Monthly Archives: March 2014

Disarmament on top of the world

Given that the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) has already attracted 190 states parties, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) has become something of a laggard. Not just in terms of numbers, but also regarding the time it has taken to secure the 170 ratifications or accessions. It entered into force in 1975, or 22 years before the CWC became effective.

Over the past decade and a half parties to the BTWC have stepped up their efforts to secure more ratifications and accessions. Unlike the CWC, the BTWC does not have an international implementation organisation that can take charge of universalisation initiatives or assist members with the national implementation of their treaty obligations. In 2006, the 6th BTWC Review Conference decided to establish a small Implementation Support Unit (ISU), which is embedded in the Geneva branch of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), to coordinate and facilitate a variety of activities in support of treaty universalisation and implementation. Since then there has been a notable increase in both the number and effectiveness of events to turn the BTWC into a truly global prohibition on biological and toxin weapons. Several states are now on the verge of becoming a party, and chances are that some will join the convention in the course of 2014. read more

From Flanders’ entrenched politics

[Updated: 9 March 2014]

Next month, on the 22nd, it will be the 99th anniversary of the start of modern chemical warfare. The salient around the Flemish town of Ieper offered the perfect location: its northern edge was the only place along the Western front where German troops did not face the prevailing south-westerly winds that could have blown back the chlorine cloud. Later, of course, shells replaced gas cloud attacks.

Shells imply depots, including ones close to the trenches. In Flanders it is not uncommon to still uncover duds—shells that failed to detonate because of malfunction or simply because they got buried in very soft mud. Each year, some hundred metric tonnes (give or take a few tonnes) of unexploded ordnance is recovered and taken to a demolition site near the village of Poelkapelle. About five percent of that volume is filled with a chemical warfare agent. However, statistics usually shoot up when a former underground storage bunker still full with munition is discovered. Such was the case earlier this week, when a farmer in Moorslede, next to the infamous town of Passendale (Passchendale), was transforming a meadow to grow crops. Since then the bomb disposal unit of the Belgian Armed Forces have already recovered over 300 German shells, a large portion of which are chemical (mostly mustard agent). They expect to unearth plenty more. Some press accounts suggest thousands of shells. That figure may not be exaggerated: almost ten years ago to the day, the bomb disposal unit unearthed 3,242 British and German artillery shells in another part of the same municipality. Presumably they had been buried in the field after the war. read more

Debunking the myth of Nazi mosquito-borne biological weapons

Starting at the end of January, several press items reported on an academic article published in the December edition of the quarterly magazine Endeavour. Based on documents from the Dachau concentration camp, Dr Klaus Reinhardt, a biologist at the University of Tübingen uncovered that Nazi scientists wanted to use mosquitos as insect vector for the delivery of malaria plasmodium protozoans. According to the article abstract:

In January 1942, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and police in Nazi Germany, ordered the creation of an entomological institute to study the physiology and control of insects that inflict harm to humans. Founded in the grounds of the concentration camp at Dachau, it has been the focus of previous research, notably into the question of whether it was involved in biological warfare research. This article examines research protocols by the appointed leader Eduard May, presented here for the first time, which confirm the existence of an offensive biological warfare research programme in Nazi Germany. read more