Biological weapons: A surprise proposal from Kazakhstan worth exploring

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Concluding thoughts

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.