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Friday, October 11, 2013

If Syria Can Destroy its Chemical Weapons, Shouldn't the U.S. do the Same?

Friday, October 11, 2013
U.S. bombs in Panama (photo: Angel Demostenes, AFP
Syria can’t destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons fast enough, as far as the Obama administration is concerned. 

But many in Panama would like to see the same expediency on the part of the U.S. when it comes to disposing of American chemical munitions that have remained off the coast of the Central American country for more than 60 years.

During the post-World War II period, the U.S. military stationed about 200 soldiers on San Jose Island, located 60 miles from Panama City, where bombs laden with lethal chemicals were exploded for testing purposes.

The U.S. halted its testing in 1947, but the military failed to remove all of the bombs. Panama has been trying ever since to get Washington to clean up the dangerous mess involving phosgene, mustard gas, and other toxic chemical agents.

At least eight unexploded 500- and 1,000-pound bombs still remain on the island, whose unspoiled beaches have been featured in episodes of the CBS reality show “Survivor.”

Panama’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Ramon A. Morales, claims that the chemical weapons have killed people on the island over the years. “Unofficially, it is known that there have been some 20 deaths by people who have handled this UXO [unexploded ordinance],” Morales told McClatchy.

The George W. Bush administration offered to train Panamanians to clean up the mess as long as Panama released the United States from liability. But the Panamanian government said no to the idea, and demanded the Pentagon take care of the problem.

Panama’s latest attempt at resolving the standoff came in May, when the government contacted the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body whose inspectors now are overseeing the destruction of Syria’s arsenal, to convince the U.S. to own the mess and fix it.

In a media interview, Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Núñez Fábrega reported that the U.S. will be sending a team to conduct a survey of the weapons on the island this year, and will send a second team next year to dispose of them. “I have a firm commitment from the United States,” McClatchy quoted Núñez Fábrega as saying.

However, a Pentagon spokesperson stated that the U.S. government is reviewing Panama’s request and will resolve it “in a timely manner.”

In negotiations this year at The Hague over Panama’s petition to have the U.S. clean up the munitions, U.S. officials reportedly requested one change to the document. They insisted that it say the U.S. did not “abandon” the weapons in Panama, but rather that it had “forgotten” about them.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman
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