From Ypres to Syria: Science, Technology and the Norm Against Biochemical Weapons

Poison Gas Attack, First World War. wikicommons

Poison Gas Attack, First World War. wikicommons

The threat of biological and chemical weapon atrocities, by states or sub-state actors is ever present but often ignored.   In recent history, the use and development of such weapons has usually been associated with political responses designed to prevent against the use of such abhorrent weapons in the future. Throughout the twentieth century several states sustained large chemical and biological weapon development programmes– there is also a long history of use.  It in this context that the biological and chemical weapons conventions have developed internationally. These conventions include a web of international and national measured designed to prevent and mitigate the threat posed by the use of such weapons.  The majority of states, but not all, are signatories to these treaties. A wide number of institutions, including scientific institutions and civil society groups,  also play a key role in the functioning of these treaties.

Dark pasts: Shiro Ishii,  a scientist and commander of Unit 731, a covert chemical and biological weapon development active in the 1930s and 1940s. This unit killed thousands of people in secret weapon tests.

However, despite the development of  these regimes, such weapons continue to be of military significance to states and sub-state terrorist groups.  That is to say, while  the majority of the international community agree that there are ‘no right hands’ for such weapons- these weapons have continued to hold appeal for some- in the case of some terrorists, precisely because they illicit such terror and disgust.  Advances in S&T continue to threaten to make such weapons even more alluring to these actors.

As recent events in Syria have also demonstrated, some states have continued to develop these weapons, despite their illegality. Likewise,  perceived threat of  biological and chemical terrorism to states has ensured that many states continue to invest in  (legal) defensive measures against the threat of use. Some  activities supported within defensive programmes may in themselves contribute to increased risk perceptions among states, who struggle to distinguish between offensive and defensive  programmes in the context of state secrecy.

Smallpox was officially eradicated in 1980. Eradication was based on advances in science, technology as well as public health.  The causative agent now only offically exisits in two military labs, one in Russia and one in the US. The research which continues on this pathogen is a cause of concern for some commentators. This is because some research involves making more virulent and deadly strains of the smallpox pathogen

Smallpox was officially eradicated in 1980. Eradication was based on advances in science, technology as well as public health. The causative agent of smallpox Variola vera  is now the most tightly regulated of all pathogens .  Offically, Variola vera exists in two military labs, one in Russia and one in the US. The research which continues on this pathogen is worrying for some commentators. This is because some research involves making more virulent and deadly strains of the smallpox pathogen, and raises safety and security concerns. However, others have argued that such research is essential to improving  understanding. (image wikicommons)

Historically, advances in S&T have been intimately associated with military developments.  In recent years, the scientific community has increasingly been called upon to help in the development of existing systems of oversight, in order to help ensure against the misuse of scientific knowledge, laboratories, equipment and re-agents.   Problematically however, awareness  and owner ship  of this issue is absent in much of the scientific community. Added to this, there remains a requirement to improve how scientific and technological expertise is utilized in the context of the national and international regimes directed against chemical and biological weapons.

Developments in systems of  bio-chemical security have  been particularly determined by the character of geo- politics. There is a need for  better understanding  of how two way education and communication can circumvent the contested character of geo-politics, and result in responsive governance and oversight. This problem  can be understood to involve a situation  in which actors struggle within constraining political contexts to account for and respond to the speed of change within biochemical science and technology.

Science, by its very nature is about moving beyond the status quo. We can see advances in biological and chemical sciences especially in the last 10 years pointing towards the increasing control over the basic components of biological and chemical materials. Perhaps even more fantastical for those that are not familiar with these developments, are the increasing overlap between the biological and chemical sciences.  This includes the increasing extent to which biological systems can be utilized to produce complex chemicals, and the way in which components of complex biological systems are being synthesized through man-made chemical  processes.  This development towards a bio-chemical science is an important example of how advances in S&T can undermine existing approaches to oversight, in ways which are currently foreseen, and potentially unforeseen within existing governance regimes.

The issue of convergence  reveals the extent to which the development of governance systems is heavily influenced by geo-politics.  Under international law, biological and chemical weapons are dealt with under two very distinctive regimes- which account for developments in S&T in different ways.

An examination of the history of these regimes, reveals the fundamental that geo-politics has played. In the case of the CWC systems are in place to verify state compliance.  The human and financial resources for S&T revew are also entrenched within the institution. In contrast, the BWC lacks a system of verification, as well as any significant institutional report for S&T review.  Attempts to improve this situation, have been repeatedly undermined due to geo-political tensions.

In other words, geo-political agency moves slowly. In the future, how might arms control mechanisms be able to manage, govern and restrict changes in science and technology? The problem, as one might expect is not new. Yet the nature of changes in the study of bio-chemistry and how they relate to technologies that could both protect and destroy man-kind are of an order we may not have seen since the advent of atomic energy.

It has become increasingly clear that new thinking is required to overcome the obstacles to improving the responsiveness of CBW regimes to developments in S&T.

While there is a consensus on the problem, we lack one on the solution.

Professor David Galbreath, Principle investigator

David J. Galbreath is Professor of International Security at the University of Bath and Editor-in-Chief of European Security. Prof. Galbreath’s work focuses on security governance and international regimes in the areas of ethnic conflict, minority politics and confidence and security building measures. More recently, his research has begun to science and security governance in the areas of biological and chemical warfare and arms control. Funded by the ESRC and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Prof Galbreath is working on the underlying problems of arms control governance under conditions of rapid scientific developments. The project brings together his work on regime effectiveness, technology and defense, and international policy implementation. Prof Galbreath directs the Conflict and Security Research Group in the Bath Institute for Policy Research.

Brett Edwards, Research Officer

Brett Edwards is a PhD candidate at the University of Bath.  His PhD examines the governance of dual-use aspects of the field of synthetic biology, within in the US and the UK. His PhD is Wellcome funded and Is part of a multi-university project entitled Building a Sustainable Capacity for Dual-use Bioethics.  Brett has also worked for 6-months as a research officer on a Foreign and Commonwealth Office funded project on S&T review within the  Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). Recently, he  also completed a research fellowship  at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust.   Brett has a dual undergraduate background in Biology and Politics, and holds a MA in Biotechnological Law and Ethics (University of Sheffield, 2009).

3 thoughts on “From Ypres to Syria: Science, Technology and the Norm Against Biochemical Weapons

  1. Given the huge amounts of money invested in ‘defensive measures’ are we seeing an erosion of this norm on an international level? Or do recent developments in Syria simply reinforce the norm and the justified revulsion directed towards these weapons?
    – I personally fear the former…

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