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Biological Chemical

Falling between the Cracks and by the Sides

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Next month, Essentials of Biological Security: A Global Perspective edited by Lijun Shang, Weiwen Zhang and Malcolm Dando will be published. The book offers an introduction to biological security and the chemical and biological weapons (CBW) threat spectrum and explores the history of biological weapons from antiquity to modern day. Its core comprises expert analyses of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and other relevant international agreements and organisations and practical discussions of dual-use technologies and how to minimise their risk. (For a preview of the book contents, click here.)

I contributed the chapter Falling between the Cracks and by the Sides: Can Disarmament Treaties Respond to Scientific and Technological Developments? (pp. 11-30).

Its introduction and conclusions are reproduced below.



Disarmament seeks to eliminate a discrete category of weaponry and once completed, prevent its re-emergence. Science and technology (S&T) drive innovation and sustain economic development, international cooperation and societal progress. S&T are crucial to successfully implementing disarmament policies, but they drive progress on a much broader front. Even without any conscious policy to violate or undermine disarmament, product and process innovation may challenge the long-term viability of any international disarmament agreement. Questions may arise about whether the treaty prohibition covers the latest advances or newest concepts, whether the reporting requirements and verification provisions still apply to the newest processes, and whether parties to a treaty can update its provisions and common understandings.

Meanwhile, S&T also propels weapon development and production. This is not a detached pursuit: any society-wide advance is screened for potential military exploitation. Other lines of research and development receive exclusive or significant grants from defence establishments or industries.

S&T are also central to the defence, protection and mitigation of the effects of certain types of weaponry, which implies understanding their offensive properties. Exploiting the dual-use potential of many research and development activities continues to pose a significant challenge to preventing the re-emergence of internationally proscribed weaponry.

This chapter explores the multifarious and complex relationships between disarmament and S&T concerning chemical and biological weapons (CBW). It first describes the rise of chemistry and medicine, the attendant industrial revolutions through the nineteenth century, and how they transformed the social order so scientists and industrialists could advance their interests. By laying the foundations for organic chemistry and advocating the germ theory, they provoked semantic shifts for the ‘poison’ concept. By the end of the century, disease was no longer part of the concept, and ‘asphyxiating and other deleterious gases’ semantically bifurcated from the poisons from the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms.

The second part traces the codification of the customary ban on poison use in war and the emergence of asphyxiating and other deleterious gases as a novel weapon category. After World War I, the latter category proved beyond regulation because diplomats faced the dual-use dilemma. As described in the third part, the negotiations for the Geneva Protocol in 1925 set the stage for a breakthrough because diplomats approached the problem from a technical rather than a humanitarian viewpoint. It paved the way for CBW disarmament. Nevertheless, competing aims of weapon control – disarmament, arms control, non-proliferation, humanitarian arms limitation – would lead to different outcomes for different arms categories. Shifting security policies, fresh threat constructions and new S&T breakthroughs also affected existing weapon control treaties. The latter aspects are the subject of parts four and five. The final section draws conclusions about the relationships between CBW disarmament and S&T and reflects on particular approaches to manage and nurture the disarmament norm adequately.


Conclusions: Responding to S&T developments

The relationships between disarmament and S&T are intricate, and their identification in today’s armament and disarmament processes would require much effort. The history of modern CBW goes back almost a century and a half to when chemistry and biology arose as scientific disciplines, and S&T laid the foundations for medicine and industrialisation. The overview in this chapter allows the description of how certain currents affected societal attitudes and shaped certain conceptions about technologies and their potential roles in armed conflict. Particularly the efforts starting at the end of the nineteenth century to constrain the impact of new armaments on the battlefields took into consideration the evolving societal conceptions of technologies and the contributions of industrial manufacturing processes to those conceptions and national military capacities. As soon as the control of CBW got framed as a technical problem rather than as a humanitarian issue in warfare, diplomats and experts were able to phrase the types of questions that eventually led to the resolution of how to define a CW and resolve the dual-use problem posed by many commercial toxic chemicals. By formulating the [General Purpose Criterion], they resolved a significant challenge caused by accelerating S&T developments: the definition of a CW would apply to all past, present and future toxicants. The GPC is a central building block of the BTWC and CWC. It contributes to their unlimited duration, leading to the need for monitoring and assessing advances in S&T and adjusting understandings of treaty provisions whenever necessary.

Many discussions assume a direct relationship between the CBW disarmament treaties and S&T, placing the BTWC and CWC at the centre. This is akin to arguing a geocentric model of the universe. Even with heliocentrism, the solar system is but one tiny part of the universe. The metaphor is appropriate to understand the complexities of disarmament today. With the end of the Cold War, the bipolar global system gave way to – depending on one’s viewpoint – a unipolar or multipolar order. Evidence of a much more complex system has grown over the past 10–15 years. The polycentric governance model fits the rise of globalism with geographical decentralisation of research, business and industry activities in many aspects of international interactions and challenges earlier hegemonistic models. Polycentrism states that multiple and interconnected geographical centres of decision-making coexist and that decisions in one such centre do not necessarily benefit the interests of other centres.

The present author views polycentrism as bi-dimensional. Besides the geographical diffusion, decision centres can also be listed vertically from companies, institutions and associations over States to international organisations and multi- and transnational enterprises. This representation recognises the influence of new security actors and stakeholders, including non-State national or transnational players, on international processes. In a polycentric system, the role of States in shaping developments has declined. They may still regulate, but the pace of transnational events can easily overwhelm their capacity for agency. The BTWC and CWC, both governed by States, are perforce exposed to these trends. Still, they may help form quasi-global attitudes towards certain technologies, even if their influence is essentially limited to the dynamic interactions between S&T-related and security-related processes.

Despite the pace and scope of those changes that would have rendered any substantive formal modification to the BTWC and CWC obsolete before the finalisation of negotiations, State Parties have managed to set certain processes in motion whereby the focus of treaty reinforcement came to lie more with individual States. Through diverse assistance programmes, many stakeholders became involved in their implementation, thus leading to a multi-layered and multi-sectorial governance model well-adjusted to the polycentric environment. The following list presents a sample of actors working to prevent the re-emergence of CBW:

  • Weapon control
    • Multilateral agreements (Geneva Protocol, BTWC, CWC)
    • Proliferation prevention arrangements (Australia Group, Proliferation Security Initiative, Global Partnership, etc.)
    • UN agencies: UN Security Council, UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, 1540 Committee, UN Environmental Programme, etc.
    • National laws and regulations (criminal, penal, trade, safety and security, etc.)
  • Disease prevention
    • World Health Organisation, Food and Agricultural Organisation, World Organisation for Animal Health and their regional organisations and initiatives
  • Crime and terrorism
    • UNSC Resolutions (UN resolution 1540, various terrorism resolutions, etc.)
    • Interpol, Europol, etc.
  • International transfers
    • World Trade Organisation, World Customs Organisation, etc.
  • Economic development
    • UN Development Programme
    • Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
    • European Union
  • Economic actors
    • Companies (national, multinational and transnational)
    • Academic and research institutions
    • Individuals
  • Instruments of collective and individual governance
    • Codes of conduct; Professional codes; Ethics
    • Awareness-raising and education
    • Whistle-blower protection schemes

The activities of these and other stakeholders create overlaying and partially overlapping layers of norm enforcement. At the heart of all these efforts lie the norm and prohibitions central to the BTWC and the CWC.

In shaping the respective S&T monitoring practices, the parties to the BTWC and CWC must remain aware that how they frame the issues will significantly impact their assessments and recommendations. At The Hague Peace Conference in 1899, dropping the original aim to limit armaments resulted in an agreement that proscribed using one type of ammunition rather than its contents, asphyxiating and other deleterious gases. In 1922, The Washington Naval Conference’s consideration of CW control as a question of humanitarian principles almost led participants to legalise chemical warfare, except against non-combatants, when confronted with the dual-use characteristics of many modern toxicants. In contrast, the diplomats meeting in Geneva in 1925 considered banning the trade in CW, which raised many technical questions that eventually helped to legally define a CW and find a solution to the dual-use problem.

Similar risks still surface today. Many stakeholders try to insert a controversy in their field of work into BTWC or CWC deliberations. Through the inevitable securitisation of the topic, they may hope to engineer an outcome that serves their interests. The problem may be less acute for the CWC, given the roles of the Technical Secretariat, the [Scientific Advisory Board] and the OPCW decision-making organs. The BTWC lacks a similar technical interface to prepare and accompany S&T decisions. Consequently, many issues like disease outbreaks, epidemics, novel research methodologies or techniques or particular experiments become the focus of S&T debates at meetings in Geneva without pinning down their pertinence for the Convention’s disarmament objectives.

The organisation of assorted activities supporting the BTWC and CWC along the principle of the division of labour between the global community and the individual State Party has likely made both treaty regimes more resilient to the impact of S&T developments. Moreover, the involvement of multiple stakeholders means that many institutions actively reinforce the norm and prohibitions. Preventing the re-emergence of CW or BW no longer depends on a single international legal instrument. Perhaps the bigger challenge for State Parties will be to design a shared understanding of what ‘preventing the re-emergence’ means and then assess S&T depending on their future vision for the respective treaties.

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