NPT Article VI and BTWC Article IX

This discussion between Marco and Dan on Article VI of the NPT and customary law is instructive.

In this particular case, Marco’s application of the notion to a single article rather than the totality of the treaty puzzles me. I would tend to agree with Dan’s counterpoint. However, Dan then refers to the CWC in its entirety to draw an analogy. In my mind a bit problematic for two reasons:

1. The CWC is a disarmament, rather than a non-proliferation treaty. It means that the weapon category in its entirety is banned and no exeception exists for any state, whether big or small; whether powerful or weak. However, more to the present discussion, as a consequence of the CWC being a disarmament treaty (i.e., going to zero and remaining at zero in the future), the convention is final. It does not have aspirational articles with regard to ambitions not covered by its own text.

2. Article VI of the NPT resembles more of Article IX of the BTWC:

Each State Party to this Convention affirms the recognized objective of effective prohibition of chemical weapons and, to this end, undertakes to continue negotiations in good faith with a view to reaching early agreement on effective measures for the prohibition of their development, production and stockpiling and for their destruction, and on appropriate measures concerning equipment and means of delivery specifically designed for the production or use of chemical agents for weapons purposes.

I find it difficult to see how this article could have turned the BTWC into a CW disarmament treaty (as proponents of nuclear disarmament often tend to do with regard to Article VI of the NPT) or how it could reflect on customary law regarding CW, even if considering that most people view the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical and biological weapons as having entered into customary law.

Just like the CWC, the BTWC is also a disarmament treaty and has similiar finality with regard to biological and toxin weapons. Nevertheless, I would argue that the BTWC today, despite having fewer parties than the CWC, fits more firmly into customary law: no state actually claims having BW or maintaining an offensive BW programme. (For example, in an interview in Der Spiegel on 19 January 2009, Bashar al-Assad more than implicitly admitted to CW, but flatly denied BW.) This has important implications from an armament/disarmament perspective: there is no space whatsoever for testing weapons in the field, training troops or developing military doctrines for their use on both the strategic and tactical levels. Even for states not party to the BTWC. Such types of preparations can be and would be detected.

But back to BTWC, Article IX: between 1975 (EIF for the BTWC) and 1993 (Opening for signature of the CWC) we witnessed an accelerated CW armament competition between the US and the USSR (including the startup of the US binary production programme), the start of Iraq’s CW programme culminating in gas being used in the 1980-88 Gulf War; Libya’s CW programme, Syria’s, …

So, as far as the analogy with Dan’s argument goes (I am discussing 2 different weapon categories mentioned in a single treaty): each party to the BTWC, whether a possessor or non-possessor of CW was bound to negotiate the CWC, but it did not prevent several among them to develop, produce, or even use CW during the intervening period.

Can Five Treaty Violators and Two Non-Parties Keep a Treaty Rule from Becoming Custom?: A Reply to Roscini

As always, Marco has provided thoughtful analysis and a strong argument in his most recent blog post on whether NPT Article VI has entered into the corpus of customary international law. Following up on my own earlier post on this subject, I would like to provide a brief collegial counterpoint to Marco’s analysis. And I would note in starting that I think the debate in which we are engaged here mirrors the debate that will indeed be had among the parties to the Marshall Islands ICJ cases, assuming they reach the merits phase.

Marco notes in particular the principle of “specially affected” states and their role in the formation of customary law. I think he has expressed that principle perfectly correctly, and I take no issue with its existence and relevance to the formation of a rule of CIL.

I would, however, offer a counterpoint to the proposition that this principle should be applied to the facts of the situation under current consideration in the precise way in which Marco has posited.

The first point I would make is regarding the question of who, in the specific context of NPT Article VI, are the states “specially affected” by this treaty rule? I think it’s important to bear in mind that the rule in Article VI cannot be viewed in isolation, even for purposes of customary law formation. Article VI is an integral part of the NPT’s Grand Bargain structure of quid pro quo obligations. This package deal in its entirety is the reason that the NPT exists at all – without it, many non-nuclear weapon states would never have agreed to join the NPT. Therefore, I think in the specific context of the NPT, there is a strong argument to be made that all NPT parties are equally “specially affected” by the rule in Article VI.

It should be noted that Article VI by its own terms is made applicable to “Each of the Parties to the Treaty,” and not only to the five Nuclear Weapon States. Marco rightly notes that “Specially affected states are those that had the opportunity to engage in the relevant practice.” I agree with that definition, and I think that because of it, the principle of “specially affected” states in CIL formation is best reserved for those areas of international relations in which only some states have the capacity to engage in the relevant conduct – e.g. landlocked states in the context of the law of the sea. But in the context of NPT Article VI, is it correct to say that only the NWS have/had the opportunity or capacity to engage in the relevant practice, which is nuclear disarmament? I would answer that question in the negative.

As I noted in another recent post, there are a number of cases of states who have engaged in nuclear weapons development programs, and who have at some point, for varying reasons, ceased those programs. In a number of those cases, a major motivating factor was that the states in question wanted to join the NPT, and knew that they could not do so unless they ceased their nuclear weapons programs. It was not a lack of capacity or opportunity to construct nuclear weapons that kept many of these states from doing so, but rather a variety of political and circumstantial reasons leading to their decision to stop their active programs. And since they joined the NPT, many of those states have joined in statements signifying their understanding of NPT Article VI as being legally binding.

Further, there are a number of other states who have never, to the best of my knowledge, seriously engaged in nuclear weaponization programs, but who undoubtedly have the capacity to do so if they so chose. And they have chosen not to do so at least in part because of the strictures of the NPT, inclusive of Article VI. So again, simply because only five states within the NPT regime, and four states outside of it, have chosen to possess nuclear weapons and not to disarm themselves of them, does not mean that these are the only states that have had an opportunity or capacity to do so. Rather, in the case of the five NWS, their choice not to disarm merely constitutes treaty breach on their part, and should not be counted to their credit in keeping the rule in Article VI from becoming CIL.

I would offer as a perhaps imperfect but I think persuasive analogy the case of the Chemical Weapons Convention. I may be wrong, but I doubt that many would argue that the CWC rule prohibiting possession of chemical weapons has not entered into the corpus of customary law, at least since the establishment of the CWC in 1997. However, while by far most states parties to the CWC have or are in the process of disarming themselves of their CW stockpiles, there are still states, both CWC parties and non-parties, who possess or are suspected of possessing CW. Would we say that these CW possessing states both inside and outside of the CWC are states “specially affected” by the prohibition of CW because of this possession, and that they therefore should have a disproportionate influence on the creation of a parallel rule of CIL? I don’t think so. I think we would say simply that state practice and opinio juris do not have to be universal for a rule of CIL to develop, and that in this case there is a supermajority of states who do manifest these elements, and that therefore those that do not are nevertheless bound by the rule which has developed thereby. And furthermore that those within the CWC that possess CW in contravention of the treaty’s terms are merely in violation of the treaty.

As I said in my previous post on this topic, in order to truly establish whether NPT Article VI has indeed entered into parallel customary international law, a rigorous empirical study would need to be made of state practice and opinio juris on this matter, which to my knowledge has not yet been made. Only after conducting such a study, looking at the state practice and opinio juris of both NPT parties and non-NPT parties, could any real conclusions be drawn about whether Article VI has persuasively been established as a rule of custom (BTW I titled this post as I did because I’m not sure one can make heads or tails of either Israel’s or North Korea’s opinio juris regarding nuclear disarmament. Israel doesn’t like to talk about the NPT, and North Korea is, well, nuts).

However, I do think that when that study is done, the points I have made about the possible application of the principle of “specially affected” states should be borne in mind. Again, I would argue that in the specific case of NPT Article VI, this principle is not properly applicable as a principle hindering the creation of parallel customary law.

My thoughts on the customary status of Article VI of the NPT

Customary international law plays an important role in the applications recently submitted by the Marshall Islands to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), particularly in those against the nuclear weapon states not parties to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Has Article VI of this treaty become binding on all states even beyond the NPT, as argued by the applicant?

Customary international law, which is generally non-written, is created by the convergence of two elements: practice by a sufficiently representative number of states and other subjects of international law (for instance, international organizations) and ‘evidence of a belief that this practice is rendered obligatory by the existence of a rule of law requiring it’ (to use the ICJ’s words in, among others, the North Sea Continental Shelf Judgment) or at least by social, political or economic exigencies (opinio juris ac necessitatis). The fact that a treaty has been almost universally ratified is not, on its own, sufficient evidence of its customary status. To reach this conclusion, one has to look at the practice and opinio juris of the states not parties to the treaty: my feeling is that Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are going exactly in the opposite direction. Furthermore, even certain states parties (i.e., the five nuclear weapon states) have conducted themselves and expressed views that are difficult to reconcile with the alleged customary nature of Article VI.

It is true that universality of practice and opinio is not necessary for the formation of customary international law. However, it is not because there are a few states against in spite of a significant majority in favour that a custom corresponding to Article VI cannot be considered formed, but because the contrary practice and opinio come from those states that have nuclear weapons. To be clear, I am not referring to the doctrine of the persistent objector: I am not arguing that a custom in force is not applicable to certain states. My point is rather that a customary norm cannot sediment unless the practice and opinio juris of the specially interested states support this. The International Law Association’s 2000 Report on the formation of customary international law confirms that the extensive character of state practice is more a qualitative than a quantitative criterion: ‘if all major interests (“specially affected States”) are represented, it is not essential for a majority of States to have participated (still less a great majority, or all of them)’ (p. 26). Specially affected states are those that had the opportunity to engage in the relevant practice. It is difficult to see, then, how Article VI can become customary international law without considering the practice and opinio juris of those states that possess nuclear weapons and to which the provision is primarily addressed. The fact that Article VI does not reflect customary international law is confirmed in the ICJ’s 1996 Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, where the Court states that the obligation ‘formally concerns the 182 States parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons’.

It should be incidentally noted that, if Article VI is only a treaty obligation and not also a customary provision, it would be at best an obligation erga omnes partes, and not erga omnes as too hastily argued by the applicant. In other words, it is an obligation assumed towards the group of the states parties collectively considered, but not towards the international community as a whole.

Wolfthsal on Uncovering Iran’s Nuclear Past

I was just reading a new piece by Jon Wolfsthal in the National Interest entitled “Uncovering Iran’s Nuclear Past: Where to Start? Where to Stop?” Overall I think this piece is part of a welcome movement of pragmatism regarding the PMD issue in Iran. However, I was struck by this passage in the piece, which I think does express a common view in DC policymaking circles:

Iran has yet to provide adequate answers to most of these questions, in part because it continues to publicly deny it ever pursued nuclear weapons. This, in the minds of officials, experts and long-time observers is proof that Iran harbors long-term nuclear weapon ambitions and cannot be trusted to implement any new agreement.

I don’t see the logical connection between these two assertions: 1) Iran doesnt want to talk about nuclear weaponization research and development activities that may have gone on in the increasingly distant past in Iran; and 2) that means Iran wants to build nuclear weapons in the future.

As I’ve been researching my new book, I’ve been surprised by just how many states have at some point since the end of World War II pursued nuclear weapons programs, to varying degrees of development, and then have at some point stopped them.  At this link you can find a really interesting and useful brief run-down of some of these programs.

Each case is of course different, but on the whole I think you could make a few generalizations about them.  In by far most of these cases, state officials in later years were not keen to talk about the former programs, and definitely would not have welcomed attempts by other states or international organizations to pry into that history, and force them to “come clean” about all the details concerning them. Also, in by far most of these cases, once the nuclear weapons program was stopped, it remained stopped, at least in an active, development sense. A number of these states now possess mature civilian nuclear energy programs, and are advanced industrial states with defense industries, and therefore have all the necessary capabilities to seriously re-start a nuclear weapons program if they chose to do so. But again, they have not.

So I would say that overall, history does not support the connection that Wolfsthal makes in this piece, and that I think underlies efforts to pressure Iran to make an accounting of its past nuclear weaponization R&D.


Syria: Disarmament in animated suspense

Syria has now missed about every single deadline since it was unable to move the Priority 1 chemicals out of the country by the end of last year. These even include renegotiated time frames and the self-imposed final date of 27 April. One more fixed date is pending: 30 June, by which time all precursor chemicals should have been neutralised.

It would now seem that the world will sigh with relief if everything is aboard the Danish and Norwegian freighters by the end of next month. US officials envisage 60 working days to neutralise the volume of precursor chemicals and hydrolyse the mustard agent on board the US ship Cape Ray. The end of this mission could be pushed back even further if factors such as bad weather or sea states exceeding safety standards interrupt activities. In addition, the original schedule foresaw incineration of the reaction mass by the end of 2014. However, one of the companies selected by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Finland’s Ekokem, requires at least nine months. This potentially pushes completion of the disarmament tasks agreed in the US-Russian framework agreement of September last year into the second quarter of 2015. Consequently, the disarmament mandate established by UN Security Council resolution 2118 (2013) can be expected to remain in place at least as long.

Similar delays affect the final destruction of former CW production facilities (CWPF). Different interpretations about the perimeter of several CWPFs block consensus decision-making on the formal destruction plan in the Executive Council of the OPCW, and hence progress in the field.

Finally, concerns have emerged whether Syria has declared its entire CW stockpile. In particular, the country has claimed destruction of 200 metric tonnes of mustard gas in March 2013, but initially failed to declare this to the OPCW.

Remaining precursor chemicals

Syrian authorities have consistently claimed that heavy fighting at key sites and high security risks along the transportation routes make it all but impossible to transfer the precursor chemicals to the port of Latakia within the set deadlines. The Joint OPCW-UN Mission has tended to confirm these security assessments. It has also reported shelling into Latakia in March and intensive combat operations around the final storage site.

According to the 7th monthly report submitted to the UN Security Council on 25 April, 96.45% of declared Priority 1 chemicals and 81.09% of declared Priority 2 chemicals had been moved onto the Danish vessel Ark Futura and the Norwegian freighter Taico respectively. Combined they amounted to 92.03%. The remaining 8%—about 100 metric tonnes of precursors—consisted of

  • Priority 1 chemicals:
    • B salt (N (2-chloroethyl)-N-ethyl propan 2 amine salt)
    • DF (methylphosphonyl difluoride)
    • Isopropanol
  • Priority 2 chemicals
    • Butan-1-ol (alcohol)
    • HCl (hydrogen chloride)
    • HF (hydrogen fluoride)
    • Hexamine

On 20 May, the OPCW–UN Joint Mission confirmed the destruction of all isopropanol. (It should be noted that ‘B salt’ did not figure in the initial list of precursors and was included in one of the revised declarations by Syria. It is possible that a declaration error was made concerning ‘BB salt’.)

The 7.2% of chemicals that must still be shipped out remain trapped at Al Sin. Very little is known about the military site, except for its identification as a CW production facility in the 3rd monthly report of last December (Annex, paragraph 15). ‘Al Sin’ features in a few combat reports by insurgent factions published to the internet on 20 March, and are described as depots or an airport. Some press accounts suggest that the chemicals are at an airbase.

Battalion 559 of the Syrian armed forces holds a storage base that fits the descriptions.  It is located about 63km to the northeast of Damascus along a major road travelling from the Adra suburban area in the general direction of Palmyra (Tadmur). About 14km to the south of Al Sin lies the Sayqal Military Airbase, which also houses several ammunition storage installations.

Al Sin has two major access routes (presumable the aforementioned main road going either northeast or southwest) and a secondary road travelling through the mountains. At present, the main access routes are unusable because they are controlled by insurgents or within easy targeting range of their heavier weaponry. The secondary road is impractical, considering that the DF has been transferred into large 2000-litre reinforced containers and the highly dangerous and volatile HF is contained under pressure in industry-standard cylinders. Transport in a large, escorted convoy along a mountainous track not only runs a high risk of accidents, the surroundings also offer many opportunities for ambushes. The Syrian army is currently mounting major military operations to clear (one of) the two principal routes out of Al Sin. Once achieved, the evacuation of the final precursors to Latakia is expected to be completed shortly afterwards.

Destruction of CW production facilities at an impasse

Political blockage over the destruction of Syria’s twelve CWPFs prevents progress on an important dimension of the elimination of the country’s chemical warfare capacity. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) refers to CWPFs in many articles and sections of the Verification Annex. Article II, 8 defines it in terms of equipment for producing or filling certain types of chemicals and buildings that house such equipment. They must be irreversibly destroyed under a detailed destruction plan, although some buildings can be converted under strict conditions to purposes not prohibited by the convention. Despite Syria’s request, the Executive Council of the OPCW has refused to authorise conversion of some facilities.

In contrast, CW storage facilities (CWSF) are discussed only in the Verification Annex, Part IV(A) in relation to the presence of CW, their verification and destruction. A party to the CWC must declare a CWSP’s name, exact coordinates and a detailed site diagram, including a boundary map and the location of bunkers/storage areas within the facility. It must also provide a detailed inventory of the CW they contain. No treaty provision, however, demands the destruction of CWSFs.

Syria has apparently five underground structures, tunnels shaped in the form of a staple. They comprise three major sections. Each of the two extremities offers entrance to the complex. However, only one of the arms is the actual CWPF; the two other sections Syria has declared as storage sites. Following extensive discussions with OPCW technical staff and onsite visits at the end of March, a CWPF destruction plan was proposed to the Executive Council, which it rejected. The United States and other members of the Western Europe and Other States Group represented on the Executive Council argued that the storage areas form an integral part of the production site, and that therefore Syria’s circumscription of the CWPFs is incomplete. In addition, the argument has been put forward that via a network of tunnels they link up to other parts of a larger military complex.

It is difficult to see how the impasse can be overcome soon. The Executive Council habitually decides by consensus. If the United States and its partners press for a vote, they are by no means certain of gaining a majority. Even if they do, there may be ramifications in other areas of treaty implementation further down the road. Syria, for its part, has adopted a very assertive posture since becoming an OPCW member last October and is unlikely to budge on anything that does not represent a formal, unambiguous obligation under the CWC or without pressure from Russia. The current frosty relations between Moscow and Washington are not helpful either.

 Did Syria declare all?

Over the past month or two several questions have arisen as to whether Syria declared its full chemical warfare capacity. They are in part due to the recent attacks with barrel bombs allegedly containing chlorine canisters, and in part to the amendments to its formal declarations to the OPCW. The latter are the result of normal verification routines by OPCW staff, which it undertakes for all parties to the OPCW. Analysis of declarations and onsite inspections often lead to the discovery of inconsistencies, contradictions or even missing information, which yield lists of questions and issues that the state party must resolve. Syria is no exception, and a significant new amendment to earlier declarations is expected in the near future. Although it will not contain new types of chemicals, there will be variations in the volumes of declared precursors without much changing the overall total of 1,300 metric tonnes. In contrast, it will include a thus far undeclared CW research centre near Damascus. (Readers of this blog will recall that the Executive Council and UN Security Council decisions of 27 September compel Syria to declare research facilities, even though this is not required by the CWC.)

A initial team of 8 OPCW inspectors left for Syria on 2 May and they were joined by an additional 5 personnel on 12 May to investigate the chlorine attack allegations. They can have access to the one site where the government has claimed that the rebels used a chlorine weapon, but until now have been refused entry into the rebel areas. Negotiations with insurgents to enable the safe transit of the precursor chemicals to the port of Latakia or for OPCW-UN Joint Mission staff to have access to sites in rebel-controlled territory are conducted through the office of Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and League of Arab States for Syria. While the office continues to function, Brahimi’s resignation on 13 May, effective at the end of the month, implies the loss of a lot of political clout with the insurgents. It’s impact on the disarmament process is unclear for the time being, but the convoys transporting the precursor chemicals and the OPCW–UN Joint Mission may face growing security and safety challenges if the current lack of progress continues for any significant length of time. Future investigations of alleged used of CW may also be compromised.

Another element that tends to contribute to the unease about Syria’s truthfulness is the fact that until today the government has not declared owning any of the Volcano rockets believed to have delivered sarin nerve agent against the Ghouta district last August. It did report two such missiles, but stated that it had found them and that it was not their possessor. Many countries and observers blame the Syrian military for the Ghouta attacks and other chemical strikes.

Finally, the questions if Syria has declared all its ‘weaponised’ warfare agents revolve around whether it has irreversibly disposed of about 200 metric tonnes of mustard gas. Syrian officials claim that the stock was destroyed at three sites in March 2013, around the time of the chemical attacks in Khan al-Assal near Aleppo and several months before the Ghouta sarin strikes. (No allegation of a mustard attack has so far been recorded.) Interestingly enough, Syria apparently mentioned these destruction activities before or during the US-Russian bilateral negotiations in Geneva last September, but the issue has only been picked up more recently. The Syrian government has now supplied the OPCW with details of these operations, which still require confirmation. OPCW inspectors plan to verify the claim and the veracity of its particulars by means of interviews, record analysis and on-site sampling. UNSCOM inspectors in Iraq during the 1990s occasionally had to resort to similar methodologies to determine whether the claimed volume of agent destroyed without international supervision corresponded to reality. Syria formally declared 20.25 metric tonnes of mustard agent (an amount relatively small compared to the overall volume of declared nerve agent precursors), which will be hydrolysed on board the Cape Ray. Inevitably, the episode has raised concerns among some OPCW members about possible undeclared ‘weaponised’ nerve agents.

More to follow over the next weeks, I am sure.

Postscript: Two hours after posting this contribution, the OPCW published an updated report on the status of CW disarmament in Syria.

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

Until silence

Children and babies—whether born or unborn—suffer immensely in any armed conflict. Mental trauma from witnessing human wasting, which no person should really be exposed to anymore. Physical injuries that scar the young ones for the rest of their lives, even if a sense of normalcy could ever be recaptured. And death, often considered the worst possible outcome, but nonetheless a fortuitous escape from a lifelong suffering inflicted by a senseless war ripping apart the early stages of their far too many young lives. For the survivors—bereft parents and mothers of the stillborn one—deep-reaching psychological wounds far beyond consolation.

Until the silence says goodbye

Addressing her companion after a mutual acquaintance, a British naval officer who had served in World War 1, suddenly passed away in 1923, Vera Brittain (Testament of Youth, Chapter XXII, 4) wrote:

I don’t think victory over death is anything so superficial as a person fulfilling their normal span of life. It can be twofold; a victory over death by the man who faces it for himself without fear, and the victory by those who, loving him, know that death is but a little thing compared with the fact that he lived and was the kind of person he was … That’s why those war victories with which I was especially associated are still incomplete. That the people faced their own deaths without fear I have no doubt. It is through me that the victory is incomplete, because I cannot always quite feel that their deaths matter less to me than the fact that they lived, nor reconcile their departure, with all their aspirations unfulfilled, with my own scheme of life.

Having lost her fiancé, two brothers and a close friend in the Great war, she was still struggling make sense of death, despite a self-induced mental numbness to cope in a post-war British society that had no time or space to embrace its many scarred veterans with the human carnage she saw firsthand as a voluntary nurse.

No pantomime of time to heal…

For the unborn child or infant physically or psychologically mauled by detonating bombs or shells, there is no victory for having lived that parents could savour. Chemical weapons add to that despair: a person living under their threat has no sense of being able to escape them. There is simply no place to run (to paraphrase Tim Cook’s magnificent book on Canadian soldiers’ adaptation to survive under a perpetual gas blanket during World War 1).

Hurt and fear are overwhelming emotions. Children and gas, when combined, allow for easy, but powerful manipulation of public opinion beyond the battlefield, often for purposes that have little bearing on relieving the plight of those actually facing the threats. Add a couple of graphic pictures; throw in one or two names to make the suffering tangible and direct public emotions to these few foci in order to momentarily blur out the 150,000 fatalities and millions of other casualties shared by all sides in the Syrian civil war. Can a policy maker or shaper fail to respond to such concentrated emotion? This is why I reacted strongly to the unsubstantiated claims that sarin exposure was causing the deformed babies in ‘Must the Belgian babies be bayoneted all over again?

Today, a week or so after The Telegraph (London) and The Daily Star (Beirut) ran their respective ‘scoops’, no additional claims, no new names of children from the Ghouta area, have surfaced. A few media outlets reported on the original stories, but to the best of my knowledge, nobody seems to have delved further into the matter. Claims of sarin’s mutagenic properties appear to have vanished into thin air.

Survive to die alive

In contrast, other factors that may explain the incidence of miscarriages and malformed babies have come to the fore: prolonged extreme stress, concussion, exposure to high levels of dust, malnourishment, unsanitary conditions (at home, in shelters or in hospitals), etc.

Last December, many months before the sarin claims, a trained paediatrician with 20 years experience working Médecins sans frontières attributed the malformations in Syrian infants she was treating to possible deprivation of folic acids. No or insufficient intake during especially the first four weeks of a pregnancy profoundly compromises the neurulation process, which in turn leads to severe congenital deformity.

If this doctor’s surmise is correct, then the rising incidence of stillborn or malformed babies testifies to the dreadful state of Syria’s health system more than anything else.

She also described the wrenching plight of two pregnant women caught up in aerial bombing on their way to the market one sunny day. One lost her baby in her struggle to survive …

No hint of sarin or chemical warfare in her accounts.

There is simply no need to add gas to feel the pain of Syrian mothers …


[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Synthetic biology & biosecurity: How scared should we be?

The link between synthetic biology and heightened biosecurity threats is often exaggerated. In a report published today (22nd May), King’s College London researchers say that in order to produce more refined assessments of the biosecurity threat, we need to understand more clearly what would be achieved by synthetic biology’s goal to ‘make biology easier to engineer’.

Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity: How scared should we be? summarises and analyses the discussions from a workshop organised by Dr Catherine Jefferson, Dr Filippa Lentzos and Dr Claire Marris, at King’s in February 2014.

Synthetic biology’s aim to make biology easier to engineer has raised concerns that it could increase the risk of misuse for biowarfare or bioterrorism. The workshop brought together synthetic biologists, social scientists, policy experts and science journalists to explore whether concerns about these risks are realistic or exaggerated in the light of current scientific realities.

It is often assumed that synthetic biology will ‘de-skill’ biology and that this means that any layperson, working outside professional scientific institutions, is or soon will be able to design and engineer living organisms at will. However, workshop participants argued that this representation is too simplistic. De-skilling does not necessarily mean that skills become irrelevant. As we see in other industries such as aeronautics, de-skilling does not necessarily mean that specialised expertise becomes irrelevant.

The report will be presented at the meeting of experts to the Biological Weapons Convention at the United Nations in Geneva this summer.

Join the discussion and tell us what you think on twitter: #synbiosec

The “Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity” workshop and report formed part of SSHM’s on-going work on the social dimensions of synthetic biology, conducted within the EPSRC funded Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation and the Flowers Consortium, and an ESRC funded project on the politics of bioterrorism.

[Original post by Filippa Lentzos; cross-posted from The Trench]