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?

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Non-proliferation assistance: A proliferation of national focal points?

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 9 December I attended a one-day seminar entitled Assistance and capacity-building in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It took place in one of the committee rooms in the old building of the African Union Commission. It had none of the trappings of many modern high-tech venues, but offered all amenities one can wish for during a day-long meeting: an electricity plug under the desk (a civilisational advance that has yet to reach the main room for meetings of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, or BTWC, at the United Nations in Geneva), internet access, soothing brown background colours of wood-panelled walls, and—most unusual nowadays—daylight. Two pyramidal domes in the ceiling let in glorious sunshine and skimming light entering through the rows of windows running the entire length of the back wall softened the sharp contrasts thrown by the sunrays from above. Even in the late afternoon when a diffuse darkness was gradually filling the committee room, the rays of a setting sun lit up the roofs of nearby buildings in a colourful backdrop to participants exchanging final impressions of the day’s discussions.

Listening to the various assistance providers

A diverse African landscape of assistance and capacity-building programmes

The seminar organised by the African Union and the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) aimed to map out the many initiatives underway to assist the African continent with meeting its obligations under various UN Security Council Resolutions and multilateral global and regional treaties limiting the acquisition, possession and use of non-conventional weapons. As good as the entire day was structured around a new publication by the ISS entitled CBRN [Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear] Assistance and Capacity-Building Programmes for African States. Written by Annie DuPre and Nicolas Kasprzyk, the 95-page directory gives a detailed overview of worldwide providers of assistance, be they states, international organisations or civil society entities. The seminar also built on a major conference convened by the African Union on 6–7 April 2016 to review the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540 in Africa.

Some 40 people attended, just under half of whom were representatives from local embassies of African states. Other participants came from global and regional organisations and specialised agencies involved in assistance and capacity-building in support of disarmament, non-proliferation and counter-terrorism, or had long-term expertise in relevant fields.

Ms Einas Mohammed presenting an overview of the African Union programmes in support of UNSC Resolution 1540 and weapon control treaties

While I had been aware of several initiatives, the range of organisations running such programmes took me by surprise. Besides entities such as the African Union, the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa (UNREC), the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) in collaboration with the EU CBRN Centres of Excellence, many other international bodies are also deeply involved. Among those presenting overviews of their activities were the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight-nation cooperative arrangement in East Africa whose role in non-conventional weapon control is rather unexpected, but explicable in view of the security situation in founding member Somalia; the African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE)—a specialised branch of the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD); and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that also works on the prevention of terrorism.

My former colleague, Alex Lampalzer of the BTWC Implementation Support Unit, and I reflected on the outcomes of the BTWC Review Conference last month. Another colleague of mine at the Paris-based Fondation pour la recherche stratégique, Emmanuelle Maitre, spoke on progress in the universalisation of the Hague Code of Conduct (HCoC) against the proliferation of ballistic missiles.

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Beneath the Crust …

… the lava continues to flow unseen by the casual observer standing above

On 3 November I was invited to speak at an international conference in Brussels organised by the European Union (EU) Non-Proliferation Consortium. The session was called: The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) – Maintaining Relevance. I found the title intriguing. Is the BTWC losing its relevance one way or another? Is this treaty in jeopardy?

Brasil’s BW preparedness: demonstration during the Brasilia workshop (23 August 2016)

A widely shared opinion has it that the BTWC is a weak treaty. Yet always unspoken  remain the criteria by which people assess the treaty’s weakness. They often point to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) as a strong agreement because it has an international organisation, a verification regime and mechanisms to enforce compliance. Notwithstanding, in its almost twenty years of existence, war and terrorism in the Middle East accounts for about 2,000 fatalities as a direct consequence of chemical warfare and terrorism with chemical weapons. The BTWC, in contrast, lacks an international organisation or verification mechanism, yet in its 41 years since entry into force, deliberate use of disease or toxins has killed fewer than 100 persons. What does that say about the strength of a treaty?

Moreover, the BTWC is actually a very active treaty. Since 1991—the 3rd Review Conference—states parties have come together in Geneva at least twice a year, sometimes even more, particularly while negotiating a legally-binding protocol between 1997 and 2001. Of course there is a lot of frustration with the formal process and its lack of tangible progress in upgrading the treaty, its institutional support and procedures. In contrast a lot moves on the local and regional levels.

The BTWC World Tour 2016

To that conclusion I arrived after having organised four regional and sub-regional seminars between March and the end of September 2016 on behalf of the BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU). Those meetings took place in the framework of the EU Council Decision 2016/51 of 18 January 2016 supporting the BTWC and are part of a much broader package of activities envisaged between 2016 and 2019.

This Council Decision is the fourth in a series over the past decade. The first one covered the period 2006–08; the second one 2009–11 and the third one 2012–15. In total the EU has now invested some 6.3 million Euros in the strengthening of the BTWC, including 2.3 million for the current programme.

En route to Brasilia: The island of Madeira as seen from BioForce One (17 August 2016)

As Director of the international non-governmental organisation BioWeapons Prevention Project, I had the privilege of being entrusted with the implementation of the first Joint Action (as actionable Council Decisions were then known), part of which was designed to prepare the 6th Review Conference at the end of 2006. At this point the ISU, which was to carry out the next EU support plans, had not yet been established .The Joint action consisted mainly of BTWC universalisation and national implementation assistance activities. The former comprised five regional seminars: Southern and East Africa (Nairobi, Kenya on 21–22 June 2006; Asia and the Pacific Islands (Bangkok, Thailand on 8–9 November 2006; Latin America and the Caribbean (San José, Costa Rica on 18–19 January 2007); West and Central Africa (Dakar, Senegal on 17–18 April 2007); and the Middle East (Rome, Italy on 16–17 April 2008).

Ed Force One landing in the East Midlands, UK (June 2016)

The current Council Decision envisages four regional workshops in preparation of the 8th Review Conference to be held between 7 and 25 November 2016. Because of the short intervals between the events, the series became jokingly known as the BTWC World Tour 2016 and the organisers flew on BioForce One, a wink to Iron Maiden’s Ed Force One carrying the rock band’s members and crew to concert venues across the planet.

The four events targeted Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Astana, Kazakhstan on 15–16 June); South and Central America (Brasilia, Brazil on 22–23 August); South and South-East Asia (New Delhi, India on 29–30 August) and Africa (African Union Commission, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 13–14 September).

My remarks at the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium conference drew on insights from the four regional workshops this year and earlier experiences with the first EU Joint Action.

Evolution of a treaty regime and trends in state practice

Anyone participating in meetings on science and technology review, developments in industrial capacities, new production processes and technologies hears a lot of anxiety and a lot of talk of threats to the convention or possible weakening of the norm. However, such developments never take place in a vacuum, even if substantive progress in the Geneva negotiations remains elusive. Looking at several states that participated in this year’s regional meetings, I can only observe how much things have evolved.

India is a prime example. I recall a seminar the BWPP organised at the United Nations in Geneva in 2004 or 2005. We had an Indian scientist present  and she described how her country was on the verge of becoming a net exporter of biotechnology, whereas before it had been a net importer. She predicted that India would soon assume new types of responsibilities to govern the new science and technologies. Last August I was in New Delhi for the third regional seminar. At one point a discussion between Iran and India over the latter country’s export control legislation started up. It was interesting to note the evolution in India’s position on export controls. It had adopted principles that only 5–10 years ago were extremely controversial internationally. China has undergone a similar evolution with respect to national technology transfer policies and its adoption of a certain rationale behind them. These developments testify to a convergence of ideas, a convergence of approaches among states in different parts of the world. In turn they lead to circumstances that enable and promote cross-continental, cross-regional cooperation in a number of issue areas. In preparation of the 8th Review Conference the ISU website contains several working papers written jointly by European and Asian states, European and South American states, or the United States with partners in different regions. They illustrate emerging possibilities for the future of the BTWC. They do not yet translate into formal agreements or new understandings, but they testify to evolving practice that keeps the convention alive despite frequent setbacks in multilateral negotiations.

A second aspect of the BTWC’s vitality that emerged from the four regional seminars concern the different facets of international assistance and cooperation for peaceful purposes under Article X. Exchanges between especially some members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Western Group in Geneva are usually politically highly charged. Similar confrontations one can also observe in meetings of the decision-making bodies of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) with respect to the comparable Article XI of the CWC. Yet, over the past decade parties to the BTWC have managed to advance matching expectations with obligations on both the global and regional levels.

After the Astana workshop: Amb. György Molnár, then President-Designate 8th RevCon; Daniel Feakes, Chief ISU; Jean Pascal Zanders, then UNODA; and Emil Kazakov, European External Action Service (16 June 2016)

First, the intersessional process has tended to focus on actionable programme items. In Geneva states parties often discuss Article X in broad, abstract principles. As already mentioned, they also tend to pit the NAM against the Western Group. Several vocal NAM members view national export controls as a violation of the convention and consequently place the prohibition on transferring biological weapons (BW) and relevant technologies to any recipient whatsoever in Article III in direct opposition to Article X. The intersessional process, in contrast, encourages states parties to look at the quality of their national implementation of obligations and responsibilities. This has led them to articulate concrete needs and requests, including under Article X, which in turn made it easier for potential donor countries to formulate offers for assistance and cooperation. Matching happens bilaterally or interregionally with the BTWC ISU often acting as a facilitator. To most developing countries the feckless ritual standoff with its sweeping statements in Geneva runs counter to specific national needs.

Second, certain developing countries have taken a regional lead in technology, science development, and so on. Some even work at the leading edge globally. Over the past few years they have initiated processes whereby they transfer relevant knowledge, expertise and practices to neighbouring states. In other words, regional patterns of cooperation, training and education explicitly undertaken under Article X have emerged. Argentina plays such a role in South America. Similar initiatives have arisen in the context of ASEAN, particularly in the area of biorisk management. Such concrete regional assistance also includes help with national implementation legislation, the submission of the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), and so forth.

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