Center for Strategic Decision Research



The Emerging Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Threats

Ambassador Rogelio Pfirter
Director-General, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

There is no doubt in my mind that the greatest emerging threat is that of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and although I am director general of an organization dedicated to one particular category of these weapons, I hope I will be forgiven if I deal with three of them: nuclear, chemical, and biological.


In the case of nuclear weapons, it is very important to realize that not only are we talking about something with devastating power but that the main actors of concern for using them are not only terrorists but above all states. That is because a nuclear program of any credibility can only be carried out by states. Therefore we have to look at states in order to detect the reasons for the malaise that affects them as well as the way forward.

There is no doubt that the nuclear scene is in major crisis. This is the result of the challenges posed by certain states but also from situations that existed previously. First of all, it is quite clear that the system of safeguards for the NPT as applied by the IAEA has been insufficient at least in its traditional form. It has not been able to prevent some states from developing secret programs that are contrary to the purposes of the NPT. The additional protocol was concluded but is not yet in effect for many relevant States.

Second, it is quite clear that not all member-states of the NPT can comply with the treaty in the way it was envisaged originally. Third, nuclear powers have emerged from outside the NPT. All of these things have created a situation in which some countries felt that they could abandon the NPT or challenge the system of safeguards and carry on programs lacking in transparency. Therefore we need to act decisively to change this situation, because the threat posed by the further proliferation of nuclear weapons creates a great danger for civilization as a whole.

How should we react? First and foremost, we need to give diplomacy a chance. But diplomacy means not only the NPT but the United Nations Charter. The U.N. Charter contemplates a series of measures that are available to member-states in their different organizations. All of them should be explored and exploited to the maximum to make sure that we do not allow proliferation to go unchecked. It is also crucial that states that possess weapons of mass destruction behave in a responsible fashion and not act as a source of proliferation or transmit know-how to others. This, I think, is indispensable.

It is also important that agreements that serve the specific needs of particular states be arrived at. I was very much involved in an agreement between my own country of origin, Argentina, and our neighbor Brazil. Amongst ourselves we were able to work out a treaty that has served our needs very well. When one looks at the very good political relationships that prevail today in the southern cone of South America, one can see that nuclear agreements are at the core of it because it is crucial to build confidence if countries’ relationships are going to progress.

We need relationships to progress. We also need countries that possess large stockpiles of nuclear weapons to continue to reduce those stockpiles. When we preach nonproliferation, it is important that we also demonstrate it and show our commitment to it—the continuum requires concrete action by the powerful and the not so powerful.

However, it is quite clear that the big nuclear powers have not yet destroyed their stockpiles, something that can serve as an excuse for other countries to become nuclear. I believe it is of the highest priority to act decisively against continued proliferation and we must do it by balancing our act against something that is very important to all nations. All nations are equal and of course appreciate the right of development. So the challenge is to respect that right and at the same time avoid the right’s perverse logic—that if the United Nations had 194 member-states we might end up with 194 nuclear states.

It was bad enough when we had five nuclear weapon countries. It was worse when we had seven nuclear powers. Certainly we should avoid having eight nuclear powers, or more.

We also need to balance the need to stop the further development of nuclear weapons with the need to recognize that the world is genuinely interested in finding new sources of energy. We need to tackle that issue though it is quite clear that in the view of many, nuclear energy is a desirable source of energy and electrical power. I can think of countries that lack water and that are far from sources of oil or gas in which small nuclear reactors could act as efficient sources of energy. It is very good that Europe is now discussing this issue because it will have an enormous impact on the way forward.


As far as chemical weapons go, and here I am wearing my hat as director general of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the dangers come from states but above all from their potential use by terrorists. In the case of states, we are lucky to have the Chemical Weapons Convention, because it establishes how states are to dispose of the chemical weapons they have and how states are not to use chemical weapons in the future. Not an anti-terrorist instrument, the Chemical Weapons Convention is an instrument for dealing with relations between states, worked out during the Cold War and therefore pervaded by the mentality of the Cold War—the equality of stockpiles, the need to advance proportionally and symmetrically to destroy the stockpiles, and so on. It is working out fairly well, even if the big possessor states, particularly the Russian Federation and the United States, are experiencing delays in destroying their stockpiles.

There is no question, however, that there is the political will to do so, and I think this is very good news for everyone, though we should encourage these states to do even more. We must also encourage those states that are still outside the convention, particularly Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and North Korea, to come into the organization and clear their act with us and allow for international supervision under the Convention. Universal acceptance of the Chemical Weapons Convention is indispensable to ensure that the threat posed by chemical weapons is checked and eventually stopped.

Another issue that is important is the need to involve the chemical industry. That is being done by the OPCW through a very stringent verification regime; the work is progressing very well but much more needs to be done. To work things out effectively in the field and to prevent further proliferation, the chemical industry must be active and involved. The convention would not exist without the partnership of industry and industry must understand that it is necessary to continue to support the work so that we can provide the international community with assurances.

Of course when it comes to chemical weapons, the fact that they are relatively easy to access creates a greater possibility for terrorist groups to make use of them. While the Chemical Weapons Convention is not an anti-terrorist organization, in the wake of September 11, member-states to the CWC got together to determine whether there was anything the convention could do to support international efforts to prevent terrorists from having access to chemical weapons. The member-states concluded that by fully implementing the convention, they would be making a major contribution to the struggle against terrorism.

The United Nations has also recognized that the Chemical Weapons Convention is a good instrument in the fight against terrorism. As a matter of fact, one of the Security Council’s recent key resolutions, Resolution 1540, which is aimed at precluding terrorists from having access to weapons of mass destruction, includes in its operative paragraphs mandatory measures that are tantamount to what the Chemical Weapons Convention contains in its chapter on nonproliferation.

Because the issue of terrorism is increasingly on everyone’s mind, states are now joining the convention in great numbers—there are already 178 member-states. This is not only a result of concern about terrorism, but the fact that international cooperation could bring many benefits, including being better prepared for dealing with terrorism. The threat of chemical weapon terrorism is quite real, and therefore the Chemical Weapons Convention is needed. Of course we must act strictly within the boundaries of the mandate that the member-states have agreed to.


Regarding biological weapons, I believe that it is very important to move decisively towards creating an organization that would be in charge of verifying compliance with the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention. Of course, the verification regime needs to be agreed upon, and we know there will be difficulties establishing a proper verification regime for the biological sphere. Yet it is quite crucial, in my view, that we continue to give multilateralism, which is an indispensable instrument for the advancement of peace and security, a chance in this sphere, without, of course, affecting the legitimate right of states to remain vigilant and to act in ways that protect peace and security. But we live in a world that is complicated enough to make us renounce the possibilities that diplomacy offers. I believe we stand a better chance of achieving peace if we give everyone the impression that there is room and a place for them under the sun and that we are prepared to see if we can work together for peace and security.

Having said that, of course, we should work relentlessly to ensure that no additional nuclear weapons are produced, that terrorists have no access to weapons of mass destruction, and that ultimately we remain united in preventing governments from using the weapons that are available today.


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