not only requires States Parties to destroy their chemical weapons arsenals but prohibits them from transferring chemical weapons to other countries or assisting anyone in prohibited activities. Combined with restrictions on chemical trade in CWC-controlled chemicals with non-parties, these provisions increase the costs and difficulties of acquiring chemical weapons for states that choose not to participate.

Universal adherence and complete abolition of chemical weapons won't be achieved immediately. But the Convention slows and even reverses chemical weapons proliferation by isolating the small number of rogue state that refuse to join the regime, limiting their access to precursor chemicals, and bringing international political and economic pressures to bear if such states continue their chemical weapons programs.