Allegation of chemical warfare in Darfur

Warning: contains extreme graphic images of injuries and infection

Last September Amnesty International (AI) issued a 105-page report entitled Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air alleging the use of chemical weapons (CW) among other atrocities committed by Sudanese forces in the Darfur region. The chemical warfare section contains numerous images of civilian victims with horrifying skin lesions. It suggests that these are the consequence of exposure to a vesicant, possibly a mustard agent. The report is accompanied by a 4-minute video on YouTube. Several press articles and contributions to on-line media after the report’s publication have reinforced the allegation of mustard agent use.

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Do no harm: A 3000-year old medical students’ oath

While doing background research on the history of the conception of disease and its propagation, I came across a translation from Sanskrit of a pledge an Indian medical student had to take more than 2000 years ago.

The oath can be found in the Charaka Samhita, one of India’s most ancient texts on medicine. It is believed to have been written around 300–200 BCE, but may have been a redacted version of an earlier, but lost work Ayurveda (Life Knowledge) compiled by Agnivesa about 1000 BCE. The written version handed down through the ages is therefore younger than the Hippocratic Oath (about 400 BCE), but just like the Manu Smrti—the Laws of Manu (about 200 BCE), a collection of Ancient Indian prescriptions that includes the oldest known record of an interdiction against the use of poison in combat—it draws on much older teachings.

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Non-proliferation assistance: A proliferation of national focal points?

On 9 December I attended a one-day seminar entitled Assistance and capacity-building in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It took place in one of the committee rooms in the old building of the African Union Commission. It had none of the trappings of many modern high-tech venues, but offered all amenities one can wish for during a day-long meeting: an electricity plug under the desk (a civilisational advance that has yet to reach the main room for meetings of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, or BTWC, at the United Nations in Geneva), internet access, soothing brown background colours of wood-panelled walls, and—most unusual nowadays—daylight. Two pyramidal domes in the ceiling let in glorious sunshine and skimming light entering through the rows of windows running the entire length of the back wall softened the sharp contrasts thrown by the sunrays from above. Even in the late afternoon when a diffuse darkness was gradually filling the committee room, the rays of a setting sun lit up the roofs of nearby buildings in a colourful backdrop to participants exchanging final impressions of the day’s discussions.

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Beneath the Crust …

… the lava continues to flow unseen by the casual observer standing above

On 3 November I was invited to speak at an international conference in Brussels organised by the European Union (EU) Non-Proliferation Consortium. The session was called: The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) – Maintaining Relevance. I found the title intriguing. Is the BTWC losing its relevance one way or another? Is this treaty in jeopardy?

Brasil’s BW preparedness: demonstration during the Brasilia workshop (23 August 2016)

A widely shared opinion has it that the BTWC is a weak treaty. Yet always unspoken  remain the criteria by which people assess the treaty’s weakness. They often point to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) as a strong agreement because it has an international organisation, a verification regime and mechanisms to enforce compliance. Notwithstanding, in its almost twenty years of existence, war and terrorism in the Middle East accounts for about 2,000 fatalities as a direct consequence of chemical warfare and terrorism with chemical weapons. The BTWC, in contrast, lacks an international organisation or verification mechanism, yet in its 41 years since entry into force, deliberate use of disease or toxins has killed fewer than 100 persons. What does that say about the strength of a treaty?

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Education & outreach in chemical weapon disarmament

Exactly one year ago today, the Conference of the States Parties in its 20th session decided on the establishment of the Advisory Board on Education and Outreach (ABEO) as a subsidiary body to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

In 2016 the 15-member board met twice and formulated its first sets of recommendations. On 1 December I reported on the ABEO’s work to the 21st session of the Conference of the States Parties. Due to a 7-minute time restriction I could deliver only a summary of the most important points. Below is the full text of the statement as circulated to the states party to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

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BTWC 8th RevCon Final Document

The 8th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) ended today, 25 November, in great disappointment. While during the preparatory meetings in April and August it was already clear that the exercise would be difficult, nobody really anticipated that so much would be lost in two days. There is even less than in the previous final documents: the meetings of experts (MX) held during the summer have been stopped; the meetings of states parties (MSP) have been preserved, but without a sense of purpose. Except as a way to preserve the Implementation Support Unit (ISU).

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Emergency assistance: Triggering Article VII of the BTWC

Tabletop Exercise (TTX) on the Implementation of

Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)

8-9 November 2016, Palais des Nations, Geneva

(Provisional report)

[Prepared by Élisande Nexon, Ralf Trapp and Jean Pascal Zanders]

Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) provides that

Each State Party to this Convention undertakes to provide or support assistance, in accordance with the United Nations Charter, to any Party to the Convention which so requests, if the Security Council decides that such Party has been exposed to danger as a result of violation of the Convention.

In recent years, considerations such as emergence and re-emergence of diseases, including Ebola, or the use of chemical weapons in Syria, have highlighted challenges pertaining to public health and assistance facing the international community. Many lessons have in the meantime been learned. The Eighth Review Conference gives the international community the opportunity to consider the potential contribution of Article VII to those considerations.

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Statement to the UNGA 1st Committee by the Global Civil Society Coalition for the Biological Weapons Convention

[Endosed by The Trench]

Statement to the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, New York, 12 October 2016

Delivered by Kathryn Millett on behalf of the Global Civil Society Coalition for the Biological Weapons Convention

Mr. Chair,

Disease, especially deliberate disease, poses a major risk to international security, whether directed at humans, animals, or plants. Public health emergencies connected to Ebola and Zika virus have illustrated how far we have to go before we are sufficiently prepared to overcome challenges in global health security. The human, economic, social and political costs of natural, accidental, and deliberate disease can be immense: the World Bank estimated $7 billion USD was spent on fighting Ebola, which ultimately infected approximately 28,000 people and caused 11,000 deaths. It is clear that disease can decimate countries, derail development, stigmatize thousands, and cause longer-term health issues. The effects of Ebola will undeniably be with us for decades.

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Happiness is the road

Now one month ago, my contract with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) ended. It was an unexpected 6-month stint to assist the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) with organising a series of four regional workshops in preparation of the 8th Review Conference of the BTWC next month. These workshops were sponsored by the European Union (EU) under Council Decision CFSP/2016/51 of 18 January 2016 (Project 4). They targeted Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Astana, Kazakhstan on 15–16 June), Latin America (Brasilia, Brazil on 22–23 August), South and South-East Asia (New Delhi, India on 29–30 August), and Africa (African Union Commission, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 13–14 September).

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