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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chemical Arms Ban Waits, Unsigned

LONDON -- Russia, the United States and most other countries have failed to ratify a treaty designed to banish chemical weapons from the face of the earth in time for it to take effect this week.

The treaty, which bans the use, production, and storage of chemical weapons and provides for tough measures to prevent cheating, was signed by more than 120 countries amid much fanfare in Paris exactly two years ago.

Chemical weapons, often known as the "poor man's atomic bomb" because they can be cheap and easy to make, were first used with devastating effect in the trenches of World War I.

At the Paris conference the declared aim was that the treaty would come into force after two years once national parliaments in 65 countries had ratified the agreement. Diplomats said this was not now likely to happen until next year at the earliest.

They said only 19 had so far signed including Spain, Australia, Germany and Mexico. Many of the others who have completed ratification -- like Fiji, Mauritius, the Cook Islands and the Maldives -- are hardly major players in arms control.

Russia and the United States, which along with Iraq are the only countries to admit possession of chemical weapons, had pushed hard to complete the treaty along with other leading United Nations members such as France, Britain and China. But despite widespread concern that weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of terror groups or rogue states in an unstable post-Cold War world, none of these countries has yet ratified the agreement.

Diplomats said the reason in most countries was that national parliaments had been swamped with more pressing business. "It's a question of priorities," said one diplomat.

But Ian Kenyon, a senior official involved in setting up the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Wea-pons which will oversee the treaty once it comes into force, said on Friday further delays could be dangerous. "Significant delay would encourage continued proliferation, increase temptation to develop new kinds of chemical weapons and dissipate the political momentum to ban such weapons," he wrote in the International Herald Tribune.

"The opportunity exists now to eliminate an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. The international community, led by the United States and Russia, should grasp this opportunity."

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which took a quarter of a century to negotiate, succeeds a 1925 Geneva protocol banning only the use of chemical weapons, not their production.

The Geneva agreement failed to prevent the use of poison gas in conflicts ranging from the war between Italy and Abyssinia in the 1930s to the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s.

Chemical weapons vary from simple mustard gas that kills and cripples by causing burns and blisters to much more sophisticated nerve agents that, even in tiny amounts, can kill hundreds within a few seconds.

The CWC gives countries 10 years to destroy their stockpiles and provides for "anytime, anywhere" inspections of suspect factories carried out by a new agency to be based in The Hague.

It will also ban states that are not signatories from importing chemicals that could be used to make poison gas.

Critics have argued that the treaty will not deter those states determined to manufacture chemical weapons since little space and few resources are needed to do so.

The most notable weakness in the treaty is the failure of most Arab states to sign it including Syria, Egypt, Libya and Iraq -- a country that killed thousands of people when it dropped poison gas in 1988 on a part of Iraqi Kurdistan. Since Iraq's defeat by a U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War, UN experts have been destroying Baghdad's chemical weapons stocks.

Arab states, some of them suspected by the West of having secret chemical weapons programs, say the treaty discriminates against them. They say Israel has nuclear weapons and has not been forced to renounce them.