A UNITED NATIONS team of experts on chemical warfare issued its report this week on whether chemical warfare is being waged in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. The document concludes that the group was "unable to reach a final conclusion" as to whether or not such charges are accurate. Its inquiry was launched by the U.N. General Assembly early this year.
Just a few weeks ago, the United States announced that, after five years of trying, it had finally procured firm physical evidence that 1) identified the agents allegedly being used as biological toxins produced by an obscure fungus and 2) proved that the mycotoxins are being used as a weapon and are not the result of a natural outbreak. It also believes there is strong but not conclusive evidence linking production of the toxins with the Soviet Union. If the administration is correct, the implications are profound. Use of such a weapon would be a flagrant act of cruelty and also a flagrant violation of both the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawing chemical weapons and of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.
The experts' group has had a short and, typically for a U.N. group, troubled existence. Its mandate was far too limited to accomplish its goals. The U.N. official in charge of its activities is a Russian who reportedly was less than helpful in gaining the team's access to the areas it needed to investigate. So far, the experts have only visited the refugee camps in Thailand. Pakistan has recently granted permission to visit Afghan refugee camps on its borders, but Laos has refused permission and Under Secretary General Ustinov reportedly refused to deliver the request to the ruling regime in Cambodia, which the Kremlin does not recognize.
The team did apparently hear stories from Laotian and Cambodian refugees similar to those documented by the United States. However, it arrived too long after the alleged attacks to find supporting medical evidence. It obtained vaguely identified physical samples, which are now being chemically analyzed, but notes that, whatever the results of these tests, they will not prove anything since the group cannot prove where they came from.
The U.N. group has so far not accomplished much of anything. But it found enough evidence to justify extending its mandate, and a resolution to do that is expected to be put before the General Assembly within the next few days. If it passes, as it should, the group must be given adequate time and financial resources to accomplish a difficult task.
Secretary General Waldheim must also see to it that the group gets where it has to go, despite Soviet objections. In fact, his ability to do so is a fair and timely test of whether he merits being re-elected to a third term. The charges being investigated, after all, go beyond whether this or that chemical has been used. They engage nothing less than what the United Nations is all about--the international rule of law. The integrity of the international system demands that they be conclusively proved or refuted.