According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a bioterrorism attack is the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria, toxins or other harmful agents used to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants. These agents are typically found in nature, but it is possible that they could be mutated or altered to increase their ability to cause disease, make them resistant to current medicines, or to increase their ability to be spread into the environment. In addition to concerns that biological weapons could be developed or used by states, recent technological advances increase the likelihood that these weapons could be acquired or produced by non-state actors, including terrorist organizations. Even small bioterrorist attacks disproportionately spread fear and the threat of such an event is not unfounded as history has shown. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo unsuccessfully tried to weaponize botulinum toxin and anthrax in the mid-1990s.  In the days after the September 11 attacks in the United States, a series of anthrax-laced letters sent to several news agencies and two U.S. Senators killed five and sickened 17 others. See also this summary of historical attacks using chemical or biological weapons. In 2014 a laptop allegedly owned by a Tunesian Isis militant contained plans to launch terror attacks harnessing the bubonic plague.

In both the popular imagination and among lawmakers and national security experts, there exists the belief that with sufficient motivation and material resources, terrorist groups can produce bioweapons easily, cheaply, and successfully. For instance, on the NFI website: "Terrorists are drawn to biological weapons for their relative low cost, simple delivery and psychological impact". Scholars like Milton Leitenberg or Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley challenge this perception. Ms. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley argues that bioweapons development is a difficult, protracted, and expensive endeavor, rarely achieving the expected results whatever the magnitude of investment. Legal instruments offer no guarantee for preventing bioterrorism, but they might substantially diminish risks when combined with research and development, improved planning and communication among officials inside and across borders and advanced intelligence capabilities.

Legal Instruments

The first Convention that covers the use of biological and chemical weapons is the Geneva Protocol (also known as the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare), which was signed in 1925. This Protocol bans the use, but not the production, stockpiling, or deployment, of such weapons. It applies only to states'use in warfare, not to non-state actors or use in situations other than 'warfare', such as during peacetime or internal conflicts. Furthermore it applies only to 'bacteriological methods', which seems to exclude viruses.

The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, known as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC, 1972) is the result of prolonged efforts by the international community to establish a new instrument that would supplement the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The BWC currently has 171 States Parties. The BWC effectively prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. The BWC is not an anti-terrorism convention. Merriam argues that some key attributes and key failures of the BWC affect the prevention of bioterrorism and in some ways the history of the BWC has negatively impacted current and future ability to prevent bio-terrorism. Later this year, the Eighth Review Conference or BWC RevCon will be convened, which might offer an opportunity to exercise new leadership on this issue.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 (UNSCR 1540), which was passed in 2004, is at the moment the binding international agreement which most directly addresses bioterrorism prevention. According to Merriam, "in the bioterrorism context, UNSCR 1540's key developments beyond the BWC are: 1) a focus on non-state actors; 2) the effect of a UN Security Council Resolution, including application to states not parties to BWC; 3) greater specificity regarding measures states must take to help prevent bioterrorism; and 4) a first step in the direction of a quasi-compliance body with some very limited verification and enforcement role".

There are other international law mechanisms affecting bioterrorism, such as the 1977 International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, and two transportation-related treaties which criminalize the transportation of various WMD, including biological weapons, in civil aviation (Beijing Convention, 2010, not yet in force) and in maritime modes (SUA protocol, 2005). Given the existing mandate of UNSCR 1540 for broad criminalization of most terrorist activities, the bioweapons-related provisions of these treaties are more duplicative and confirmatory of the requirements of UNSCR 1540 then new and groundbreaking developments, Merriam writes. A new development is a convention Russia has put forward on the fight against biological and chemical terrorism but the talks could take up to two years, according to a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry in april 2016.

On the 11th of May the Peace Palace Library will organize a Peace and Security Salon, with biological and chemical weapons as the theme of the evening. The Salon will include lectures by several experts on the different aspects of biological and chemical weapons. The presentation by Onur Güven will provide a brief overview of the development of international rules restricting and prohibiting the use, possession and development of biological (and chemical) weapons. The speakers and titles of the presentations are:

Onur Güven (Asser Institute)

“From Restriction to Prohibition: A Century of Continuous Struggle”

Yasmin Naqvi (OPCW)

“Eliminating the Chemical Weapons Programme of Syria: Lessons Learned for Current and Future Threats”

Olivier Mattmann (Hotzone Solutions Group)

“CBRN Threat Awareness and National Protection Capacity Building”

Jonathan Forman (OPCW)

“The Intersection of Science and Biochemical Disarmament”

If you would like to attend this event, please register online via this link.

The entrance fee for this lecture is € 7,50 per person. We hope to welcome you on the 11th of May at the Peace Palace Library.

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Librarian's choice

A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection

  • Asada, M., "Security Council Resolution 1540 to Combat WMD Terrorism: Effectiveness and Legitimacy in International Legislation", Journal of conflict & security law, 13 (2008), No. 3, pp. 303-332.
  • Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, S., Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development, Cornell University Press, 2014.
  • Guillemin, J.H., Biological weapons: from the invention of state-sponsored programs to contemporary bioterrorism, New York, Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • Merriam, E., The International Legal Regime Affecting Bioterrorism Prevention, available via ssrn, accessed 25th april 2016.

Relevant PPL-keywords for further research

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