Poison Gas Laws: Still Leaking

The New York Times
March 25, 1990, Section 4, Page 19

When Libya’s poison-gas plant burned down last week, many people were relieved. Instead, they should have been horrified – just as they were by the recent revelations that Czechoslovakia’s ousted Communist Government had shipped 1,000 tons of lethal Semtex explosives to Libya.

The fire at the plant in Rabta is a symbol of defeat. It did nothing to solve the larger problem of chemical arms proliferation or to mitigate West Germany’s leading role in the spread of nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and long-range missiles to the third world.

After months of denial, German leaders admitted in February 1989 that they had known since 1980 that Libya was developing a chemical-weapons plant. They also acknowledged that they had known since 1986 that a German chemical firm supervised its construction. The resulting investigations led to arrests in 1989 and to pressure for reform of West German export laws.

But now, a year later – even at a time when West Germany is trying to calm its neighbors’ fears about unification – Bonn’s proposals to restrict dangerous exports are mired in the West German Parliament. U.S. officials fear that the restraints will be shelved as reunification crowds other issues off the agenda. Moreover, U.S. Government sources say West German companies are still secretly exporting dangerous materials and technologies.

If sabotage is the only restraint on the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the world should pray for many more disasters. Merely to undo what German suppliers have wrought would require these steps:

  • An explosion at Iraq’s German-built poison-gas plant at Samarra, a source of the mustard and nerve gases that Iraq used against Iran and Kurdish rebels from 1983 to 1988.
  • Demolition of Iraq’s Saad-16 armaments project at Mosul, and all of its German-supplied drilling machines, wind tunnels and other missile-production equipment.
  • Destruction of a Pakistani plant that enriches uranium powder to nuclear-weapons-grade material, smuggled out of West Germany between 1977 and 1980.
  • Draining hundreds of tons of heavy water, illegally exported from China, Norway and the Soviet Union by a West German broker, from India’s reactors, where it is producing nuclear-weapons-grade plutonium.
  • The abduction of German-trained engineers in Brazil and the theft of German-supplied equipment that the Brazilians have diverted from their civilian nuclear-power industry to a secret nuclear-weapons program.

West Germany is not the only culprit. Japanese companies built a plant at Rabta (it survived last week’s fire) that makes corrosion-resistant containers for packaging chemical agents in weapons.

The fact is that last-ditch measures don’t work. Libya’s strongman, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, still has stocks of mustard and nerve gas that survived the Rabta fire. If he is determined to make more, he may find stealthier suppliers to help him build another, more secure plant. When he does so, he will still have trained personnel and operational experience from Rabta to guide his efforts.

In so doing, Colonel Qaddafi would be following the lead of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. After Israel’s 1981 air raid destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor, Mr. Hussein expanded his weapons factories, dispersed them and hardened them against future strikes. Instead of 11th-hour raids, the first step is for West Germany to pass last year’s export reforms. Companies everywhere that sell sensitive materials to proliferator states should be denounced, and sanctions should be imposed on the governments that fail to control them.

Finally, with the political changes in Europe, arms proliferation must rank higher on everyone’s national-security agenda. Eastern European countries will soon become eligible to import Western technology, technology that their cash-starved governments will be tempted to re-export to the third world.

As the superpowers’ global influence erodes, regional buyers like Iraq will become more ambitious, aggressive and dangerous.

With U.S.-Soviet arms reductions gaining momentum, developing countries will be the most likely sites of conflict in the 1990’s. The only sure way to keep weapons of mass destruction out of their hands is to cut off Western exports at the source.

Gary Milhollin is director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control; Jennifer Weeks is a research specialist with the project.