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Biological Chemical

Response is failure in the primary mission of preventing CBW

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The Global Partnership against the Spread of Materials and Weapons of Mass Destruction has now been around for over two decades. In the wake of the terrorist attacks against the US in September 2001, it started out as an effort to mobilise the resources of the G8 members to prevent terrorist acquisition of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and related materials. The weapons, technologies and skills available from the former Soviet Union presented a significant proliferation risk, which the US was already addressing through the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programme.

Now comprising 31 members, the Global Partnership (GP) played a key role in assisting Russia with the destruction of its chemical weapons (CW) and dismantling the biological weapons (BW) infrastructure in other former Soviet states. Since then, it has expanded its mission of preventing the re-emergence of BW and CW to different parts of the world and tackles multiple types of proliferation threats. Among the latest is Russia’s massive disinformation campaign against the collective threat reduction activities in former Soviet republics to justify the invasion of Ukraine and interference in other countries.

To discuss the GP’s past and present work and the response to the latest challenges, I interviewed Trevor Smith, Senior Program Manager of the Biological and Chemical Security Weapons Threat Reduction Program run by Global Affairs Canada. The interview took place on 31 January 2024.

To kick off, can you sketch a historical overview of the GP and explain why Canada, a middle power, took the lead?

The GP was very much a response to the terrorist attacks against the US on 11 September 2001. Those who remember the attacks will know how disruptive they were. Moreover, shortly afterwards, they were followed by the anthrax letters sent to five high-profile persons in the United States. These events dramatically raised the profile of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the potential for catastrophic use of nuclear, biological or chemical materials and weapons by terrorists.

Trevor Smith, Senior Program Manager CBW Security

Canada was, I suppose, thrust to the forefront of this by happenstance as we were inheriting the presidency of the G8 in 2002. In late 2001, the US approached us, proposing an initiative dubbed “10 + 10 over 10” – that is 10 billion dollars from the US, 10 billion dollars from the rest of the G8 over ten years – to address threats posed by weapons and materials of mass destruction, with an initial focus on Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. As you can imagine, raising 20 billion dollars was not an easy task. Nor was negotiating with what was then the G8, which included the Russian Federation, to access some of the former Soviet Union’s most secure facilities holding nuclear, biological and chemical materials. It involved a massive diplomatic effort by Canada late in 2001 and right up to the summit of Kananaskis, Alberta (26-27 June 2002). It was only at the Kananaskis summit that the final deal came through. And that deal was indeed for a 20 billion dollar commitment from the G8 for what is known as the Global Partnership against the Spread of Materials and Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Originally, there were four clear priority areas. First, there was CW destruction. Russia, of course, had inherited from the Soviet Union an arsenal of 40,000 metric tonnes of CW that we assessed to be highly vulnerable to terrorist acquisition. Second, there was the matter of fissile and nuclear materials. Third, there was the need to re-employ former weapon scientists. Tens of thousands of employees who had worked in the Soviet WMD complexes were out of work or underemployed and could be attracted by foreign states of proliferation concern or terrorist organisations. So, re-employing those individuals in meaningful and peaceful endeavours was a priority. Last but not least was the dismantlement of nuclear-powered submarines. To be fair, the nuclear-powered submarines posed more of an environmental challenge than a proliferation threat. But it was part of the deal we had to strike with Russia and the other G8 members to bring the GP into being.

Twenty-two years later, the GP is still going strong. It looks very, very different from those early days. But this is how we got started and why.

If I understand you correctly, much of what you have described as the initial programme sounds like the Nunn-Lugar programme, the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Programme. What was the additional value except for the extra 10 billion dollars?

Ten billion extra dollars is a lot of value. You are absolutely right. What we do in the GP today is cooperative threat reduction. The CTR programme was the brainchild of Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, who should be lauded to this day for their foresight, wisdom, and ability to work across the bipartisan aisle to launch the CTR programme. A decade before the GP’s launch, cooperative threat reduction was underway. But it was not enough because, as well-resourced as the US is, it could not do everything, nor should it have to. This is where the G8 came to the fore and recognised our collective responsibility. Although it was Russia’s responsibility to deal with its WMD legacy because they had created them, global security was under threat. The reality was that Russia simply could not resolve the matter in an appropriate time frame, especially with the heightened concern about terrorist acquisition of nuclear, biological and chemical materials in the supercharged days post-9/11.

So, the GP’s extra value was securing the participation of different countries in the threat reduction efforts. Still, the G8 likewise recognised that it alone was not enough. As important and strong as the G8 can be, from the very start – and you can see this in the Kananaskis declaration – we appealed for others to join us and actively sought partners beyond the G8 community. Today, we have 31 members, 30 countries, plus the European Union. It is a recognition that it is not just about money. It is about influence, regional knowledge, and historical ties. We need all of that as well as money, technical resources and expertise to deal with the exceptionally complex and evolving threats.

Initially, the idea was to have the GP for ten years. Around 2010, an evaluation led to the decision to continue the programme. However, as a result of that evaluation, we also saw further expansion of the programmatic elements under the G8. While still retaining the threat reduction elements, they also moved beyond what we may consider threat reduction in a disarmament or non-proliferation context. How has this characterised the GP today?

In the first six years, from 2002 to 2008, the GP focussed primarily on Russia and some of the other Soviet successor states. However, the vast majority of our activities dealt with the many WMD legacy issues in Russia. We realised, though, that certain threats that the G8 and the broader GP community were trying to address were not confined to one region. The materials of mass destruction, the seed stocks needed to build nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, were prolific and vulnerable all around the world. We have seen countries and terrorist organisations, for example, go to Africa to find things like Ebola or Lassa fever and take samples back to their laboratories. It was not just about who ended up possessing those materials but also where they came from. So, there was a reconsideration of what the GP needed to look at going forward.

(Source: Global Partnership)

Critically, our primary mission is prevention. Now, we also detect and respond, but if we have to respond, then our first mission of prevention has failed. So, we started focussing on the materials. How can we cut off access to those materials? How can we secure nuclear, biological or chemical materials before they become WMD-related proliferation threats? Who are the partners with whom we must work all around the world to address proliferation networks, reinforce export controls and border security, and strengthen the implementation of the full range of WMD-related conventions so that every country will be better equipped to support the GP’s prevention mission and mandate? The GP’s collective decision in 2010 to prioritise biological security was essential. At the Kananaskis summit in 2002, there was a very clear expression from G8 leaders that the goal of the GP was to prevent the proliferation or terrorist acquisition of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and materials.

For well-known reasons, the Russian Federation did not want to focus on biological security and BW threats. This does not mean that we did not do any work on biological materials in the early years of the GP, but by 2010, when Canada was back in the G8 chair, we realised it was time for a collective push on biosecurity. The GP, therefore, reprioritised biological threat prevention and has since then been one of the top priorities of the work that we do together with the nuclear and CW-related tracks.

A quick follow-up question relating to the way you brought Russia and its BW legacy into this historical review. 2010, give or take a year, is also approximately when Moscow indicated that the International Science and Technology Centre (ISTC) in Moscow would have to leave the country. Russia had become a partner to the G8, yet there were already tendencies towards the discord we see today. How did that play out in the decisions at the time?

This is a walk down my memory lane, but it played out in the evolution of the broader geopolitical landscape. In 2010, that was four years before Russia’s invasion of Crimea that led to its expulsion from the G8 and, therefore, the GP. The expulsion did not come out of the blue. There was a gradual change in how Russia operated within the GP. By 2010, the ISTC, one of the initial creations of the Nunn-Lugar programme, was becoming persona non grata in Russia. Russia was pushing away from that as they were also pushing away from some of the other cooperative work we were doing in the GP.

I suppose that at the time, it was not felt as dramatically within the GP for the simple reason we had done so much work over the previous decade to address the WMD challenges in Russia. Not all of them, though! For example, we dealt with the declared CW stockpile when addressing the CW threat. We were fully aware that we could not access everything problematic in the Russian Federation. But we understood that the scope and the magnitude of the problem of the declared stockpile was such that it demanded a response.

By 2010-11, we started to look beyond the borders of Russia and other former Soviet countries towards Africa, South-East Asia and the Middle East. As we were elevating the priority of biological threat reduction, Russia actually agreed to that. Russia was part of the G8; they agreed to biosecurity becoming an enhanced priority. But again, that was with the understanding that we would not be working in Russia on those issues. The GP was going to do biosecurity in other parts of the world.

If we look for information about the GP, between 2002 and roughly 2010-12, several academic publications analysed, evaluated and made suggestions for improving the GP. After that time, they seem to have disappeared entirely. Is this somehow related to the decision to expand the programme and mandate? Would you see a connection there?

It is an interesting supposition, but I do not think there is a connection. I truly do not. I am the last dinosaur (laughs), the last remaining active member of the original GP community. One of the things I have been most perplexed by over the years is why the GP has attracted so little attention. Let us be honest about arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation: there have not been many good-news stories over the past 25 years. There were a lot of challenges, and there has been a lot of back-pedalling, for example, with the repeated and systemic use of CW.

The GP has been uniquely successful in making progress and important contributions. So, we always thought this was precisely the type of success story that academics wanted to pursue. How is it that the – I am going to use the term loosely – ‘coalition of the willing’ has been so successful when multilateral arms control processes have been so challenged? No one external to the GP has ever made that link, even when we tried to push people into that space and encouraged them to look at the unique operation of the GP, how we have worked within the frameworks of the conventions but are not restricted by them. These are fascinating academic questions, but again, for whatever reasons, there has been so little attention.

We have made a concerted effort within the GP over the past years to raise the profile. This is not meant to be self-congratulatory. It is to say, do not despair. Yes, very little good news is coming out of Geneva, New York, The Hague, or Vienna. However, much good work is being done, and progress is possible in addressing WMD threats.

Taking you up on this, how can academia evaluate the progress? The GP publishes its programmatic index that lists all the programmes, provides figures, and lists countries it engages with, among others. However, in terms of the evaluation of progress, my impression is that I would have to go to national parliaments to see reports on the disarmament and non-proliferation programmes. These would focus on the national activities under the GP. There are also reports from international organisations that get supported. Where would I find something that is actually a GP evaluation?

Good question. However, with it, we come to the point where we have to discuss what the GP is and what it is not. What it is not is a single pot of money. For example, when supporting the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), all countries will transfer money into a collective trust fund, and the OPCW will spearhead the efforts. You can thus analyse that one organisation.

The GP is a collective of countries that have come together but operate independently. We coordinate and collaborate, but we do not usually integrate our programming. You are quite right that, unfortunately, we are no longer doing collective GP-level analyses.

We did those in the early days. On the GP website, you will see that between 2003 and 2010, G8 leaders issued annual reports saying that this was what we had done and that was our assessment. You can still find annual references to the GP in the reports of either the G7 foreign ministers or the Non-Proliferation Directors Group. But it is not the same type of deep dive. To get those, you can look at the materials we have on the GP website.

You mentioned the programming annexe that we issue each year. We put out the 2023 annexe in the middle of January. It includes over 300 projects implemented by 25 GP partners valued at 2 billion dollars. However, if you want to look at the impact and see the performance management structure, outputs, and results, then you need to go to the individual countries. Canada has done many such evaluations of the GP programme as we were initially known; now, it is the weapons threat reduction programme. Those reports are publicly available on Canada’s website. But it is a bit of a treasure hunt for academics because you would have to go to individual countries instead of a one-stop shop for evaluations within and about the GP.

To return to a point we touched upon a couple of times. You have emphasised the ‘threat reduction’ element in your work, preventing threats rather than mitigating consequences, etc. If I look at some of the bigger ticket items of the GP, one would be the Signature Initiative to Mitigate Biological Threats in Africa (SIMBA) to mitigate biological threats in Africa. From the perspective of disarmament and prevention of future armament, it is clear that this addresses biological threats. But when considering the response to Ebola and other major disease outbreaks, how does that link up with disarmament? Is that an expression of a lack of interest by the disarmament and non-proliferation community because of the stagnation of work in Geneva?

I would disagree with anyone who would suggest that the work the GP is doing on mitigating biological threats is not first, foremost and only driven by security and non-proliferation objectives. Because it is. We work exceptionally closely at what we call the health-security interface.

The reality is that BW – albeit somewhat less now than in the past owing to technological developments – are unique in that they originate from naturally occurring diseases. If we look at the history of BW development, the programmes all started with samples of diseases that had not come out of the imagination of some scientists. They came out of livestock, people or plants. Where did those things come from? They came from outbreak zones. Again, there is a history of countries that went to Africa in the 1980s and the 1990s and continue to do so until today to harvest naturally occurring outbreaks, take those materials home to see what they can do with them and turn them into BW. There is a long history of the Soviet anti-plague system doing just that.

So, why is Ebola a disarmament problem? An outbreak of Ebola, such as we saw in West Africa in 2014-15, was an extraordinary proliferation event. In the three West African countries most affected by that terrible outbreak, which killed 11,000 and sickened 29,000 people, 300,000 samples of Ebola were generated and left behind. I say that somewhat critically, frankly, of the public health community, which did enormous work to support the partner governments in West Africa to get that outbreak under control. But they did so with virtually no regard for biosecurity, biosafety, and the proliferation problem we are still trying to clean up almost a decade later.

Canada has been working in Sierra Leone, for example, a country that inherited 80,000 samples of Ebola. A determined proliferator or a bioterrorist would only have to take back one viable sample that could become the genesis of a major BW programme. Again, we all understand biology. We know about the growth of pathogens. It is not about the quantities; it is about the quality.

This is where SIMBA has come from. It is a recognition that our partner governments in Africa face an extraordinary challenge relating to mitigating all manner of threats posed by disease. First and foremost, they have their minds on naturally occurring outbreaks, whether human, animal or plant. We have worked very carefully from the GP perspective not to betray our mandate, which is hard security. But we also realised that if we want to make progress with our partners for whom bioterrorism or BW threats are a secondary consideration, we must work on their highest priorities, namely building up capacities to prevent, detect and respond to any infectious disease threats.

So, we have abandoned what we referred to – somewhat disparagingly now – as the ‘guns, gates and guards approach’. You cannot just go and lock up stuff; you cannot go on taking things out of a country forever because it threatens us and other members of the international community. We must build capacities to prevent, detect and respond to disease threats from the ground up.

SIMBA is focussed on four different thematic areas: (1) biosafety and biosecurity, (2) national frameworks and parliamentary engagement to get more investment and legislative support for these issues, (3) epidemic intelligence and surveillance, so we can know what is coming, what is out there, and (4) non-proliferation. The goal is to build all these capacities in unison with one another. None is more important than the other. It is like four legs on a chair. If we lack one of them, then the whole thing falls.

Moving to some of today’s concerns, the GP operates in the geographical space where, I would say, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention are at their best. Progress may be non-existent, or at best, slow in Geneva or The Hague, but both conventions are active and alive on the national and regional or sub-regional levels. That shows commitment to the norm if not every provision of the respective treaties. Now, this is also precisely the area where Russia, through its disinformation campaigns, is attacking the international community’s support for the prohibition of armament in the biological or chemical fields. The current war in Ukraine, in particular, has been accompanied by many allegations about programmes that allegedly support military biological research. There is no specific mention of weapon development or production. How do you deal with a situation like that, given that the GP assistance programmes have been going on since the early 2000s?

Such baseless allegations have been a preoccupation of the GP for some time, and I will be very honest; they have been a personal passion of mine for many years. Our programme and I personally have been targeted by disinformation in the past.

Disinformation is not new. If we look back at the early days of WMD programmes, if we look at the early days of the Soviet Union’s BW work, the Soviets and the Russians have always been concealing; they have always been misleading. They dismissed the smallpox incident in 1971, the 1979 anthrax incident in Sverdlovsk was due to bad meat, and then there was the Chornobyl incident. We can go on and on and on.

(Source: Global Partnership)

What is different is that before, countries and those who wanted to promote disinformation used to reach thousands or tens of thousands, while today, they get through to millions and billions via the internet and social media. Fake news is something we are all familiar with. It is not the exclusive domain of proliferators. But proliferators have seized upon it and have done an exceptional job of using it. I do not say that approvingly, but I recognise that they are using those new tools, these new global smokescreens to their tremendous advantage.

The GP has been traditionally slow in responding. When I say the GP, I do not just mean the collective; it is also the individual members. I mentioned earlier that we were targeted. In 2011, we had a five-year programme in the Kyrgyz Republic to strengthen biosecurity and deal with threats left behind by the Soviet Union. It came to a crashing halt due to a disinformation campaign. The government of Canada had committed to building a substantial new BSL-3 laboratory for human and animal health. We were literally days away from starting construction when a disinformation campaign that had started a few months earlier paid dividends, and those dividends were that the Kyrgyz government decided not to allow this construction to proceed. We had been accused of developing BW. Canada was said to be planning to dump its own dangerous pathogens in the Kyrgyz Republic. The lab we were to build was called the ‘lab of death’. Suffice it to say that we were unable to recover from that. In the end, we terminated our cooperation and left. Those who had championed the disinformation campaign won. Hard lesson! But it has been an influential lesson as we watched disinformation grow in the WMD space over the past decade.

The US, for example, was targeted repeatedly, together with fellow GP member Georgia, for work at the Lugar Centre, a biological facility in Tbilisi. WMD disinformation very much came to the global fore and has become a real priority for the GP as a consequence of Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. Russia launched that war on several illegal premises. One of those was that Ukraine – with support from the US – was developing BW in its facilities. The allegations led to a Formal Consultative Meeting of the BTWC in 2022 that completely shredded Russia’s absurd allegations. Russia was left with only its most hardcore supporters defending it. Nonetheless, to this day, there are reports from the Kremlin that this work is ongoing, arguing that Russia must respond.

So, what is going to be the GP’s response? Canada has been leading an effort over the past year to develop a new GP approach to counter all manner of disinformation about weapons and materials of mass destruction. Our partners endorsed that approach at the Global Partnership Working Group, a formal body of the GP, at the Nagasaki meeting in November 2023. I am pleased to say that the government of Canada approved the project at the end of January 2024. At our GP Working Group meeting in Rome early in February, we will present to our partners how we will unroll this ambitious new programme. It will involve multiple civil society organisations that are going to be working together with us to make a concerted push.

What is important here is that this is not about debunking disinformation. As I said before, the GP is about prevention. ‘Debunking’ is the equivalent of ‘response’. We refer to it as whack-a-mole, played at carnivals where something pops up, and you try to smack it back down. By the time you have done that, another one is already coming up somewhere else. You are constantly chasing your tail.

We need to build up more positive information so that when disinformation comes, it will not stick. We need to be more proactive in building this, not just by creating a website. Having information available is always very helpful, but we need to push this out to the communities that matter, like the disarmament experts in capitals and the disarmament experts in hubs like Geneva, The Hague, Vienna or New York.

Over time, we must make the GP counter-disinformation approach the definitive source of information on those issues. We do not anticipate that this will stop the disinformation proponents or countries. It just now happens that because of the Ukraine travesty, most efforts are focussed on Russia. But there is disinformation on the full range of WMD issues happening all across Africa, South-East Asia and the Middle East. We are trying to get ahead by developing this proactive strategy over the coming years. That aims to take the bullets out of the gun, if you will, of those pushing disinformation.

How do you envisage to control the various information spaces?

I do not think that we can ever fully control them. Look at what is happening with the election processes in our own countries. There is so much ability now to propagate information through different channels that we can never expect to control it. What we want to do is to use our collective weight for proactive influence. And with the work we have been doing to build up a narrative wall for so long. The wall will not be impregnable but will be far more capable of repelling the disinformation when it comes.

The work we do is sensitive, but it is not secret. We put out an annexe, as I mentioned. The most recent one contains 319 projects we have done over the past year. Who reads the annexe? Not many people. So our work can be illegitimately portrayed as ‘this was a secret, and we found it and look what these terrible people have been doing in this country’. The work the US has been doing in the Ukraine that Russia targeted has been in the annexe year after year after year. Not one person in the media, not one person from an academic organisation, bothered to look to see if it was there. Instead, they seek the ‘aha’ or ‘gotcha’ moment.

Now, if we can build up the narrative base, we will have a better way to show what cooperative threat reduction is and does. We can better explain why we are working in these partner countries and why those who are the source of disinformation should not be trusted. Let us reveal their motivations and what they have been doing as proliferators over an extended time.

We are optimistic that this approach, together with a concerted diplomatic push and the development of targeted materials for the individual communities we are trying to engage, will build up this basic knowledge, making it harder for disinformation to impact those who are vulnerable to it.

For my final question, what are the priorities for the next half-decade or so?

This is a very timely question because we are putting much thought into the future priorities here in Ottawa. We are looking forward to the G7 presidency of Italy. We also have our eye on 2025, when Canada will be back in the chair. It has been a tradition, if you will, that because the GP started in Canada, there is a bit of a reset every time it comes back to our presidency. This was the case in 2010; we did it in 2018, and we hope to see it happen again in 2025.

What I can say for certain at this time is that the work we are doing on nuclear, biological and chemical threats is not done. That threat reduction work is going to continue. It must continue because the threats are still there. They are becoming more complex and getting harder to get at. It was difficult in the early days of the GP to build destruction facilities for 40,000 metric tonnes of CW located at seven different sites in Russia. Going into Syria and Libya to pull out those CW was difficult. Yet, at the same time, these actions were far easier because they were tangible. Right now, addressing the threats is almost like wrestling smoke. We are trying to figure out where those next threats are. And if we cannot destroy CW, how do we prevent the development of new ones? We must remain laser-focussed on those issues.

We also realise that the world has changed. There are new threats: artificial intelligence, emerging disruptive technologies, cyber threats, and the biotechnology revolution. We stressed earlier that past BW programmes were entirely reliant on harvested pathogens. This is not the case anymore with some of the new technologies. ChatGPT, what does that mean for the future of threat reduction?

We are making strides, but we do not have all the answers. It will be a work in progress, but I hope that it is somewhat comforting to those who worry about these issues to know that the GP, which has an unparalleled track record of getting hard things done, is thinking about this and is trying to figure out what our programmatic responses will be.

Thank you for this interview.

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