With U.S. in uncorrected violation of CWC, Supreme Court rules on ‘unimaginable’ case
The Supreme Court ruled today that a 1998 federal law intended to enforce the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention cannot be used to prosecute individuals where state laws would be sufficient. The justices unanimously threw out the conviction of Carol Anne Bond of Lansdale, Pa., who had been prosecuted under the CWC law for using toxic chemicals that caused a thumb burn on a friend with whom her husband had an affair.
The case raises several disturbing questions about how the United States views its obligations under international law. For one, as legal analyst Lyle Denniston pointed out, although the justices did not strike down the law as beyond Congress’s constitutional powers, the decision in Bond v. United States “left in lingering doubt just how far Congress may go to pass a law to implement a world treaty.”
Perhaps more troubling though is the fact that this case even exists and was heard by the Supreme Court in the first place. It could be said that its very existence makes a mockery of international law.
When the case was argued before the court last November, Justice Anthony Kennedy told the government’s lawyers that it is “unimaginable that you would bring this prosecution.” The Justices seemed to agree that the case was a “curious” one: a federal criminal prosecution, with a potential life sentence, of a woman who sought revenge by spreading poisonous chemicals on a door knob, a car door handle, and a mailbox in the hopes that her husband’s mistress would touch the chemicals and suffer unspecified health consequences.
Bond had likely violated a number of laws in her state of Pennsylvania, but was only charged under state law for making harassing telephone calls and letters, and state officials declined to prosecute her with assault. She had pleaded guilty to the federal crime of using a “chemical weapon,” on condition that she could later challenge the prosecution.
Although she was convicted under the 1998 law, Monday’s decision struck down that conviction because the law did not even apply to what she did, according to the Court’s majority.
In this case, it seems fairly clear that the justices were correct that prosecutors had overreached when they charged Bond under a federal statute which was expressly intended to ensure U.S. compliance with its international obligations as a state party to the CWC, not to prosecute individuals for using makeshift chemical agents in a clumsy attempt to exact revenge for adultery.
As one scholar described the treaty, it is “the most complex disarmament and nonproliferation treaty in history,” designed specifically to ensure that state parties relinquish weapons that the CWC expressly prohibits. Katharine York elaborated on the purpose of the CWC in article in the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy last month:
As a starting point, Article I identifies the general obligations of State Parties under the CWC:
1. Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never under any circumstances:
(a) To develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone;
(b) To use chemical weapons;
(c) To engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons;
(d) To assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.
2. Each State Party undertakes to destroy chemical weapons it owns or possesses, or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction or control, in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.
3. Each State Party undertakes to destroy all chemical weapons it abandoned on the territory of another State Party, in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.
4. Each State Party undertakes to destroy any chemical weapons production facilities it owns or possesses, or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction or control, in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.
5. Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare.
The United States government, as a state party to the convention, is in clear violation of a number of these provisions. For starters, it has used chemical weapons expressly prohibited under the treaty, as well as others with an ambiguous status. As WikiLeaks revealed in 2007, the U.S. deployed at least 2,386 “non-lethal” chemical weapons during the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
As WikiLeaks explained,
In the weeks prior to the March 19, 2003 commencement of the Iraq war, the United States received a widely reported rebuke from its primary coalition partner, the United Kingdom, over statements by the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggesting that the US would use CS gas for “flush out” operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Subsequently Washington has been quiet about whether it has deployed CS gas and other chemical weapons or not.
The use of chemical weapons such as CS gas for military operations is illegal. The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, drafted by the United Kingdom and ratified by the United States, declares “Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare”. Permissible uses are restricted to “law enforcement including domestic riot control.”
The U.S. use of depleted uranium in Iraq is another cause for concern. In Fallujah – which was targeted mercilessly by U.S. forces in 2004 – the use of depleted uranium has led to birth defects in infants 14 times higher than in the Japanese cities targeted by U.S. atomic bombs at close of World War II, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A 2002 UN working paper on depleted uranium argued that its use may breach the Chemical Weapons Convention, as well as several other treaties. Yeung Sik Yuen writes in Paragraph 133 under the title “Legal compliance of weapons containing DU as a new weapon”:
Annex II to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material 1980 (which became operative on 8 February 1997) classifies DU as a category II nuclear material. Storage and transport rules are set down for that category which indicates that DU is considered sufficiently “hot” and dangerous to warrant these protections. But since weapons containing DU are relatively new weapons no treaty exists yet to regulate, limit or prohibit its use. The legality or illegality of DU weapons must therefore be tested by recourse to the general rules governing the use of weapons under humanitarian and human rights law which have already been analysed in Part I of this paper, and more particularly at paragraph 35 which states that parties to Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 have an obligation to ascertain that new weapons do not violate the laws and customs of war or any other international law.
Further, the United States is in flagrant violation of its obligations to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles. When the CWC went into effect 17 years ago, the U.S. declared a huge domestic chemical arsenal of 27,771 metric tons to the OPCW. Although it has destroyed about 90% of its chemical weapons, the U.S. still maintains a stockpile of 2,700 tons according to the Centers for Disease Control, missing two deadlines to destroy the weapons.
But curiously, it is not this issue that is commanding headlines, but rather the misuse of the 1998 federal statute in a way that it was never intended. The case of Bond’s prosecution and today’s Supreme Court ruling holds a number of lessons, one of which being the government’s implied view of the applicability of law – namely that laws are to be used only in prosecuting rogue individuals, but not in reining in the rogue U.S. government.
As the Supreme Court ruled in Bond v. the United States, “The Government would have us brush aside the ordinary meaning [of chemical weapon] and adopt a reading … that would sweep in everything from the detergent under the kitchen sink to the stain remover in the laundry room. Yet no one would ordinarily describe those substances as ‘chemical weapons.’”
Yet, even while stretching this law beyond its logical applicability, actual violations of the CWC are swept under the rug as if they don’t even occur. This is a clear indication of the government’s view that it is indeed above the law, that the force of law is only to be used against the powerless, and certainly not against those in power.