Happiness is the road

[‘Cross-posted from The Trench]

Now one month ago, my contract with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) ended. It was an unexpected 6-month stint to assist the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) with organising a series of four regional workshops in preparation of the 8th Review Conference of the BTWC next month. These workshops were sponsored by the European Union (EU) under Council Decision CFSP/2016/51 of 18 January 2016 (Project 4). They targeted Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Astana, Kazakhstan on 15–16 June), Latin America (Brasilia, Brazil on 22–23 August), South and South-East Asia (New Delhi, India on 29–30 August), and Africa (African Union Commission, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 13–14 September).

One consequence was of course that silence descended over The Trench. A UN contract automatically implied that any statement, any article or other public contribution had to be vetted by persons in higher pay brackets. At times this made things difficult for me, as my colleagues could testify. Indeed, so much happened during those six months: the two meetings of the Preparatory Commission of the BTWC Review Conference in April and August, a Russian proposal to negotiate a new treaty on terrorism with chemical weapons (an idea that incredibly was welcomed in the tall corridors of the UN in Geneva on the argument that is would give the otiose Conference on Disarmament something concrete to work on), the publication of the third report of the Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) on the use of chemical weapons (CW) in Syria, new allegations of CW use in both Iraq and Syria, and, of course, the outcomes of the work that I was doing in support of the BTWC.

Essence

But the project also offered many joys. There was the opportunity to participate once again in one of the EU’s signature programmes in support of disarmament and non-proliferation. Indeed, ‘once again’. The current EU Council Decision is the fourth in support of the BTWC since 2006. Ten years ago, before the 6th Review Conference set up the ISU, I had the pleasure as director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project (BWPP) of being entrusted with the implementation of the first Joint Action (as the decision was then called). During its 2-year running period the BWPP organised three preparatory meetings for diplomats and four regional conferences (South-East Africa, South-East Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East). It also laid the foundations for EU assistance with national implementation of the BTWC obligations to requesting states parties. (See the web page maintained by the ISU.)

From this first Joint Action I took away how expectations from the convention in capitals could be quite different from issues being put forward in the diplomatic gatherings in Geneva. And that there was not always effective communication between the Geneva-based missions and their respective capitals. It was indeed a pleasure to note how matters have improved considerably over the past decade, but a lot of work remains. Another lesson identified was that irrespective of whether government officials were approached top-down (as in the case of the EU Council, which acted through the foreign ministries) or bottom-up (as the BWPP was doing via local civil society outreach and education), the problems encountered were quite similar. Indeed, stakeholders in the convention — whether ministries or other government agencies, parliamentarians, scientists and academics, or civil society entities — had to be identified and brought together. In June 2008 this insight led to a Norwegian-sponsored initiative for a combined approach in Malawi to promote the country’s ratification of the BTWC. With the help of local and regional network members the BWPP identified and invited a range of governmental and non-governmental stakeholders and parliamentarians to a seminar in Lilongwe, which eventually proved to be the first step along the path towards ratification.

A second joy was the ability to engage with officials responsible for BTWC matters in capitals. Things had definitely improved over the past decade. People participating in the regional workshops came from different backgrounds, but all had awareness of the BTWC and core challenges facing the convention. I also noticed the impact of years of regional interaction and cooperation among officials, scientists and other experts, meaning that the debates were driven by shared interests and understandings as well as common concerns. Whereas during the first Joint Action a lot of effort went into explaining the basics of the BTWC and the reasons why countries should be concerned by possible biological weapon-related threats in their region, today the regional variations in assessing challenges and proffered solutions envelop disarmament with a much richer texture than can ever be appreciated in the meeting rooms of the UN. Indeed, if one conclusion can be drawn from the 2016 BTWC World Tour (as I started calling the series of events on Twitter – see, e.g., here) then it must be that disarmament actually lives. Great progress is being made with the implementation of the BTWC (and its norm against the weaponisation of disease and the life sciences) on the local and regional levels, even if the lack of outcomes at meetings in Geneva can be the source of intense frustration. This less visible ‘disarmament in (daily) action’ is quite different from ten years ago, if it then existed at all.

The hard shoulder

And a third and final joy was to be able to collaborate with the ISU and the Geneva Office of UNODA. I met great people who managed to run happy ships despite the great stress that more than occasionally permeated all aspects of work. Whether it was battling the UN’s bureaucracy (epitomised by UMOJA — Swahili for ‘united’ — an on-line administrative management tool that is supposed to bring together every branch and twig of the UN family, but actually represents an extensive centralisation of bureaucratic power in New York accompanied by complete diffusion of responsibility), changing or lack of timely decisions by states parties, or meeting short-notice deadlines, there was always occasion for a joke to make people get back to their desks with a smile. Seldom a harsh word, and a lot of mutual support. As an outsider on the inside, I definitely appreciated the certainty of backup when everything appeared to be going down the drain. Having experienced the BTWC process as a civil society operator and a member of the Belgian and EU delegations, this third angle was definitely most instructive. Another facet of ‘disarmament in motion’, for sure. And one the outside world appreciates little, alas.

A state of mind

Over the next weeks, as the BTWC 8th Review Conference takes off hopefully for a successful flight, I will write up more of my impressions of disarmament implementation, as well as comment on developments around the world. Despite all the great experiences of the past half year, it is good to be back in The Trench and to be able to freely shout out over the din out there.

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Crowd control with chemical agents: Fundamental questions raised

Book review

Michael Crowley, Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and their Means of Delivery (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2015), 378p.

Crowd control-sAnybody who has attended one of Michael Crowley’s annual presentations at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on the challenges posed by riot control and incapacitating agents for the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) knows his passion for the subject matter. And his overwhelming knowledge about the latest developments in science, technology, industry and government policies. These characteristics also typify his book on the topic, Chemical Control, published late last year.

The book can be read on three levels:

  • as an almost encyclopaedic presentation of facts,
  • as an in-depth analysis of the regulatory regimes pertaining to chemical crowd control agents, which leads to concrete policy recommendations, and
  • as a treatise on the analytical framework that has guided the research and the book structure.

Each level has merit in its own right. The third one, however, lifts this book above many other monographs on weaponry. Not just because of the ways in which it has informed Crowley’s research and analysis, but because it opens windows to fundamental debates on the purpose of disarmament and arms control today and tomorrow. He was right to resist calling his analytical framework a theory, but it nevertheless contains elements of theory. He formulates certain assumptions, but the book’s primary goals unfortunately do not give him the space to discuss them in depth. Because Crowley fundamentally questions some traditional understandings of the purpose of disarmament and arms control, he lays down an intellectual challenge that disarmament theorists or international lawyers cannot ignore.

A rich data source

The first level is that of the researcher’s data paradise. The monograph offers highly technical and detailed information on the nature of riot control and incapacitating agents and their delivery systems, the research and development behind them, where they are being manufactured and how they are traded, and most importantly for the other levels on which the book can be read, where and how they are being used.

Chemical warfare has its fair share of horror stories. About the impact of toxic chemicals on the body—from the painful and slow-healing blistering of the skin by mustard agents to the uncontrollable convulsions caused by exposure to sarin or other nerve agents. About the human experiments conducted not just in the Japanese prisoner of war camps in China in the Second World War or the dungeons of the darkest totalitarian regimes, but also in the bastions of Western democracy. Until today veterans in the UK and the USA, for example, are fighting to have their contribution to the national defence effort officially recognised and receive adequate compensation and health care—if they are still alive.

However, it is quite a different present-day horror story to read that quite a few states use incapacitants and riot control agents (such as tear gas)—toxic chemicals that some try to sell to public opinion as so-called non-lethal or humane weapons—to torture prisoners or regime opponents. Page after page, table after table Crowley details national practices of certain countries. They beggar belief were it not for the fact that source references make up two-thirds of the pages with tables.

Crowley methodically presents the different types of agent together with their characteristics and consequences after exposure, the country armament programmes and practices, and incidents. He never meant those pages to be read in a systematic way; they are detailed reference materials for researchers worldwide. In that sense he comes as close as possible to an encyclopaedic treatment of the subject matter. Future reports by him and other researchers will have to update the data sets.

If assimilation of this wealth of data might appear daunting, then section introductions and conclusions pull the main strands of his empirical analysis neatly together.

Considerations for policy shapers and makers

The second level is that of policy advice. I must admit that when I first saw the table of contents and noticed that the final chapter addressed conclusions and recommendations I had concerns about the substance of the book. It is one thing to undertake solid empirical research; it is quite a different thing to lay out arguments (and thereby present data selectively) in support of policy recommendations. Too often such treatises display superior argumentative logic, all the while lacking foundation in factual reality. Or they may sink to the level of wholly speculative ‘may and might’ analyses spinning hypothetical, often worst-case scenarios whose projected consequences then inform policy recommendations.

To my relief Crowley avoids this trap because a solid analytical framework structures his analysis (see the third level below). Thus after having laid out the technical aspects and national programmes of crowd control agents, he moves to the regulatory regimes. Again he proceeds systematically. In what amounts to over half of the book, he devotes a chapter each to arms control and disarmament law, international humanitarian law, human rights law, international criminal law, technology transfer control regimes, and UN drug control conventions. For each of the treaties, regulations, policy declarations, or informal arrangements (such as the Australia Group or Wassenaar Arrangement) Crowley presents the reader with a summary of the objectives and tools, an analysis of their implementation, and options for amelioration.

In the penultimate chapter he examines how civil society can contribute to the strengthening and implementation of the respective regimes. It comprises a comprehensive overview of ideas that have been explored in the fields of chemical and biological weapon control over the past decade and a half, as well as various initiatives whose primary concern have been the humanitarian and human rights consequences of the application of crowd control agents. In the process the author comments on such activities and suggests further options and improvements.

Crowley’s recommendations are rooted in this detailed analysis. He identifies areas of action where governments (and by extension, intergovernmental organisations) have to assume their responsibilities with regard to the strengthening and implementation of the international rules. He also considers how civil society constituencies can contribute to the strengthening of existing tools (e.g., through the development of ethical and professional codes of conduct, educational initiatives, etc.) or develop independent initiatives to track developments (e.g., open source monitoring of the use of crowd control agents or the political and technological imperatives for their further development and international commercialisation) with a view of holding policy makers accountable.

The final chapter thus comprises succinct summaries of the issues treated in the preceding chapters and related policy recommendations.

Analytical framework

As already indicated in the introduction, to me the best aspect of the book is the analytical framework. Crowley calls it ‘holistic arms control’ (HAC). It concentrates on existing arms control and disarmament measures, but seeks to expand on the numbers and types of regulatory measures and broaden the range of possible stakeholders.

The ambition is not small: he must weave a net whose meshes are sufficiently wide to catch all relevant data, while small enough to filter out irrelevant elements. Moreover, his construct is multidimensional, capturing the technologies together with national and human security concerns of inappropriate use, all relevant international legal regimes and other types of regulation together with the relative strengths and weaknesses, and possible strategies to reinforce all barriers against misuse of crowd control chemicals.

He deconstructs this ambition in the opening chapter and in the process outlines a step by step methodology that will form the backbone for the whole book. Cowley’s rigid adherence to the model contributes significantly to the readability of his analysis: throughout the reader remains aware of the stage of analysis and when particular questions are likely to be addressed. At the same time, he leaves the reader with a strong sense of comprehensiveness by bringing in many elements that one might not immediately consider when touching upon the subject of incapacitating and riot control agents. His discussion of the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances is but one example.

A theoretical knot

However, the HAC framework is not merely analytical, it is also aspirational. It carries elements of theory formation that offer the perspective of substantive debates on the purpose of disarmament in fast changing times. As the author states (p.4):

Recognizing that reliance upon a single disarmament or arms control agreement alone would not guarantee success, scholars have explored a number of concepts, seeking to broaden the range of possible regulatory mechanisms.

His analysis is therefore also aspirational:

Although the proposed HAC analytical framework concentrates upon existing arms control and disarmament measures, it attempts to widen the range of applicable mechanisms for regulation, and also the nature of the actors involved in such regulatory measures.

Consequently, HAC can be thought of as a framework for analysis to aid the development of a comprehensive, layered and flexible approach to arms control […]

Left unsaid is the central question: what is the core purpose of disarmament (as embedded in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the CWC, two key pillars of the regime against the misuse of incapacitating or riot control agents)? Furthermore, how do treaty regimes evolve in the light of technological, political and social changes over the years since their adoption and entry into force?

Humanitarian considerations have over the past two decades taken up a prominent place in the disarmament and arms control discourses. This means that today a different reference framework for judging effectiveness of a convention exists than the one originally intended: the focus of the public debate has shifted from the weapon technology (which must be eliminated) to the consequences of their use under a variety of circumstances on individuals and communities, which in turn has amplified calls to hold those responsible for violations accountable under national and international criminal law. That conflict of purpose is on clear display in the Syrian civil war: many people do not understand why the international community can invest resources in eliminating Syria’s chemical warfare capacity, but does not want to intervene to stop the slaughter of civilians.

The issue really becomes interesting when two humanitarian considerations intersect at a given decision-making moment in a disarmament setting, and a choice has to be made. Crowley points to such a moment during the 3rd CWC Review Conference in April 2013 (pp. 130–31), however without realising the underlying conflict (of conscience) that led to the item of incapacitating agents being dropped form the final document. The debate occurred when the number of reported chemical weapon (CW) incidents in the Syrian civil war was rising fast, and only a few weeks after the UN Secretary-General established a mission to investigate allegations of CW use. Including a condemnation of the escalating chemical warfare crisis proved highly controversial. Compromise was possible on severely weakened language only, which was totally unacceptable to the Western Group and Other States (WEOG). The final document was in the balance. Given that Poland was chairing the review conference, failure was not an option for the European Union members.

One WEOG ambassador was unable to get updated guidance on compromise language on the questions of incapacitants and Syria from his capital, and therefore had to decide under his personal responsibility (all the while bearing in mind that the successful outcome of the review conference hung in the balance). He opted to go with the compromise language on Syria and (in consultation with the original sponsor, Switzerland) drop references to incapacitants, a key consideration being that the issue could be taken up at a later date. Does such a decision make the CWC less effective? The consensus language in the final document would ultimately form a not insignificant foundation for subsequent action by the OPCW following the sarin attacks in the district of Ghouta less than four months later, and Syria’s accession to the CWC and subsequent disarmament. Outcomes at meetings can result from complex decision processes when different interests conflict with each other and priorities (often in function of developments at the time) need to be established.

So, I raise the question whether the global community is best served by finding ways to ameliorate core instruments or by broadening the range of tools in order to capture a particular issue of interest? I have no immediate answer because, as the book describes, science and technology and their application in various circumstances may evolve much faster than the international community can regulate them or update existing treaty regimes. Nevertheless, I do have the concern that multiplication of treaties and other regulatory instruments lead to different lists of states participating in each one of them and different levels of compliance and enforceability. That could lead to a cacophony of expectations based on different requirements and interpretations of obligations.

This final reflection is not a criticism of Chemical Control. The question touches upon theories of regime formation and international law and goes beyond the purpose of Michael Crowley’s book. However, it is a matter I definitely wish to engage him on. I can only commend him for offering a solid framework for structuring that particular debate on the future of disarmament and arms control and identifying the fundamental assumptions underlying both concepts.

 

[Cross-posted from The Trench]


Nuclear Terrorism – book published

Nuclear Terrorism: Countering the Threat

Edited by Brecht Volders and Tom Sauer

Routledge, 262 pages

About the Book

This volume aims to improve understanding of nuclear security and the prevention of nuclear terrorism.nuclear terrorism

Nuclear terrorism is perceived as one of the most immediate and extreme threats to global security today. While the international community has made important progress in securing fissile material, there are still important steps to be made with nearly 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear material spread around the globe. The volume addresses this complex phenomenon through an interdisciplinary approach: legal, criminal, technical, diplomatic, cultural, economic, and political. Despite this cross-disciplinary approach, however, the chapters are all linked by the overarching aim of enhancing knowledge of nuclear security and the prevention of nuclear terrorism. The volume aims to do this by investigating the different types of nuclear terrorism, and subsequently discussing the potential means to prevent these malicious acts. In addition, there is a discussion of the nuclear security regime, in general, and an important examination of both its strengths and weaknesses. In summary, the book aims to extend the societal and political debate about the threat of nuclear terrorism.

This book will be of much interest to students of nuclear proliferation, nuclear governance, terrorism studies, international organizations, and security studies in general.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction, Brecht Volders and Tom Sauer

2. The nuclear threat: a two-level analytical framework to assess the likelihood of nuclear terrorism, Brecht Volders

3. Internal dynamics of a terrorist entity acquiring biological and chemical weapons, Jean Pascal Zanders

PART I: Preventing Radiological Terrorism

4. Promoting alternatives to high-risk radiological sources, Miles Pomper and Aaron Gluck

5. Time for a convention on radiological security?, Sylvain Fanielle and Piotr Andrzejewski

6. The threat of a self-sustained chain reaction device, Ivan Andryushin, Eugeny Varseev and Gennady Pshakin

PART II: Preventing Attacks on Nuclear Facilities

7. Attacking nuclear facilities: hype or genuine threat?, Gary Ackerman and James Halverson

8. Nuclear security in Belgium: evolution and prospects, Rony Dresselaers and Sylvain Fanielle

PART III: Preventing the Detonation of a Crude Nuclear Device

9. Searching for the nuclear silk road, Steve Sin and Marcus Boyd

10. Securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal: the threat from within, Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian

PART IV: Nuclear Security Governance and Culture

11. Nuclear security culture: from concept to practice, Igor Khripunov

12. Nuclear security commitment making: results of the summit process, Michelle Cann

13. Nuclear security diplomacy beyond summitry, Trevor Findlay

14. Conclusion, Tom Sauer and Brecht Volders


Am I an academic?

My good friend Sven Biscop at Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels wrote this witty piece last year. I have just rediscovered it while clearing out old e-mails. It reminds me of teaching experiences; debates on research versus analysis; inventing labels to prove originality, but which are clear only to the inventor; and my eternal frustration about certain uses of footnotes (from legalised plagiarism to citing friends or renowned academics, because it is the thing to do) that just add nothing to the train of argument. With Sven’s permission, I reproduce his thought piece here.I know: it is not about disarmament or chemical and biological weapons. But it has an enormous lot to do with the field I work in. Self-reflection is good.

Jean Pascal


Am I an academic?

‘We have invited think-tankers and academics’. This sentence, often spoken by conference organisers, never fails to annoy me. Certainly if in the next sentence gratitude is then expressed for the think-tankers’ willingness to convey the academics’ ideas to policy-makers. Read: nothing very substantial is expected from the think-tankers themselves. Their job is just to translate academic brilliance into terms that even practitioners, who apparently are even lower in the academics’ esteem, can understand.

This is like saying that there are British and European participants. Now, some of the former may wish to deny it, and some of the latter may sometimes wish that they were not, but all British really are Europeans. Just like all think-tankers are academics, only of a peculiar kind. But then all academics are peculiar. Or, let us say, all academics have their own very personal view of the world and an ego strong enough to provide them with the urge to put that into writing and share it with the world. If they do not, they should have chosen a real job. (My father, who was an engineer, which is a very real job, would have approved of this sentence, I like to think).

There is but one species therefore, academics, some of whom dwell in universities and some in think-tanks. Some (though not many enough) even move in between both habitats, as I do. (We have the benefit of being able to say, when our friends and family doubt whether reading, writing, travelling and attending receptions is in fact a real job: I teach). All of them write. The difference is perhaps that the think-tanking kind more often than the university-dwellers know why they write any particular paper.

The ‘So What’ question

Too often it strikes me, after listening to a conference paper or reading a journal article in my field, that I did not learn much that I did not know already. Except how to phrase something into such impenetrable jargon that it totally obscures the fact that the paper is merely stating the obvious. At night it is dark and there is sun in the daytime. (Or, as I write this in Belgium, there may be sun in the daytime). To quote François Mitterrand: Et alors? So what? This is the ultimate think-tank question. (And very useful as well when drafted on the jury for a PhD that is far beyond one’s expertise – if nothing else, one can always ask that). Now that we have been provided with this information, whether it is new or not, what do we make of it? What do we do with it?

What defines an academic is the urge to write. The immodest conviction that one has something to say that is worth publicising. And yes, the desire to see one’s name in print – vanity is the engine of science. Vice versa therefore, if one has nothing to say, please do not write about it. It would make the selection of what to read from the mass of books and articles that reaches one daily so much easier. If there is no message, do not publish it.

In political science, the academic branch that like the majority of academics in the think-tanks I belong to, that message has to relate to the real world. The point of political science is to say something useful about politics and policy. Useful for those who engage in politics and make policy: citizens, officials, and politicians. In that intuition is crucial, science is somewhat of an art, but still l’art pour l’art cannot be the organising principle. Society does not fund think-tanks and political science departments at universities just so that political scientists can talk among themselves in a language that ensures that nobody else can follow. If a paper cannot be understood by the diplomat or officer, for example, who happens to be working on the issue that the academic writes about, it is a bad paper.

That does not mean that every publication has to finish with three recommendations or ten commandments. Innovative analysis is useful as such. Policy-makers can benefit from seeing an issue from a new angle, highlighting connections that they were not aware of, or a part of the history that they had forgotten (for institutional memory is as short as rotation of staff is frequent), all of which helps the understanding of what is happening and will thus improve the quality of policy-making.

Concrete recommendations are of course a purpose too. But academics should not become too immodest either. Rare are the cases in which an actual policy can be traced back to a specific suggestion by a specific academic. What rather happens is that if an idea resonates, it will start circulating (to which the author can contribute by speaking about it as often as he or she can) and become part of the context. Within that context, the decision-makers eventually decide, taking from it and combining the elements that they deem useful. Laws are like sausages, Bismarck is reputed to have said, the less you know about how they are made the better – dissecting the sausage to ascertain which bit derives from which academic is too distasteful to attempt.

In my own experience, the time that I had the most influence is also the time that I had the least influence. In early 2010, a Spanish EU Presidency non-paper about ‘permanent structured cooperation’, the new mechanism to stimulate European defence introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, was almost entirely copied from one of my publications on how to implement this ‘PESCO’. It was also entirely ignored, for in the end PESCO was simply never implemented at all. The reader will understand that I remain somewhat sceptical of all those colleagues for example who claim that they have really inspired the 2003 European Security Strategy. For one, if all of them were right, the Strategy would have to be a lot longer than it is to accommodate so much brilliance.

In theory

Based on their analysis of concrete issues, academics also attempt to develop general theories. Here again, academics should take care not to make theory for theory’s sake. Theories, concepts, and definitions are not ends in themselves but tools, to serve the analysis of the real world. In other words, theory has to be useful just like any other product of political science. Usefulness requires elegance and clarity of expression. If a particular theory can only be understood by someone who has read all other theories on the same subject, that is, by someone who has nothing to do but dabble in theory, it definitely is not useful.

Furthermore, no single theory or concept can explain everything. It is great fun for example to invent labels, such as ‘normative power Europe’ or its opposite, ‘l’Europe puissance’ – I have tried to myself (and failed). If they catch on, their inventor’s wildest dream may be realised. Soon nobody will read the article in which you came up with it any longer. But forever more every use of your concept by every colleague will automatically trigger a bibliographic reference, and your citation record will explode. So far so good, as long as nobody begins to believe that any such theory or concept can do more than capture just one dimension of, in this case, Europe. For that belief quickly engenders the temptation to adjust reality so that no empirical material would distort the beautiful theory. (Which, I hasten to add, is an error more often made by overzealous disciples rather than by the originator of the concept).

Politics and policy are too complex to fit in a single explanation. Often indeed there is no big explanation, and developments result from incompetence and improvisation. Nevertheless, a combination of theories and concepts can help to understand and explain what is happening and to formulate recommendations on how to deal with it. Rarely however can they predict what will happen. But political scientists can help to recommend strategies that act as frameworks to assist the policy-maker to react to the unpredictable, by identifying what is vital and what is not.

Because of their respective employers’ expectations, university-based academics usually devote more time to the development of the tool, i.e. theory, than colleagues in the think-tanks. In the application of the tool, the latter will probably attempt more than the former not only to analyse and to understand but also to formulate recommendations. When it comes to setting the research agenda, choosing which area of politics or policy to analyse, universities leave the academic more freedom of choice than think-tanks, although the need to obtain project-based funding will be an important motivation here too. Think-tanks have to direct their research towards the areas of most interest to their funder. That funder (which, for European think-tanks, often is government) may have a political agenda to which the think-tank has to subscribe. But these are broad agendas which do not detract from the academic freedom, for example to promote European integration. If the political agenda goes further, for example to promote the Christian-democratic view of European integration or to stimulate the acquisition of the Rafale fighter aircraft, we are no longer talking about a think-tank, but about a lobbyist or a party research service.

Rather than an absolute division of labour and method between universities and think-tanks, all of this is a matter of degree. Essentially university-based academics and think-tanking academics (including those who used to be practitioners) do the same thing: producing a message that is of use for politics and policy, in a spirit of complete intellectual freedom, and living up to rigorous scientific standards.

Tittle-tattle over a glass of wine

University professors and think-tankers would do well to continuously interact with each other therefore. The former should consider to once in a while distil a shorter policy paper from a learned journal article, in order to more easily reach an audience of practitioners. The latter should from time to time compile the findings of some of their short-term policy papers and produce journals and books that have a much longer shelf-live. The former should regularly participate in policy seminars, to ensure that they remain in touch with the world that they are studying. The latter should occasionally attend scientific conferences to make sure that they keep abreast of scientific developments in their field.

In fact, attending one of the big academic conferences is not that different from what think-tankers do every day. At an academic festival such as the annual convention of the International Studies Association (ISA), where thousands of academics mingle, the key thing is to have a lunch and a dinner appointment every day. Time allowing, one can attend the odd panel in between, but networking is the added value of such events. This is exactly how an academic, whether from a think-tank or a university, can collect the most insights about his object of study: talking with practitioners over lunch or dinner or at receptions. Or even just over a cup of coffee, for the more ascetic among us, but in any case in an informal setting. Admittedly, such tittle-tattle, as the editor of a special issue (and a close friend) once dubbed the sources of my submission, is not easy to include in the references of one’s paper. But it is often much more productive than a formal interview.

Not every statement in every paper can be based on another written source anyway. If it is not allowed to write something down unless it has been written before, political science is hardly going to progress. The real added value of a paper will always be the author’s personal opinion – his message. An academic should never hesitate therefore and use his liberty to engage in franc-parler to the utmost. Many official documents are bland enough – there is no reason for us academics to use stale language as well. Why should one read between the lines of an academic paper? Just say things as they are, because you have the unique freedom to do so.

Official documents are of course an important source of information. But one should take care not to over-interpret them. True, when they are being negotiated, every point and comma counts. But two years later, nearly all officials involved in the drafting will have moved on to another post, often in another country or another organisation. Those who succeeded them will have no idea why this particular comma is indeed a comma and not a semi-colon. An academic’s own output consists mostly of his or her writings. Quite understandably one hopes, against better knowledge, that writings can change the world. Alas, it is not because the European Security Strategy, the subject of much of my own work, says something, that this is how things really are. There was much rejoicing in certain circles when the 2008 Report on the Implementation of the Strategy referred to the notion of human security. But I distinctly remember a Commission official, who had pushed for this, replying to me: ‘Well, now that it is in there, we better come up with a definition of what we mean by it’.

Once again, speaking with practitioners is indispensable to get as a complete a picture as possible and to ensure that one does not stray too far from reality. An academic’s job is to think outside the box, to link seemingly disparate dimensions and facts, and to be creative and innovative – but these are not synonyms for unrealistic. Strategy can be daring, and strategy must determine the allocation of the means – but its formulation will be influenced by the knowledge of which means can realistically be made available, and of the obstacles to be overcome. To be useful to policy-makers an academic must be a pragmatic idealist: he or she needs to have a concept of the big ideal, in order to give a sense of where to go, in the full knowledge that one will reach there by incremental, pragmatic steps.

Political science cannot function in splendid isolation, without permanent interaction with the people who operate in the areas that it studies. Or one will end up in the position of the colleague who ‘proved’ in her presentation at a big conference that the EU’s European Security and Defence College did not exist – at a moment when I had been lecturing for it for three years. My point in the ensuing Q&A – ‘I teach, therefore it is’ – was not well-received, but the embarrassment was perfectly avoidable.

In conclusion…

Am I an academic? Yes – and I would not want to be anything else. Given that it is unlikely that the people will call on me to become the High Representative for EU foreign policy.


No humanitarian justification for biological weapons

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 11 January Digital Journal, an online publication touching upon current events and with a penchant for science and technology affairs, published an Op-Ed by Megan Hamilton, an animal and nature-loving journalist based in Costa Rica, on Technology and the art of modern warfare. The piece is worrying enough for all the new technologies under consideration: fast-firing guns that could be deployed on satellites, direction-changing bullets, laser guns to knock out enemy drones, and so on.

The item that caught my attention was a discussion about a project once run by US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that turned insects into surveillance cyborgs (See also the Gizmodo blog). As Hamilton described it:

How? Through the HI-MEMS, or Hybrid Insect Micro-Electrical-Mechanical System concept. Electrical circuits are implanted in bugs while they are in the pupa stage. Once they become adults, signals sent through radio waves trigger the circuits, meaning that the insect is now remote-controlled. Surveillance equipment is attached, meaning these bugs are now invaluable and undetectable tools for battlefield exploration.

cybug1

Insect cyborg (Source: Gizmodo, Australia)

DARPA cancelled the project. Hamilton, however, explored the topic of entomological warfare further with Jeffrey Lockwood, author of Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War (Oxford University Press, 2010). It reveals interesting insights. For instance, technology has not yet been able to develop a drone the size of an insect—an entomopter—because of the size needed for an on-board energy source.

Once past the technological fascination of this type of weapon design for warfare or intelligence gathering, Hamilton pressed Lockwood on the morality of such projects and human and animal rights. Here things do get hairy.

Morality of entomological warfare

Lockwood took a kind of long-winded approach to answering the question. First, he mentioned the standards set by ‘just war theory’. Under jus in bello one imagines that formally prohibited weapons would be banned in warfare. He is generally correct when positing:

And then, deploying a weapon system of creatures to inflict harm on other humans surely constitutes a form of biological warfare (although international law is surprisingly vague on insects—microbes are quite another matter).

But then he wondered if biological warfare is necessarily wrong. He referred to the scenario of a debilitating but not deadly disease being transmitted by mosquitoes to enemy combatants such that it weakens the opposing forces and the goal of the attack can be achieved with considerably less loss of human life than would be the case with conventional weapons. He continued:

Of course, this supposes that one has adopted a consequentialist (probably utilitarian) ethics in which all that matters is the outcome. Such an ethical system might well conflict with the decisions made using a deontological approach in which duties/rights provide the moral constraints (rather than outcomes). So to return to your question, we might violate the rights of humans or other creatures (most often thought to be sentient which then raises the questions of whether insects can suffer—I think so, but many would disagree) by using the entomological weapons even if these arms reduced human deaths relative to other tactics.

[I assume that the passages between parentheses in the above quotes are Hamilton’s asides.]

The interview passage mixes up a few aspects of constraining biological warfare, namely the use of pathogens as a method of warfare, the deployment of insect vectors to propagate the disease agent, and the resort to insects in combat.

Yes, biological warfare is necessarily wrong

On the first issue whether all biological warfare is necessarily wrong, the answer is an unambiguous ‘yes’. The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) contains no criteria of lethality or incapacitation to prohibit the development, production, stockpiling or any other form of acquiring microbial or other biological agents. This ban is absolute and therefore accepts no exceptions. Indeed, according to Article I, para. 1 of the BTWC the retention of disease agents is only justified for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes. And then only if the nature or volume of the agent in possession conforms to those purposes.

This principle is known as the General Purpose Criterion. It emerged during technical discussions in the late 1920s and early 1930s in preparation of the disarmament conference due to start in 1933 as a way to address the dual-use problem, capture future scientific discoveries and technological developments, and frame a definition of chemical and biological weapons that does not allow for any exception. A criterion such as lethality was explicitly rejected, because the then proposed definition for chemical weapons had to capture irritants and incapacitants, such as riot control agents. Both the BTWC and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention have the General Purpose Criterion at the heart of their respective prohibitions.

While it is true that the BTWC does not explicitly refer to the use of biological weapons, it makes explicit reference to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of both chemical and biological modes of warfare. Moreover, at the Fourth Review Conference in 1996, the states parties to the BTWC explicitly recorded their understanding that the comprehensive prohibition on biological weapons in Article I covers their use too.

So, yes, all biological warfare is necessarily wrong, even if certain modes of pathogen use may appear more humane on the surface.

Yes, the BTWC bans the use of insects to spread disease

The second issue raised in the interview concerns the use of insects. In the past, insects have been both considered and used as vectors to spread disease. For instance, during the Second World War Japan notoriously deployed infected fleas to provoke plague epidemics in China. Allied Powers too investigated the option.

Again the BTWC’s prohibition is explicit. Article I, para. 2 proscribes the development, acquisition by any means and possession of weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.

So, yes, developing, cultivating or possessing insect vectors with the intent of having them deliver a pathogen is proscribed. No exceptions allowed.

In my opinion, although I am not aware of any legal expert ever having made that point explicitly, the use of insects with the intent to have them sting or bite humans or animals would also be prohibited under the BTWC as the insects would almost invariable inject some kind of poison—a toxin—into the victim.

But does the BTWC ban the use of insects?

The third question whether the use of insects in more generic ways is a proscribed mode of warfare is more ambiguous. The BTWC does not mention insects per se. Biological agents cover human, animal and plant diseases. Certain insects attack plants and may destroy agricultural crops. Again, in the past belligerents have not shied away from deploying them to harm the enemy in both open and covert warfare operations. Psychologically, agricultural warfare lies close to biological warfare. Thus, for example, Protocol III (and Annexes) on the Control of Armaments of 23 October 1954 to the Treaty of Economic, Social, and Cultural Collaboration and Collective Self-defence (also known as the Brussels Treaty) of 17 March 1948 defined biological weapons as follows [emphases added]:

(a) A biological weapon is defined as any equipment or apparatus expressly designed to use, for military purposes, harmful insects or other living or dead organisms, or their toxic products.

(b) […], insects, organisms and their toxic products of such nature and in such amounts as to make them capable of being used in the equipment or apparatus referred to in (a) shall be deemed to be included in this definition.

(c) Such equipment or apparatus and such quantities of the insects, organisms and their toxic products as are referred to in paragraphs (a) and (b) which do not exceed peaceful civilian requirements shall be deemed to be excluded from the definition of biological weapons.

The protocols to the Brussels Treaty allowed Germany and Italy to join the Western European Union, which in turn paved the way to their NATO membership.

Would the states parties to the BTWC consider an allegation of insect use as a possible violation of the convention? Actually, yes. They did so in 1997.

As I summarised developments in the 1998 and 1999 editions of the Yearbook published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), on 30 June 1997 Cuba submitted a request to Russia, one of the three co-depositories of the BTWC, to convene a formal consultative meeting to investigate an alleged US attack with BW agents in October 1996.

That was the first time since the entry into force of the BTWC in 1975 that a state party formally requested the international community to investigate a breach of the convention. Cuba did not lodge a complaint with the UN Security Council under Article VI of the BTWC but invoked a procedure to strengthen the implementation of Article V adopted by the Third Review Conference of the BTWC in 1991. According to this procedure, the formal consultative meeting must be preceded by bilateral or other consultations among the states involved in the dispute. Following the submission of the request, the depositories of the BTWC must convene the formal consultative meeting within 60 days of the receipt of the request.

According to the allegation, a US anti-narcotics fumigation plane flying from Florida to Grand Cayman crossed Cuba with Cuban authorization on 21 October 1996 and was observed by a Cuban civilian aircraft to spray unknown substances intermittently. On 18 December the first signs of a plague with Thrips palmi karay, a minute insect belonging to the order of Thysanoptera which are plant eaters and may transmit virus diseases of plants, appeared. While Thysanoptera live wherever plants are, Cuba stated that this particular insect was indigenous to Asia and exotic to Cuban territory, although since 1985 its presence has been noted on several Caribbean islands. By January 1997 other parts of Cuba had also been affected and the insects continued to spread throughout the island in the spring and affected many crops. In October, the Cuban government reported that 20,000 tonnes of produce, including 18,000 tonnes of potatoes, had been lost to Thrips.

Following a request in December 1996 to clarify the incident, the US stated on 12 February 1997 that the pilot had noted the Cuban civilian aircraft but was unsure whether he had been seen and therefore used the smoke generator of his aircraft to secure a positive visual contact ‘following prudent and safe aviation procedures’. The US further added that the tanks for the aerosol sprinkling system had actually been used to carry fuel in view of the long-distance flight. On 28 April, in a note to the UN Secretary-General, Cuba formally accused the United States of biological warfare. The US State Department rejected the Cuban accusations and made its own version of events public on 6 May. Cuban officials discarded the statement for its ‘lack of seriousness’. In a second letter dated 27 June to the UN Secretary-General Cuba formally rejected the US explanations: (a) the regulations of the International Civil Aviation Organization do not mention the use of smoke generators to signal the position of aircraft in flight and such use is not a known practice except for aerobatics; (b) crop duster planes manufactured and operated all over the world are not equipped with smoke generators; and (c) the plane had no requirement to carry extra fuel in the herbicide tank since its normal fuel load sufficed amply for the flight. Even if some extra fuel had been carried in the tank, then it was technically feasible to fill it with another substance too, allowing for initial consumption of fuel and then for spraying.

The formal consultative meeting began in Geneva on 25 August in closed session, but failed to resolve Cuba’s claim after three days of talks, because, according to the chair, British Ambassador Ian Soutar, ‘it was not possible to draw a direct causal link’ between the overflight and the outbreak. As the Thrips palmi occurs in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and in Florida, the main unresolved question is whether the insect could have been introduced to the Cuba in another way. The meeting mandated Ambassador Soutar to further investigate the allegation and prepare a report by 31 December 1997.

His report, delivered on 15 December 1997, concluded that ‘due inter alia to the technical complexity of the subject and to passage of time, it has not proved possible to reach a definitive conclusion with regard to the concerns raised by the Government of Cuba’.  Twelve states parties to the BTWC had submitted comments, which were annexed to the report. All agreed that insufficient evidence was available to establish a causal link between the outbreak of Thrips palmi in Cuba in December 1996 and the overflight of the US plane two months earlier. The report noted that throughout the process general agreement existed that the requirements of Article V of the BTWC and the consultative process established by the 3rd Review Conference had ‘been fulfilled in an impartial and transparent manner’.

The interesting thing is that while the BTWC states parties decided to take up the Cuban allegation of entomological warfare, in their conclusions they carefully avoided naming the incident a case of biological warfare. As Nicholas Sims of the London School of Economics and Political Science noted in his SIPRI book The Evolution of Biological Disarmament (Oxford University Press, 2001),

Denmark and the Netherlands expressed doubt, which other parties are known to have shared, over the question of whether insects or other pests such as Thrips palmi fall within the scope of the BTWC. Both states included statements that their participation in the consultative process was without prejudice to their national positions on this question.

Cuba, having raised the matter under the BTWC, made it politically difficult for the United States to invoke a legalistic argument to avoid addressing the concern. The documents of the consultative meetings have not been published—Sims does quote some extracts from them—and there is no indication that the incident was precedent-setting in the minds of the states that participated in the exercise.

So to answer the question whether the BTWC bans the use of insects other than for the delivery of a pathogen or toxin, one can only note equivocalness: not prima facie, but in practice some scope may exist to lodge a complaint about malicious use of insect vectors against agriculture with one of the three BTWC depositary states.

Conclusion

To come back to the Jeffrey Lockwood’s suggestion that not all biological warfare may necessarily be wrong, my answer is unequivocally: WRONG!

International law, in the form of the BTWC, allows no exceptions on the use of pathogens or toxins as weapons of war. There have been and still are important reasons why lethality or other humanitarian considerations were discarded as criteria for defining biological and toxin weapons. Any suggestion to the contrary might open up a loopholes that proponents of so-called non-lethal warfare would be all to happy to exploit today and tomorrow.


Investigation of alleged CW use in Syria: The reports 2013–15

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Investigations under the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism

Investigations by the OPCW Fact-Finding MIssion

The Trench blog comments


Syrian soldiers exposed to ‘sarin or a sarin-like substance’

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

In November I presented the main findings of the preliminary Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) report of 29 October. This particular investigation of alleged use by the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had been requested by Syria. Government officials had transmitted four Notes Verbales alleging  26 chemical weapon (CW) events resulting in 432 casualties. The preliminary report focussed primarily on incidents at Jobar (northeast of Damascus) on 29 August 2014. While the investigators believed that government soldiers had been exposed to an irritant, they could not confirm that the chemical had been used as a weapon. They as good as ruled out chlorine or a neurotoxicant, such as sarin, as the causative agent.

However, the investigative team also looked into five other events reported by the Syrian government: Al-Maliha on 16 April and 11 July 2014, al-Kabbas on 10 September 2014, Nubel and al-Zahraa on 8 January 2015, and Darayya on 15 February 2015.

On 17 December the Technical Secretariat circulated the final report on those allegations by the Syrian government. Whereas the interim report of 29 October comprised 59 pages, the final report almost doubled in size to 106 pages.

The final report repeats the findings about Jobar. With respect to the five other incidents, it reaches similar conclusions. However, as regards Darayya it summarised:

From the results of blood sample analyses, the FFM is of the opinion that there is a high degree of probability that some of those identified as being involved in the alleged incident in Darayya on 15 February 2015 were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance. In order to determine how, when, or under what circumstances the exposure occurred, further investigation would be required to complement the interviews carried out and the documents reviewed.

It does not say that those individuals were exposed to the neurotoxicant at Darayya, nor does it confirm that such exposure was the consequence of combat operations.

Investigating possible use of irritant chemicals as a weapon

With regard to the alleged incidents in Jobar on 29 August 2014 (for details, see my earlier posting), al-Maliha on 16 April 2014 and 11 July 2014, al Kabbas, Damascus on 10 September 2014 and Nubel and al-Zahraa on 8 January 2015, the report offers parallel conclusions. These are:

  • The affected soldiers ‘may have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating airborne substance, secondary to the surface impact of the launched objects’.
  • The investigators could not determine with any degree of confidence as to whether exposure was the consequence of the irritant being delivered as the payload of a projectile, or whether the irritant had another source of origin (combustion product of a propellant, detonation of a conventional or improvised explosive device on a stored chemical already in-situ, some combination of substances mixed with surface soil and dust, or a combination of all mentioned factors).
  • The affected soldiers in question present clinical symptoms that are ‘consistent with a brief exposure to any number of chemicals or environmental insults’. Furthermore, ‘the visual and olfactory description of the potential irritating substance does not clearly indicate any specific chemical’.

In each of the five cases, the investigators pointed out that the lack of hard evidence precluded them from gathering facts in a definitive way. Little ‘objective evidence’ was made available to the team to complement the materials given by the Syrian authorities, ‘either because it was unavailable or because it was not generated in the first place’. The report lists the types of evidence that would have been crucial to establishing facts with a higher degree of confidence:

  • Photographic or video recordings of the incident;
  • A visit to the site where the incident took place;
  • Detailed medical records including, inter alia, X-rays, pulmonary function tests, and timely blood laboratory values;
  • Timely biomedical samples from the patients;
  • Remnants of any ordnance, launching system, or other forensic evidence retrieved from the location of the incident;
  • Unfired ordnance similar to that used in the incident;
  • Environmental samples from the surroundings of the location of the incident, including background samples;
  • Comprehensive contemporaneous incident reports generated by the chain of military command and the medical system; and
  • Comprehensive witness testimonies generated at the time of the incident.

Concerning some alleged incidents, the investigators would have also welcomed:

  • A greater sample of witness testimonies (al Maliha, 11 July 2014; Nubel and al-Zahraa, 8 January 2015); and
  • Samples from remnants of cylinders or other containers alleged to have been used in the incident and retrieved from the incident location (al Kabbas, 10 September 2014; Nubel and al-Zahraa, 8 January 2015).

Exposure to a nerve agent-related substance

According to Note Verbale 41 (29 May 2015), a follow-up to the initial document submitted by the Syrian government on 15 December 2014 that led to the FFM investigation, eight military personnel became casualties in an alleged CW incident on 15 February 2015. It provided a brief description of the incident, signs and symptoms, a more precise location, the hospital where casualties received treatment, and the names of the victims. The incident appeared sufficiently grave for the FFM to investigate it.

The FFM conducted interviews with medical staff and casualties relevant to the allegation and visited hospitals and research laboratories where tests on victim blood samples had been conducted. It also visited the Centre for Studies and Scientific Research Institute in Barzi, Damascus, on 12 and 14 August 2015. On the first day, team members had a discussion with the head of the research institute on the storage and research methods for blood collected for acetyl-cholinesterase (AChE) analysis and were made aware of the existence of several blood samples stored onsite related to the Darayya incident. Two days later the FFM revisited the institute to seal the selected blood samples.

In the course of the investigation the FFM received a variety of documents, including battlefield and medical reports, video footage and images from GoogleEarth indicating exact locations. These documents included the medical records of the eight reported casualties and the AChE analyses of six alleged victims. In several cases the investigators were granted access to requested documents, albeit without being provided with photocopies. Four of the reported casualties were given HI-6 (asoxime chloride) and dematropine, both nerve agent antidotes.

The retrieved blood samples were forwarded to OPCW-certified laboratories for analysis and a certified laboratory conducted DNA analysis to link the samples to the casualties.

In its medical review the FFM report draws a sharp distinction with the other investigated Syrian allegations:

The Darayya incident was the only reviewed incident wherein the alleged victims had a prolonged recovery phase of 10-12 days. This departed from all other alleged incidents wherein recovery was rapid and rarely resulted in hospital observation for more than two nights. Darayya is also the only alleged incident wherein antidotes and specific treatments such as oximes and atropine were employed, or were even mentioned. Finally, and perhaps most notably, this was the only incident wherein blood analysis was performed with quantitative results noted in the medical records. Though such results are precisely the type of objective evidence the medical team would have preferred to have had in the aforementioned incidents, in the case of Darayya the presented test results proved more confounding than helpful, as they were significantly outside of the expected range for such a scenario.

As a consequence, the report notes, the recovered blood samples had to be forwarded to an independent laboratory for further assessment. The final results were still pending when the report was issued. In its absence the medical evaluation necessarily rests on the interviews and provided documents, but given the shortcomings of the methodology and gaps, these merely contribute to the uncertainties that permeate the entire report on the allegations by the Syrian authorities. (It should be noted that Appendixes 8 and 9 provide detailed results of the analyses of the blood samples suggesting exposure to neurotoxicants in all tested samples collected from casualties, so that paragraph 90 of the report may either indicate failure to delete language from an earlier draft or point to additional laboratory testing.)

As with the investigation of the other incidents, the FFM noted that the Syrians could have supplied more documentary evidence or undertaken certain actions to  corroborate the testimonies of the casualties and witnesses it interviewed and establish the value of the evidence supplied:

  • Immediate notification to the OPCW that a suspected chemical attack had occurred would have allowed the prompt deployment of the FFM to gather primary evidence and establish the facts surrounding this incident;
  • Photographic or video recordings of the incident;
  • Visit to the site where the incident took place;
  • Detailed medical records including, inter alia, X-rays, pulmonary function tests, as well as timely and complete blood laboratory values;
  • Remnants of any ordnance, launching system, or forensic evidence retrieved from the incident location;
  • Unfired ordnance similar to that used in the incident;
  • Environmental samples, including animal tissue, from the surroundings of the incident location as well as background control samples;
  • Comprehensive contemporaneous incident reports generated by the chain of military command and the medical system;
  • Comprehensive witness testimonies generated at the time of the incident; and
  • A greater sample of witness testimonies.

On the basis of the evidence collected, the FFM concludes that:

there is a high degree of probability that some of those involved in the alleged incident in Darayya on 15 February 2015 were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance. However, the FFM could not confidently link the blood sample analyses to this particular incident nor determine how, when, or under what circumstances the exposure occurred.

The one sarin-like substance the report mentions is chlorosarin (O-isopropyl methylphosphonochloridate), a final precursor to the manufacture of sarin. However, the analysis did not indicate a specific date of exposure, nor a specific time that the blood was drawn. The FFM was also unable to verify the chain of custody between the time the blood was drawn from the casualties and the time it sealed the samples. In addition, blood sample analyses indicated that four of the eight individuals were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance, but the investigators were unable to link these results to the Darayya incident of 15 February 2015 as reported by the Syrian government. It is in this context that the report observes that the immediate notification to the OPCW of the suspected chemical attack would have allowed the prompt deployment of the FFM to gather primary evidence and establish the facts surrounding this incident.

Some observations

A striking feature of the general debate at the 20th Session of the Conference of States Parties (30 November–4 December 2015) was that not a single country referred to the preliminary FFM report on the allegations put forward by the Syrian government. As one participating diplomat put it to me, conclusions were not yet definite. He added that ‘the Executive Council had kicked the can down the road’ and that the findings would make for a difficult meeting early in 2016. Indeed, a week earlier, on 23 November, the Executive Council had noted the FFM’s inability to confidently determine whether or not a chemical was used as a weapon. It further noted that the FFM report was an interim report and that other incidents under investigation are pending final analysis and will be included in the final report.

The paragraph stands in stark contrast to the previous one addressing the FFM reports on alleged CW use in Marea and Idlib province, where the Executive Council

Expresses grave concern regarding the findings of the Fact-Finding Mission that chemical weapons have once again been used in the Syrian Arab Republic, and in this regard:
(a)     underscores that, with respect to the incident in Marea, Syrian Arab Republic, on 21 August 2015, the report of the Fact-Finding Mission confirmed “with the utmost confidence that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard” and that it is “very likely that the effects of sulfur mustard resulted in the death of a baby” (S/1320/2015); and
(b)     further underscores that, with respect to several incidents in the Idlib Governorate of the Syrian Arab Republic between 16 March 2015 and 20 May 2015, the report of the Fact-Finding Mission concluded that they “likely involved the use of one or more toxic chemicals—probably containing the element chlorine—as a weapon” with an “outcome of exposure [that] was fatal in six cases in Sarmin,” including those of three children in the same family (S/1319/2015).

Reading the latter two documents, I was struck by the fact that despite the difficult circumstances in which the investigations had to be conducted, the reports were still able to advance conclusions with fair to very high degrees of confidence that toxic chemicals had been used as a weapon. The investigators also indicated which chemicals may have been involved and proffered details about the munitions that delivered the agents. Indeed, the Idlib report contained a detailed graphical reconstruction of the barrel bombs dropped from helicopters to deliver the chlorine (see my earlier posting). All the evidence collected from Idlib province leaves little doubt that government units were responsible for those attacks. Concerning the mustard agent attack at Marea, the report does not implicate the Syrian government despite the certainty of its conclusions. Press and NGO reports have pointed the finger to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The OPCW and Iraq are collaborating on the investigation into a similar incident implicating ISIL near Mosul last summer.

During the Conference of States Parties the Syrian delegate vehemently denied that his country had ever launched a CW attack. In 2013 Damascus requested the UN Secretary General to investigate certain allegations of chemical warfare; the UN investigative team was in the Syrian capital when sarin-filled rockets hit the Ghouta suburb. The offer to accede to the CWC and have its chemical warfare capacity eliminated under international supervision averted international military strikes and ensured regime survival, at least in the short term.

The request for an investigation submitted in December 2014 was the first since Syria had joined the OPCW. One imagines that the Syrian government would have mobilised all possible resources to substantiate its allegements to the greatest possible extent. Trivial or plainly false allegations would inevitably undermine the country’s standing and the international community will tend to brush off any future accusations as a figment of a desperate government’s imagination.

Investigating false accusations also drains the OPCW’s limited budget resources. Unfortunately, no arms control or disarmament treaty currently in force envisages specific penalties for false allegations. Before entry into force of the CWC the Preparatory Commission (PrepCom) of the OPCW held consultations on the ‘costs of abuse’ detailing what direct and indirect costs should be covered by the State Party requesting a challenge inspection should the Executive Council rule that the requesting state party abused its right to request such an inspection. However, the PrepCom transferred the question as one of the outstanding issues to the OPCW and 18 years after the entry into force of the CWC this particular question remains unresolved. [Per Runn, Verification Annex, Part X, in W. Krutzsch, E. Myjer, and R. Trapp (eds.), The Chemical Weapons Convention: A Commentary (2014), p. 618.] Whichever way, since Syria claims that it cannot pay for verification and other operations for which a state party should cover the costs, the international community must cough up the money.

What Syrian objectives may lie behind the accusations? First, the government may genuinely believe that it has been the victim of chemical attacks. In that case, one would expect government officials forthcoming with evidence. Even lacking experience in dealing with such a situation, the questions and requests for further evidence they could address in such a way that either it complements initial information with supplementary evidence or demonstrates that the desired data are genuinely not available, for instance, as a consequence of war circumstances.

Second, the accusations could be part of a broader scheme to deflect responsibility for the Syrian regime’s own chemical attacks or to deny the international community evidence that later might inculpate Syrian officials for war crimes. If the allegations are indeed part of a plan to deflect responsibility for CW use, an outside observer’s impressions can only vacillate between sloppiness and sheer incompetence, on the one hand, and unwillingness to provide relevant documentation (which many or may not have been deliberately destroyed or hidden), on the other hand. Alas, the latter concern is one I have also often heard mentioned in connection with Syria’s declarations as part of its disarmament obligations.

There is a third possibility, but here one can only hope that the request for an investigation was not part of an exercise to learn how to better disguise chemical warfare attacks or to manufacture evidence in support of alleged insurgent use of toxicants.


Understanding the Dutch export licence requirement for publishing life science research

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

During the Meeting of Experts of states parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) last August, the Netherlands organised or co-hosted three side events relating to safeguarding the life sciences. A significant incident, in which the Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier and his team were required to obtain an export licence to publish their research on how they had mutated H5N1 into an aerosol-transmissible avian influenza virus variant, undeniably informed the need to clarify national policies and approaches to biorisk management. A month earlier the Appellate Court had annulled the ruling by a lower court in support of the government position on procedural grounds. Does this annulment validate the Dutch government’s position or does it imply that the whole debate about the publication of so-called dual-use research in the life sciences is back to square one? Moreover, in the meantime the debate had evolved from a terrorist proliferation risk to one of health security in which the ethics and utility of this type of gain-of-function research stand central. In other words, do biosafety worries warrant biosecurity policy measures, such as the imposition of non-proliferation export controls?

Some background to the Netherlands decision

In September 2011 the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza (ESWI) held its fourth conference in Malta. Europe and the world were then confronting an outbreak of avian influenza caused by the H5N1 virus. Its rapid spread among birds over long distances caused governments worldwide to order drastic measures in efforts to stem the epidemic. Over 500 humans (representing some 60% of all people who had contracted the disease) had already died, but all deaths thus far had resulted from direct interaction with fowl and not from human-to-human transmission.

In Malta Ron Fouchier announced that he and his team at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam had succeeded in transforming H5N1 into a viable aerosol virus. According one conference report he applied rather colourful language: his team ‘mutated the hell out of H5N1’. The discovery that it required as few as three single mutations to gain the ability to latch onto cells in the nasal and tracheal passageways, he described as ‘very bad news’. Transmission among ferrets, a mammal that offers the best laboratory model to study influenza in humans, still did not occur easily when, in Fouchier’s recorded words, ‘someone finally convinced me to do something really, really stupid’. They provoked two further mutations by transferring mutated viruses from the nose of one sick ferret to that of a healthy one, in the process creating the viable aerosol virus.

Initial articles on the gain-of-function research did not suggest any link with bioterrorism, but sometimes carried dramatic titles evoking cataclysmic consequences reminiscent of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed tens of millions worldwide. However, Fouchier’s dramatic speech caught the attention of counter-terrorism officials on both sides of the Atlantic. When he offered his research results for publication in Science, the  US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) intervened and eventually accepted publication provided some methodological details were removed from the text. (A parallel paper on H5N1 submitted to Nature by a team led by US scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka fared a similar fate.) NSABB considered the biosecurity risks outweighed any scientific merit in this type of research: rogue laboratory researchers or terrorists might wish to unleash the deadly virus on the human race to devastating effect.

NSABB’s intervention caused controversy with one side calling it censorship and the other side up in arms that publication had been authorised at all. In the United States, self-publication on the internet was not legally restricted at the time. In the Netherlands too the affair had caught the attention of authorities, many of whom wanted to block publication outright, but lacked the appropriate legal tools to do so. The only way to appraise the risks for malfeasance posed by information in the research manuscript was to implement non-proliferation export controls, which according to European Union regulations must be enforced for applied (but not fundamental) research in the life sciences.

The Netherlands decision caused shockwaves among European life scientists. After initial defiance, Fouchier and his team eventually applied for and received an export licence. Otherwise he might have faced up to six years imprisonment and $102,000 in fines.  The Erasmus Medical Center subsequently took the government to court to have the principle of export licences for scientific research overturned. On 20 September 2013 the District Court of North Holland ruled in favour of the government, but on 15 July 2015 the Appellate Court in Amsterdam annulled the ruling, saying that the case was without merit in view of the application and granting of an export licence. Put differently, the lower court should have never taken up the case. As presented during the BTWC Meeting of Experts in August 2015, the Dutch Government believes that the juridical process vindicated its approach to research with potential dual-use implications.

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CW incidents alleged by the Syrian government: an industrial chemical as likely cause?

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

My previous posting (16 November) presented the findings by the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concerning allegations of the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in Syria’s Idlib Governorate. The FFM concluded that the incidents likely involved the use of a toxic chemical containing the element chlorine as a weapon.

This report was one of three that the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW transmitted to states party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) for consideration at a special session of the Executive Council on 23 November. The other two reports address allegations of mustard agent use at Marea in northern Syria and chlorine attacks against Syrian government forces around Damascus.

This contribution focusses on the latter investigation. Syria submitted four Notes Verbales alleging a total of 26 chemical weapon (CW) events resulting in 432 casualties. The first reported incident dates back as far as 19 March 2013; the most recent ones took place in May 2015.

The investigative team deployed to Syria on 1 June, 1 August and 13 October. It has not yet finalised its investigation and the interim report circulating among CWC states parties focusses primarily on one incident at Jobar (‘Jober’ as spellt in the report), a municipality northeast of the old town of Damascus, on 29 August 2014. Although the investigation is ongoing, the FFM

is of the view that those affected in the alleged incident may have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating airborne substance, following the surface impact of two launched objects.

However, based on the evidence presented by the Syrian National Authority, the medical records that were reviewed, and the prevailing narrative of all of the interviews, the FFM cannot confidently determine whether or not a chemical was used as a weapon.

The FFM was unable to identify a specific irritant, but believes an industrial chemical may offer the most plausible explanation for the reviewed symptoms. It as good as ruled out use of chlorine or nerve agents in Jobar on 29 August 2014.

Conclusions about some other incidents reported by the Syrian government will be part of the final report.

Allegations by the Syrian government

The Syrian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, who also heads the Syrian CWC National Authority, submitted Note Verbale 150 to the Technical Secretariat on 15 December 2014. The document alleges 10 separate CW incidents in four Damascus neighbourhoods between April and September 2014 that resulted in 92 casualties, all among military personnel.

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 150

Syria’s Permanent Mission to the OPCW delivered Note Verbale 41 to the Technical Secretariat on 29 May 2015. It lists 13 separate incidents, five of which preceded Syria’s accession to the CWC, four whose dates fall within the date range of Note Verbale 150 and an additional four that took place early in 2015. These attacks allegedly occurred in the areas surrounding Aleppo and Damascus. Although this note is less explicit about the nature of the victims, it lists a minimum of 317 casualties, including at least five civilians. The document offers details on suspected chlorine use. The Syrian authorities requested members of the advance team (who deployed to Syria from 25 to 29 May 2015) that these events be included in the scope of the FFM. That, however, proved impossible without a new mandate covering additional events.

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 41

It is interesting to note that some of the incidents predating Syria’s accession to the CWC had already been examined by the UN investigative team in August and September 2013. That investigation corroborated allegations of CW use at Khan Al Asal and described the incident as ‘a rapidly onsetting [sic] mass intoxication by an organophosphorous compound in the morning of the 19 March 2013’, but added that ‘the release of chemical weapons at the alleged site could not be independently verified in the absence of primary information on delivery systems and of environmental and biomedical samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody’.

The two other incidents alleged in Note Verbale 41 took place immediately after the infamous Ghouta attack of 21 August 2013 and had also been investigated by the UN team. Of the one at Al-Bahriya (spelt as Bahhariyeh in the UN report) on 22 August 2013, the UN team could not corroborate the allegation. Blood samples all tested negative for any known signatures of chemical warfare agents.

With respect to the incident at Jobar on 24 August 2013 the UN report confirmed a ‘relatively small scale’ use of sarin against soldiers. However, again ‘in the absence of primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody, the United Nations Mission could not establish the link between the victims, the alleged event and the alleged site’.

Note Verbale 41 is equally intriguing for the absence of several other alleged incidents between March and September 2013 investigated by the UN team. These presumably concerned the investigation requests by France, the UK and the USA included in the mandate of the investigators by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Note Verbale 41 also lists some incidents not addressed by the UN team.

It is clear that the OPCW has all but ignored the allegations prior to Syria’s accession to the CWC.

Note Verbale 43 dated 3 June 2015 reports three additional incidents in May 2015.

NV43

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 43

Note Verbale 47 dated 15 June 2015 comprises six incidents that had already been mentioned in Note Verbale 41, but offers more background information, including greater detail on events, greater precision of sites of alleged attacks, and references to symptoms suffered by the exposed victims.

NV47

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 47

Based on Notes Verbales 41, 43 and 47, the FFM was dispatched for a second investigative deployment.

Assessment of the alleged incidents

In view of the large number of allegations, the FFM was unable to investigate each one or had to sequence investigations based on the severity of allegations. Thus it was agreed with the Syrians that the FFM would focus initially on the Jobar event of 29 August 2014 because it involved the highest number of reported casualties in Note Verbale 150.

After receipt of the additional Notes Verbales, the FFM proposed additional investigation of two allegations in 2014 and one in 2015. Based on additional data supplied by the Syrian government, the investigative team eventually looked into five reported events during its second deployment: Al-Maliha on 16 April and 11 July 2014, Al-Kabbas on 10 September 2014, Nubel and al-Zahraa on 8 January 2015, and Darayya on 15 February 2015.

The report of 29 October indicates that the FFM completed its mandate for the Jobar investigation. It expresses considerable frustration about the dearth of additional evidence to support the allegation:

The FFM is of the opinion that it would have been able to be more precise in its findings if further objective evidence, complementing what was provided by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic, had been made available to the team. The FFM was not able to obtain hard evidence related to this incident, either because it was unavailable or because it was not generated in the first place. The lack of hard evidence precluded the FFM from gathering further facts in a definitive way.

While interviews with soldiers point to the possibility ‘of exposure to some type of non-persistent, airborne irritant secondary to the surface impact of two launched objects’, the FFM could not confidently determine whether such exposure might have resulted from the payload of the projectiles or from another source (propellant, a chemical stored in the area of impact, detonation products, etc.) because of insufficient evidence presented by Syria, insufficient details in reviewed medical records, and inconsistencies in the narratives of interviewees. So, the FFM concluded that:

while the general clinical presentation of those affected in the incident is consistent with brief exposure to any number of chemicals or environmental insults, the visual and olfactory description of the potential irritant does not clearly implicate any specific chemical.

This particular investigation was also hampered by the delay of some nine months between the alleged incident and the start of the mission. Notwithstanding, the FFM all but ruled out chlorine and organophosphorous compounds (e.g., sarin) as agents responsible for the described symptoms. High on the list of probabilities figures diBorane, which besides use as a rocket propellant also has application in electronic industries and the vulcanisation of rubber. As the report notes, these uses make it ‘relevant to the interests of a militarized non-state actor [and it is] also readily available in the region’. Many of the reviewed symptoms appear consistent with exposure to this non-persistent and volatile chemical.

FFM Jobar chemicals probability

Jobar: Likelyhood of toxic chemicals to which victims might have been exposed (Source: OPCW)

The report on the allegations raised by the Syrian government is preliminary. The Jobar investigation is in the process of finalisation. The other mentioned incidents also remain under investigation pending final analysis. The interim report only contains an overview of activities undertaken until October 2015. These findings will also be included in the final report.


Innocence Slaughtered – Book launch at OPCW

Innocence Slaughtered coverDescribed by Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the OPCW, as a ‘remarkable compilation of materials, rich in detail and edited in the finest traditions of highly readable scholarship’, Innocence Slaughtered is a new book that will launch with a panel discussion on 2 December, from 13.00-15.00 at this year’s Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Edited by Dr Jean Pascal Zanders, the book features the writings of eleven experts and historians on gas warfare and chemical weapons and is being published to coincide with the first phosgene attack in WWI on 19 December 1915.

The launch event will be a panel discussion with Dr Jean Pascal Zanders, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, Mr Jef Verschoore, Deputy Mayor and Chairperson of In Flanders Fields Museum, Mr Dominiek Dendooven and Dr Leo van Bergen, both chapter authors. They will discuss the immediate impact of gas warfare, before exploring its subsequent effect on the use of science in future conflicts and the struggle to legally ban the use of chemical weapons in future conventions.

Book launch

Date & time: Wednesday, 2 December 2015; 13:00 – 15:00

Location: Ieper Room, OPCW Headquarters, Johan de Wittlaan 32, The Hague, Netherlands

Speakers:

  • Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General, OPCW
  • Mr Jef Verschoore, Deputy Mayor and Chairperson In Flanders Fields Museum
  • Mr Dominiek Dendooven, Researcher, In Flanders Field Museum [Chapter author]
  • Dr Leo van Bergen, Independent Researcher [Chapter author]
  • Dr Jean Pascal Zanders, The Trench [Book editor and Chapter author]

Publisher’s information sheet. Copies of of the book will be available for purchase.

(A second book launch event will take place at In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres on Thursday, 10 December.)