On suicide, riot control and ‘other peaceful purposes’ under the BTWC

In the Greater Manchester area a 16-year old boy stands trial for having tried to buy 10 milligrams of abrin on the dark web. Abrin is a toxin found in the seeds of Abrus precatorius, otherwise known as jequirity or rosary pea.

UK authorities arrested him in February and have charged him under the Biological Weapons Act 1974 and Criminal Attempts Act 1981. In particular, the charge refers to the General Purpose Criterion (GPC) as framed in Article I of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and transposed into British criminal law. As reported in The Guardian on 19 February:

The full charge against the boy is that between 24 December 2014 and 16 February 2015 he attempted to acquire a biological toxin or agent of a type and in a quantity that has no justification or prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purpose, namely Abrin.

The maximum sentence for the offence is life imprisonment.

During the trial the boy’s defence argued that he sought to buy the toxin to commit suicide. Under those circumstances, possession of abrin could technically have been for ‘peaceful purposes’, so the defence argued to have the charges dropped.

Judge Khalid Jamil Qureshi dismissed the claim:

The question is whether suicide is peaceful. Suicide, by definition, is an act of violence, so the defence will not be applicable.

By which he opposes ‘peaceful’ to ‘violence’, rather than the idea of ‘war’ or ‘armed conflict’ more prevalent in the disarmament communities and intended by the BTWC negotiators.

This is the second recent case—the other one was Bond versus the United States, which went twice to the US Supreme Court—in which a domestic criminal trial causes a judge to interpret key terms in a national law that originated with a disarmament treaty. Especially since there has been a growing debate on the understanding of ‘compliance’ with disarmament and arms control treaties and an emphasis on national implementation of such treaties to counter terrorist threats, these domestic court cases raise questions about how domestic judgements may begin to affect common understanding of treaty obligations and expectations. Depending on the legal system, judgements may be precedent-setting. However, whichever may be the case, the interpretations apply to the country in question only. Divergencies about compliance expectations over time are therefore not beyond imagination.

The law enforcement debate

One area where domestic legal interpretation of concepts derived from multilateral disarmament treaties may have profound impact is that of law enforcement. The BTWC and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) proscribe the use of infective agents, toxins and toxic chemicals as methods of warfare. The CWC, however, does not consider riot control agents, toxic chemicals that by definition cease to have an impact on the target as soon as exposure stops, to be chemical weapons if used for law enforcement purposes (including domestic riot control). The BTWC contains no similar provision.

Last October I wrote a blog contribution on the use of pepper spray in new naval anti-piracy tactics. My main question then was how the authority for the release of the agent under the CWC could be determined. Under the proposed scenarios, nationals from different parties to the CWC operating outside the territory of their own country would likely be involved in any such chain of decisions. Moreover, private security companies might be in charge of safeguarding ships threatened by pirates. Some comments to the blog contribution (posted to Arms Control Law) pointed out that under different international treaties, including the Law of the Sea, authority to take action against pirates is clearer. So, the matter becomes an issue of fragmentation in international law.

In my subsidiary question I wondered whether the use of pepper spray (which involves a toxin) could fall under ‘other peaceful purposes’ in Article I of the BTWC. Indeed, the BTWC does not specifically list law enforcement as an authorised purpose. To the best of my knowledge, law enforcement has never been listed as an additional understanding of the rest category of ‘other peaceful purposes’. The issue is less clear and government officials tend to avoid answering that question.

However, in light of Judge Qureshi’s argument, the use of violence (rather than the application as a method of warfare) contradicts the ‘peaceful purpose’ criterion. So, applying a toxin to deny pirates access to a ship would amount to a violation of the BTWC. If this is the case, then what to think of the experiments in India to deploy drones armed with pepper spray for crowd control? Under the CWC, perhaps yes, but the BTWC?

Keep thinking. Keep thinking.

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