Deciding on emergency assistance in case of biological weapons use

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report

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

Earlier publications

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

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


Debunking the myth of Nazi mosquito-borne biological weapons

Starting at the end of January, several press items reported on an academic article published in the December edition of the quarterly magazine Endeavour. Based on documents from the Dachau concentration camp, Dr Klaus Reinhardt, a biologist at the University of Tübingen uncovered that Nazi scientists wanted to use mosquitos as insect vector for the delivery of malaria plasmodium protozoans. According to the article abstract:

In January 1942, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and police in Nazi Germany, ordered the creation of an entomological institute to study the physiology and control of insects that inflict harm to humans. Founded in the grounds of the concentration camp at Dachau, it has been the focus of previous research, notably into the question of whether it was involved in biological warfare research. This article examines research protocols by the appointed leader Eduard May, presented here for the first time, which confirm the existence of an offensive biological warfare research programme in Nazi Germany.

In 1999, while at SIPRI, I oversaw the publication of a volume in the Chemical & Biological Warfare Studies series edited by Erhard Geissler and John Ellis van Courtland Moon on Biological and Toxin Weapons: Research, Development and Use from the Middle Ages to 1945. Geissler, now a retired professor in molecular biology and genetics, wrote the chapter on Germany’s biological warfare programmes before and during World War 2. He basically debunked the myth that the SS was conducting a secret offensive biological warfare programme against Hitler’s explicit orders not to investigate such weapons.

Reinhardt claims to have recently uncovered fresh documents from Dachau and suggests that the earlier assessments of Germany’s offensive BW activities are wrong. Being familiar with Geissler’s investigations — particularly with the 900-page mastodont, emphatically entitled Biologische Waffen – nicht in Hitlers Arsenalen — and other historical research on the origins of offensive biological warfare programmes on the eve of and during World War 2, I was mildly sceptical of the new claims. While the possibility of finding new archival material always exists, contradicting a central conclusion of extensive historical research is quite a different matter. An article in National Geographic summarised Reinhardt’s findings, but also noted that they are controversial among researchers. His conclusions were therefore not as absolute as some press items were suggesting, I therefore assumed.

Yesterday, however, Erhard Geissler posted a blog commentary, calling the findings ‘disinformation’ :

Despite the thrilling headline Reinhardt in his article does not provide any new material regarding the dual-use activities performed in the Entomological Institute of the Waffen-SS beyond that what was already published. The low-scale experiments performed by Eduard May in September 1944 on the survival of food-deprived mosquitoes, can hardly assessed as confirmation of “the existence of an offensive biological warfare research programme in Nazi Germany”. Besides that, the main body of Reinhardts paper including its concluding paragraph does not pick up the alleged BW preparations but deals with the “enigmatic figure” of its director, Eduard May.

Geissler concludes:

Up to today there is no evidence of offensive biological warfare research in Germany after the unsuccessful attempts of German biosabotage in WWI. It is a pitty that the misleading heading of Reinhardt ‘s article similar to other disinformation campaigns are favored by some media’s apparent craving for a breaking story that often supersedes thorough investigation.

This is pretty categorical debunking of research findings. To be continued?

[Cross-posted from The Trench]