February 29, 2020
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The Curtain Lifts

India lets out a secret about its chemical weapons armoury

The Curtain Lifts

ON June 26, India took a major step towards the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. Complying with the obligations of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), India declared its stockpile of chemical weapons, its production and storage facilities, at the Hague, where the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is headquartered.

But it added a caveat. "Adequate safeguards are in place for giving primacy to our national security interests and for protection of the interests and rights of our chemical industry. Should a situation threatening our security arise, our response will not be found wanting and our compliance with the CWC will not in any way compromise the security of our country," said an official statement issued in New Delhi the day of the Hague declaration.

Now, details about India's chemical weapons programme will be recorded with the OPCW. Besides the US and China, 37 other countries also filed their declarations. Analysts feel that India's announcement reflects a confidence in its conventional and non-conventional arms capability. India took this step despite Pakistan not having ratified the convention. Many see it as a signal that India is not likely to abandon its nuclear weapons programme so easily.

New Delhi has been in the forefront of the CWC right from the beginning. In fact, it has been a trifle over-enthusiastic in its approach. Last September, still in the midst of the bruising debate over the CTBT, India ratified the treaty. The haste it showed was quite unnecessary. But its enthusiasm was evident earlier too when even before approving the treaty, India placed export curbs on some chemicals. Clearly, it was desperate to show off its disarmament credentials.

But this over-reaching almost backfired. Earlier this year, there were signals that the US, China, Russia and Pakistan may not ratify the treaty. A panicky Indian government announced on March 17 in Parliament that India would be forced to "review the situation for an appropriate response if other major signatories do not ratify and deposit their instruments of ratification". But by April 29, when the treaty came into force, both China and the US (the Clinton administration had to haggle with Congress to get its clearance for the ratification) had announced their decision to go ahead with the treaty. Russia and Pakistan have still to give their nod.

India had vigorously supported the CWC during its extended negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament. It has for long argued that it is willing to be a party to any disarmament measure that is non-discriminatory. It has refused to be party to the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty (NPT) and the CTBT, arguing that both are discriminatory. Last year, New Delhi backtracked from signing the CTBT citing security interests of the country. Last September, in its hurry to pave the way for CWC ratification, the argument used to fob off CTBT was not found good enough. It wasn't even considered good enough to wait and see if other major signatories would stamp their approval.

The doubts about the CWC in March showed that the government had made a strategic blunder and it was seeking a way out of it. So it came as a relief when both China and the US announced they would ratify the treaty. There was much jubilation when the Indian representative, Prabhakar Menon, was elected chairman of the 41-member executive committee of the OPCW, which enforces and monitors the treaty.

The treaty, which opened for signatures in January 1993, in Paris, is a comprehensive document, banning the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, use or preparations to use any chemical weapons. States party to the convention have till 2007 to destroy their stockpile. So far, 93 of the 165 signatories to the treaty had deposited their instruments of ratification with the UN Secretary General. Only 65 states were required to ratify it for it to come into force.

Unlike India's nuclear weapons programme, the chemical weapons programme was a secret. In fact, till the government's announcement, it was the best kept secret of the Indian defence establishment.

According to some analysts, 20 countries in the world are suspected to have chemical weapons. The US and Russia together have a stockpile of over 70,000 metric tonnes of chemical weapons. Iraq, on the receiving end during the Gulf war, was suspected to have used chemical weapons.

India's bugbear, as in all security issues, is Pakistan. Indian officials are concerned but feel it will be difficult for Islamabad to hold out for very long. For, sooner or later Pakistan will be under tremendous international pressure to ratify the treaty as well.

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