Chemical Weapons: India’s Forgotten Armaments

Haste Makes Waste

India’s chemical-weapons record holds key lessons


Brahma Chellaney The Times of India December 24, 2009


The Hague: At the annual meeting of state-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), US officials disclosed that their country’s stockpile destruction will not finish before 2021, missing the treaty’s final extended deadline of 2012 by a long shot. In fact, two new US chemical-demilitarization plants will not be ready until nine years from now — an unusually long timeframe for construction. With the US making plain its intention to allow domestic considerations to trump international obligations, Russia has little incentive to meet the final deadline.


More than 12 years after the CWC entered into force, this regime faces several challenges that extend beyond the still-existing stockpiles of chemical weapons (CWs) in the US, Russia, Libya and Iraq. Of the seven declared possessor states, only India, South Korea and Albania have fully eliminated their stockpiles.


Some states strongly suspected of holding CWs, including China and Pakistan, did not declare any arsenal. China was the assumed source of Albania’s stockpile of chemical-warfare agents. It also aided Pakistani and Iranian CW programmes. By declaring former production facilities, China, however, tacitly admitted it built and destroyed CWs before joining the treaty, although the US has accused it of still holding “an inventory of traditional CW agents” and maintaining an “advanced R&D programme”.


One CWC challenge is the lack of universality, with seven key players still not parties to the treaty, including North Korea, Israel, Egypt, Syria and Myanmar. A second challenge is that more than half of the present 188 parties have yet to implement their obligations by enacting enabling legislation and setting up a National Authority. Yet another challenge is that although CWs are the least-important weapons of mass destruction (WMD), they are the most likely to be used by terrorists. Containing that challenge demands effective and full CWC implementation.


CWC has long been seen as a model pact that applies, unlike the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), similar standards to all. But today it faces gnawing uncertainties. For example, how will the anticipated failure of its most-powerful parties, America and Russia, to meet the final 2012 deadline affect the regime’s integrity and authority?  The US, for its part, is now emphasizing non-proliferation and intrusive, more-frequent inspections of national chemical industries. But the word “non-proliferation” doesn’t exist in the CWC text.


Against this background, India’s surprise declaration of its CWs, followed by their rushed destruction, stands out. When it signed the CWC in 1993, India stated it had no CWs or production facilities. But three years later, it stunned everyone, including its own military, by declaring it possessed a CW stockpile — one of only three countries (the others being the US and Russia) to make such a disclosure by the CWC’s June 1996 cut-off date for original signatories. India had secretly built CWs, mostly mustard-gas shells, without integrating the small arsenal with its defence strategy and overall military operations.


Rather than first eliminate its puny, militarily insignificant CW stocks before becoming party to the CWC, India’s penchant to take the moral high ground, whatever the price, found expression in its ratifying the treaty ahead of its regional adversaries, and then rushing to meet the pact’s 10-year deadline for stockpile destruction. It incinerated most of its CWs by the 2007 deadline, even as the other possessor states had set protracted timeframes for stockpile destruction. While the US and Russia sought and got five-year deadline extensions in 2007, India asked for only two years’ more time, fully completing its dismantlement in March 2009. Meeting deadlines took precedence over guaranteeing environmentally safe and sound destruction, with secrecy the leitmotif even in dismantlement. The government’s fiat to the DRDO was to meet the deadlines, come what may.


But India hasn’t earned international respect from such faithful, speedy compliance. Indeed, like in the nuclear realm, India has been left to blow its own trumpet about its “impeccable” credentials. Far from gaining any reward, India has little clout in The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), where no Indian has yet held a top-management position. Worse still, Indian taxpayers have had to pick up the tab for international verification of stockpile destruction, with the obliteration bill surpassing the CW production expenses several fold. Pakistan and China, by contrast, have come out better.


The lack of any public discussion in India over its CW experience is unfortunate, given the lessons it holds for its other WMD capabilities and for Indian policy on the whole. Just as it built CWs of little military utility, India continues to lag far behind its credible minimal nuclear deterrent needs, as underscored by the recent failed nighttime test of Agni-2 and the weaponization of only the diminutive 25-kiloton fission prototype warhead. Open debate is indispensable if India is to learn from its record.


The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research.

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