History of nerve agent assassinations

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

 

On 20 August, the Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny fell ill during a return flight to Moscow and was hospitalised in the Siberian town of Omsk after an emergency landing. Members of his travelling party immediately suspected poisoning, an impression hospital staff reinforced when they refused Navalny’s personal physician access to his medical records.

Following his airlifting to Berlin for further examination and specialist treatment, the Charité hospital issued a statement on 24 August that preliminary findings indicated exposure to ‘a substance from the group of cholinesterase inhibitors’. Even though the hospital could then not name the specific poison used, it added that multiple tests by independent laboratories had confirmed the effect of the poison. The hospital was also treating him with the antidote atropine. The references to a cholinesterase inhibitor and atropine were the first strong indicators of a neurotoxicant, to which nerve agents like sarin, VX or the novichoks belong.

A week later, on 2 September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed the assassination attempt with a novichok agent at a press conference. She drew on the conclusions from biomedical analyses by the Institut für Pharmakologie und Toxikologie der Bundeswehr (Bundeswehr Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology), one of the top laboratories designated by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate biomedical samples.

From natural poisons to warfare agents

Poisoning political opponents or enemies is not new. In his almost 600 pages-long ‘Die Gifte in der Weltgeschichte’ (1920) the German pharmacologist Louis Lewin detailed chapter after chapter how besides criminals and spurned lovers, rulers, leaders, undercover agents and conspirators applied the most noxious substances in pursuing domestic political or international geopolitical objectives. Reviews of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) usage through the 20th century similarly list successful and attempted assassinations with mineral poisons or animal and plant toxins in and outside of war.

Modern chemical weapons (CW) – typically human-made toxic compounds standardised for use on battlefields – have rarely been selected to target individuals. Observers and journalists reported first use of nerve agents by Iraq against Iran in 1983, almost five decades after their initial discovery in Nazi Germany. In March 1995 the world learned of Aum Shinrikyo after its members had released the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo underground. However, during the previous eight months the extremist cult had also resorted to both sarin and VX in attempts to assassinate judges about to rule against Aum Shinrikyo and individuals who posed a threat or had defected from the religious group. These were the first and for more than a decade and a half the only reports of neurotoxicants used to murder individuals.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) eliminated Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with a binary form of VX in February 2017. Just over a year later, in March 2018, Russian operatives attempted to murder a former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, UK with a nerve agent belonging to the lesser known family of so-called ‘novichoks’ (newcomer). Skripal’s daughter and a police officer were also exposed to the toxicant. They too survived. In June two British citizens fell ill in the nearby town of Amesbury because of exposure to the agent in a small bottle discarded by the Russian agents. One exposed person succumbed.

Novichok family of nerve agents (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Following the Skripal case the Bulgarian Prosecutor General reopened a poisoning case in October 2018 at the request of the victim, arms manufacturer and trader Emilian Gebrev. The assassination attempt dated to April 2015. Also exposed were his son and the production manager of the Dunarit munitions factory. The Prosecutor General confirmed that a Russian operative linked to the Skripal attempt had visited Bulgaria at the time of the incident. Subsequent forensic analysis of serum and urine samples from Gebrev by the Finnish laboratory VERIFIN confirmed the poisoning. According to the UK-based CW expert Dan Kaszeta, who read a copy of the report, the Finnish institute intimated that Gebrev might have been exposed to an organophosphate pesticide. A Bulgarian news outlet has suggested the agricultural insecticide Amiton (also known as Tetram). Now commercially banned because of its high toxicity, in the 1950s the UK investigated its use as a nerve agent under the code VG.

Some reports have also claimed that Aum Shinrikyo murdered around 20 dissident members and defectors with VX in one of the cult’s compounds. To the best of my knowledge no documentary evidence to support the claim has been published.

Previous assassination operations involving nerve agents

Nerve agents were battlefield weapons, mostly liquids of different viscosity. The volatile sarin could prepare the pathway of an attack, whereas the oilier tabun and VX had their greatest utility as area denial weapons for defending terrain or protecting flanks during an advance. Their manufacture in large volumes is complex and maintaining their stability during longer-term storage is a hurdle that even few states have satisfactorily crossed. In laboratory volumes, a skilled chemist may be able to synthesise agent of high purity. But this person would have to take the greatest precautions to avoid inadvertent exposure to its noxious properties. While the relatively high toxicity of nerve agents may appear attractive to terrorists or assassins, the marginal benefit they offer over other terrorist or criminal tools is usually too small to make the investments or risks worthwhile. Hence, their use by terrorists or criminals has been rare.

Until recently, their use in assassination operations would have been considered even rarer, especially because of the poor results obtained by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in the first half of the 1990s.

The following table summarises known assassination operations with neurotoxicants.

 

Date Perpetrator Comments
27 June 1994 Aum Shinrikyo Sarin released in Matsumoto from a converted lorry to kill three judges who were to rule in a land dispute. They survived. However, the drifting sarin cloud eventually killed eight persons and injured over 500.
Autumn 1994 Aum Shinrikyo Suspected VX attack against Taro Takimoto, lawyer for Aum victims. The agent had been applied on the handle of his car door. Failed, reasons unknown
Autumn 1994 Aum Shinrikyo Second suspected VX attack against Taro Takimoto. The agent had been inserted into a keyhole. Failed, reasons unknown. (Aum reportedly also attempted to murder this person with botulinum toxin around this time.)
28 November 1994 Aum Shinrikyo VX squirted from a syringe onto Noboru Mizonu in retaliation for offering shelter to former Aum members. Failed.
2 December 1994 Aum Shinrikyo Second attack on Noboru Mizonu with VX delivered drop by drop from a syringe. Hospitalisation for 45 days required.
12 December 1994 Aum Shinrikyo VX injected with a syringe into Tadahito Hamaguchi in Osaka, having been misidentified as a police spy. First person ever to have been deliberately killed with VX.
4 January 1995 Aum Shinrikyo VX syringe attack against the head of the Aum Victims Society, Hiroyuki Nagaoka. Hospitalised for several weeks.
28 April 2015 Russia Bulgarian arms trader Emilian Gebrev poisoned with an organophosphorus compound. Two other persons present also suffered consequences. Following the Skripal case in March 2018, a possible link to novichok has been suggested but not confirmed. Bulgaria charged three Russian operatives with attempted murder in January 2020, one of whom is also a suspect in the Skripal case.
13 February 2017 DPRK Attack with binary VX on Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of Kim Jong-un, DPRK leader, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia. Killed.
4 March 2018 Russia Assassination attempt with a novichok agent, presumed to be A-234, on former Soviet/Russian intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, UK. His daughter Yulia was also exposed to the neurotoxicant, which Russian operatives had applied to the door handle of Skripal’s home. Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey too suffered effects from exposure. All three persons recovered after multiple weeks in hospital.
30 June 2018 Russia Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess were hospitalised in the nearby town of Amesbury following inadvertent exposure to novichok after having recovered a vial discarded by the Russian operatives. Sturgess died on 8 July; Rowley recovered after hospitalisation.
20 August 2020 Russia Assassination attempt on Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny with a novichok agent, presumed in powdered form, at Tomsk airport, Russia. Still hospitalised in Berlin at the time of writing.
[Sources: Anthony T. Tu, The use of VX as a terrorist agent (2020); Monterey Institute of International Studies, Chronology of Aum Shinrikyo’s CBW Activities (2001); and assorted press reports.]

There have been 12 incidents with neurotoxicants. Eleven persons were the direct target, of whom two died.

Around 520–530 other individuals in total suffered exposure to the poisonous substances. Nine among them died. Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin cloud attack against the judges’ dormitory in Matsumoto caused almost all collateral casualties.

Six persons other than the immediate targets fell victim to Russian operatives, one of whom succumbed to the poisoning.

Only in one listed operation (Gebrev) remains the use of a military type of nerve agent unconfirmed.


COVID-19: A perfect storm foretold

[Cross-posted from www.the-trench.org]

 

Book review: Debora MacKenzie, COVID-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One (New York: Hachette Books, 2020), 279p.

 

The book opens with the quote from a poster seen at the first March for Science on 22 April 2017: “Every disaster movie starts with someone ignoring a scientist”. My immediate thought: well, scientists may be clever, but they just cannot express their thoughts in a register that politicians and opinion shapers might understand. Another reflection replaced it instantaneously, this time on politicians: they are so ideological that if their teachings tell them to view everything through a square, then they will only see squares. Try to square a circle if the opposition solely looks at the world through circles. Compromise, if possible, may take policies forward, but maybe not in directions that raise resilience to catastrophes.

Debora MacKenzie is a scientist and a journalist for the New Scientist and other science publications since – to the best of my knowledge – the early 1980s. She is also an engaged writer with a knack for making complex things understandable to a broad audience. And her deep knowledge reaches far wider than the mere ‘science’ of things or processes. This makes COVID-19 so engaging. The book project may have started early in the spring; the contents draw on her many years of probing experts in many disciplines.

She has been onto the potential of epidemics and pandemics since the start of the century. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis that began in China in 2002 and hit her country of origin, Canada, badly is seared in her memory. She wondered whether an outbreak on the scale of ‘svarta döden’ (as the Swedes began calling the Great Pestilence of the mid-1300s in the 15th century) might recur; whether mortality might reach somewhere between 33% and 50% again; and what social, economic, and political factors contributed to the pandemic’s severity. Similar questions guide her investigation into COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, the narrative takes us back many years, even decades before the new coronavirus infected people in China. That story differs greatly from those politicians, experts, opinion shapers and other pundits like to feed us.

 

The perfect storm

In his book ‘The Perfect Storm’ Sebastian Junger recreates the final moments of a fishing boat out into the Atlantic Ocean when a massive cyclone hit the US east coast over the Halloween period in 1991. To many the title means a rare, unfolding event during which separate developments conspire to produce an aggravated outcome. Well, not quite. In the book, each contributing circumstance had been predicted or foretold, but the protagonists failed to act upon the warnings. In this sense, COVID-19 describes how many policy options, economic strategies, and social preferences over the past 3-4 decades made the preconditions for a perfect storm.

A first contributing element was a growing conviction in the 1960s that humanity had by and large vanquished disease. Technological and social optimism accompanied the view: vaccines were to defeat infections and prosperity contributed to the overall decline in disease. The formal declaration by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in May 1980 that the global immunisation programme had rid the smallpox scourge capped that optimism. The disposition, however, spawned two other trends whose impact greatly contributed to the difficulties in containing major epidemics in the 21st century.

Governments, especially in the more affluent societies, disinvested in public health. Internationally they reduced surveillance stations to detect outbreaks early or new sources of infection. The process also coincided with decolonisation, due to which surveillance outposts in spaces where new diseases often originate no longer provided advance warning of emerging health threats. From the early 1980s onwards, fiscal frugality to reduce national budget deficits combined with supply-side economics in industrialised countries eventually resulted in imposing budgetary constraints on international organisations like the WHO. This too affected surveillance and response capacities. Domestically, the same trends led into significant reductions of investments in health as a public good and the broad privatisation of health care. Governments likewise no longer saw value in maintaining development and stockpiling in drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics, leaving research and production decisions in the hands of private sector interests. Those governments also neglected to maintain a surge production capacity for critical goods if a major health emergency were to arise. After SARS had been overcome in 2003, investment in developing countermeasures halted lacking a market. MacKenzie argues that if public investment into vaccine research against the coronavirus had continued, then we may have had a head start in containing the COVID-19 crisis.

A second major contributing element are governments’ reluctance to heed warnings by scientists. For all the optimism that existed after the eradication of smallpox, by the end of the 1980s infectious disease experts were sounding the first alarm bells about emerging and re-emerging diseases. They also noted the zoonotic origin of many of the new health threats: as humans were increasingly destroying or penetrating the natural habitat for many species, multiple animal pathogens mutated to infect humans and then to become transmissible among humans. Their alarm signals did not prompt governments to raise their guards, meaning that when epidemics arrived, they had to rush measures, more often improvising than implementing preconceived policies. When opportunities presented themselves to re-evaluate political and economic choices, they ignored those early warning signals.

A third major strand MacKenzie identifies through the analysis of complex systems. In our globalised societies everything has become tightly and efficiently interconnected. This optimisation benefits profits. Therefore, supplies arrive ‘just-in-time’ and production sources are offshored to low-wage countries. One consequence, as most of us discovered during the COVID-19 crisis, is that most medication and medical equipment are manufactured in China (another thing health professionals had warned policy makers about several years earlier). Another upshot is the extreme rigidity in a highly optimised complex system. A shock gets transmitted through much of that system; if a link breaks down, the whole system suffers.

From a security perspective, no system should be optimised to the hilt. ‘Resilience’ and ‘redundancy’ are central concepts. Systems should be able to withstand maximal stresses. Should a link give way, then alternative options or routes must be available to immediately take over the failed link’s functions. The consequences of the rigidly organised complex system of international production, transport and delivery became almost instantaneously visible. With China in lock-down when the number of COVID cases exploded in Europe and the USA, much of the critical equipment such as face masks, disinfectant hand lotions or ventilators were lacking. Their unavailability from production sources – in China mostly – led to panicky decision-making and inept initial responses. Especially the hasty closing of borders contributed to further perturbations in the global system, affecting other economic sectors (including travel and tourism).

On the level of companies big and small, what was good for shareholders and balance sheets proved once more a liability in a crisis. Just like governments did not learn from the first SARS epidemic, companies ignored the lessons available to learn from the 2008 financial crisis. Governments this time stepped in with rescue packages costing hundreds of billions, if not trillions of Euros in taxpayer revenue to save the economy and employment. Big companies and smaller, family-owned businesses are failing or will crash once government-supported measures end and the COVID crisis is not yet over.

As MacKenzie wryly remarks, had governments been less willing to be economically or fiscally optimised and invested tens of billions of Euros in disease surveillance, preparedness and health as a public good over the years, then today they would be saving a multitude of that money now being expended as crisis response. And that thought does not even take the human and societal toll from lack of resilience and redundancy into account.

A ‘black swan’ event COVID-19 is not. MacKenzie illustrates throughout her book how scientists have been sounding alarms for many years. Both the outbreak and its consequences were foreseeable. The lack of preparation was a consequence of political and economic (so-called ‘rational’) decision-making, driven by ideological preferences.

 

The Wuhan lab, bats, and the USA

The author opens the fourth chapter with a curt answer to where Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) originated: ‘The COVID-19 virus comes from bats’. To emphasise the point, she adds: ‘So did SARS. So do MERS, Ebola, Marburg, Nipah, Hendra, and Lassa viruses.’ The bigger point: We need not look for exotic explanations about the beginning of COVID-19, such as a genetically engineered pathogen or an agent that escaped from a laboratory. She also gives short shrift to the idea that civets or pangolins at a wet market might have transmitted the virus to humans. When Chinese scientists, most from Wuhan where the outbreak was raging, summarised their work in late January 2020, they confirmed their finding that SARS-like coronaviruses had their natural reservoir in bats and that several among them had the potential to infect humans. The virus killing people in the city was 96 percent identical to one found in bats and uses the same cellular receptor. The SARS-like virus in pangolins is much more different.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has played a key role in this monitoring of bats and research. Not in the sense of biological weapons research or a major biosafety incident as many press reports and commentators have suggested. Whether the wet market played any role in the outbreak still needs to be determined. However, as MacKenzie points out, many locals and bats interact in several ways with each other. Bats on the traditional Chinese menu are the larger fruit bats rather than the much smaller insect-eating horseshoe bats, which are host to SARS-like corona viruses. Therefore, traditional medicine may play a much larger role. Horseshoe bats’ faeces are used in products to treat several conditions due to the high Vitamin A content. The list of afflictions includes eye disorders. Researchers have confirmed coronaviruses in fresh horseshoe bat droppings. Drying such faeces might kill most, but not all pathogens present. The eye has receptors onto which SARS-CoV-2 latches itself, and research suggests that the virus may be persistent there. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine recommend the application of a water solution directly to the eye. It is therefore possible that the eye may have been an important route of infection. Dried bodies of the horseshoe bat are also a traditional remedy against coughs. Impoverished people catch horseshoe bats and collect their droppings, which may have created other routes through which humans might have contracted COVID. The faeces are also applied as an agricultural fertiliser.

Shortly after the SARS outbreak in China the Wuhan Institute of Virology began searching for the virus in nature. Right from the start the scientists considered bats (and their products in food and medicine sold on markets) as reservoirs for coronaviruses and mapped out the genetic diversity of the virus and how they attacked cells.

The Chinese researchers, however, did not work alone. They partnered with other initiatives, including from the USA. The PREDICT programme of the US Agency for International Development had set up local labs and surveillance in China and other countries with infectious disease hotspots. Their work included, among other things, detection of coronaviruses. A team from the EcoHealth Alliance, a PREDICT partner, isolated a live SARS virus that could infect both bat and human cells. It triggered an immediate immune response in people who had suffered SARS in 2003. After fourteen years, in 2017, they established the provenance of the SARS virus from bats as a scientific fact.

PREDICT also found that several coronaviruses were on the verge of human infection, meaning they did not require the intermediary of another animal species or much additional adaptation to cause illness. MacKenzie writes this knowledge was already available seven years ago and had been reported to a meeting on emerging diseases in Vienna in 2016. It was also noted that the new virus type might avoid experimental SARS vaccines.

From this the USA not only had the scientific data to understand the risks posed by novel types of coronaviruses, but also knew the activities in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But the Trump administration shuttered the pandemic monitoring programme. Funding ended in 2019 and activities stopped in September after the money had run out. (It received an emergency extension for six months, starting in April 2020.) This followed on earlier actions that reduced the US Centers for Disease Prevention’s presence in China from 47 to 14 staff members since January 2017, downgrading monitoring capacity. Disease surveillance and early warning – at least for the USA – could not have been interrupted at a more critical moment.

A perfect storm just does not care about conspiracy theories, disinformation campaigns or alternative facts. It just takes place.

 

A sobering analysis

Debora MacKenzie presents us with sobering analysis of how an outbreak that infectious disease experts had been expecting for some years could turn into a global pandemic. Decisions made for political, ideological and economic reasons over the past four decades – some specifically relating to public health and infectious disease surveillance; other ones to how an increasingly interconnected, globalising society was organising itself – created the preconditions for the fast spread of SARS-CoV-2.

She also discusses many decisions by different actors once the outbreak had begun. These have been less the subject of the present review, but they were equally consequential. We can think of the refusal of lower and mid-level bureaucrats in China to transmit early reports of victims to the central government. There were the early actions by Chinese authorities to limit surveillance and containment only to people who had travelled to Wuhan; an error many governments in Europe and especially the USA repeated by initially focussing on persons coming out of China. As MacKenzie discusses, the first reflex (as seen in so many past pandemics) to blame foreigners produced measures that exacerbated the spread of the virus.

While the author introduces the reader to the basic science behind the COVID-19 pandemic (and actually makes the effort to explain terms and concepts in an easily digestible way), her broad knowledge of the ways social dynamics shape science and her long experience as a science journalist have yielded a most valuable book on how to understand current events. The book comes early in the pandemic and certain questions remain open. For sure, other sociological and political research questions rest to be formulated and answered.

Through her fluent writing and ease of explaining complex issues, she not only captivates the reader (it is difficult to put the book aside once having started to read it), but also helps her or him to make sense of an existential crisis many people alive today have not yet experienced before.


Syria stands formally accused of violating the Chemical Weapons Convention

The Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held its 94th session from 7–10 July. Prominent on the agenda was the determination by the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) that ‘there are reasonable grounds to believe’ that Syrian government forces bear responsibility for several chemical weapon (CW) attacks at the end of March 2017.

The finding is the first time that the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW has formally charged a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) with violating Article I, para. 1(b) to never under any circumstances use CW. The accusation is serious: few other provisions in the convention could be less ambiguous.

The 41-member Executive Council approved the Decision addressing the possession and use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic by a large majority: 29 against 3 (with 9 abstentions). It opens the door to further investigation of war crimes and prosecution of individual perpetrators of such crimes under international law. It also sets the process in motion whereby parties to the CWC may hold another state party accountable for major treaty breaches. This would be a first in the 23-year history of the disarmament agreement.

Read the rest of this entry »


From irritant to tear-gas: the early story of why a toxic agent became non-lethal

With the recent international attention to riot control agents (RCA) people have raised the question how their use against protesting civilians can be legal when the toxic agents are internationally banned from battlefields.

Framed as such, the question is not entirely correct. In my previous blog posting I argued that outlawing RCAs for law enforcement and riot control based on the above reasoning may run into complications in the United States because the country still identifies operational military roles for irritants on the battlefield in contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

This article sketches the convoluted history of harassing agents as a means of combat and a police tool. For hundreds of centuries until the late Middle Ages irritants were part of siege warfare. In the 19th century interest returned because of a new competition between defensive structures and breaching weaponry. Just like in earlier times, toxic fumes could drive defenders from their enclosed positions. The rise of chemistry introduced new compounds with the potential to clear occupants from fortifications.

Violent bank robbery by the Bonnot Gang (WikiCommons)

Just before World War 1 French police had to confront a new form of gangsterism. Bandits used the most advanced weaponry and tools not yet available to police officers, they barricaded themselves in buildings, and resisted arrest until their last bullet. To reduce bloodshed, the police investigated alternatives to dislodge the new creed of brigands.

Read the rest of this entry »


‘Tear-gas’: authorised at home, banned in war? Not so for the USA

‘Tear-gas’ may come to symbolise the Trump Administration’s heavy-handed response to the popular reaction against the killing of George Floyd, a middle-aged black man, by a white police officer. The President’s rolling thunder of insensitive, divisive tweets extolling law and order and deriding the legitimate demands by the Black Lives Matter movement has contributed to irresponsible use of force against essentially peaceful protesters, onlookers, and members of the press. Police brutality combined with widespread lack of accountability – unless a person gets killed or an incident is captured on media – has led to multiple types of excesses. When President Trump sallied out of the fenced White House for a photo session in front of the nearby St John’s Episcopal Church, police and National Guard units cleared his path by tear-gassing protesters. Moments earlier he had threatened state governors with the deployment of the US military unless they use the National Guard in sufficient numbers to ‘dominate the streets’.

Over the past weeks many commentators have zoomed in on riot control agents (RCAs), arguing that lachrymators have been internationally banned for war but not for quenching public disturbances or riots. Fact-checker sections in newspapers generally confirm the assertion citing relevant provisions in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Prominent politicians, city councils, civil rights leaders and many other human rights advocates in the United States are now calling to prohibit RCAs for crowd control purposes.

Anti-Tear-Gas Demonstration, Washington, DC, January 2017 (Picture by Justin Norman)

While valid for the international community, is the assertion that RCAs cannot be used in war correct for the United States?

Read the rest of this entry »


JPPR – The 4 letters that shaped my career

Dazed. Shocked. Stunned. Does any one of these words even begin to convey my reaction when around noon on 23 April I received the phone call informing me of Julian’s passing, having lost the battle against COVID-19 the night before?

Julian Perry Robinson (by Richard Guthrie; used with permission)

When I entered the field of chemical and biological warfare in 1986, his name immediately stood out. Julian Perry Robinson, a name immediately associated with the Stockholm International Peace research Institute (SIPRI) and the University of Sussex, near Brighton in the south of England. Our first encounter was in 1989. In hindsight, it was unsurprisingly at a workshop bringing together representatives from civil society, the peace movement, students, and academics. It took place at a central-London Quaker centre. My goal of attending the meeting was to meet with Julian and talk about my master’s dissertation on chemical weapon (CW) armament dynamics. My memory is that when we were both together in the same room, we walked straight towards each other and shook hands. No ice ever had to be broken.

Writing down my personal memories has not come easily. Yet, with passing of days, an irony dawned on me: he who had given so much of his life to preventing chemical and biological warfare left us on the anniversary of the first major CW attack in the First World War. Not to mention that he came into this world on the 23rd anniversary of Armistice Day.

Riding waves

Contrary to nuclear and conventional weapons, interest in chemical and biological weapons (CBW) has always waxed and waned in long waves. Whenever CBW became politically or socially controversial, droves of people would enter the field. When the issue disappeared, so did those persons. Like fruit flies, after dropping a piece of banana in a bin and then emptying that bin. Julian was part of what I always thought of as the first wave that rose in the mid-1960s and coalesced around the just established SIPRI.

There a group of young academics came together who would eventually write the 6-volume The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare, published between 1971 and 1975. Besides Julian, there was Joseph Goldblat, Carl-Göran Hedén, Milton Leitenberg, Arthur Westing, and several others. The six volumes did not appear in chronological order, but in the preface to the 5th book (1971), then Director Robert Neild recognised Julian’s centrality to the endeavour:

It is usually wrong to single out one person from a team but in this case there is no doubt that one person has contributed more than anyone else to the study. He is Julian Perry Robinson who has written more of the study than anyone else and has had a great influence on the whole shape and quality of it.

Further in the distance, there were other formidable figures such as Matt Meselson and Martin Kaplan, and so many more. The fabric that held them together for decades was the so-called Pugwash movement (in full the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs). As Julian recorded in his history of the Pugwash movement and CBW, at its origin in 1966, the Pugwash study group on biological weapons (BW) and the nascent SIPRI’s BW project ‘were actually two facets of the same activity’. That symbiotic relationship continued for many decades. Read the rest of this entry »


How the Convergence of Science, Industry and Military Art Slaughtered Innocence

Keynote speach at the CONDENsE Conference, Ypres, Belgium, 29 August 2019

(Cross-posted from The Trench)

 

 

 

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends,

It is a real pleasure to be back in Ieper, Ypres, Ypern or as British Tommies in the trenches used to say over a century ago, Wipers. As the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate reminded us yesterday evening, this city suffered heavily during the First World War. Raised to the ground during four years of combat, including three major battles – the first one in the autumn of 1914, which halted the German advance along this stretch of the frontline and marked the beginning of trench warfare; the second one in the spring of 1915, which opened with the release of chlorine as a new weapon of warfare; and the third one starting in the summer of 1917 and lasting almost to the end of the year, which witnessed the first use of mustard agent, aptly named ‘Yperite’ by the French – Ypres was rebuilt and, as you have been able to see to, regain some of its past splendour.

Modern chemical warfare began, as I have just mentioned, in the First World War. It introduced a new type of weapon that was intended to harm humans through interference with their life processes by exposure to highly toxic substances, poisons. Now, poison use was not new.

However, when the chlorine cloud rose from the German trenches near Langemark (north of Ypres) and rolled towards the Allied positions in the late afternoon of 22 April 1915, the selected poisonous substance does not occur naturally. It was the product of chemistry as a scientific enterprise. Considering that the gas had been CONDENsE-d into a liquid held in steel cylinders testified to what was then an advanced engineering process. Volume counted too. When the German Imperial forces released an estimated 150–168 metric tonnes of chlorine from around 6,000 cylinders, the event was a testimonial to industrial prowess. Poison was not a weapon the military at the start of the 20th century were likely to consider. Quite on the contrary, some well-established norms against their use in war existed. However, in the autumn of 1914 the Allies fought the German Imperial armies to a standstill in several major battles along a frontline that stretched from Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast to Pfetterhausen – today, Pfetterhouse – where the borders of France, Germany and Switzerland then met just west of Basel. To restore movement to the Western front, the German military explored many options and eventually accepted the proposal put forward by the eminent chemist Fritz Haber to break the Allied lines by means of liquefied chlorine. 22 April 1915 was the day when three individual trends converged: science, industrialisation and military art.

This particular confluence was not by design. For sure, scientists and the military had already been partners for several decades in the development of new types of explosives or ballistics research. And the industry and the military were also no strangers to each other, as naval shipbuilding in Great Britain or artillery design and production in Imperial Germany testified. Yet, these trends were evolutionary, not revolutionary. They gradually incorporated new insights and processes, in the process improving military technology. The chemical weapon, in contrast, took the foot soldier in the trenches by complete surprise. It was to have major social implications and consequences for the conduct of military operations, even if it never became the decisive weapon to end the war that its proponents deeply believed it would.

Read the rest of this entry »


Deciding on emergency assistance in case of biological weapons use

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Today, in the Palais des Nations in Geneva we presented the report on the Tabletop Exercise (TTX) on the Implementation of Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS) and the BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) organised in cooperation with UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament (UNREC) organised in Lomé, Togo on 28–29 May 2019.

Presenting the report summary to participants in the BTWC Meeting of Experts

Dr Ralf Trapp sharing his experiences. (With Ms Amélie Delaroche, Deputy Head of French Mission and Dr Élisande Nexon, FRS)

Being one of the more obscure provisions in the BTWC, Article VII only attracted state party attention over the past ten years or so. In follow-up to the decision of the 7th Review Conference (2011), parties to the convention looked for the first time more closely at the provision during the August 2014 Meeting of Experts (MX). As it happened, the gathering coincided with the expanding Ebola crisis in West Africa. The epidemic gave urgency to the concrete implementation of Article VII. The daily images of victims and fully protected medical staff broadcast around the world left lasting impressions of how a biological attack from another state or terrorist entity might affect societies anywhere.

Operationalising Article VII has proven more complex than anticipated. The provision comprises several clauses that fit ill together upon closer inspection and hence obscure its originally intended goals. In addition, it contains no instructions about how a state party should trigger it or the global community respond after its invocation.

The 8th Review Conference (2016) ended in failure. The only provision that received significant new language was Article VII, which in the final report now comprises 15 paragraphs that list objectives, challenges and possible ways forward. In the current intersessional period (2018-20) a two-day MX entitled ‘Assistance, Response and Preparedness’ is held every year and will hopefully yield new insights and decision proposals for consideration during the 9th Review Conference in 2021.

The TTX banner in the plenary meeting room at UNREC, Lomé, 30 May 2019

The TTX at UNREC in May 2019 was the second one run by the FRS. It brought together experts from the Francophone countries in West Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Togo.

Like with the first TTX in November 2016, the exercise in Lomé sought to achieve a better understanding of the elements required to trigger Article VII and the consequences such action may have on the organisation of international assistance. Moreover, the second TTX also aimed to achieve a deeper appreciation of the unique contribution of the BTWC in addition to the expected assistance efforts by international organisations, relief associations and individual countries.

One of the breakout groups contemplating the implications of triggering BTWC Article VII in response to presumed BW use. Lomé, 30 May 2019

The TTX put into sharper relief certain questions BTWC states parties will have to address even before the first item of assistance is shipped to the disaster area. Discussions in Lomé especially highlighted the relationship between normal assistance in case of a health emergency and the types of assistance that might specifically be delivered under the BTWC.

Report

Jean Pascal Zanders, Ralf Trapp and Elisande Nexon, Report of the Tabletop Exercise (TTX) on the Implementation of Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) (Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, Paris, August 2019)

Earlier publications

Jean Pascal Zanders, Elisande Nexon and Ralf Trapp, Report of the Tabletop Exercise (TTX) on the Implementation of Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) (Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique: Paris, July 2017)

Jean Pascal Zanders, The Meaning of ‘Emergency Assistance’: Origins and negotiation of Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (The Trench and the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique: Ferney-Voltaire and Paris, August 2018)


Blog 1 – Experiences of a student at the Meetings of Experts of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

By Chiara Barbeschi

 

I am Chiara Barbeschi and study Security Studies (BSc) at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Interning at The Trench and representing the non-governmental organisation (NGO) as a Research Associate at the five Meetings of Experts (MXs) of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) is an incredible opportunity that Jean Pascal Zanders granted me. Blogging about it is a chance of sharing my perspective, impressions and account of the conference.

I know that there are also the daily factual reports Richard Guthrie writes and distributes in the meeting room. My posts convey the thoughts of a student experiencing the BTWC meetings for the first time.

MX1 (29 – 30 July 2019) was on Cooperation and Assistance, with a Particular Focus on Strengthening Cooperation and Assistance under Article X. Ambassador Victor Dolidze of Georgia chaired it.

BTWC Meeting of Experts 1 – Room XX

On the first day, I arrived into an empty conference room, Room XX that would host the Meeting of Experts. Slowly as the delegates headed towards their assigned seats, the chair opened the session of MX1 with introductory remarks and administrative information. The fast pace of the MX1 was set and in one and a half days the report was agreed upon and the MX1 closed. In my opinion and from my observations, this pace can be explained by two opposing arguments. On the one hand, for some agenda items, few countries had prepared national working papers or did not make national statements. Thus less time was spent on these agenda items. On the other hand, as no significant disagreements appeared, MX1 took on a fast pace on issues for which many states had an interest.

My impressions on both days of the MX1 were that the interactive discussions were somehow limited. However, what struck me most were the knowledge-driven technical presentation and the various innovations given in the national reports. Some initiatives that I recorded as good innovations were

Read the rest of this entry »


Disarmament education: Road-testing a master’s course on CBRN dual-use technology transfer controls

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

 

From 17 until 28 June I ran an Executive Course on Export Control at the M. Narikbayev KAZGUU University in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), Kazakhstan. Its goal was twofold. First, it tested in a real university setting parts of a master’s course on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) dual-use technology transfer controls I have been developing since February 2018. Its second purpose was to attract interest in organising the full master’s course from other Central Asian academic institutes.

Banner for the Executive Course in the entrance hall

Set in the broader context of peace and disarmament education, the Executive Course posed considerable challenges from the perspective of educational methodology and the participants’ varied professional and cultural backgrounds. Contrary to many vocational training initiatives in treaty implementation assistance or strengthening treaty norms, the Executive Course (and the fuller master’s course on CBRN dual-use technology transfer controls) sought to deepen the general understanding of the security concerns about dual-use technologies, make participants understand how these might affect their own work and responsibilities both as a professional and an individual, and help them to identify and address issues of dual-use concern. As a general conceptual framework, the recommendations presented by the Advisory Board on Education and Outreach (ABEO) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in its Report On The Role Of Education And Outreach in Preventing The Re-emergence of Chemical Weapons (OPCW document ABEO-5/1, 12 February 2018) guided both the preparations and the conduct of the Executive Course.

This blog posting introduces the master’s course, describes the preparations for the Executive course, identifies challenges that emerged in the planning phase and while the course was underway, and discusses how they were overcome.

Read the rest of this entry »