Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 1: Deconstruction of the Russian denial

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Since the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent now just over one month ago, so much has been written about ‘Novichok’; so much has been opined about what ‘Novichok’ is meant to be (if it exists at all); and so much smoke has been spewed about what the identification of ‘Novichok’ suggests about culprits. This blog posting is the first of several to look into a specific aspect of the discussions concerning Novichok in the hope of clarifying where certain positions come from and what factual knowledge exists about this group of nerve agents.

Facts have been scarce. In fact, as a member of the public with long-time interest in chemical and biological weapons, I know very little about what took place in Salisbury on 4 March. I still have to see the first statement from British authorities—government officials, police, scientists at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down—in what form the Novichok agent was delivered. Was it a liquid? A solid in powdered form? A binary concoction? Delivered in a gel or ointment? Anything else?

‘Novichok’ as we know the family of nerve agents today was researched, developed, produced and field-tested in sizeable quantities in the Soviet Union and at least during the early years of Russia as an independent state. Little else beyond this basic information given by some of the chemists involved in the armament programme is available. Those researchers are not always in agreement with each other, especially as regards the skill levels required to synthesise the agent.

Meanwhile, government officials from both the United Kingdom and the Russian federation have launched a war of hyperbole. London overstated the nature and quality of evidence from forensic chemistry; Moscow, amid a broad smoke-and-mirrors campaign, used the exaggerations to poke holes in the British narrative. Just like with allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria, Russia has released a barrage of denials concerning the assassination attempt in the UK through disaffirmation of any involvement, construction of spurious logic and citation of any ‘expert’ willing to entertain conspiracy theories. It furthermore rejects any outcome unfavourable to its world view and questions procedures and methodologies applied by investigative bodies. Moscow, however, never supplies any physical evidence in support of its claims.

Yet, over the din there are two steadfast Russian positions: (1) Russia is not responsible for the Soviet Union’s actions, and (2) CW declarations concern only ‘produced’ toxic chemicals for use in warfare. In the specific context of the CWC, it places the three Schedules central to the prohibitory regime.

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Geopolitical manoeuvring behind Skripal

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 4 April the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will meet in a special session. Russia called the extraordinary meeting. It has been a month now since former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been exposed to a nerve agent in Salisbury. The United Kingdom (UK) government identified it as a member of the ‘Novichok’ family, once researched and developed by the Soviet Union. Russia is believed to have continued the programme at least during the first years after the breakup of the USSR. It has never come clear on the nature of the programme or identified the agents’ characteristics. As no other country has ever been associated with the Novichok family of agents, London’s finger-pointing at Moscow was not difficult.

War of loud words

Since the assassination attempt a war of loud words has erupted. The UK has continued with its investigation and called in the OPCW’s expertise with a view of validating its analyses of the nerve agent. By the latest indications, the results from the OPCW-certified laboratories will not be available before the middle of this month.

Meanwhile, London also launched a diplomatic offensive to isolate Russia internationally (for an overview, see the dedicated UK government web page), which so far has ended with tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomatic staff. The rhetoric strayed off course. The assassination attempt got linked to similar incidents over the past years and decades, Russia’s actions in its near-abroad and Syria, its cyber campaigns against the institutions of Western democracy, and the country’s more assertive stance against Western interests, particularly those of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). And, of course, the post-penultimate British schoolboy’s meme had to be called forth for domestic consumption: a mention of Nazi Germany.

Battle royale for the internet’s heart and minds

The British government’s (quite necessary) quietness about the investigation, the dearth of factual information beyond some generalities, and the distraction-causing verbal digressions into unrelated issue areas presented Russia with an open playing field. It was an opportunity it could not, and did not ignore.

Beyond the stacks of concealing black smoke and initial ridicule spouted by the government-sponsored international media and its diplomatic representatives to the UK, OPCW and EU, Moscow stayed much more focussed on the Skripal case. It was testing messages fast, discarding the ones failing to gain immediate traction and pursuing those that got picked up. Together, they addressed several issues simultaneously to drown out or cast doubt over any possible counterargument. That Russian officials or media contradicted themselves or seemingly confessed to total ignorance about past chemical warfare programmes did not matter. Speed was of the essence to avoid a coherent ripostes.

So, they challenged the notion that Russia was the sole originator of Novichok agents; they denied that there had ever been a Novichok programme; they suggested that the agent came form the British chemical defence laboratories at Porton Down or from similar facilities in other European countries; they questioned the OPCW’s legitimacy in the investigation while embracing the procedures foreseen in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to discuss the matter; etc. They upbraided the UK government for not releasing details about the nerve agent while the investigation is going on. And then Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proffered motive for the British using a Novichok agent against the Skripal family: covering up difficulties over Brexit.

However ludicrous some of the arguments, Moscow ultimately turned the tables on London. Russia now portrays itself as the victim of the attack because the UK was unable to guarantee the safety and security of its citizens, in addition to which it now refuses Russian consular access to Yulia. And exploiting both British silence on the heart of the matter and the waiting period for the OPCW test results, it called for an special session of the OPCW EC after having publicly released two sets of questions (1st set; 2nd set), some of which it could use to initiate the clarification process under CWC Article IX, 2. Quite a few of these questions Moscow has field-tested via its global megaphone. (A subset of questions Russia addressed to the French government too.)

Will Britain’s hand be forced?

How will the EC meeting tomorrow pan out? Difficult to say, but if the debates over Syria’s chemical weapon (CW) use offer any guidance, then the following broad lines may re-establish themselves: the Western countries will decry the violation of the CWC and seek justice; Russia will play out a geopolitical strategy based on nominal pledges of cooperation to influence the votes of members of the Non-Aligned Movement who are wary of being caught up in a new hegemonic struggle between Moscow and Washington.

Russia has definitely laid the groundwork for triggering Article IX, 2. But will it trigger it tomorrow? This is far from certain. Moscow’s core aim may be to place some of the key questions it has already publicised into the formal record, thereby forcing the UK to respond. Any reluctance or avoidance by London would feed a certain narrative, at least until the OPCW submits its own laboratory findings to the UK. That narrative will anticipate those findings; at a minimum it will place the British government under great pressure to release the analyses to other OPCW members, including Russia. That pressure might also compel the British government to follow OPCW procedures rather than pursuing the case through other diplomatic means, in which case Moscow’s gambit may already be anticipating crucial votes further down that path. (For an overview of the Article IX process, see my earlier blog posting Novichok and the Chemical Weapons Convention.)

Remains one question in all this: Where is Washington? в кармане?


Novichok and the Chemical Weapons Convention

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Assassinations with nerve agents are rare. Very rare. The reason is simple: other means to eliminate a person are simpler and much more effective. The marginal benefit from using even some of the most toxic substances ever made by man is negligible. What is more, the attempt fails often, as Aum Shinrikyo experienced when trying to take out some of the cult’s enemies with VX before the 1995 sarin attack in the Tokyo underground. Last year’s murder of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North-Korean leader Kim Jong-un, also involved VX according to Malaysian authorities. However, the real perpetrator behind the two women who rubbed the substance in his face was quickly identified.

The surprise that the assassination attempt on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK on 4 March involved one of the Novichoks was not little. First, this family of nerve agents is relatively unknown. Outside specialised disarmament and HazMat communities few people would have been aware of its existence. Over 100 chemical structures are believed to belong to it, all related yet different. The group of chemical structures does not figure in the Annex on Chemicals of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  Second, the substance was produced in any sizeable quantities in only one single country, the Soviet Union. Third, the required precursor chemicals and the pathways to synthesise the final agents are completely obscure to most of the public.

The UK government has formally accused Russia of the assassination attempt and expelled 23 Russian diplomatic personnel. Moscow vehemently denies the accusal and has retaliated by demanding that a similar number of diplomats leave the country. It furthermore denies ever having developed and produced Novichoks. The incident follows an already bitter stand-off between the West and Russia over Syria’s proven chemical weapon (CW) use that blocks effective UN Security Council action and splits the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). As the government of Prime Minister Theresa May has formally declared its intention to have the OPCW independently verify its analyses and share it with its international partners, the question is whether and how the international organisation can contribute to resolving the matter.

Ensuring compliance under the CWC

Beyond the CWC’s routine verification process involving declarations, assessments and inspections, Article IX ‘Consultations, Cooperation and Fact-Finding’ foresees procedures to resolve uncertainties about compliance or breaches of the convention. These procedures are consultations, clarification, challenge inspection and investigation of alleged use.

Consultation concerning anomalies

The CWC does not detail what consultations should entail, but views and encourages them together with information exchanges as one of the early (or low-key) diplomatic exchanges among states parties to resolve doubts or ambiguities about compliance.

According to a statement issued by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on 12 March Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson summoned the Russian Ambassador to seek an explanation from the Russian Government. The statement strongly suggests that the step was undertaken under the consultative process foreseen under Article IX. It added that Russia provided no meaningful response.

Summary of the consultation procedure (Slide by JP Zanders)

Clarification of compliance concerns

If in doubt or concerned about compliance, a state party may seek clarification. A state party will address the initial request for clarification to another state party, who must reply within 10 days. Although not stipulated in the convention, a degree of expectation exists that the latter would supply supplementary information (i.e. beyond what is available from, for instance, annual declarations or routine inspections) to address the concern.

In case the reply does not resolve the concern, the requesting state party may call for assistance from the EC, which must use its authority to lend weight to the request, including through forwarding the request within 24 hours. The state party to whom the clarification request is addressed has once again a maximum of 10 days to respond. If the replies still do not satisfy, the requesting state party my next request the EC to obtain further information, in which case it may (not ‘must’) decide to set up a group of experts to examine all available information and reports and submit a factual report. Although the group of experts can draw on previous inspection reports, it is in no position to launch its own inspection procedure.

After either of the two previous steps, the requesting state party may call for a special session of the EC, which then has the decision authority to ‘recommend any measure it deems appropriate to resolve the situation’. Although not stated explicitly in Article IX, those measures would presumably include obtention of further information or persuasion of the targeted state party to resolve the presumed violation in accordance with the CWC. If the requesting state party remains unsatisfied with the response, it may call for a special session of the Conference of States Parties (CSP) 60 days after the submission of the request for clarification to the EC. The CSP is to consider and may take any measure, which, as in the case of the EC, remains unspecified in the convention.

It is important to note that the launch of a clarification procedure does not require the outcome of routine inspections, but inspection reports may trigger additional requests for information. It should also be noted that the procedures described above do not affect the requesting state party’s right to call for a challenge inspection, nor are they affected by the conduct of a challenge inspection.

Summary of the clarification process (Slide by JP Zanders)

Challenge of non-compliance

Challenge inspections are the third tool outlined in CWC Article IX. It consists of a short-notice inspection at any site (irrespective of whether it has been declared or not) in a state party. Once the OPCW has authorised the challenge inspection the targeted state party has no right of refusal, but it can invoke the technique of managed access through which OPCW inspectors may be denied access to certain parts of the site. Managed access cannot be implemented in such a way that inspector access to the site as such is denied. However, irrespective of the outcome of the managed access negotiations between representatives of the challenged stated party and the OPCW inspectors, the latter retain full right to interview any staff member of the site (and thus possibly obtain relevant information about the areas to which they have been denied access).

Although a challenge inspection can be requested at any stage of consultation of clarification processes, the CWC encourages states parties to view the tool as an instrument of last resort.

Summary of the challenge inspection process (Slide by JP Zanders)

Investigation of alleged use

Part XI of the Verification Annex details the process of investigating the alleged use of CW or the alleged use of riot control agents as a method of warfare. In case the alleged use involves a state not party to the CWC, then the Director-General of the OPCW will closely cooperate with the UN Secretary General.

The procedure is applied (and has been further developed) with respect to the many allegations of chemical warfare in Syria. It is less relevant to the Novichok case.

Pathways to resolving the Novichok matter

How the investigation of the Skripal assassination attempt plays out will largely depend on the next key decisions by the UK government. The OPCW experts travel to the UK under Article VIII, 38(e), which qualifies their activity as a ‘Technical Assistance Visit’ to help with the evaluation of an unscheduled chemical (the Novichock agent) is not listed in any of the three schedules in the Annex on Chemicals).  They will likely visit the sites of investigation and collect their own samples (if for no other reason than to validate any laboratory samples they may receive), take all materials and documents related to the forensic investigation back to the Netherlands where the sample will be divided up and sent to two or more designated OPCW laboratories. (The list for 2017 can be consulted here.)

After having received the report, the UK government may opt to pursue the case using its own diplomatic means, possibly together with its allies, or it may decide to invoke one of the procedures outlined above, the most likely one being the clarification process. Given the current level of political rhetoric and the earlier summons of the Russian Ambassador, consultations will have little utility left. To call for a challenge inspection the UK will need to have extraordinarily precise information about the production or storage location (which might be difficult if, for example, forensic analysis points to recent, small-scale synthesis of Novichok or to a chemical structure different from those associated with the Soviet programme).

At present the outcome of any one of the procedures is difficult to foresee. Neither the clarification process nor challenge inspection option have been invoked previously. Moreover, even though the CWC may at first sight seem to suggest a hierarchy among the different procedures in terms of increasing stringency or steps in an escalatory process, each one can be pursued independently. They may also be invoked in succession, or they can run in parallel. One procedure is not necessarily a prerequisite to another one.

Central to the understanding of the procedures is that the OPCW, as an independent international organisation dedicated to overseeing the implementation of the CWC, provides a forum for consultation and cooperation among states parties, also in matters concerning compliance or conflict resolution.


Pay up in the name of BW disarmament (2) – Civil society gets involved

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 2 April I described how non-payments by states parties were defunding the implementation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and risking to shut down the 3-person Implementation Support Unit (ISU) and the convening of meetings. A couple of weeks earlier the Ambassadors of the three Depository States – the Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States – had written an urgent letter to the BTWC States Parties to immediately comply with their financial obligations.

Since then, the situation has ameliorated somewhat. The contracts of the ISU staff have now been extended until the end of the year. But the crisis is far from over. When I wrote my blog posting, the deficit for the BTWC stood at US$ 379,557. According to the latest update on the financial situation (31 March) this figure has been reduced to US$ 188,631.

One county stands out in this dossier: Brazil. As reported in the earlier blog post, it owed the BTWC US$ 298,459 or 78.6% of the total deficit of the BTWC. With the exception of 2011 it has defaulted on its financial obligations or paid its dues only partially since 2001. That figure has not changed, which means that its debt now exceeds the current budgetary shortfall. It exceeds the combined outstanding debt of all other states parties.

The combined outstanding debt for four weapon control agreements administered by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs in Geneva –  the BTWC, Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), and Anti Personnel Landmine Convention (OTW) – amounts to a staggering US$ 929,112. Brazil’s share is US$ 652,657 or 70%.

Civil society rears it head

Civil society is now taking up the issue. Mary Wareham, advocacy director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, has engaged Brazilian officials directly. In a Twitter exchange she elicited from Mr Benoni Belli, Policy Planner at Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, that ‘other payments will be made this year‘. Promising indeed, but promises unfortunately do not alleviate the financial problems.

The civil society platform Friends of the Biological Weapons Convention, coordinated by Kathryn Millett, has now also taken up the issue. Yesterday it posted an appeal to its Facebook page and announced the launch of an action campaign to prompt Brazil and other states to pay their assessed contributions:

On 31 March, the UN Financial Resources Management Service released a summary of the status of financial contributions to four disarmament conventions – the BWC, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and the Mine Ban Treaty.

The summary (which updated an earlier summary dated 28 Feb) demonstrated that 3 of the 4 treaties were owed almost $1 million USD by states parties in unpaid assessed financial contributions. The BWC alone is owed almost $190K by its member states.

The significance of these debts cannot be overstated. New UN financial rules mean that meetings cannot take place nor can staff contracts be renewed unless the money is already in the bank. To that end, an extraordinary letter from the BWC co-depositories (Russian Fed, USA & UK) dated 21 March was sent to all states parties urging them to pay up or risk the possibility of a) not being able to renew ISU contracts past April 2017, and b) cancellation/curtailment of the 2017 Meeting of States Parties (MSP) scheduled for December.

While the BWC is hosted by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, it is NOT an UN treaty and therefore cannot take advantage of central UN funds or reserves, nor is there a working capital fund like at the OPCW, which can be used to cover temporary financial shortcomings. In short, the BWC is fully dependent on states parties paying their dues in a timely fashion. If states do not, meetings will not happen and staff cannot work to administer the treaty.

That BWC ISU staff contracts have now been renewed until the end of the year is a very welcome development, but does not mean the BWC is out of the woods yet: the BWC does not have sufficient funds to cover the costs of the MSP in December.

Following the failure of the BWC Eighth Review Conference to achieve any meaningful progress in strengthening the convention, a successful MSP in December is more critical than ever to the continued health and relevancy of the treaty. This unsatisfactory situation is further compounded by the rise in use of non-conventional weapons by both states and non-state actors as evidenced by the situation in Syria. The norm of the Chemical Weapons Convention (the BWC’s sister convention) is under threat by the continued instances of the use of sarin and chlorine as weapons of war. The use of banned conventional weapons in warfare such as cluster munitions and landmines is also on the increase. Disarmament treaties are under threat and states parties must act to positively reinforce the norms against the use of banned weapons.

So – what can be done?

Civil society across disarmament domains will be writing letters to states that are the most significantly in arrears (such as Brazil). Please do consider signing these letters (we will post the letter here from the BWC community) and also check directly with your country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the status of their payments. If they haven’t paid their contributions, call/ email them demanding that they do so. Contact your country’s mission in Geneva and ask them what they are doing to remedy their debts. Make a noise on twitter.

If you would like more information on this situation as it progresses, please send a private message and we will get back to you. You can also read more on the issue here:

– JP Zanders, Pay up in the name of BW disarmament: http://www.the-trench.org/pay-up-in-the-name-of-bw-disarma…/

– G Koblenz & P Walker, ‘Can Bill Gates rescue the bioweapons convention?’, http://thebulletin.org/can-bill-gates-rescue-bioweapons-con…

Thank you all for your kind attention and for any action you can also undertake to remedy this situation. The latest UN financial summary can be found here: http://bit.ly/2pLJ1DA
http://bit.ly/2pLJ1DA.

It was a remarkable act. On 21 March the Permanent Representatives to the UN Conference of Disarmament of the three co-depositories of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)—the Russian…
the-trench.org

Time to act is now

Today, 22 April 2017, is the 102nd anniversary of the first modern chemical weapons attack. Chlorine is still a weapon of choice in the wars in Syria and Iraq. In both countries we have seen escalation to mustard and nerve agents. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which is as strong as a weapon control treaty gets today, is facing huge challenges to restore the basic principle of non-use under any and all circumstances. Not technical challenges, but as a consequence of the pursuit of geopolitical priorities by some key players…

While great civil society optimism is currently pushing many UN members to negotiating a ban on nuclear weapons, existing weapon control treaties are facing daily challenges. Some states are eroding value of these treaties as armed conflicts appear interminable; in other cases they simply fail to pay their dues, which undermines the tools to uphold the international norms embedded in those agreements. We simply cannot afford a breakdown in those regulatory regimes!

To this end, any stakeholder (professional or scientific association, academia), civil society organisation, or individual who wishes to preserve the four afore-mentiond international instruments to prevent of mitigate the consequences of armed conflict –  the BTWC, CCM, CCW, and OTW – should contact Mary Wareham or Kathryn Millett to see how they can participate in letter campaigns or other initiatives under development.


The future of confidence building in biological arms control

By Gunnar Jeremias

[Presentation at the civil society event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the entry into force of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, 30 March 2015 – Cross-posted from The Trench.]

Distinguished representatives, colleagues, let me first stress that I am very honoured to be invited to contribute to this event. May I thank the organisers and sponsors very much,

In the next 15 minutes I would like to draw a picture of possible developments of confidence building in the BWC. To that end I will briefly introduce the term confidence and its sources, and will then mainly concentrate on transparency as one of these sources. Finally I am going to consider the possible involvement of new actors and mechanisms in confidence building.

Confidence is a term that is used throughout from the level of private arrangements, via societal and economic contexts (contracts), but of course also in the field of international relations. The main function of agreements is, besides the ‘technical’ overcoming of specified problems, the fostering of mutual trust in compliance with treaty obligations. Obviously there is a central role of information, but neither will it be possible to access all relevant information, nor is the judgement of such information—the decision if it is sufficient to build confidence—a scientific exercise. This is even more evident, since many parties will have different understandings of compliance. Accordingly confidence can hardly be measured in a binary system, but will rather be perceived as gradually changing when trust in compliant behaviour is growing or decreasing.

Trying to get an idea about confidence in the BWC regime one would basically have to measure that level in every single member state. On a general level it can be stated that whenever there exists an arrangement, a contract or an international treaty there was obviously a ground level of confidence when it was agreed. On the other hand, the stakeholders must have seen the need for a mutual system to enhance confidence in compliance.

Confidence is, however, not only fostered by knowledge enabling to make qualified guesses on the level of implementation of the prohibitive obligations, but also by factors that have no direct link with the technical requirements of arms control. Among these factors are the perception of parties as being subject to a just treatment and the perception that those parties with the greatest BW-relevant capacities are really committed to the treaty obligations.

20150330 BTWC 40 Jeremias

If the success of a treaty is an indicator for the level of confidence, we might face a satisfactory level of confidence in the BWC. There were offensive BW programmes before the BWC came into force; and we have then seen offensive programmes while it was in force, among them a very large one. But now we have since 25 years not witnessed a BW programme (the ricin-programme in the non-BWC member Syria can be discussed as a case, however).

That BW programmes were seldom developed after the coming into force of the BWC might rather be a result of the limited military value of BW (still we don’t know much about the scenarios in which the Soviet bio weapons could have been used). Today there are reasons to believe that there are no offensive programmes anywhere in the world. It is certainly worth learning about military defence programmes, but it is also true that few states have the means or the interest to run critical programs. Hence, biological arms control is today, as far as we know, preventive arms control. However, the idea that there are no BW programmes is based on the unorganised information gathering we have to rely on.

With the possible absence of illicit military activities, confidence building does in many cases concentrate on civil academic or commercial activities with dual-use potential and will try to identify growing misuse potentials and qualified questions about applications and actors (this touches the debate about dual-use research of concern (DURC) that others have touched upon in more detail earlier today).

The widespread dual-use phenomenon and the involvement of many civil facilities is a characteristic of biological arms control, which is probably more distinctive here than in any other arms control field. At least since a number of years, if not back to the early 1970s, the potential for misuse of civil technology and civil research is in the focus, even if the buzzwords biosafety and biosecurity popped up only in the recent years. The trend that the direction of technology diffusion is nowadays rather from civil innovation systems to the military sphere has been known in the bio field for many years.

Besides the fast development of the ground laying technology, it’s methods and scientific capabilities, the spread of capacities to ever more states is a major change to the early 1970s. Back then only in relatively few states in northern America, Western and Eastern Europe and in the USSR relevant capacities in biotechnology were present. Today biotechnology with its imminent and widely spread dual-use potential is a global multi-billion dollar business, still fast growing in many places – and still not developed in many others. This spread might be reason for concerns from an arms control perspective, but the amalgamation with economic interests can also not be rationalised away.

With a much smaller geographical spread of biotechnology and with the block confrontation of the Cold War one of the obligations of the BWC was possibly less central than it appears today: the obligation for technical cooperation under article X. However, there can’t be confidence without the perception of a just treatment of all members as partners with equal chances in the indigenous development of one of the most important industries of our time. For the development of confidence on this provision information plays again a central role, although the questions raised in this context differ from those concerning articles I and III. But here as well transparency is quintessential in helping to base the debate on empirical data.

That there is a problem with transparency in the BWC on different levels is not a secret, really. Given that transparency is main source for confidence (for both the prohibitive and obligatory provisions of the treaty) the look on confidence mainly deals with the question of how to enhance transparency.

Types and sources of transparency

One can think of transparency in different types and as being fed by different sources.

Types of transparency can be defined by its different ranges, namely greater or smaller groups of actors that have access to the information in a transparency system. Starting with the greatest possible extent, public transparency reaches the public as a whole, while in inter-state transparency systems only the parties of a treaty are provided with information. The CBM mechanism is an example for such a practice (although some states make their CBMs transparent for the public sphere). I don’t want to talk much about CBMs. We all know that the number of states participating in this mechanism is not satisfactory. I hope, however, that during this talk it will become clear why they should play a central role in the BWC’s future. A third type of transparency besides the public and inter-governmental transparency, is the exclusive access to information by just one actor (typically a state) when a phenomenon is being made transparent by (and only for) that single actor.

Since transparency is (or should be) a practical exercise, it is maybe helpful to concentrate on the different technical means that are applied in the three different transparency systems. I propose to differentiate in between national technical means (NTMs), international technical means (ITMs), and public technical means (PTMs).

First, NTMs are technical means under the exclusive ownership of single states, hence also the gathered information is exclusively with that state. Their use leads to the single actor type of transparency.

Second, ITMs (not established in the BWC regime) are those technical means that States Parties allow treaty organisations to use.

Third, PTMs are the technical means that rely on open sources and are used to the end to release the gathered information to the public sphere. Their rage has grown significantly over the past years. The digital revolution allows access to a broad range of information. For example:

  • Real time epidemiologic information
  • Information on biotechnological capacities, products, and research projects
  • Free (including commercial) satellite images – here is also a link to the reconnaissance revolution in the last 20 years
  • Patent databases
  • Trade data (dual-use goods and biotech end-products)
  • Scientific publications (PubMed and other databases)
  • Digital meta information about companies and research facilities
  • Exchanges on social media
  • … This list can be expanded any further;
  • And besides the use of this universe of existing data that can be identified and filtered from Big Data it is also thinkable that innovative ways to measure environmental data with newly developed technology can contribute to transparency.

The use of these PTMs produces no proof, but will enable actors to ask qualified questions.

Just three examples for questions that occured when working on our current project on the identification of compliance relevant parameters that can be accessed via open sources:

  • Why are the security perimeters of a certain facility with known dual-use character being modernised (information accessed by google.earth images)?
  • Why do we see certain relevant research activities at institutes that are linked to the military information accessed by PubMed or turn up in google and twitter?
  • How can the consumption of unusual amounts of biological growth media in a county be explained (information accessed via UN COMTRADE database)?

It is hence no verification, but it is much more than what is actually being done in the regime.

In an ideal world the mentioned information sources would be accesses at the widest possible extent as ITMs to contribute to a verification mechanism. In the BWC, however, we had to realise that ITMs will not be implemented in the foreseeable future. Since confidence building by enhancing transparency is quintessential for the function of the regime other actors will have to play the role that in other cases is allocated to International Organisations.

I would like to briefly come back to a more theoretical reasoning of transparency to answer the question which actors could/should do so. Transparency can also be described by looking at the direction of the distribution of information: Information can be provided actively by states or biotech stakeholders, or they can be extracted out of the (mostly) electronic/digital universe of information. This can be called passive transparency.

Active transparency

As parties, states would be at the forefront of stakeholders who would be asked to actively provide information to enhance confidence. In the BWC the related mechanism are the CBMs. But also other actors can contribute to active transparency building. For a look into the future it might be helpful to look into the roots of the regime: Already back in 1964 the Pugwash CBW-group had initiated a voluntary inspection mechanism. Participating were commercial and academic facilities from eastern and western European facilities (indeed only one larger non-western biotech production facility in Yugoslavia was involved). The project was later continued by the then newly founded Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The aim of the overall project was to prove that on-site verification is possible without endangering commercial secrets. A lesson that was learned but seems to have been forgotten is that commercial actors could get involved in active transparency building, also on a voluntary base.

Passive transparency

The passive extraction of relevant information is also not a new idea—neither in other contexts nor in the BWC. When the BWC was negotiated in the early 1970s the just mentioned SIPRI was also innovative in the development of passive transparency tools, and demonstrated the value of Open Source information already back then. By the application of innovative investigative tools the SIPRI researchers already showed that even non-governmental actors could gather relevant information. In 1971 the mechanism was meant as proof that these methods could contribute to a then debated verification mechanism.

And indeed, when it came to the question which would be the best confidence building mechanism, the development of a formal verification mechanism based on on-site inspections was for many years seen as the silver bullet—possibly, it still is. But there is obviously the need to identify alternatives.

In this context it has to be stated that 40 years after SIPRI’s engagement the possibilities to enhance passive transparency by the use of the above mentioned open source information has grown exponentially. Some states may have the capacities to use these information in Open-source intelligence (OSINT) procedures, but many others will not be able to do so on a global scale. This is the reason why often international organisations are installed for information gathering. This is also not to come here (please surprise me at the Review Conference).

Civil society actors should in a best case scenario be a corrective and/or undertake parallel independent control activities. NGOs could be watchdogs, but not the only actors in the production of transparency. However, there are also cases as in the landmines and cluster munition regimes where in the absence of a formal verification system civil society actors do what has been called “Quasi verification” by a number of States Parties. In biological arms control they might also be able (or be enabled) to play a more central role, as long as no information system becomes institutionalised.

The current development of capacities in applying PTMs in passive transparency building might be a “technical” environment that fosters new formats and civil society monitoring networks. With the idea that relevant information will be recognised in a regime regardless by what type of actor it was gathered, NGOs could play a greater role in confidence building in biological arms control.

However, this also means that states should do as much as they can to proof their commitment with the treaty provisions. And that means first of all, better participation in the CBM mechanism. May I add that I don’t think that any state would lose anything if its CBM submission is being made public.

If every actor—state, private, and civil society—improves confidence by enhancing transparency through the use of the specific means at its disposal and therewith contributes to an open, evidence-based debate about compliance relevant factors, I am optimistic that biological arms control will remain successfully based on the BWC for at least another 40 years.

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What future for biological disarmament?

By Nicholas A. Sims

[Presentation at the civil society event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the entry into force of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, 30 March 2015 – Cross-posted from The Trench]

In posing the question this way I am making two points. First, the BWC is a disarmament treaty before anything else. It has other functions, certainly, but its disarmament function is primordial. Second, it is not guaranteed a bright future. It could find itself trapped in an acceptance of immobility, an empty ritual exchange of predictable arguments but no forward movement. It risks becoming marginalised as the world moves on. Let us all resolve to make sure that does not happen.

I am conscious of a strong sense of obligation to the people who brought the BWC into being. Last year I took part in a witness seminar for an inter-university research project on the prehistory and early history of the BWC when we surviving ‘old hands’ shared our recollections of its context, the politics and personalities of the time, and this brought home to me how few of the pioneers are still living. We owe it to the pioneers to reinvigorate this disarmament treaty and steer it towards a brighter future. Some of us have been trying to do this for a long time. We used to pursue this goal under the name of clarification, then reinforcement, then strengthening. Whichever word we use, the goal is the same. It is to make the BWC work better, to build on its strengths and remedy its main weakness. I will identify its main weakness in a few minutes, but first let us examine its strengths.

The strengths of the BWC

The strengths of the BWC lie in its comprehensive scope and its essential logic. The deliberate infliction of disease, whatever the disease, is an affront to humanity which almost all governments have renounced, comprehensively, as even a distant military option.   They are saying “We don’t have BW but we could be vulnerable to BW attack by other people so we want to be sure that no one else has BW either.” That is what I mean by the essential logic. I first heard it expressed in 1969 when the UK initiative which led to the BWC was gathering support. It struck me as good common sense then and it still does now. It required those who at the time still possessed BW stockpiles to renounce and destroy them and everyone else to make their renunciation permanent. What the BWC does is fix that renunciation of BW in a lasting treaty relationship of legal equality. In that treaty relationship common sense further requires the parties to reassure one another that they are honouring their obligations; and to find ways of demonstrating that fact.   They owe that much to one another as treaty partners. Some would say they owe that to humanity as a whole.

20150330 BTWC 40 Sims

In 1986 there was some worry lest there were some novel micro-organisms or toxins or bioregulators not covered by the legal scope of the Convention. But this worry was misplaced. Once the comprehensiveness of the BWC’s legal scope was reasserted, the concern shifted back – and it remains rightly a concern – to whether there might occur changes in the balance of incentives and disincentives for a State Party to break out of the BWC’s treaty constraints or for a non-party to attack. That is one reason why relevant developments in science and technology (S&T) require close and continuous scrutiny.   These S&T reviews, like regular assessments of the Convention’s health more generally, are made easier by its comprehensive scope and the legal equality of obligations on all its treaty partners.

The main weakness

The main weakness of the BWC lies: where? Not so much, now, in its definitional imprecision or lack of universality or even its famous institutional deficit, because all of those are, albeit very slowly, on their way to being alleviated. No, it lies in the area of reassurance. That is the perennial gap at the heart of the BWC. It flows from the failure of the States Parties, building on the text as it stands, to derive a common understanding as to how to reassure one another and demonstrate that their shared commitment to biological disarmament governs what they are doing and what they allow to be done.   Without it, doubts and suspicions persist and erode the credibility of the Convention as they stay unresolved.

Some attempts have been made to remedy this weakness. Individual States Parties have come up with concepts of an accountability framework, or peer review, or compliance assessment, or transparency measures, or a compliance framework, or fuller use of Article V. A few of these concepts have developed into joint initiatives. These initiatives are to be commended and they invite emulation. None of them makes an exclusive claim.   And none of them on its own bridges the gap. But instead of calling them distractions their critics should come up with better initiatives of their own. At some stage there may be a collective decision on how to integrate these patchwork initiatives into the BWC treaty regime. But first they need to be encouraged and developed, and this can best be done in a conceptual discussion of compliance, what it is and how it can be demonstrated. Such a conceptual discussion of compliance needs to be open-ended, without preconditions. I do urge the States Parties at the Eighth Review Conference next year to revive this proposal and give its implementation high priority and a serious allocation of resources in shaping the constructive evolution of the BWC.

This is only one of several proposals which the Seventh Review Conference failed to adopt but are just as relevant now and challenge the Eighth Review Conference to shape a better future for biological disarmament. In this category I would also put the many good ideas for reshaping the CBMs into a set of measures that really do build confidence, a modest expansion of the Implementation Support Unit to match a realistic mandate, an Open-Ended Working Group to improve on the present arrangement for review of developments in S&T, and the restructuring of the whole intersessional process to make it robust and effective. If time allowed I could add more. We all have our wish-lists. But nothing is more important than the effort to find solutions to the problem of reassurance: to develop a common understanding and effective action to remedy this main weakness of the Convention.

The perspective of 1975-2015 and the next 40 years

I want to spend the remaining few minutes on the perspective of 1975-2015 and the next 40 years. I can assure you as one who was there to witness entry into force on 26 March 1975 that it had felt like a long time arriving. There had been many disagreements and obstacles to overcome in the seven years since the BWC had first been conceived.

And talking of disagreements and obstacles, those of us who took part in the 25th anniversary event at the other end of the Palais could not have imagined how much grimmer the outlook would be when we returned for the 30th. What happened between 2000 and 2005 set back the constructive evolution of the BWC by several years.   The same could be said of the period 1981-1986. But neither setback was fatal. And all credit to those who kept the faith and championed the Convention in those bleak years for the BWC, when it seemed to be under attack and needed all the champions it could find. The challenge now is to reinforce the Convention so it can survive whatever may assail it in the next 40 years and remain the preferred instrument of biological disarmament, reliably effective in performing that function.

At the entry into force ceremony in London which I attended David Ennals presided. He was the UK Minister of State responsible for arms control and disarmament.   The tone of his speech, and of those made by Nikolai Lunkov and Ronald Spiers on behalf of the co-depositaries sitting beside him, was forward-looking and optimistic. It was an uplifting occasion. I will quote just one sentence. David Ennals said: “From today over 40 states are parties to this Convention, and have both renounced this entire class of weapons and undertaken to prevent their future development by appropriate measures. [emphasis added]”

That’s the point. What are the “appropriate measures” to prevent BW over the next 40 years?

There has long been a fruitless argument over whether states or non-state actors present the greater risk. My answer is: no one knows. Surely everything we do to reinforce the BWC must be designed to guard against any BW threat, from whatever source it may come. That is the other side of the comprehensive scope and essential logic that I see as the strengths of the BWC.

Only constant vigilance will suffice. And it follows from this that renunciation of BW is only the beginning. The Article IV obligation to prohibit and prevent implies continual reinforcement of the defences against BW. Renunciation and prohibition on their own are not enough. The “appropriate measures” applied in both national and international implementation of the BWC must always be measured against the more stringent criterion of prevention.

Let me give a few examples. If governments really value the BWC they will be readier to restrict risky gain-of-function (GOF) experiments on dangerous pathogens and to regulate all dual-use research of concern (DURC).   GOF and DURC are not banned by the BWC, but the BWC can only retain credibility if there is a parallel regime of research with an emphasis on comprehensive risk analysis and the precautionary principle.   National implementation and codes of conduct must cover all government programmes so there are no suspicions of rogue agencies or individuals taking an unhealthy interest in BW. Everyone must share their latest knowledge for the S&T reviews crucial to the application of the BWC remaining up to date. And there should be a renewed emphasis on international cooperation for the prevention of disease – the only “peaceful purposes” application of scientific discoveries in biology singled out for mention in Article X – as well as on capacity-building and planning for emergency responses to outbreaks of disease when they occur. Such precautionary approaches should increase the disincentives to BW, which is why they have attracted attention under Article VII, as well as being evidently worth pursuing in their own right.

These are just a few examples. To identify and then apply “appropriate measures” and build them into the practice of every State Party, responding to fresh perceptions of BW threat and S&T developments as they emerge, offers a full agenda for the next 40 years.

Finally, a few words about trajectories for the BWC as a distinct treaty regime.

Trajectories for the BWC

In my book THE FUTURE OF BIOLOGICAL DISARMAMENT (London: Routledge, 2009), I outlined possible trajectories good and bad. I would like to outline what is now my preferred trajectory for the BWC, assuming its States Parties can overcome the temptation to fall back on what I called an acceptance of immobility, an empty ritual exchange of predictable statements. My preferred trajectory has three elements: (1) that the BWC should pursue its own programme for the reinforcement of biological disarmament, by developing “appropriate measures” and applying them; (2) that it should steer towards a functional, not legal, convergence with the CWC, especially through close cooperation in the conduct of S&T reviews, to the benefit of both as distinct treaty regimes; (3) that it should finally fit into the wider universe of disarmament treaties so long awaited, when the gaping void in that universe is eventually filled by an NWC to complement the BWC and CWC. From where I stand nuclear weapons are the glaring anomaly in the disarmament enterprise, and nuclear disarmament must be pursued by all governments with reinvigorated commitment.

Whatever our preferred trajectory, there is much that we unofficial ‘friends of the Convention’ can do: to know the history and maintain a long-term perspective, to report and analyse the current diplomacy of the BWC meeting by meeting, to feed in ideas and propose acceptable language, to track the textual intricacies of the intersessional process (hard work, I assure you), and always to encourage the States Parties to move the BWC forward. For above all we look to the States Parties to make the BWC work better. Those of you who represent them should count it a privilege to be in a position here in Geneva to engage your energies and diplomatic skills in this process.   The next 40 years are bound to contain setbacks and in confronting them you should bear in mind that when the BWC was at its most unpopular in 1981-1986 and 2001-2005 it was only the determined efforts of diplomats and others that brought it through those bleak years. Those same determined efforts will be needed to overcome whatever crises the next 40 years may bring. Otherwise the answer to my question “What future for biological disarmament?” will not be a comfortable one.

About Nicholas Sims

Nicholas A. Sims holds an Emeritus Readership in International Relations at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) in the University of London. He was a member of the LSE Department of International Relations from 1968 until retirement in 2010, specialising in disarmament and arms limitation treaties, verification, and international organisations. He has written on the BWC ever since it was under negotiation, with particular reference to its review and reinforcement, his books including The Diplomacy of Biological Disarmament (1988), The Evolution of Biological Disarmament (2001) and The Future of Biological Disarmament (2009). His involvement with the BWC derives from a life-long commitment to the enterprise of disarmament and a continuing interest in the interaction of science, law and diplomacy to strengthen the BWC treaty regime.


Nuclear outrage!

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

In its situation report of 11 March 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) tallies a death toll of 9,961 out of 24,247 cases (41% mortality rate) in the three West-African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. While the overall rate of new infections seems to be slowing down, the numbers nevertheless continue to rise. Infectious disease is the greatest threat to mankind, far higher than any imaginable terrorist plot. According to WHO statistics from about 10 years ago, infectious diseases are responsible for over 13 million deaths worldwide each year. That is 25% of all deaths worldwide each year. Distribution across the planet is highly uneven: in developing countries that percentage rises to half of all deaths. What does more than 13 million fatalities per year represent? Well, it corresponds more or less to the number of people who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 every two hours.

This already intolerable situation is likely to get worse with global warming. Emerging and re-emerging diseases are already wreaking havoc not just in developing, but increasingly also in developed countries. Disease vectors are migrating to what used to be more temperate zones and ever increasing numbers of people are at risk of infection. Globalisation implies more human interactions across the planet. The speed of travel today means that a person can pick up an infection at one end of the world and be back home before the symptoms begin to manifest themselves. This requires drastic action and it is a moral imperative for humanity to prevent this kind of catastrophe from materialising. We must consider drastic measures.

One tool the international community may consider are small tactical nuclear devices, not to be used in anger, but to eradicate any ground zero of an epidemic so as to prevent the further spread of the disease. The advantage is that the technology exists and that this technology is not prohibited by any treaty. Being a small nuclear device, the radiation effects would be limited to a small area and the fireball would eradicate any bacterium or virus in its immediate surroundings. While I can see that people may be shocked by my suggestion, I repeat that those nuclear devices would not be detonated as part of an aggression. Quite on the contrary, the idea actually represents the first practical application of ‘peaceful nuclear explosions’ directly beneficial to humanity. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty must be considered among the greatest successes of the international community. Many people would probably rather not even consider rescinding these conventions to proliferate such small nuclear devices. But as bad as they are, an epidemic with a highly contagious disease can be even worse, certainly much worse than anything we think terrorists can inflict upon us.

Outraged? I bet you are!

Such a scenario is exactly what Mr Seth Baum outlines in two presentations—a featured column on the website of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and a pre-print version of a journal article to be published in the April edition of Contemporary Security Policy—and defends in several replies to online comments and tweets. The only difference is his absolute desire to prevent a nuclear winter instead of a global health pandemic. To achieve his wish he proposes to replace most of the nuclear weapons in the global arsenals with other weapon categories that can equally maintain effective deterrence. Among those weapons categories he includes biological (BW) and chemical weapons (CW), despite the fact that the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) outlaw these weapon categories under any and all circumstances. Not just use, but also their acquisition and possession.

Of course, the author does not call for the abrogation of the BTWC and CWC. But he is clearly conflicted, so he frames the appeal in an indirect way, thus shirking from the consequences of his thoughts (p. 12):

The Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions must be considered among the greatest successes of the international community. Many people would probably rather not even consider rescinding these conventions  to re-proliferate these weapons.

But he immediately adds the following two sentences:

But as bad as [CBW] are, nuclear winter means that nuclear weapons can be even worse. The exception is contagious biological weapons, which could also cause global catastrophe and thus would not qualify as a safer deterrent […].

In other words, CW and non-contagious BW—Mr Baum names anthrax and ricin as examples—are fine. He even turns the CBW taboo on its head to support the deterrence argument (p. 13):

There is something extra about these […] types of weapons that give them a major stigma, to the point of even being considered taboo. To the extent that these weapons cause additional fear, as they clearly did after the 2001 anthrax attacks, it only makes them more powerful as a deterrent.

(Thanks al Qaeda; arrgh, Hatfield; oops, Ivens … well, did the FBI get it finally right? … for strengthening deterrence.)

And if you did not yet grasp his point about deterrence, Mr Baum gets an old cliché out of the cupboard: CBW are sometimes known as ‘the poor man’s atomic bomb’.

Should you still hesitate about the rationality of Mr Baum’s argument, the opening paragraph of the pre-print article must surely take any doubts away (p. 1, emphasis added):

Nuclear weapon states should pursue winter-safe deterrence both because it helps (or at least does not significantly hurt) their national security and because it is morally the right thing to do. This is ethics with strategy […].

Major failing of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The Bulletin contribution, in contrast, is short and outlines some elements of Mr Baum’s argument. Whether one agrees or not with his nuclear winter-free deterrence concept and vision on how to realise it can be the subject of discussion, as indeed it has been in the Bulletin’s comments section.

In the penultimate paragraph he argues that ‘non-contagious biological weapons’ is one of the weapon categories that stands out to organise nuclear winter-free deterrence. Here Mr Baum does not elaborate, nor does he reflect on possible consequences of the suggestion. (CW are strangely absent from the column.) Any person dealing with BW disarmament immediately realises that the idea is tantamount to repealing the BTWC. Indeed, the prohibition in the BTWC covers all pathogens irrespective of whether they are contagious or not. Moreover, the prohibition on their application is the default position; any authorised application is limited to the listed permitted purposes in Article I. Over the years states parties have made it abundantly clear that in their common understanding of that article, deterrence is not one of the ‘other peaceful purposes’, however vague that rest category may be.

The BW angle in the Bulletin column has elicited at least two blog contributions, one by Kathryn Millett of BioSecure and one at BioChem Security 2030 . In a Twitter reply to the online discussions, Mr Baum emphasises that the BTWC ‘must be considered among the greatest successes of the international community’, as stated in his pre-publication paper. But as said above, that generous thought does not offset the basic fact that his reasoning calls for major violation of that treaty.

The other question is why during the editorial process the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists did not take exception to the author’s call for breaching a major disarmament treaty. BioChem Security 2030 challenges the publication regarding its responsibilities head on, and I support their points fully. No need for a repeat here.

The controversy, however, may point to a deeper, growing problem. Online presence is becoming a goal in its own right. For some think tanks and advocacy groups, rising above the clutter must be achieved irrespective the substance of the message. Catchy titles, vile pictures, etc. are part and parcel of the process, irrespective of the contents of a contribution. PR people or media savvy operators run that part of the show. For an online column somebody inside the organisation will perhaps give the manuscript a read through, but mostly to check that the posting will not conflict with any institutional goals or sponsors. However, a review of the substance, factual correctness of data, or deeper implications of a particular assertion is all but absent. Moreover—and this is very clear from the Twitter replies I and other critics of the column got from the Bulletin—those operators perceive the controversy as a positive thing, because it ratchets up the website visit statistics. However, the score comes at a cost, namely diminished integrity.

In this particular case: how could a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists even allow a suggestion that it is OK to violate a major disarmament treaty? Surely, the enormity of what Mr Baum proposes is clear from the intro to this blog posting.

My other question: why has thus far nobody from the nuclear arms control community challenged the proposition to replace nuclear deterrence with the threat of retaliation with bugs (and poisons)?

Outraged? You bet I am.