What if a non-state actor like Daesh gets hold of a biological or chemical weapon? Why was the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2013? These and many more topics concerning current threats and future developments of biological and chemical weapons were discussed at the third Peace Palace Library Peace & Security Salon on May 11th.

Director of the Peace Palace Library Jeroen Vervliet opened the salon describing the background of the (legal) regime concerning biological and chemical weapons. Moreover, he made references to the collected courses of The Hague Academy of International Law, in which – already in 1994- several legal implications concerning biological and chemical weapons were discussed.

Legal regime

Hereafter, the moderator of the evening, Onur Güven, researcher Public International Law at the Asser Institute, was given the floor. Mr. Güven gave a tour d’horizon of the development of international law governing arms control and biological and chemical warfare; Mr. Güven began with the St. Petersburg Declaration in 1868, which was of particular relevance because for the first time an international treaty recognized the principle of humanity as such to control and restrict the use of arms. It is because of the Declaration’s innovative nature that the 1899 Hague Declaration also refers to it. The 1899 Hague Declaration IV restricted the use of ‘projectiles’ to diffuse asphyxiating or deleterious gases. Restricted and not prohibited as there were many limitations on and conditions to the binding force of this Declaration. World War I, with the large-scale use of chemical warfare, showed the failure of these open-ended treaties. The German military command reasoned that since Hague Declaration IV restricted the use of gas ‘projectiles’, releasing poisonous or asphyxiating gases into the open air would not violate the Declaration.

Soon after World War I, in 1925 the Geneva Protocol was adopted. Its language was clearly based on the lessons learned from WWI, as it aimed to restrict chemical weapons in a more comprehensive way. The Protocol prohibited chemical weapons as such, rather than just gas projectiles, by adding to asphyxiating and poisonous gasses the broader and catch-all term ‘or other gases’; and by expanding the prohibition to include also ‘all analogous liquids, materials or devices’. The Geneva Protocol also introduced the prohibition on bacteriological methods of warfare. It was therefore the first attempt to prohibit comprehensively an entire category of weapons. Nevertheless there were once again limitations. The various reservations by states parties reduced the Protocol to a no-first-use commitment, thereby eroding the intended aim of prohibiting chemical weapons into that of restricting chemical weapons. Moreover, the High Contracting Parties agreed as to be bound by the Protocol, only as between them, in other words: the Powers would not be bound by this Protocol in their relations with colonies.

At the end of World War II, it became clear, especially after demonstration of the destructive power of the atomic bombs, that the world was in need of more comprehensive rules restricting and prohibiting the development of armaments; rules which did not only apply in times of armed conflict, but rules which would also be applicable in times of peace and in situations outside the context of armed conflict. Such comprehensive arms control and disarmament became one of the principal pillars for international peace and security under the United Nations system which ultimately led to the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993. Mr. Güven stressed that the Biological Weapons Convention & Chemical Weapons Convention  govern not only weapons and warfare, but also govern civilian life and the protection of the civilian population. These aforementioned international treaties are still very relevant as he explained, exemplified by the case of the current armed conflict in Syria. This reference made a good stepping stone for the second speaker of the evening, Yasmin Naqvi, legal officer in the Office of the Legal Adviser at the OPCW.

Syria

Mrs. Naqvi gave an inside story regarding the swift destruction of the chemical weapons by the OPCW in the armed conflict in Syria. To accomplish these goals the OPCW worked closely, for the first time, with the United Nations to destroy not only the stockpile of chemical weapons but also the production facilities. These actions were according to the request made by the Security Council of the United Nations and at request by France and the United Kingdom to the OPCW to start with an investigation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

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As one can see in the timeline above events followed shortly after each other and within two years most of the chemical weapons (and production facilities) were removed from Syria. Mrs Naqvi made clear that for her this was an eye-opener and therefore, a true lesson learned; if the international community wants to get something done, it can be very swiftly arranged if every country cooperates and shares the same political goals. In this particular case a dozen countries worked together and helped tremendously to increase the speed of destruction of chemical weapons. Furthermore, the (legal) backing by a resolution of the United Nations Security Council was of great help.

Accessibility

After a short coffeebreak the Salon continued with a story ‘from the field’ by Oliver Mattmann, who trains inspectors of –among others- the OPCW. Before becoming CEO of Hotzone Solutions mr. Mattmann worked as International Teamleader Inspector Chemical Munitions Specialist at the OPCW. In debating the risk of chemical and biological weapons and the threat of terrorists getting their hands on one of these weapons, ‘accessibility’ is the key. Mr. Mattmann told the audience that a lot of prevention can be done if certain -logical- preventive measures are taken, for example safeguarding scientific laboratories. However, also the scientists working in those laboratories need to cooperate and take every preventive action.

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That is the tricky part, because sometimes people simply forget (or knowingly forget) about certain safeguarding standard procedures. Mr. Mattmann also explained that this particular issue deals with communication between official regulators and the application of those rules in practice. How do safeguarding measures get communicated to the people ‘on the ground’? That’s where the lessons can be learned regarding biological and chemical weapons. Mr. Mattmann summarized this as PPRR: Prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

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Science

Dr. Jonathan Forman, Science Policy Adviser OPCW and Secretary to the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board, concluded the evening by debating the role of science and the potential future developments in biological and chemical technology, not necessarily in weapons or warfare. Narrowing down the debate to only biological or only chemical weaponry wouldn’t be possible, because research and development of biological and chemical weapons is trans-disciplinary: It takes chemistry, chemical engineering, life & medical sciences and physics all-combined in order to construct a biological or chemical weapon. Therefore, it may not be possible to recognize biological or chemical weapons research or development by focusing on a single scientific discipline.

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Lessons learned from the experience of dr. Forman were comparable to the conclusion of mr. Mattmann: accessibility is the key to prevention of biological and chemical weapons. Second to that is to keep up-to-date with the bio- and chemical technology knowledge available, also for regulators and controlling organizations.

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Q&A

In response to questions from participants whether there is a real threat of a biological or chemical attack by Daesh the panelists responded by saying that it is very hard for non-state actors to get acquainted with all the different stages of developing a biological or chemical weapon. Daesh needs to know how to handle, transport and to detonate such a weapon, which is very difficult. Therefore, non-state actors tend to use weapons which are ‘easier’ to make. Nevertheless, agencies and international organizations like the OPCW need to be very keen on these developments in the (near) future.

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Librarian's choice

A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection

These are the 'References Works' listed in the bibliography of the Research Guide Biological & Chemical Weapons.

Relevant PPL-keywords for further research

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