[Cross-posted from The Trench]
The final report of the 7th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) held in December 2011 contained a one-line subparagraph whose ambition came to fruition in December 2019. Under Article IV (on national implementation measures), paragraph 13 opened as follows:
The Conference notes the value of national implementation measures, as appropriate, in accordance with the constitutional process of each State Party, to:
(a) implement voluntary management standards on biosafety and biosecurity;
That single line of new language in the final report was the outcome of a preparatory process that had begun in September 2009 and led to a Belgian Review Conference working paper endorsed by the European Union (EU). Prompted by the final report’s language, the International Organisation for Standards (ISO) initiated the complex procedure for developing a new standard. Just over seven years after the 7th Review Conference, it published the new standard, ISO 35001:2019 Biorisk management for laboratories and other related organisations.
Today, amid the global pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), questions about the virus’s origins abound. Might it have escaped from a high-containment laboratory? Did the epidemic result from a deliberate release? While we can source most of these claims to conspiracy theorists and wilful disinformation propagators, the clampdown of Chinese bureaucracy on early outbreak reports, the government’s failure to immediately report the emerging epidemic to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and its subsequent extreme vetting of any scientific publication discussing COVID-19’s origins created the space for the wildest stories to flourish.
Over the next months and years researchers from many disciplines will analyse the response by the WHO and the adequacy of the outbreak reporting requirements under the International Health Regulations. Even though nothing suggests that COVID-19 resulted from a deliberate release of a pathogen or that the virus was artificially created or genetically altered in a laboratory, different aspects of the BTWC regime relate to the reporting of outbreaks, biosecurity and -safety in laboratories and other installations, and international cooperation.
Interesting in this respect is whether the new ISO standard offers opportunities to reinforce the BTWC. In preparation for the 2020 BTWC Meetings of Experts (MX), to be held exceptionally in December instead of the late summer due to COVID-19 meeting restrictions at the United Nations, Belgium with Austria. Chile, France, Germany, Iraq, Ireland, Netherlands, Spain and Thailand submitted a working paper entitled ‘Biorisk management standards and their role in BTWC implementation’ (BWC/MSP/2020/MX.2/WP.2, 27 October2020).
Early genesis of a small success
September 2009. I was a disarmament researcher at the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies (EU-ISS). The 7th BTWC Review Conference was just over two years away. I met with an acquaintance from my days at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and a senior official at the Foreign Ministry in Brussels. I had a straightforward question for them. Belgium would hold the 6-monthly rotating Presidency of the European Council during the second half of 2010. A year before the Review Conference, this was the ideal time to update the EU Common Position for the quinquennial meeting.
Holding the Presidency offers plenty of opportunities for initiative. In 2009 EU members had no specific plans to update their common position. The 6th Review Conference they considered a success (which was relative considering the disaster five years earlier). Three months after the meeting in Brussels, the Belgian Foreign Ministry decided to seek an updated EU position. Preparations already began under the Swedish Presidency during the first half of 2010.
The idea I had put forward in Brussels was maximalist: how to equip the BTWC with verification tools? I was not seeking to reopen the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) negotiations the United States had aborted in 2001 because by the turn of the century I had already come to the conclusion that the tools under consideration in Geneva addressed past problems and not the most recent developments in biology and biotechnology. Many academics observing the AHG deliberations recognised the shortcomings of the draft text but pushed for completing the draft protocol to the BTWC, fearing that the proceedings were losing momentum. However, their argument that the protocol could be amended afterwards I did not share. In my mind, a return to the design board was the only option.
On the way to a national and common EU position
On 18 May 2010, during the Swedish Presidency, the EU Council’s Working Party on Global Disarmament and Arms Control (CODUN) invited me to present my thoughts on how to strengthen the BTWC. CODUN coordinated the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy regarding global disarmament and UN-related issues, which included the BTWC. (CODUN has since then been absorbed into the Working Party on Non-proliferation – CONOP.) In the EU-ISS note prepared for the briefing I identified five areas of possible progress on verification-related questions: (1) industry verification; (2) biodefence programmes; (3) technology transfers; (4) allegations of BW use and unusual outbreaks of disease; and (5) countering BW threats posed by terrorist and criminal entities. I added the following caveat:
Under the present circumstances it does not appear feasible to consider the five areas in a single, holistic model for a future BTWC. New, non-state actors have risen to prominence in the disarmament debate (the industry, scientific and professional communities, but also terrorist and criminal entities). There are different challenges posed by rapid advances in science, technology and processes that may contribute to BW acquisition, the major changes in the international security environment over the past three decades (and since the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq in particular) and the resulting changes in security expectations from weapon control treaties and their verification tools.
The main aim for the EU, I suggested, was to
obtain a decision at the 7th Review Conference establishing one or more working groups to explore and identify novel approaches to verifying the BTWC. These working groups are to meet several times during the next intersessional period and report to the 8th Review Conference in 2016, at which point States Parties may decide to act on the findings.
Critical elements in the deliberations will be: (1) the building and application of the principle of multi-stakeholdership, with direct participation of the industrial and scientific communities; (2) the identification of processes and technologies to support the verification goals, and, where required, to identify such processes and technologies that need to be created and developed based on the latest scientific and technological advances, e.g., in detection or biological forensics; and (3) for the EU, to actively support the process by taking the lead in testing the proposed verification methodologies in realistic settings with a view of both ascertaining their feasibleness and finetuning the proposals.
The latter element was critical for deliberations to move from the conceptual to the practical. In a footnote, I clarified:
This aspect is particularly important with respect to the design and implementation of novel verification principles, techniques and technologies. For example, before the signing of the 1987 Treaty on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) the United States and the Soviet Union had conducted over 400 trial inspections. The goals of those trials included the testing of the concept of onsite inspection, the finetuning of verification requirements and the investigation of ways in which sensitive information could be protected without undermining the stated verification goals.
The remainder of the note addressed the five issue areas. The document ended with a separate section on stakeholders and their involvement in verification, which included arguments to have industry and the scientific communities engaged in the preparatory processes.
Sharpening the focus
After that intervention, I continued to interact with the Belgian Foreign Ministry regarding the RevCon preparations. Early in June, less than one month before Belgium was to take over the rotating Presidency from Sweden, the Foreign Ministry convened a seminar with representatives from different ministries and agencies, national stakeholders and a few international experts. Participants discussed a full spectrum of issues affecting the BTWC at the time: verification, industry involvement in the discussions, biosecurity and safety, science and technology, etc. The seminar’s purpose was to combine desired options with feasible outcomes, ‘feasibility’ meaning first gaining consensus for the proposal among the 28 EU members and then adoption of language by the BTWC states parties at the 7th Review Conference.
During the second intersessional process between the 6th and 7th Review Conferences (2007–10), topics such as biosecurity and -safety, science oversight, codes of conduct, pathogen regulation, etc. featured prominently on the agenda. One year later, in June 2011, the Belgian Foreign Ministry organised its second seminar in preparation of the 7th Review Conference. Its topic caused little surprise: The Biological Weapons Convention, Biosecurity and the Industry. One of the seminar’s central themes was to investigate how the life sciences industry – one core stakeholder remaining in the background of the discussions on the future of the BTWC – could become more involved. Speakers zoomed in on industrial standards for biosafety and biosecurity being developed for laboratories in research and industry facilities as a possible point of entry. In follow up to the seminar, the idea arose to explore this lesser-known opportunity in more detail and highlight its possibilities and limitations from three perspectives: biorisk management, industry practice and government responsibility in formal disarmament. Ambassador Paul van den IJssel, President-Designate of the 7th BTWC Review Conference, closed the event.
One advantage of homing in on biorisk management (the term ‘biorisk’ reflects the common all hazards approach) was precedent. The European Committee for Standardisation (CEN, after its French name: Comité européen de normalisation) had adopted a CEN Workshop Agreement (CWA) on Laboratory biorisk management standard in February 2008, known as CWA 15793:2008. (The standard was updated in September 2011 as CWA 15793:2011.) As Gary Burns and Toon De Kesel explained at the seminar:
The most obvious benefits for organisations implementing CWA 15793 include improved biosafety and biosecurity performance ensuring protection for employees and the wider community, as well as preventing loss, theft, and misuse of biological materials with dual-use potential. Compliance with the standard furthermore avoids direct financial costs associated with business interruption, ensures conformity with legal requirements and helps to avert penalties or litigation. An additional, yet significant benefit concerns the preservation of an organisation’s reputation. An organisation that obtained formal certification as meeting the requirements of the CWA may be able to negotiate lower insurance premiums and reduce the number of interventions by regulators. Conformity also helps to promote the exchange of materials and expansion of research collaboration, as the CWA assures that receiving/collaborating organisations can handle hazardous materials safely and securely. It also improves prospects when bidding for contracts or research funding. […]
[See their chapter in: Jean Pascal Zanders (ed.), Setting A Standard for Stakeholdership Industry Contribution to a Strengthened Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, Egmont Paper 52 (Egmont – The Royal Institute for International Relations: Brussels, December 2011).]
Relevant institutions thus have an interest in obtaining certification under an international standard. Burns and De Kesel further explored a standard such as CWA 15793 could contribute to providing increased assurance under the BTWC, provided modifications were implemented. They argued in favour of transforming the CWA into an ISO standard, which could also include health and safety and be translated into more languages thereby benefiting global application.
The concrete proposal
In paragraph 9 of its working paper entitled ‘Biorisk management standards and their role in BTWC implementation’ (BWC/CONF.VII/WP.7, 14 October 2011) Belgium called on the Review Conference to:
(a) Recognise that biorisk management standards, created by stakeholders in the life sciences community, can play a complementary and supportive role in the implementation of the obligations of the BTWC;
(b) Call on the life sciences community and international standards organisations to develop global and certifiable biorisk management standards;
(c) Encourage states parties to provide assistance, where appropriate, for the implementation of biorisk management standards in life science institutions in accordance with Article X;
(d) Take biorisk management standards and their role for BTWC implementation up as an intersessional topic and enter into dialogue with representatives from biosafety associations, the life sciences industry and international standards organisations on the development of new standards, and review of existing standards, in order to enhance their leverage towards the implementation of the BTWC.
The next paragraph also clarified that industrial standards are not a governmental affair and that therefore states cannot and will not control their development and implementation. In addition, adoption of such standards will not ‘dismiss states from their primordial responsibility for security and the obligation to implement the BTWC by making laws and enforcing them’.
A minor incident occurred when a member of the German delegation was the first to take to the floor in the question and answer session after the formal plenary presentation of the working paper to express his country’s opposition to the proposal. Belgium quickly shut down the challenge by pointing out that the proposal was part of the EU Common Position for the Review Conference adopted by Germany and the 27 other EU members. A few BTWC parties sought some additional clarification about the motives and purpose of the biosafety and -security management standards.
Nobody formally opposed the idea.
Towards the 9th Review Conference (2021)
Following the publication of ISO 35001:2019 on Biorisk management for laboratories and other related organisations, Belgium returns to promoting the standard in the BTWC context. The document notes in paragraph 7:
This development within the life sciences industry strengthens the international capacity to reach the goals of the BTWC in several ways:
(a) it provides a tool for awareness raising in the scientific community regarding the risks related to biological dual-use items;
(b) it reduces the risk of unauthorised access to biological agents and materials;
(c) it provides an increased level of assurance that life science institutions are complying with the prohibitions and obligations of the BTWC;
(d) it guarantees responsible biorisk management in certified facilities, even in cases where national legislation and regulation fall short of requirements;
(e) it can facilitate international transactions relevant for Article X assistance;
(f) it will enhance responsible research of hazardous biological materials, including engineered and synthetically derived materials.
The working paper also refers cautiously to the current global pandemic when it says:
SARS, pandemic viruses and threats of the malicious use of pathogens illustrate the risks that biological agents and materials pose and the need to reinforce safety and security precautions. The productive results of the auto-regulatory initiatives of the life sciences community offer the opportunity to increase safety and security and thus can ameliorate the implementation of the BTWC.
To a degree the working paper could complement the idea launched by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in his address to the UN General Assembly on 23 September to have an International Agency for Biological Safety linked to the BTWC. As I pointed out in an earlier blog posting, this idea still requires further development. However, the shared interest of Belgium and Kazakhstan in biorisk management in the context of the disarmament treaty is clear.
Thinking back on the little role I played in these developments – essentially contacting the Belgian Foreign Ministry about whether it was planning to update the EU Common Position in preparation of the 7th Review Conference – gives me pleasure. The meeting in September 2009 started the process that eventually led to an ISO standard, which, if embraced by states parties, could evolve into significant building block in the provision of assurance in the BTWC context.
I never expected an ISO standard as an outcome. This may be surprising in hindsight. Having switched SIPRI for the Geneva-based BioWeapons Prevention Project (BWPP) in August 2003, I returned to Stockholm in December for a joint BWPP-SIPRI seminar sponsored by the Swedish Foreign Ministry. Participants included representatives from the Swedish Defence and Trade Ministries, customs, biotechnology industry and the life sciences. A couple of international academic experts attended too. There I presented the first outline of a possible novel transparency-enhancing system. The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (more commonly known as the Blix Commission) published the ideas as ‘A Verification and Transparency Concept for Technology Transfers under the BTWC’ in February 2005. An interesting detail: the text already cited the ISO as a source of inspiration and suggested using BTWC Article X as a means to assist states parties with meeting the standards to make the transparency-enhancing system function.
After the adoption of the final report of the 7th Review Conference, my colleague at the Belgian Foreign Ministry asked me whether I was not disappointed that only a reference to biorisk management standards ended up in the document. I had approached him two years earlier with a much broader verification idea. I assured him this was not the case. In BTWC politics, diplomacy is after all the art of the feasible. The global biorisk management standard had a chance in 2011 and has become a reality today.
Is verification off my table? Hell, no! But that will be the subject of a future story.
This year the UN General Assembly (UNGA) celebrates the 75th time in session. However, the worldwide spread of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) casts dark shadow over the anniversary with some of the major global players preferring to play geopolitics when nations should unite to combat a germ that knows no borders.
Unsurprisingly, many heads of state or government, ministers and other dignitaries have reflected in their statements on the pandemic and the challenges ahead. Some introduced constructive suggestions to address the factors that led to the outbreak at the end of last year. Others put forward ideas to strengthen crisis response and management capacities.
Among these, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in his address on 23 September launched the surprising proposal to
‘establish a special multilateral body – the International Agency for Biological Safety – based on the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and accountable to the UN Security Council’.
His reference to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in the broader context of public health is noteworthy. It was one of five ideas to combat the pandemic, the other four being the upgrading of national health institutions; the removal of politics out of the vaccine; the revision of the International Health Regulations to increase capacities of the World Health Organisation (WHO); and the examination of the idea of a network of Regional Centres for Disease Control and Biosafety under the UN auspices.
Given the many accusations that the virus is human-made, escaped from a laboratory or was part of a biological weapon (BW) programme and the ease with which disinformation circulates through the social media, an initiative that relies on the BTWC makes sense. After all, the convention deals with questions of non-compliance or accusations of biological warfare.
What does the proposal entail?
No further details about the International Agency for Biological Safety (IABS) are available from Kazakh missions. This leaves us with few clues about its purpose, structure and way of functioning.
- As an ‘agency’, the IABS would presumably be department or administrative unit of a bigger entity. Because it would be accountable to the UN Security Council (UNSC) Kazakhstan probably envisages it as a UN subsidiary body. In one sense, the organ could be a relatively autonomous structure (e.g. under a Commissioner-General) set up by the UNGA. However, the sole reference to the UNSC appears at odds with a UNGA subsidiary body.
- However, the characterisation of the body as ‘multilateral’ indicates that states – whether parties to the BTWC or UN members is unspecified – might govern the agency rather than a bureaucratic entity such as the UN. In this understanding, the reference might be to a UN specialised agency (an autonomous organisation integrated by agreement into the UN system, e.g. the WHO) or a related organisation that by agreement reports to the UNGA and UNSC, similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This interpretation, however, does not sit well with ‘ accountability’ to the UNSC and lack of reference to the UNGA.
- The organ is about biological safety, therefore presumably about handling dangerous pathogens. If the Kazakh language does not differentiate between ‘biosafety’ and ‘biosecurity’ (Google Translate renders both terms as ‘биоқауіпсіздік’ [bïoqawipsizdik]), then preventing pathogens from escaping high-containment facilities may also fall within the agency’s purview.
- Finally, the BTWC reference suggests that the agency would address questions not usually within the remit of the WHO, i.e. research and development that may lead to BW or biodefence programmes.
How about the IABS in the BTWC context?
According to the Kazakh proposal the IABS should be based on the BTWC. The preposition ‘on’ could mean that the scope of its mandate equals that of the disarmament treaty or that it should work supporting BTWC objectives.
As is well known, the BTWC has no formal institutional setup in which the body might be integrated. Yet is it too wild an idea to link it to the Implementation Support Unit (ISU)? Even while ownership of the treaty lies with the states parties, they have embedded the ISU within the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). In that option, the IABS might meet the twin criteria of being an agency and multilateral put forward by Kazakhstan.
However, the ISU is not a formal administrative entity within UNODA or the UN. Its continued existence depends on the BTWC states parties, who must renew its mandate and adopt a budget for the next five years at review conferences. For the IABS they would thus also have to decide on staffing levels and a budget based on a pre-agreed mandate. Similar types of consideration await proposals to establish a scientific advisory body for the BTWC. Therefore, for the IABS an additional key decision will be whether it becomes part of the ISU or functions separately within UNODA.
How could IABS support the BTWC objectives?
There is little purpose in debating possible structures without a sense of possible IABS roles. The IABS may conceivably support the BTWC objectives in two areas, namely regarding confidence building measures (CBMs) and Article VII on emergency assistance.
Enhancement of CBM utility
Because of the presentation of the proposal in the context of the pandemic, the IABS could focus on CBM B ‘Exchange of information on outbreaks of infectious diseases and similar occurrences caused by toxins’.
CBMs are submitted annually with a formal deadline on 15 April. Consequently, outbreaks cover the past year, and the process does not inform states parties at when the incident occurs. Moreover, the process is passive. States parties receive the information in at least one of the six official UN languages but many lack the resources to translate the documents or the capacity to analyse them in depth.
A process can be envisaged whereby states parties submit to the IABS when possible details of a unusual disease outbreaks with additional information as to whether this unusual outbreak is natural, accidental or believed to be deliberate. A state party could conceivably notify the agency of any outbreak about which it has information. The IABS processes this information and provides it to all states parties within the shortest possible delays. Any state party can follow up through bilateral consultations or may offer specific types of assistance to address the outbreak. Another advantage of such a process would be the early squashing of conspiracy theories.
One could envisage that the IABS also acts as an interface for CBM A, Parts 1 and 2, respectively on ‘Exchange of data on research centres and laboratories’ and ‘Exchange of information on national biological defence research and development programmes’. As noted earlier, biosafety and -security would be at the heart of the agency.
In this way, a passive CBM process could be elevated to an active assurance strategy whereby states parties commit themselves to be transparent about unusual disease outbreaks. Failure to report or late reporting of such an outbreak or accident could give other states parties cause to seek clarification, more so as it not usually possible to hide such an event.
While cooperation with the WHO and other international health organisations for human, animal and plant diseases would most likely emerge, the principal focus of the IABS would be defined by the BTWC: prevention of BWs and their use.
Focal point for Article VII
In view of the possible roles outlined above, it seems a natural next step to envisage the IABS as a focal point for requesting emergency assistance under Article VII if a state party has been exposed to a danger because of a violation of the BTWC.
There is no procedure foreseen for a state wishing to invoke the provision. Tabletop exercises run between 2016 and 2019 have shown that participants hesitate to activate the article. Such a step automatically implies a violation of the BTWC and may escalate a conflict. Furthermore, there are questions about what type of evidence the requesting state party must supply and the role of the other states parties in the process given the involvement of the UNSC. In addition, the outbreak will be noted a while before first suspicions of deliberate intent arise.
As the IABS would have been informed of the outbreak early on, a state party believing it has been exposed to a danger resulting from a breach of the BTWC could submit its evidence for further consideration. Clarification processes may alleviate concerns or give cause to forward the matter to the UNSC. In any case, having an agency such as the IABS would hand states parties a tool and an opportunity to be seized by the matter without having to set up a lengthy preparatory process for consultations under BTWC Article V.
For sure, some further elaboration of the IABS idea by the Kazakh government would be great, e.g. in a working paper for the BTWC meeting of experts in December (having been postponed as a consequences of the pandemic) or the review conference next year.
Kazakhstan should also clarify its understanding of the phrase ‘accountable to the UN Security Council’. In several articles the BTWC refers to roles to be played by the UNSC. However, these are often seen as an impediment to activating the relevant provision because decisions or actions by the UNSC are unpredictable in their outcome.
Notwithstanding, the Kazakh proposal already tantalises as it is. As an agency it might fulfil useful tasks at relatively small cost in areas of concern to states parties. The discussion, if not accusations about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 show that something substantive is lacking in the international security machinery to generate transparency and confidence in the accuracy of information.
Looking forward to more ideas and discussions.
[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.
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?
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.
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 »
[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.
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 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.
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.
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)
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 ConventionPosted: August 4, 2019
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.
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
[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.
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.
Brian Rappert and Chandré Gould, The Dis-Eases of Secrecy: Tracing History, Memory & Justice (Jacana Media: Johannesburg, 2017), 261p.
It took me almost a year to write this book review. There are reasons why. First, the book is not that easy to read. While one can read it linearly (that is one page after another, as one would normally do), it instead invites readers to follow the logic of the argument, which entails dashing back and forwards from one part in the book to another. Second, the insights are profound, and the reader needs to let them sink in. Even in a straightforward linear reading mode, it is simply not possible for one to finish the volume in a couple of hours and claim to have understood the authors’ arguments. And finally, closely linked to the second excuse, while following the trails of various issue threads, I was simultaneously trying to figure out why it is so difficult, if not impossible, to use a country’s past experiences with chemical and biological warfare as a point of departure for education and outreach to prevent the re-emergence of chemical and biological weapon (CBW).
The Dis-Eases of Secrecy tells multiple stories of South Africa’s weird CBW activities between 1981 and 1995, commonly known as Project Coast. The stories are not primarily about individuals or their activities. They are about how those individuals or outsiders construct their actions and the narratives surrounding those actions as ways to shape the legacy of Project Coast and define individual responsibilities of Project Coast participants. At the other end of the spectrum stand the victims of Project Coast. Despite the special attention paid to Project Coast by the Truth and Reconciliation in 1997 and afterwards, did the public narrative — incomplete as it still is — bring closure? Facts are different from Truth, but did the Truth that emerged from those hearings suffice to reconcile?
Structuring the threads
How often does one come across a book whose opening chapter of the introductory section is entitled ‘How to read this book’?
The whole book is constructed around 11 sutras. A ‘sūtra’ in Sanskrit means ‘thread’; in Buddhism ‘narrative part’. A ‘thread’ can mean a group of intertwined filaments; so little surprise that another introductory chapter is called ‘Sewn threads’. Another nod to Sanskrit? ‘Sūtra’ is semantically linked to ‘sīvyati’ (he sews). Irrespective of whether etymology or philosophy inspired the authors, their playing around with both words in the chapter title characterises the book well: one has the option to proceed page after page (in which case, one receives a chronological progression of the authors’ investigation that led to the book) or one can follow any one of the thematic threads via the red thread identifier and number at the end of paragraphs.
The 11 threads are:
- What was done?
- Total war
- Forgetting and remembering
- Legacies of the past
- Need to know
- International relations
- Best offence
- Silence and the fury
- Transitional justice
- Lessons from the past
Inspired by Sven Lindqvist’s technique of thread-based entries in ‘A History of Bombing’ (2001), both authors equally encourage their readers to take ‘one of many possible paths through the chaos of history’ and thus to sense the many different ways a complex social issue can be perceived or experienced.
The threaded approach represents a conscious effort to break through the linearity of communication. As any person will have experienced in an inspired moment, multiple thoughts can near-simultaneously crisscross consciousness and frustrate prose when trying to transpose them into tangible communication. Speak, and phoneme will follow phoneme. Write, and letter will follow letter; word will follow word; and page will follow page. This immutable limitation on verbal communication challenges any author on presenting different angles to an account. A non-linear approach to writing cannot remove this limitation; instead, it places the reader in charge of how and in which sequence she or he wishes to explore individual threads in the narrative twine.
Rappert and Gould use the technique to good effect. Whereas Lindqvist broke with conventional narration to reinforce his view that indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets had its roots in the imperialistic, discriminatory Western views of other cultures, both authors let the reader sense profoundly why a ‘fact’ (e.g. a reference in a meeting record) acquires meaning only in the presence (or absence) of other information and why ‘truth’ is a constructed perception based on the selective inclusion of personal experiences and/or access to ‘facts’ with (selected) meanings.
However, as the previous paragraph makes clear, the technique may be heavy on the reader. It forces one to flip back and forth through the book in search of the corresponding paragraph number while absorbing information just received. Precisely at that moment one will also be processing that information against one’s own knowledge and understandings. The flipping back and forth distracts. Yet at the same time, it is difficult to see how the authors could achieve the same intellectual impact without the disruption of the non-linear presentation of arguments. The brain cannot sink into the comfort of a smooth narrative ride.
Challenging the knowledge comfort zone
To most people CBW present a clear-cut case: they are inherently inhumane, the subject of a longstanding and universal taboo on their use and banned under current international law. Therefore, such weapon use is evil and must be condemned by all. Alas, history and current direct challenges to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention contradict the good vs evil tale. (See my paper International Norms Against Chemical and Biological Warfare: An Ambiguous Legacy.)
The dichotomy between victim and perpetrator is similarly built on such binary approach. Yet, the types of attributes assigned to each category of persons will be asymmetric. Observation or allegations of collective and individual actions violating the norm or treaties against CBW will feature prominently when designating a perpetrator. In contrast, a range of broad-scope characteristics not specifically related to CBW will habitually define the victim. As Rappert and Gould write (para. 212):
In relation to everyday offences, the ‘ideal victim’ is generally someone that is regarded as weak compared to the offender (which often translates into being female, very young or elderly), blameless for what transpired, a stranger to a clearly reproachable offender and, importantly, able to elicit sufficient concern about their plight without threatening other interests.
Victimhood becomes more difficult to circumscribe if one begins to consider people who participated in trials involving exposure to CBW agents. Even if the test subjects were volunteers, questions arise as to whether they were facilitators of crimes to be committed later (by others) with weapons they helped to optimise, they had been adequately informed of the risks to their health posed by the experimental agents, how free their choice to participate in such trials was, and so on. The authors also point to potential social and other consequences for the children of staff after Project Coast made press headlines (see interview with a Project Coast scientist, para. 486) and the veil of secrecy behind which many of the activities took place was ripped open in certain parts (but never fully removed). As they note, such children fit several expectations of ‘ideal victims’, but just like with relatives of victims who suffered physical harm from CBW use, they only receive secondary consideration.
If ‘victimhood’ suits political discourse or emotional mobilisation well, then varying degrees of vagueness or abstraction will likely hamper criminal prosecution of the alleged perpetrators. More specifically, how will a specific action by an alleged perpetrator be linked to a specific victim? Rephrased more broadly, how can justice be obtained in CBW cases?
Secrecy, justice and reconciliation
A reply by Dr Wouter Basson, Project Officer of Project Coast, to the question why he does not seem to understand what he did wrong in a radio interview best illustrates the quandary (para. 6):
It’s very simple, they must just show me what I did wrong. It’s easy, all they need to do is bring one single case of anybody that was either damaged and/or hurt in this process and I’ll live with it. But nobody can do that. I mean it’s been 20 years that this has been going on and there is not a single scratch and/or blue mark and/or bruise on anybody that could be proven anywhere, so who did I damage and how?
Much of the book turns around two questions: Was there justice for the victims of Project Coast? Did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) reconcile victims and perpetrators? The quest to answer those questions raises further questions: How is Project Coast being remembered? How is it being forgotten? And by whom? Indeed, beyond the victims and perpetrators (and their relatives and social communities), other categories of protagonists also play or have played substantial roles in shaping the legacy left by Project Coast. These include government leaders and officials under the Apartheid regime; the post-Apartheid government and officials from the African National Congress (ANC); members of the military and security forces; the scientific community and research institutes; TRC members, research staff and other officials; civil society; the press; and the international community. And probably many more …
Secrecy is an all-pervasive element in the book. Through compartmentalisation and an overall policy principle to disseminate information on a need-to-know basis, few people (if any) had a total overview of Project Coast. It also allowed people who came to suspect certain things through casual conversation to ignore inconvenient knowledge; and later, before the TRC, it enabled people to claim ignorance about certain goals or actions, or deny or minimise their responsibility in them. The fact that Project Coast comprised so many different elements, so many different institutions, without clear lines of overall oversight or even management, easily reinforced the utility of secrecy in ‘forgetting’. Paradoxically, the promise of amnesty offered by the TRC to persons willing to admit to norm-breaking or criminal activities as part of the reconciliation process generated exaggerations of complicity. These also tended to obscure rather clarify the past, more so as secrecy and compartmentalisation of knowledge precluded deep verification. One never obtains the certainty that all is (or can be) known and what is supposedly known may be suspect. Ultimately, guesses must fill the gaps, but nobody or nothing can confirm or refute those guesses.
Secrecy was also claimed on the level of national security. However, as Rappert and Gould write (para. 220; emphasis in original):
What the state itself was ‘allowed’ to know was limited to what was officially told. The new ANC state needed to protect the state secret that it did not know. What the Project Coast scientists would say when under questioning at the TRC was wholly unknown.
Add an overlay of ‘proliferation risk’ to whatever might become publicised, and the ‘secret’ got new keepers. Thus, the post-Apartheid government became the owner of secrets, whose contents it did not and could never fully know. Its officials are today extremely reluctant to talk about Project Coast. Both authors tested, for instance, whether it might be useful for South Africa to at least come clean internationally by revising the information submitted under a BTWC Confidence-Building Measure (CBM) on past biological weapon (BW)-related activities. This was rejected, and Rappert and Gould were strongly encouraged not to pursue this line of enquiry by the (British) funders of their project. The latter aspect also demonstrates international community’s contribution to the way Project Coast will be remembered. One international expert suggested that Project Coast was not a typical BW programme and therefore no need exists to discuss it under the BTWC. Some other diplomats held the view that there is no longer any urgent reason to press South Africa on revising its CBM because the nature of the government had changed, the country had re-entered the international community, and it had stopped the programmes. Even though the authors also interviewed other experts and diplomats holding opposite views, the key point remains that consensus on the step was and remains elusive.
Rappert and Gould present a complex, but nonetheless compelling narrative about how a community – in this case, South Africa – addresses the legacy of a CBW programme and the use of such weapons in an armed conflict. Ultimately, the reader is left with the question: what is justice? Dr Wouter Basson in many ways epitomises the complexity of the question: he testified before the TRC; he faced criminal charges; and he was taken to justice for breaching his professional code of conduct by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). Only in the latter case he was found guilty in December 2013 but procedural battles before the HPCSA and in courts have thus far blocked his sentencing. Would a final guilty verdict in this case bring closure to the victims? To answer, one may refer to the widow of one of the victims of the 1995 sarin attack against the Tokyo underground after learning that senior Aum Shinrikyo members had been hanged. She said that the executions did not bring closure to survivors or victims’ families and pledged to continue efforts to ensure that the crimes are not forgotten (Sarin victim’s widow comments on execution, 26 July 2018; and Aum victims and bereaved express sense of closure, disappointment and confusion over executions, 6 July 2018):
What I mean by this is that there are lots of things I wanted them to talk about so we can learn more about future counterterrorism. I really wanted them to speak to experts, for example. It’s a disappointment that they can no longer do this.
Arguably, in this instance the direct linkage between perpetrator and victim was much clearer than for Project Coast. Yet, closure does not equal vengeance or mere punishment. It seems to imply the retention of future common value derived from the experiences suffered. It needs to have meaning; remembrance serves the purpose of preventing recurrence.
Towards the end of the book, Chandré Gould reflects on the outcome of the research and the role she and Brian Rappert might come to play in preserving the memory (para. 528):
[…] While most South Africans of a certain generation are likely to be familiar with the name Wouter Basson, artefacts, documents or accounts of the programme are not to be found at significant sites of memory, such as Freedom Park or the Apartheid Museum. What is the reason for this absence of a narrative? I would posit that this has to do with the absence of a coherent, easy-to-relate narrative. With no victims and no voices, or testimony post-TRC to assert the needs or interests of victims, the narrative, staccato and broken as it is, becomes a narrative of ‘perpetrators’. It becomes a story of motives, intentions and possibilities, all of which have been contested. The stories told by willing witnesses were both ridiculous and horrific, a science fiction of apartheid. Basson, as the person who holds all the answers but refuses to release them, becomes not only the secret-keeper (and in this maintains tremendous power over those who believe they might have fallen victim to the programme) but also the focus of all the attention.
The absence of a victim narrative or account also serves to strip the narrative of credibility or resonance. Personalising the violence of apartheid through victim narratives and testimony rendered it visible. In this case, there was no victim (other than Frank Chikane) to associate clearly with the programme, and no one other than the investigator to keep making the case for its importance or relevance. In this situation, the person investigating becomes the story-teller and the person responsible for the victims’ untold victim stories, the placeholder until a more legitimate voice can be heard.
In one of my many discussions on how to use past experiences with CBW in education and outreach, I happened to mention Project Coast, citing a museum exhibition entitled Poisoned Pasts then underway. One member of the group, a retired South African academic, replied, ‘This is controversial’. To me, controversy is a good foundation for discussion. Alas, as I have now learned, in plain English the three words meant: ‘Do not touch’.
Thus, one remains stuck with three cardinal questions: What lessons can be identified from past CBW programmes? What lessons can be learned from those activities? And, how can these insights help preventing the re-emergence of CBW programmes?
[Cross-posted from The Trench]
Origins and negotiation of Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention
A new research report
Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) belongs to the more obscure provisions. It reads as follows:
Each State Party to this Convention undertakes to provide or support assistance, in accordance with the United Nations Charter, to any Party to the Convention which so requests, if the Security Council decides that such Party has been exposed to danger as a result of violation of the Convention.
Since the treaty’s entry into force in 1975, states parties hardly looked at the one-paragraph article. Up to the 7th Review Conference (2011) the only additional understandings and agreements concerned general implementation procedures and possible roles of appropriate international organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), as well as coordination functions for the United Nations (UN). Attention to the article increased markedly at the 7th Review Conference, a consequence of a heightened perceived worldwide risk from emerging and re-emerging diseases, fears of outbreaks resulting from biosecurity and -safety lapses in high-containment laboratories, concerns about scientific and technological advances in the life sciences that could be misused for hostile purposes, potential terrorist or criminal interest in highly contagious pathogens, and so on. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa between 2013–16 and subsequent evaluation of the international response raised concerns among the BTWC states parties about how the international community might respond to a deliberate disease outbreak, whether as a consequence of an act of war or terrorism.
These trends have led to an affirmation of the humanitarian dimension of Article VII. As Nicholas Sims noted in his study of the treaty’s early functioning (The Diplomacy of Biological Disarmament. 1988, p. 24): ‘Statements made in the UN, with an eye on future references to the negotiating history of the convention, indicate that this article is generally understood to refer to humanitarian, not military, assistance.’ With nothing seemingly contradicting today’s humanitarian imperative, most attention has so far gone to the organisation and coordination of international response to the release of a highly infectious biological weapon (BW).
Questions about triggering Article VII
Much less understood is how Article VII can be activated. There are no procedures; there has not been any determination who should be involved in the process. Which are the (possible) roles for the BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU), the treaty’s three depositary states (Russia, United Kingdom and United States), the UN Secretary-General (UNSG), or the UNSC is a question that remains unanswered. It should be added in this context that some actors or available tools are of much more recent origin and were consequently not envisaged during the treaty negotiation. The mandate for the ISU was decided at the 6th Review Conference (2006). The UNSG’s mechanism to investigate allegations of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) use received endorsement from the UNSC and the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 1988 and has since then been strengthened. Through the review process, BTWC states parties have elaborated a consultative mechanism under Article V to address compliance concerns.
Moreover, given the humanitarian framework guiding today’s debates on implementing Article VII, from the perspective of triggering the provision there are several dissonant elements. The article has its origins in a 1968 working paper by the United Kingdom proposing a separate treaty banning biological warfare. The language underwent several reiterations over the next three years and at one point disappeared entirely from the draft convention, only to resurface in its current formulation just before the conclusion of the negotiations. The different versions of the article left traces from earlier intentions and understandings, meaning that the intent behind certain phrases that may be uncertain or appear confusing today. This is particularly the case for the following:
- provide or support assistance: what is the nature of the assistance, humanitarian, military, or any other type?
- in accordance with the United Nations Charter: why does the article include a reference to the UN Charter, particularly since the Charter allows for punitive actions and even resort to military force under Chapter VII? In addition, if the assistance is humanitarian, as assumed today, what prompted the reference to the UN Charter? The word ‘humanitarian’ features only once in the founding text (Chapter I, Article 1, 3); the words ‘aid’ or ‘assistance’ (in the sense of humanitarian or non-military aid) are absent. Furthermore, while the UN’s mandate includes the promotion of arms control and disarmament, nothing in the Charter makes it responsible for monitoring treaty compliance or addressing treaty violations. Besides Article VII, only Articles V and VI refer to the Charter or UNSC. The context concerns the resolution of any problems relating to the BTWC’s objective, way of implementation, or breaches of the convention.
Article V raises the possibility of organising bi- and multilateral consultations and cooperation ‘through appropriate international procedures within the framework of the United Nations and in accordance with its Charter’ in case direct interaction between the parties concerned is impossible or unproductive. Overall the provision is vague. Review conferences have tried to clarify it, in particular with regard to the convening of a consultative meeting. Article VI grants a state party the right to lodge a complaint with the UNSC if it believes that another state party has breached its treaty obligations. Furthermore, should the UNSC initiate an investigation, all states parties undertake to cooperate with such investigation. However, states parties have not elaborated on the references to the UN Charter and the UNSC. They have also not answered whether there is or should be any linkage between either Articles V or VI and Article VII.
- if the Security Council decides that such Party has been exposed to danger: why is there a requirement for Security Council action if assistance can be provided under basic humanitarian principles? On what basis will the UNSC make this decision? The Third and Fourth Review Conferences (1991 and 1996) noted under both Articles V and VI the UNSG’s investigative mechanism as endorsed in UNSC Resolution 620 (1988) and UNGA Resolution 45/57 (1990) and ‘to consult, at the request of any State Party, regarding allegations of use or threat of use of bacteriological (biological) or toxin weapons and to cooperate fully with the United Nations Secretary-General in carrying out such investigations’. Later review conferences refer back to this text and have not elaborated any further on the references to the UN Charter or the UNSC. The UNSC, as its name indicates, bears primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security (Chapter V, Article 24, 1). Logic therefore suggests that Article VII applies exclusively to the deliberate use of a pathogen or toxin as a weapon. This would thus exclude a situation of a country facing an outbreak after an accidental release of a disease-causing agent from a neighbour’s secret BW research or production facility (similar to the anthrax outbreak near Sverdlovsk in 1979). In other words, according to this interpretation Article VII refers to an act of war, even though the BTWC lacks references to ‘use’ in both its title and Article I.
- as a result of violation of the Convention: does this clause imply violation of any part of the BTWC? If affirmative, this could include illicit weapon programmes or outbreaks resulting from illicit activities. How would this square with the interpretation that Article VII only refers to an act of war?
Furthermore, only states parties can violate the BTWC, which implies that dangers arising from other actors—non-states parties (signatory or non-signatory states) or non-state actors—could not be the subject of Security Council action, and therefore not of state party assistance.
Aim of the research paper
In November 2016, in the margins of the 8th Review Conference of the BTWC, the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS) and UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) held a tabletop exercise (TTX) to understand better the elements that would have to be in place to trigger Article VII and the consequences such action may have on the organisation of international assistance. The TTX revealed that decision-making was severely hampered because of the article’s lack of clarity, uncertainty about possible procedures and their consequences on the process as a whole, and the types of actors that could be called upon (e.g. UNSG, ISU, depositary states, etc.).
Discussions at a workshop on ‘Article VII of the BWC and the UN System’, held in New York on 12–13 December 2017 as part of the Project on strengthening global mechanisms and capacities for responding to deliberate use of biological agents, also touched upon the specific responsibilities of UN organs following activation of Article VII. The question was raised whether there was any relevancy in trying to recover the negotiators’ original intentions. In reply, UN officials said that since the implications of triggering Article VII had never been studied and no procedures have ever been put in place, following a request the first task for the UN would be to study legal and negotiation documents to determine which types of action might be possible and which roles the UNSC and UNSG might play.
This research paper traces the article’s negotiation history between 1968 and 1971. During those three years negotiations took some sharp turns, and draft treaty texts were dropped and replaced by alternatives that framed BW control in radically different ways. In the final two months of negotiation, some degree of synthesis between different approaches took place. With respect to Article VII, when Morocco introduced an amendment to reinsert language based on the British proposal of August 1971, the context had completely changed, not in the least because the original draft provisions banning methods of biological warfare and a mechanism to investigate allegations of BW use had been dropped. Whereas Article IV in the original British draft convention formed part of the fabric to prevent biological warfare, the later Article VII had no obvious connections to the BTWC’s core prohibitions in Articles I – III. It also lacked direct or explicit links to Articles V and VI.
Moreover, the humanitarian intent, systematically affirmed by British government officials and diplomats, became blurred at times, especially after an addition to a draft UNSC resolution that was to accompany the BTWC made explicit reference to Article 51 of the UN Charter on individual and collective self-defence. It shifted the focus away from aiding the victim of a biological attack to possible assistance in countering the aggressor.
Download the full research report
More complex than imagined
Last November, during the 8th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS) in cooperation with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) organised a tabletop exercise on the implementation of the BTWC’s Article VII, which provides for emergency assistance in case a State Party Party has been exposed to danger as a result of a treaty violation.
The Trench has already provided an account of the two-day workshop.
Today, the FRS has published the final report, edited by Jean Pascal Zanders, Elisande Nexon and Ralf Trapp, with recommendations for consideration by the States Parties.
The tabletop exercise aimed to understand better the elements that would have to be in place to trigger Article VII and the consequences such action may have on the organisation of international assistance. Moreover, the tabletop exercise 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. It 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. Failing to do so, the tabletop exercise suggested that States, depending on their individual assessment of the risks following the outbreak and the cause of the epidemic, may decide on totally different courses of action, an outcome that might severely hamper the international coordination of efforts to stem the outbreak and assist victims.
The report offers 12 conclusions and recommendations for future consideration.
The Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom financially supported the project.
[Cross-posted from The Trench]