The United States and Russia are required to have eliminated their respective stockpiles of chemical warfare materials exactly one year from today; however, those familiar with each side's destruction efforts have long known that neither country will meet the deadline.
Despite breaching that mandate, it is highly unlikely either nation will face sanctions or other disciplinary actions when the Chemical Weapons Convention member states meet in Geneva this December, experts predict. Addressing the matter ahead of time would avoid complications when the final deadline passes and eliminate a drawn-out follow-up process, they said.
"I don't see any room here for punitive measures, for sanctions," said Serguei Batsanov, who served as Moscow's chief negotiator on the convention in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The philosophy behind the treaty is to first try to understand why violations occur, then decide what steps are necessary to "redress" the situation within a certain time frame, Batsanov, director of the Geneva office for the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, told Global Security Newswire in a telephone interview this week.
"Both countries have stated publicly they will not be able to [meet the deadline]. The question is not will they, the question really is what is the schedule afterwards" and how the convention's implementing body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, handles the situation, according to Ralf Trapp, a France-based consultant on chemical and biological arms control.
"But the delay, at this stage, is essentially unavoidable," he added.
The convention, which entered into force in 1997, prohibits the development, production, stockpiling or use of lethal chemical materials such as mustard blister agent and the nerve agents VX and sarin. The pact originally demanded that all member states destroy any stockpiles of banned substances by April 29, 2007. However, countries could ask for extensions of up to five years, pushing the end date to 2012.
At one time the United States and Russia possessed 90 percent of the world's known chemical weapons. Both states received the full five-year deadline delays in December 2006. Washington does not anticipate disposal operations wrapping up before 2021, while Moscow claims it needs until at least 2015 to completely destroy its stockpile.
Albania, India and South Korea have all eliminated their declared stockpiles of chemical warfare materials. The only two other CWC "possessor" member states are Libya and Iraq. Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia and Syria have yet to sign the pact while Israel and Myanmar have signed on but not yet ratified.
In December 2009, the OPCW Executive Council asked its then-chairman, Ambassador Jorge Lomónaco Tonda of Mexico, to start informal consultations with the United States and Russia on issues related to meeting the final extended deadline, according to Michael Luhan, spokesman for The Hague, Netherlands-based organization.
The council stressed that the guidelines resulting from those meetings "should not undermine [the treaty] or lead to rewriting or reinterpreting its provisions," he told GSN this week by e-mail. A report on the consultations will be presented when the 41-member Executive Council meets next week, Luhan added.
Details on the deadline issues and guidelines were not immediately available.
As of April 27, the United States had destroyed nearly 86 percent of the 29,918 tons of warfare agents it held when the treaty entered into force in 1997, according to Greg Mahall, spokesman for the U.S. Army's Chemical Materials Agency. The service is responsible for destroying 90 percent of the total U.S. stockpile of chemical warfare materials.
The Army branch "remains committed to fulfilling its destruction mission of the declared chemical weapons stockpile by 2012," Mahall stated this week in an e-mail message to GSN.
The remaining 10 percent of the U.S. stockpile is due to be eliminated at two still-unfinished chemical neutralization plants at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky and the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado.
Construction of the Colorado facility is approximately 77 percent finished, while its Kentucky counterpart is roughly 32 percent complete, Miguel Monteverde, a spokesman for the Defense Department's Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program, said this week by e-mail.
Meanwhile, Russia had destroyed about 49 percent of its stockpile as of February, according to Paul Walker, security and sustainability chief at the environmental organization Global Green USA. He noted that the country's chemical arsenal constituted roughly 40,000 metric tons of materials at its peak.
"Ironically, we see that the Americans may pull their schedule back a bit from 2021 and the Russians may extend theirs out beyond 2015, so the two programs, somewhat separate from each other, are converging on schedule the closer we get to 2012," Walker told GSN last week in a telephone interview.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department's Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Bureau, which has policy oversight for the Chemical Weapons Convention, declined to comment for this article. The Russian Embassy in Washington also did not respond to a request for comment.
In recent years some CWC states parties, particularly Iran, have issued strong statements condemning the United States for missing the 2012 deadline, which "have really not been helpful in any way," Walker said.
In a 2009 statement to the full membership of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Iranian delegation warned that there "would be obvious moral, political, and legal consequences for deviating" from the commitment to destroy chemical materials on schedule.
"Any breach of the provisions of the convention would consequently endanger the trust which exists among states parties. We should avoid sowing the seeds of mistrust by allowing" a breach, the delegation argued.
Convention member nations could pursue punishments such as stripping Washington and Moscow of their voting rights within the organization or cutting off trade of dual-use industrial chemicals listed in the pact.
Most interested parties, though, understand that neither Washington nor Moscow intentionally violated the international treaty, making it unlikely that the former Cold War rivals will face punitive measures this year or afterward, experts said.
"I think, in the end, everybody except those with ulterior political motives within the states parties are really accepting of that fact that that it's been difficult," according to Walker.
"No one back in [1992 or 1993] really understood how complicated and expensive and contentious and dangerous the demilitarization process would really be," he told GSN, alluding to the multitude of local and regional requirements the Pentagon had to satisfy in constructing its chemical disposal sites.
Walker noted that Albania unintentionally breached its 2007 deadline for disposal of about 16 tons of chemical warfare materials by a few months after its high-temperature incinerator burned out. In that instance, the treaty organization accepted that the violation was beyond the nation's control and asked to receive weekly progress updates, he said.
"The reason why the U.S. and Russia couldn't ... make it by April 2012 is not bad will," according to Batsanov, who last year was appointed to an OPCW advisory committee to look at the future evolution of the treaty. "Simply, the process turned out to be much more complicated, much more resource-intensive."
Trapp said that while some of the 188 member states to international organization are deeply concerned about the upcoming violation others see the delay as simply "unfortunate." He did not name specific nations.
"I hope it will very much remain an internal problem of the OPCW," Trapp said. He stressed that the paramount concern is to maintain the commitment to destroy chemical materials as quickly as possible.
Under the terms of the 1997 convention, the OPCW Executive Council and the full membership can take measures to "redress" a violation and ensure compliance. If the breach remains unresolved, the organization can ultimately refer a specific case to the U.N. Security Council.
The document does not spell out what specific steps member nations can take to achieve compliance, leaving the decisions to the governing bodies.
Walker predicted that the Executive Council would begin to coalesce around a strategy to address the pending violations by the United States and Russia at its session next week in The Hague.
He said one option would be to maintain the "status quo." Or rather, "do nothing and accept the facts the Russians and American are working and hope for the best," he said, before dismissing it as "unrealistic" because it would denigrate the importance of the destruction deadlines.
Another alternative would be for the member states to hold an amendment conference that would open up the pact for another possible extension of the final deadline.
"I would suggest that going down the amendment track is very unlikely," Trapp told GSN.
Batsanov, too, said he doubted an amendment conference would take place as it could allow member nations to pursue rules that would weaken the convention, such as limiting inspections of chemical industry sites.
Instead, according to Walker, the treaty organization is likely to require additional confidence-building measures such as on-site inspections of chemical disposal sites every six months by OCPW officials, including Director General Ahmet Üzümcü and the present Executive Council chairman, Ambassador Jean Francois Blarel of France, as well as visits to Washington and Moscow.
In addition, OPCW officials might ask for increased reporting of each country's chemical destruction figures, according to Walker. Right now both the United States and Russia submit data every three months, he said.
Trapp agreed that continued strict OPCW verification and visits to destruction facilities by officials from the Executive Council would help to increase transparency and confidence that both nations are genuinely committed to completing their destruction operations.
However, "there's only so much you can do by reporting," he told GSN, adding that the Colorado and Kentucky disposal plants are not yet online and therefore not generating data.
Trapp also presumed that the Executive Council would establish "targets and goals," short of renewed formal deadlines, for the complete elimination of Washington and Moscow's chemical warfare materials.
Batsanov said the Conference of States Parties might set a date by which the violation should be successfully redressed. In the meantime, both countries should issue "authoritative statements" that they will wrap up their efforts as soon as possible, he said in a telephone interview this week.
While all three experts are confident the 2012 deadline issue will be resolved before the end of the calendar year, none would say when destruction operations might cease.
"Any prediction I've ever seen in the past about the progress of chemical weapons destruction operations, in the end, has turned out to be wrong," Trapp added.
Other 2012 Issues
In addition to the United States, there are other member states and special projects under the treaty's purview that are also inching closer to their respective completion dates.
Most urgent is Libya, which this year faces deadlines of May 15 to destroy its cache of mustard gas and December 31 to eliminate its precursor agents.
Western leaders remain concerned that embattled Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi could attempt to use his remaining stores of chemical warfare materials against opposition forces. The regime is estimated to possess 9.5 metric tons of mustard blister agent and a quantity of chemical warfare precursor materials.
Tripoli has not requested or been granted any extension beyond its present deadlines, according to OPCW spokesman Luhan.
Walker said that next week's Executive Council meeting would focus primarily on Libya.
"If they don't formally ask in writing, should the Executive Council still give them an extension?" he asked. He added that the country had ordered a new heat exchanger to carry out its destruction work but that the ship carrying the device was turned away by the naval blockade of the North Africa nation.
Another project that is required to be completed one year from today is the disposal of chemical munitions Japan's military left behind in China at the close of World War II.
"That deadline remains unchanged and in place," Luhan told GSN.
Under a 1999 deal with Beijing, Tokyo agreed to supply the funds, equipment and structures needed to dispose of the abandoned chemical munitions.
Estimates for the total number of weapons left underground or discarded in lakes and rivers varies from hundreds of thousands to millions, according to Walker.
A third project that is not bound by the April 2012 deadline is the elimination of several hundred abandoned chemical weapons found in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The materials are believed to have been produced before 1991 and deteriorated to the point of being unusable.
The Persian Gulf state is not subject to the deadline next year because it joined the convention in 2009 and "because of the circumstances of its remnant stockpiles the council has not yet decided on its destruction deadline," according to Luhan.
Trapp argued that the OPCW Executive Council and the Conference of States Parties should treat the completion of the China and Iraq projects separately from the United States and Russia because they do not represent traditional stockpiles.
"I would separate these issues because they're really qualitatively different," he told GSN. "You're talking about in one case operation destruction programs which got delayed, and in the other case you're talking about programs that hadn't yet started until recently."
"They're not really comparable to that extent," he said.
DON'T MISS TODAY'S TOP STORIES