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“Chemical and Biological Weapons Proliferation: A Quaker Perspective”

Presentation to the CCADD Conference, Bellem, Belgium, 30 August 2003


It is a privilege to be able to be with you.   In the few minutes I have today I wish to share some perspectives with you from the vantage point which I have had the privilege to have in Geneva for the last 9 years as representative for Disarmament and Peace at the Quaker UN Office. 


With regard to the title “Chemical and Biological Weapons Proliferation: A Quaker Perspective”, I am going to comment on chemical and biological weapons proliferation mainly from the standpoint of the challenge current developments present to our institutional capacities for control, for lessening threat, and less from a technical or actual or potential use of such weapons in any particular situation or setting.  And what you are going to get here is certainly “a” Quaker perspective.  The adjective is well chosen.  These are my personal views.


Also, I think I need to say, at the outset, that in my work in Geneva, the major focus of my “disarmament” work has been on the emerging issue of small arms and light weapons.  So, with regard to biological weapons developments and threats and even more so with chemical weapons, I’m going to be commenting, first, mainly on biological weapons control processes, as this is the arena with which I am more familiar, and, second, I shall comment from the standpoint of how some of what is currently going on in this respect is illustrative of some larger dilemmas we face and directions which are suggested for arms control and disarmament processes in relation to other types of weapons. 


A few key points which I shall try to make in the course of this talk:

a.   We are in a terrible mess in the current state of multilateral approaches to arms control and disarmament; however, these remain essential if we are to successfully face the deepening threats.

b.   This situation calls on us to be imaginative and creative in approaches, to explore every avenue, and civil society has a vital role to play in this.

c.   A key to the way forward is perhaps to remind ourselves and for those who make decisions to remind themselves of the moral imperative to act in such a way that the interests of humanity are protected; here, a “back to basics” approach may offer the best way forward.


First, a bit of background, so you understand where my comments come from.  Quakers have long opposed war but also understood the necessity to support processes of peace, broadly understood as well as to seek to work on the roots of violence and conflict.  They have therefore seen it important to be present in places where such issues are being debated, and decisions are being made.  Thus, there has been a formal Quaker presence in Geneva since the 1920s and the Quaker UN Office itself dates from 1947.  Disarmament has, inevitably, been an important focus of the Quaker work in Geneva, as the seat of what is now called the Conference on Disarmament and the site of many disarmament and arms control processes, such as the negotiations for a Verification Protocol to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Review Conferences of that Convention which take place every 5 years.  I would be happy in question time to discuss the ways in which we work in Geneva to seek to bring about change, but, put simply, we see our role to be facilitators for dialogue, rather than as lobbyists.


But, to be honest, there are times in Geneva when you wonder what planet you are on, there being such a seeming disconnect between the apparent realities needing attention and what actually takes place when governments get together.  To illustrate, for the last two weeks, states parties to the BWTC have been holding “expert meetings” in preparation for a one-week annual meeting in November.  This year the focus is on “national measures to implement the prohibitions set forth in the Convention, and national mechanisms to establish and maintain the security and oversight of pathogenic microorganisms and toxins.”  As I shall argue below, this process is important and we must use it to the maximum.  And yet, set against not only the near constant public theme of the threats by “terrorist” groups and “rogue” states of the use of weapons of mass destruction and set against the realities of the growing potential for abuse which rapid advances in biotechnology are presenting, this effort feels often like a “theatre of the absurd.”  As Marie Chevrier, a US analyst, noted last year in commenting on the outcome of the most recent BTWC Review Conference:  “. . . states parties are now mired in a diplomatic staging of Waiting for Godot.  Delegations meet, spend money, argue semantics and report back to capitals, justifying continued talk while the spectre of biological warfare and bioterrorism hover in the background with ever growing menace.”[i]  Ironically, in the midst of the “war on terrorism”, the prospects for multilateral agreements on arms control and disarmament have rarely looked worse.  This is especially ironic when looking back at the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, stuck in or emerging from the depths of the Cold War as they were, yet years in which the mutual perception of threat and mutual interest pushed states to make agreements, in some cases some quite far-reaching ones, aimed at increasing security for all.  Today the threats are great, but the common vision and political will is, so far, severely lacking.


Many factors and reasons in all this.  We can try to unpack this a bit in our discussion.  One underlying factor of course is the very success of the end of the Cold War, which has given attention to other issues and allowed other actors, ones difficult to bind by international agreements, to emerge as serious players.  An easy, but important, target is, of course, the United States and its own global status, its current political ideology, its real but short-sighted sense that it really doesn’t need others at the present time.  Others, however, hide behind the US stubbornness at the moment.  There are also the continuing running sores of regional conflict—in the Middle East, between India and Pakistan—which impose themselves on global discussions and militate against the elaboration of effective global solutions.  There are commercial interests; there are the very practices of multilateral disarmament diplomacy, driven as they are by the “consensus” rule and secrecy; there is the “dual use” potential of current technologies which means they can be used for good or ill, posing consequent very difficult challenges for appropriate monitoring and control; and, no doubt, many others.


The reality is, however, that, in the case of emerging threats of biological weapons and bioterrorism, we are institutionally ill-equipped and ill-served.  The situation on the chemical weapons front is somewhat more positive, do to the strong nature of the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Yes, we do have the BTWC (essential) which aims, to quote the Preamble, “for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins being used as weapons.”  And yet, in the case of the BTWC, despite nearly 7 years of negotiation it did not prove possible to add to the broad principles of the BTWC an effective compliance verification and enforcement Protocol, which would have strengthened its relevance enormously.  Unlike the NPT, which is backed by the important role of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or the Chemical Weapons Convention that has both an important investigations mechanism as well as an implementing body, the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Warfare, the BTWC has neither.


I am not going to go into the details of how biotechnological developments are making this failure ever more tragic and dangerous, in part because of time, but also, frankly, because I have spent too little time trying to understand the actual science of it all.  I would call your attention to a small book prepared by Professor Malcolm Dando of the Bradford University Department of Peace Studies and written for the British Medical Association, entitled “Biotechnology, Weapons, and Humanity”, in which these developments and their threats are well laid out.  As Dando has pointed out, “In an age of molecular biology, the distinction between chemistry and biology has greatly diminished.  It is therefore best to consider a ‘biochemical threat spectrum’ ranging from classical chemical weapons (such as nerve gas) through toxins and bioregulators to classical and genetically modified biological agents.”[ii]  As the Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson has said, “During the century ahead, as our ability to modify fundamental life processes continues its rapid advance, we will be able not only to devise additional ways to destroy life but will also become able to manipulate it—including the processes of cognition, development, reproduction and inheritance.”[iii]  The application of this revolution to warfare—historically most other scientific and technological revolution have been so applied—offers a truly frightening prospect, especially as such technologies become accessible to sub-groups, criminals and even skilled but deranged individuals.


The biochem techonological revolution offers opportunities for improving the quality of life.  But these very same technologies can also be used for the development of new, sophisticated biochemical products capable of doing tremendous ill.  This can come about by accident or deliberation.  For example, in 2001, as noted by Elisa Harris in her presentation to the Expert Group last week, Australia scientists reported that they had inadvertently transformed be used for the relatively benign mousepox virus into a lethal one as part of a well-intentioned effort to develop a contraceptive for controlling the mouse population.  She goes on to say that last summer, American scientists demonstrated a method of synthesizing infectious polio virus from scratch, based solely on mail order DNA and genomic information available on the internet.  US and other scientists are also equencing the genome of the 1918 Spanish influenza virus, work that could lead to the recreation of the virus that killed up to 40 million people in a single year.[iv]


Deliberate weapons focused research using this new scientific knowledge and capacity is also possible.  It has, for example, been argued by some that the United States, in the name of its bio-defense programme, is dangerously close to a clear violation of the BWC, if it has not already crossed the threshold.  Dando and Wheelis have argued that such deliberate use of the new technology would fatally undermine both the bioweapons and chemical weapons treaties, leading to a new arms race.  They have provided one vision of what such a “new” world could look like, were our two key treaties to fall into active disuse.  “All major military powers could be armed with bombs, missiles, shells, and spray tanks on unmanned aerial drones, loaded with chemical agents that cause stupor, convulsions, panic attacks, hallucinations, or violent sensory experiences, or with genetically engineered biological agents that degrade paint, plastic, rubber, fuel, and lubricants.  Some regional powers would have stockpiles of lethal agents like 3d generation nerve gases and genetically engineered pathogens.  Non-lethal chemical weapons, anti-material weapons, and possibly also lethal chemical and biological weapons would likely be used repeatedly in regional conflicts.  The proliferation of these technologies would dramatically increase the chances that terrorists would become capable of mass-casualty attacks using chemical or bioweapons.  Police forces would be armed with new riot control agents, based on military non-lethal weapons that are much more effective than tear gas.  This would greatly increase government power to control civil unrest—a dangerous tool in totalitarian hands and one for which democracies have little use.”[v] 


The biochem technological revolution is offering new, tempting possibilities for new weapons developments for warfare and policing, but which blur the lines and threaten the norms against biological and chemical weapons development and use.  And current technologies in the hands of non-state actors and some state actors pose threats of incalculable proportions.  Yet, while this process is taking place, our multilateral institutional capacities are increasingly crippled.


It seems obvious that not only is this a situation in which there is not a simple military answer but it is also one in which national action alone is not enough.  Nor is it one in which simply wringing one's hands about the state of multilateralism will be particularly useful.


I would just like to offer a few practical, short-term thoughts for acting in this situation.  There really are many things that can be done, even in the depths of our despair about the state of multilateralism and the apparent impossibility in the present climate of any further legally binding mechanism.  Here are a few:


1.  Work for universalization of the BTWC and the CWC.  This will strengthen the norm.

2.  Work nationally for the full implementation at the national level of the requirements for national implementation of these two critical Conventions.

3.  Make full use of the mechanisms that do exist for the development of consensus views internationally on steps which can be taken.  For example, use the BTWC "intersessional" work programme which will look at five key topics this year, in 2004, and 2005, which are aimed at the discussion and promotion of common understanding and effective action on: a)the adoption of necessary national measures to implement the prohibitions set forth in the Convention, including the enactment of penal legislation; b)national mechanisms to establish and maintain the security and oversight of pathogenic microorganisms and toxins; c)enhancing international capabilities for responding to, investigating and mitigating the effects of cases of alleged use of biological or toxin weapons or suspicious outbreaks of disease; d)strengthening and broadening national and international institutional efforts and existing mechanisms for the surveillance, detection, diagnosis and combating of infectious diseases affecting humans, animals and plants; and e)the content, promulgation, and adoption of codes of conduct for scientists.

4.  Increase awareness of the potential dangers of national biodefense research and blow the whistle on all such research that would breach the prohibitions of the BTWC and CWC.  Promote the notion that protection against the possible use of biological weapons can be strengthened by a good health care system, effective disease detection and medical response programs.[vi]

5.  Support the promotion of codes of conduct for researchers and responsible behaviour by exporters and importers of information and products, working to enhance the capacity for the safe usage of new technologies for the benefit of all.  (Witness current clashes over intellectual property and the access to generic retroviral drugs in the WTO).  "Countries must establish and enforce responsible export controls to ensure that they and their industries, while promoting beneficial scientific development, are not also contributing to the spread of biological weapons." [vii]

6.  Focus on keeping technology transfers as transparent as possible (thereby contributing to the building of confidence), aiming at ensuring that "all economic units involved in a transaction share the responsibility of ensuring that the dual-use potential of the technologies is not realized."[viii]

7.  Press for the opening up to broader scrutiny and participation the current processes (Review Conferences, etc.) used by governments to debate and work on these issues and offer other channels and processes for enhancing the ability to tackle these.  Example: work on landmines, on small arms, on so-called "inhumane" weapons.


In all of the above, there is a tremendous role for civil society to play.  Civil society has been only sparsely present, particularly in the sphere of biological weapons.  Enhance the role of civil society experts, but broaden public knowledge and bring in new publics, such as environmentalist, humanitarian, and human rights groups.  Note:  Biological Weapons Prevention Project (BWPP) ( monitoring of government steps and behaviour and building a global network of concerned organizations.


All efforts need to be made to strengthen the norms against biological and chemical weapons development and use.  Here there is important work to be done by religious bodies and humanitarian organizations in reminding governments of their obligations under international law.  The 1925 Geneva Protocol "for the prohibition of the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other Gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare" has become a part of customary international law.  The Preamble to the BTWC states, inter alia, "Determined for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins being used as weapons," and "Convinced that such use would be repugnant to the conscience of mankind and that no effort should be spared to minimize this risk," the General Purpose criterion (Article I) then states "Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain: (1)Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes; (2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict." Similar language exists in the CWC.  These are essential, vital commitments.  They exist for the benefit of humanity, and they must override the interests of private industry and individual national definitions of security.  In this regard, I would like to call to your attention the recent "Appeal" of the International Committee of the Red Cross entitled "Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity":  "The responsibility to prevent the hostile uses of biotechnology lies with each State.  But it extends beyond governments to all persons, especially to military, scientific and medial professionals and those in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries." [ix]


In the present climate, such "back to basics" work, reminding us all of basic moral and humanitarian principles which hold us together as an international community (naïve?), seems especially important.


David Atwood

30 August 2003



[i] Marie Chevrier, “Waiting for Godot or Saving the Show? The BWC Review Conference Reaches Modest Agreement, Disarmament Diplomacy, 68 (December 2002/January 2003), 11.

[ii] Malcolm Dando, “PreveninG Biological Warfare,” Peace Studies News, 32 (Spring/Summer 2003), 8.

[iii] Matthew Meselson, review of Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War by Judith Miller, Steven Engelberg and William Broad, in New York Review of Books, 13 December 2001.

[iv] Elisa D. Harris, “Controlling Dangerous Pathogens,” presentation to BWC Meeting of Experts, Geneva, 19 August 2003.

[v] Mark Wheelis and Malcolm Dando, “Back to Bioweapons?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. January/February 2003

[vi] British American Security Information Council (BASIC), “A Basic Guide to Biological Weapons,” 2002.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Jean Pascal Zanders, John Hart and Frida Kuhlau, “Biotechnology and the Future of the Norm Against Biological Weapons,” paper presented at the 16th Workshop of the Pugwash Study Group of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions: The Fifth Review Conference, Geneva, 24 – 25 November 2001, 17.

[ix] “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity: Appeal of the International Committee of the Red Cross,” Geneva, September 2002, 3.














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