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]


Edited Collection on the NPT

This new publication of an edited collection of chapters was brought to my attention today.  It’s entitled The Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime at a Crossroads, and it’s edited by Emily Landau and Azriel Bermant.  I mostly wanted to draw attention to it because ACL’s own Jean-Pascal Zanders has a very good chapter in it on “Verifying the Prohibition on Chemical Weapons: The Relevance of OPCW Processes to the IAEA.”

I read over a number of the pieces quickly today. There are some very interesting and thought provoking pieces in Parts I & II of the collection.

Then there is a typically erroneous and frustrating piece by Olli Heinonen discussing IAEA safeguards in Part IV. A classic example of someone who is not a lawyer, but who appears to be supremely confident that he can interpret and apply international law in absolute and conclusory terms, basically because he worked around safeguards for years. Essentially the same thing as me going into a hospital and trying to treat patients because I’ve been around human bodies for years.

Anyway, then Jean-Pascal’s piece is of course very good and usefully instructive on lessons regarding verification that can be learned from the CWC regime.

Anyway, like with any edited collection, read the good stuff and skip over the bad stuff.


Must the Belgian babies be bayoneted all over again?

August, 100 years ago: the Hun from the east invaded little, neutral Belgium. In the opening weeks of the campaign the Hun was not a good boy. He willfully executed civilians, raped women, destroyed historical monuments and burned down university libraries—all war crimes that have been extensively documented. The worst barbarian acts, however, he committed against babies. He cut off their hands, so that the grownup man could never take up arms against the Hunnic master. Worse, he tossed them in the air and caught them on his bayonet. Alas, each investigated claim proved to be a myth. Meanwhile, many a Brit had enlisted to revenge the ‘Rape of Belgium’.

Similar stories appealing to public emotion circulated before the outbreak of World War I. And they have been fabricated since. Remember the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and Nayirah’s testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus? Nayirah, then 15 years old, told of Iraqi soldiers seizing incubators from Kuwaiti hospitals and leaving the babies to die on cold floors. Nayirah turned out to be the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US, and the accusations were reportedly coached by a US-based PR company contracted by the Kuwaiti government. However, the tale received a huge credibility boost from  Amnesty International. The human rights watchdog claimed in a December 1991 report that its investigation team talked with several doctors and nurses who ‘gave details of the deaths of 300 babies removed from incubators in hospitals by Iraqi troops and left to die on cold floors’ (Douglas Walton, 1995, p. 772). (Amnesty international eventually retracted its report, unlike Human Rights Watch today, which released a dubious report on the Ghouta attacks and—in a modern version of the Vietnam-era ‘destroy the town to save it’—seized on the chemical weapon allegations to call for military strikes against Syria.)

Which brings us to current press reports of genetically malformed babies as a consequence of chemical warfare in Syria.

Deformed babies after the Ghouta attack

A few days ago, The Telegraph (London) and the Daily Star (Beirut) published testimonies and pictures of children born with genetic defects from the Ghouta district near Damascus. Other babies were reported to have been stillborn. Parents and attending physicians attributed the occurrences to the chemical attacks there last August. The UN investigative team confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin in those attacks.

Many toxic chemicals are known mutagens. Some directly damage the DNA, resulting in replication errors. Some interfere with the replication process itself, and yet other ones can create mutagenic metabolites. Certain cancers may result from genotoxic properties of chemicals. As a matter of history, research into the physiological consequences of exposure to mustard agents after World War I and during World War II contributed to the development of chemotherapy against cancer. Chronic exposure to such genotoxicants may also lead to transgenerational genetic effects. Images of mutant fish and amphibians living in polluted water reservoirs come to mind. The severely malformed infants of Vietnamese parents and US veterans who were exposed to large doses of Agent Orange sprayed to defoliate forests during the Indochina war remain living proof of the transgenerational mutagenic and teratogenic consequences of certain chemical warfare agents. Research into the long-term health implications of the chemical bombing of the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988 has revealed similar transgenerational effects of mustard agent.

The main problem with the current claims of genetically malformed babies in the Ghouta area is that no indicators are available to conclude that the nerve agent sarin provokes cancer or leads to genetic defects.

Long-term research into the effects of sarin

As a consequence of the prevalence of illnesses related to the 1990–91 Gulf War among US military personnel, the United States conducted extensive investigations into the consequences of exposure to nerve agents. One report, published in 1996, failed to link the neurotoxicants to cancers or mutations (GB is the US military code for sarin):

Carcinogenicity, Mutagenicity, Teratogenicity
Organophosphates are not recognized as being carcinogens. No evidence was found to suggest that GB has carcinogenic potential. In a follow-up study of approximately 995 U.S. Army volunteers who participated in anticholinesterase experiments at the U.S. Army laboratories, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Edgewood, Maryland during 1955-1975, no consistent pattern of increased risk of cancer was found (NRC, 1985). The study was of relatively low statistical power, and was only able to identify large differences. The investigators concluded that, based on these findings, and the 10 lifetime studies of carcinogenicity of organophosphates sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, that anticholinesterase compounds did not induce malignancies among the Edgewood subjects.

Goldman, Klein, Kawakami and Rosenblatt (1987) concluded that GB is not mutagenic based on both in vivo and in vitro evaluations. Negative results were found in the Ames Salmonella bacterial gene mutation assay using 5 different strains exposed to a range of concentration of GB. Mouse lymphoma cell tests, Chinese hamster ovary cell tests, including sister chromatid exchange assays, and rat hepatocyte assays (for unscheduled DNA synthesis and damage) were all negative for mutagenic activity.

No evidence of teratogenicity of GB was found. Organophosphates are generally not considered to have significant reproductive effects; no studies to directly evaluate this characteristic in GB were found. In their study of the toxicity of chronic exposure of dogs to GB, Jacobsen, Christensen, DeArmon, and Oberst (1959) had the male animals bred after 25 weeks of daily moderate doses of GB; the offspring were normal.

In their one year, low-dose GB inhalation exposure study of a variety of animals, Weimer et al (1979) found no abnormalities in reproduction and fertility, fetal toxicity, or teratogenesis in Sprague-Dawley/Wistar rats. Testicular atrophy was noted in the Fischer rat, but the authors speculated other causes, since later experiments (using a different route of exposure) did not replicate the finding. In their report, the authors also cite work conducted by J. R. Denk (EB-TR-74087 Effects of GB on Mammalian Germ Cells and Reproductive Performance, February 1975) which came to the same negative conclusions.

Similarly, an Emergency Response Card, last reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control on 12 May 2011, notes:

EFFECTS OF CHRONIC OR REPEATED EXPOSURE: Limited data are available on chronic or repeated exposure to sarin. The available data however, suggest that sarin is not a human carcinogen, reproductive toxin, or developmental toxin. Limited data suggest that chronic or repeated exposure to sarin may result in a delayed postural sway and/or impaired psychomotor performance (neuropathy).

 Attribution to chlorine and mustard agent exposure

The Daily Star also offered a bizarre linkage with chlorine, the agent of recent chemical warfare allegations in Syria:

While stressing that he was not a doctor, chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon pointed to similar birth defects witnessed after the 1988 Halabja massacre, when the Iraqi government launched a chemical attack against the local Kurdish population.

De Bretton-Gordon, CEO of SecureBio, a UK-based Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear consultancy firm and former commander of the British military’s CBRN forces, said of the images of Joud: ‘Yes I think there is something in this and we saw similar from Halabja victims. I’m obviously not a doctor but chemical weapons, including chlorine, are known to be carcinogenic and mutanogenic.” (Sic)

The Center for Disease Control, the U.S. national public health institute, states that in the use of organophosphates such as sarin, ‘the possibility that birth defects could occur has neither been confirmed nor ruled out.’ Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.

The Health Protection Agency (today Public Health England) published a toxicological overview of chlorine (2007) and excluded any of the above cited consequences from exposure:

Genotoxicity

No data are available on the mutagenicity of chlorine gas per se, although the mutagenicity of solutions of chlorine in water (hypochlorite and its salts) has been investigated. Sodium hypochlorite has been shown to have some mutagenic activity in vitro (both bacterial and mammalian cells) that may be due to the generation of reactive oxygen species. However, there is no evidence for activity in vivo. Negative results were obtained in bone marrow assays for clastogenicity (chromosome aberrations and micronuclei) in mice. The negative results reported in the carcinogenicity bioassays also support the view that hypochlorite does not have any significant mutagenic potential in vivo.

Carcinogenicity

Negative results were obtained when chlorine (dissolved in drinking water) was investigated in a National Toxicology Program (NTP) carcinogenicity bioassay in rats and mice; concentrations of up to 275 ppm chlorine were used. Previously, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had evaluated the carcinogenicity of hypochlorite salts and concluded that there was no data available from human studies and that the data from experimental studies in animals was inadequate. Therefore, hypochlorite salts were assigned to Group 3, i.e., compounds that are not classifiable as to their carcinogenicity in humans.

Reproductive and developmental toxicity

In general, animal studies have demonstrated no reproductive or teratogenic effects of chlorine. The effects of water chlorinated to a level of 150 mg L -1 were investigated in rats over 7 generations. No effects were observed on fertility, growth or survival.

Whether the interviewed expert actually expressed the words as recorded in the Daily Star is uncertain. The last sentence in the newspaper quote may indicate a mixup on the part of the journalist: ‘Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.’ Chlorine, of course, is a choking agent, not a vesicant such as mustard gas.

As noted above, Saddam Hussein’s forces did employ mustard agent against Halabja and exposure to the agent can have genetic consequences for the survivors. However, nobody has ever alleged mustard gas use with respect to the chemical weapon attacks against Ghouta (or for that matter during the Syrian civil war). Therefore, speculating on the consequences of an agent not at issue is entirely irrelevant.

Spurious argumentation

Substantiation of the claims rests on impressions and convictions of the affected families and some doctors working in the field making straightforward linkages between an observed phenomenon and the appearance of supposed consequences a while later. The articles offer no independently verified facts on the previous incidence of malformed children in the affected area or within the families.

The mothers in question are all reported to have been pregnant at the time of the gas attacks against Ghouta. Certain chemicals are known to affect the development of the foetus, the consumption of alcohol and smoking during pregnancy being prime examples. Sarin, however, does not appear to have such an impact, although, of course, one cannot exclude that the ways in which the body responds to the poisoning and the administered antidotes may impact on foetal growth.

Instead of exploring the deeper connections between cause and effect, The Telegraph chose to refer to the testimony by Dr Christine Gosden before the US Congress (which actually took place on 22 April 1998). She described how the inhabitants of Halabja were exposed to a cocktail of chemicals. With regard to the impact of mustard gas, she noted:

Long term effects. The most serious of the long term effects arise because mustard gas is carcinogenic and mutagenic. In the respiratory system there are increased risks of chronic lung disease, asthma, bronchitis. Permanent impairment of vision may occur and eye damage may be severe, leading to blindness. Skin lesions and burns may be severe with persistent changes and hypersensitivity to mechanical injury. Carcinogenic and mutagenic effects can result in cancers, congenital malformations and infertility. Long term effects (mutagenesis, carcinogenesis, eye, skin, lung, fertility, etc.) are dose and route dependent.

She does not claim similar consequences from exposure to nerve agents. Most importantly, the remainder of her testimony details the various short- and long-term symptoms observed in the victims over a 10-year period, but does not attribute any one of them to a specific warfare agent. In other words, invoking Gosden’s report as evidence in support of the claims regarding the consequences of the Ghouta attack is misleading, more so as the only agent that might strongly suggest carcinogenic or mutagenic consequences was not used in Syria.

The Telegraph article (unwittingly?) offers a very good alternative explanation for the genetic malformations (emphasis added):

‘We are receiving pregnant women in Arsal from many areas such as Qusair, Homs, Kalamoon, and [outer] Damascus, they come across the border for giving birth but in some cases the result is tragedy.’

‘We are receiving around 100 births a month in Arsal, about 12 per cent in the average out of them are stillborn,’ [Dr Kasem al-Zein] said. ‘The problems for newborn children are mostly occurring in women who were exposed to the chemical weapons, but also we have noticed that all women who lived in areas exposed to shelling by barrels and missiles are suffering fetal diseases.’

Arsal lies to the northeast of Baalbek in Lebanon. Since the reported cases attributed to chemical attacks are all from the last week or two, it is very difficult to determine how large a part of the monthly average they (can) represent. In contrast, the numbers do hint at possible roles of prolonged extreme stress, concussion, exposure to high levels of dust, malnourishment, and so on, in the incidence of miscarriages and malformed babies.

Déjà vu

The story leaves a distinct impression of having seen it all before. The Telegraph came up with a defector, General Zaher al-Sakat, who had replaced sarin with Eau de Javel, a story that did not get much traction. Last month, it offered proof of chlorine use, which it claimed to be on a par with the methodologies applied by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And interestingly enough, as the Christian Science Monitor wrote on 6 September 2002, ‘the first mention of babies being removed from incubators appeared in the Sept. 5 [1991] edition of the London Daily Telegraph’. That was on the eve of the decision to authorise military force to eject Iraq from Kuwait.

Seeking out plausible alternative explanations for observed phenomena and then eliminating them systematically goes a long way to establishing the credibility of an allegation. Are the current claims of mutagenic consequences of the chemical strikes in Ghouta part of a concerted ploy to again build a humanitarian case for Western military intervention against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? If so, it smacks of bayoneted Belgian babies all over again.

[Cross-posted from The Trench]


Great Pieces by Trita Parsi and Hans Kristensen

I’ve read two exceptionally good pieces today that I just wanted to highlight for readers. One is by Trita Parsi in Foreign Policy, entitled “No, Sanctions Didn’t Force Iran to Make a Deal.”  In this piece I think Trita gives a tour de force rebuttal to what he accurately describes as the establishment myth coming out of the current negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran.  Hossein Mousavian has made similar arguments, as I noted a few months ago.

The second is a piece in Arms Control Today by Hans M. Kristensen, entitled “Nuclear Weapons Modernization: A Threat to the NPT?”  I’m actually kind of surprised that ACT published this piece. It seems a bit lefty and anti-USG for them. But I’m certainly glad they did. The piece gives a good overview of nuclear weapons modernization programs in the nuclear weapons possessing states, and links them directly (and correctly) to NPT Article VI. It’s exactly these kinds of arguments that the Marshall Islands are going to have to make in their cases before the International Court of Justice against the United Kingdom, India, and Pakistan.