History of nerve agent assassinations

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

 

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

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

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

From natural poisons to warfare agents

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

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

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

Novichok family of nerve agents (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

Previous assassination operations involving nerve agents

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

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

The following table summarises known assassination operations with neurotoxicants.

 

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

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

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

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

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


Syria stands formally accused of violating the Chemical Weapons Convention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violent bank robbery by the Bonnot Gang (WikiCommons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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JPPR – The 4 letters that shaped my career

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

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

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

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

Riding waves

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

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

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

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


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

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

(Cross-posted from The Trench)

 

 

 

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends,

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

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

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

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

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

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

 

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

Banner for the Executive Course in the entrance hall

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

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

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Impunity through knowledge management: The legacy of South Africa’s CBW programme

Book review:

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
  • Victims
  • 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.

In conclusion

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?


Promoting chemical knowledge

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

 

On 2 May the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) organised a workshop relating to its programme to fully implement Article XI of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). I addressed the States Parties in the session on ‘Promoting chemical knowledge’ and focussed on the responsibilities of chemists, both as members of their scientific associations and as individuals, in preventing the misuse of their discipline.

 

Consequences down the road

The role of chemists in war is not a new thing. The role of chemists in chemical warfare is of more recent origin. Just over a century ago, modern chemical warfare, as it began in my country, Belgium, on 22 April 1915, may seem like it came out of the blue. Actually, it resulted from the confluence of several trends in Europe and North America. Those trends emerged in the late 18th century. They included the establishment of chemistry as a science and the onset of the first industrial revolution. Those trends gathered pace throughout the 19th century.

Chemistry discovered many new molecules. Organic chemistry—one of the early convergences of chemistry and biology (another one of the new scientific disciplines)—yielded compounds that later often acquired widespread use as intermediaries in industrial production. Many decades after their initial discovery, several also became warfare agents during the 1st World War. In the first half of the 19th century, chemists also synthesised the first organophosphorus structures, which laid the foundation for the development of the nerve agents from the mid-1930s onwards.

After 1850, industrialisation increasingly shaped the organisation of science; it gave direction to the scientific endeavour; and it helped to restructure the scientific curricula at universities and other institutions of education. The idea of science for science’s sake gave way to a much more utilitarian vision in service of society.

Stagnation on the Western front in the autumn of 1914 would prove to be the catalyst for modern chemical warfare. Belligerents drew on national industrial and scientific prowess to try and force the decisive breakthrough on the battlefield to end the carnage. Toxic chemicals used to deliberately harm humans were one choice. Alas.

Addressing the audience in the Ieper Room at the OPCW headquarters

I am not saying that in the 19th and early 20th century chemists set out to design and develop chemical weapons (CW). All I know is that in each of the belligerent countries, these chemists were fully aware of the social and technological dynamics that were transforming their respective societies; often they were the drivers of these changes.

The 1st World War was the catalyst that brought science, industry and military art together with the purpose of devising a new mode of warfare. It was almost accidental. (With the design of the atomic bomb a quarter of a century later, the convergence was deliberate, and governments have maintained that interconnectedness ever since.)

Today, our societies are once again undergoing major transformations. Chemistry is changing fast; the interactions with other disciplines are widening as well as deepening. Chemical industry has spread across the planet; so many people all over the world are seeking careers in fields that have more than a tangible impact on the CWC. These areas are also critical to development; they are key to ameliorating the conditions of peoples everywhere and meeting future challenges to individual and human survival.

International cooperation and development benefit from peaceful intent

The OPCW’s Advisory Board on Education and Outreach (ABEO) is keenly aware of current transformations that might once again contribute to CW development and acquisition. Its members are also keenly aware that we are facing new situations in which toxic chemicals can be and are being used. A big challenge to the CWC is that our conception of CW is changing fast. Indeed, opportunistic use of industrial toxicants (such as chlorine) on the battlefields, terrorism and non-state actor use of toxic agents, and now more recently, assassinations with substances that had initially been developed or produced for military arsenals, are situations the CWC negotiators could not—and did not–anticipate.

In February of this year, the ABEO produced a report on the role of education and outreach in preventing the re-emergence of CW. It contains many recommendations for the Technical Secretariat to enhance the impact of its activities with States Parties in terms of education and outreach. The report also addresses how chemists everywhere can expand their consciousness about the dual-use characteristics of much of their work. It also seeks to enhance their awareness of the international and domestic scientific and technological environment in which they are functioning. It helps them to anticipate possible outcomes of their work many years into the future.

Engagement of chemists is evident from a key clause in the report’s title: ‘preventing the re-emergence of CW’. The report defines this goal as ‘the collective of actions undertaken by the OPCW, its Secretariat, and the National Authorities to implement the Convention, on the one hand, and by professional, scientific, and academic communities, as well as civil society constituencies and individuals, to advance consciousness, responsibility, and specific behaviours that support purposes not prohibited by the Convention, on the other hand’. (p. 6, para. 2.11)

In other words, ‘Prevention of the re-emergence of chemical weapons’ appeals to the responsibility of stakeholder communities and individuals, including chemists, to uphold the norm in the CWC.

Members of the ABEO have been involved in the development of the Hague Ethical Guidelines to promote responsible practice of chemistry. They are also active in promoting the Ethical Guidelines, including through active learning processes that involve chemists, which are advanced in the ABEO report. Some members have been instrumental in mobilising chemical societies and chemical industry councils to formally condemn the use of chlorine as a weapon. Some among them have also participated in the development of the on-line educational tool ‘Multiple Uses of Chemicals’ to promote the beneficial uses and prevent abuses of multiple-use chemicals, which the Technical Secretariat now supports by offering translation into the six official languages.

Reaching out to today’s chemist and the next generation of chemists (who are now in secondary school) is a task that National Authorities can help to promote, in addition to the ongoing initiatives undertaken by the Technical Secretariat.

At this point, I wish to stress that while the ABEO report suggests educational strategies, it does not offer one-size-fits-all suggestions. There is great need to adapt educational strategies to specific regional and national characteristics.

Awareness of the challenges—those visible today, as well as those looming on the horizon—is a task of permanent education. The ABEO report contains many practical examples of how such permanent education can be organised and practically implemented. It is of benefit to development for peaceful purposes and international collaboration in the scientific field of chemistry worldwide.

States Parties are welcome to approach the ABEO and its members—via the Office of Strategy and Policy of the Technical Secretariat—for assistance and concrete advice on education and outreach to key stakeholder groups.

Thank you.

 


Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 2: When alternative facts become blatant untruths

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 18 April 2018 the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held its 59th meeting, which was wholly dedicated to the assassination attempt with a nerve agent of the Novichok family. The Technical Secretariat presented its classified full ‘Report on Activities Carried out in Support of a Request for Technical Assistance by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Technical Assistance Visit TAV/02/18)’. A summary released by the Technical Secretariat on 12 April, although lacking in detail, stated that:

  • Two OPCW designated laboratories confirmed that the three hospitalised individuals had been exposed to a toxic chemical;
  • Another two OPCW designated laboratories confirmed the presence of the toxic chemical in environmental samples;
  • The results confirmed the UK’s findings relating to the identity of the toxic chemical; and
  • The TAV noted the high purity of the agent because of the almost complete absence of impurities.

Russia’s unprecedented revelation of the identity of a designated laboratory in an investigation

Prior to the Executive Council meeting Russia caused an uproar when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly identified one of the designated laboratories involved in the analysis of samples (Spiez laboratory, Switzerland). In his address to the Assembly on Foreign and Defence Policy on 14 April, he also confirmed the identification of Substance A-234 (a Novichok agent) and furthermore claimed (from Russian via Google Translate):

Based on the results of the examination, the traces of the toxic chemical BZ and its precursors belonging to the chemical weapons of the second category in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are found in the samples. BZ is a nerve agent temporarily disabling a person, psycho-toxic effect is achieved in 30-60 minutes and lasts up to four days.

This recipe was in the arsenal of the US Army, Great Britain and other NATO countries, there were no developments or accumulations of these chemical compounds in the Soviet Union and Russia.

The statement as such contains two errors.

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