Global Insights: Coalition Must Act on Libyan Chemical Weapons

Recent events in Libya have refocused attention on Libya's remaining chemical agents, with particular concern over the possibility that Moammar Gadhafi will use them against the Libyan insurgents or against other targets, such as Western civilians. But there are also fears that the Libyan government could somehow lose control of some of the agents, whether due to ongoing domestic chaos or an eventual collapse of the regime, allowing terrorists to acquire them. Leaders of the coalition currently enforcing the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over Libya need to adopt a strong declaratory policy against any misuse of these agents, even while they contemplate unpleasant contingency plans to secure or eliminate the material on their own.

Following the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Libya agreed (.pdf) to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction programs in return for normalizing relations with Washington and other anticipated rewards. The Libyan government subsequently made considerable progress in eliminating its nuclear weapons program, which had received significant assistance from the A.Q. Khan trafficking network. The United States removed Libya's stockpiles of uranium hexafluoride, its uranium-enriching centrifuge machines, and other materials and technologies intended to construct nuclear weapons, including detailed blueprints for making an atomic bomb. Libya also eliminated its longer-range ballistic missiles.

Libya also joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 2004. At the time, it declared 23 metric tons of mustard agent in bulk containers. First used by German troops in World War I, mustard gas is a highly toxic sulfuric compound that can blister and burn exposed skin, causing internal and external bleeding, blindness and death. Libya also declared to the Organization of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which administers and enforces the CWC, one inactivated chemical weapons production facility, two chemical weapons storage sites, 1,300 metric tons of precursor chemicals used for developing chemical agents, and 3,563 empty aerial bombs, which were crushed by bulldozers in 2004. Most of what remains of these chemical agents and their precursors are stored under guard at the former Rabta chemical weapons facility, located in a town south of Tripoli.

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